Ye Olde Archives » MUSIC: Rock & Roll Quarterly

Pilgrimage to Memphis


Before I was old enough to know what music was, Mom and Dad were listening to Elvis Presley sing "Mystery Train" and "Heartbreak Hotel" on the radio. In the early '60s, after Dad had left for the second shift down at the mill, Mom would put on her scratchy old 45 records and take turns dancing with my brothers and me across the living room rug. After his escape from Hollywood and all those cheesy movies, we sat on the couch together to watch Elvis' 1969 comeback special. Mom's sad eyes glowed like the faces of the beautiful women lounging around the stage, where a tanned and trim Elvis strutted and sweated, his black leather suit as shiny as the garb of some Hindu god.

But by 1977, when my college roommate walked in one day and said, "The King is dead," I'd almost forgotten about Elvis, who had become for me a kind of Las Vegas circus clown. Since that time, however, Elvis has made another comeback. You've heard about, and perhaps experienced for yourself the occasional sightings: He's down at the Waffle House ordering a grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich. He's paying some poor woman's electric bill. There are Elvis impersonators of all ages and stripes, even El Vez, the Mexican Elvis, and Elvis Herselvis--a crossdressing king-queen of rock 'n' roll. The University of Mississippi has hosted an annual conference where postmodernist scholars of pop culture struggle to re-vision Elvis' sad, drugged-out demise in light of his earlier life, from the poverty of Tupelo to the magnificence of Memphis.

Now entering my own middle years and wondering how the hell I've become the person I am today--sifting through childhood memories while writing a novel, and in the intensive interchange of therapy--I've felt a growing need to know the man behind the icon: where Elvis came from, and why he streaked across the American sky like some mysterious comet. And so I traveled, like so many others, to visit his home. Little did I know I would find a land of grace, not at Elvis' sepulchral mansion, but a couple of miles and a thousand cultural light-years away.

On a cloudy August Sunday I told friends and loved ones goodbye, hoping it would not be for the last time, climbed on my Honda Shadow, pointed my handlebars west, and began the long haul from the Eastern Piedmont of North Carolina all the way to the Mississippi River. I was headed for Memphis, via Nashville, in search of the headwaters of that blessed American blending of white and black, rural and urban, country and western, and rhythm and blues that has become the mighty river of rock 'n' roll. To paraphrase Paul Simon, I had reason to believe we all will be received, I was going to Graceland.

I reached the outskirts of Nashville a couple days later. That famous skyline shimmered in the distance like a dream. Music City was a hoot. On Broadway, two slicked-back bohunks sat on the darkening corner by Ernest Tubb's Record Store, strumming guitars and singing Merle Haggard for tips. Although it was Monday, all the bars were open, and a cacophony of country music accosted me. I stumbled into Celebrity's Corner, a shotgun shack of a bar, every wall plastered with album covers--country, rock, even disco. A five-piece band called F-Troop served up tasty cover tunes spiced with hot guitar licks. A gaggle of French teens requested "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," and they all danced like the Peanuts gang in loose-limbed abandon. When an older British gentleman stood and sang the late Conway Twitty's heartbreaker, "It's Only Make Believe," the hyperactive hotdog lady who was working the street stepped inside to pay quiet homage.

The next day, I visited the Country Music Hall of Fame, somber monument to days and lives gone by. There was the letter written from jail by Lefty Frizzell to his sweetheart, with the original lyrics to "I Love You a Thousand Ways." All around were guitars and sequined suits like nothing I'd ever seen, all glitter and flash. And Lord have mercy, the cars: Webb Pierce's Lincoln limo customized with a horse saddle, Elvis' Cadillac with a wet bar and gold-plated record player in the back seat. But it was sad to see how few people sat in the little theater for a touching documentary about the all-too-brief life and career of the father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers.

For me the sacred center of the museum was the cavernous room dedicated to Hank Williams, the very first member of the Hall of Fame, with framed manuscripts of his original lyrics, like "I Saw the Lite," penned in the days before spellcheck. My eyes teared up as I read the brief but devastatingly poetic telegram from his mother to his sister, "Come home. Stop. Hank is dead. Stop. Mama. Stop." Stepping back out into the sunlight, I felt less like a tourist than a pilgrim who has finally made it to Jerusalem. Something deep inside, a sacred seed planted by my mama's daddy--who first played George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton for me as a little boy on the 8-track in his '63 Chevy--had come to fruition, and in my soul I felt truly blessed.

Somewhere in that lonely stretch of asphalt, trees, and overpasses between Nashville and Memphis--the country-music capital and the city of the blues--I realized that somehow I'd managed to outlive Elvis, not to mention dear ol' Hank, Jimmie Rodgers, and countless other pioneers, black and white, who spent their short lives creating this musical phenomenon we take so much for granted. I knew full well that one wrong move by another driver could bring my own life to an abrupt end, but I pressed on, drawn by instinct to the darker heart of American music.

In Memphis, satisfied that I had reached the westernmost point of the pilgrimage, my own personal mecca, I showered off the road dust and headed down to Party Central--Beale Street. The first thing I saw was a sign pointing the way to the Civil Rights Museum. "Note to self," I thought, "be sure you check that out before you go."

For two nights I stumbled from one bar to another, soaking up all the blues I could find, most of which was played, in this town like any other, by white guys faking it. Even Jim Beam couldn't convince me otherwise. You know you're in a bad way when it's the absence of the blues and not the blues themselves that depresses you. There was one incandescent moment, a musical epiphany I won't soon forget: In a smoky bar called the Black Diamond, a chubby old blues master by the name of Blind Mississippi Willie Morris, styling in his shiny suit, patent-leather wingtips, and jet-black glasses, gutted out a harp solo on Robert Johnson's "Crossroads" so blistering I swear it singed the hair right out of my ears. Now that's the blues, Brother.

The morning of the second day, I finally made my way to the palace of The King. I'm still not sure what I was expecting to find--a vision of Elvis' spirit, some sense of his continued presence--but Graceland, I'm sad to say, is a haunted house. When I walked in the front door, led along with all the other sheep in my herd, it was as if time had stopped on the day Elvis died, back in 1977. And speaking strictly in terms of interior decoration, what an untimely death.

Everywhere was shag carpet--on all the floors and some of the walls--with sofas and chairs worthy of the U.S.S. Enterprise. His mama Gladys' purple bedroom and bath were every bit as rococo as his daddy Vernon's office, out back in the shed, was militarily minimalist. The coup de grace was a room tackier than anything my mama could have dreamed up: every surface covered top to bottom in wild animal skins.

What we were not shown was perhaps as telling as anything on display: the television Elvis killed with his pistol, and the bathroom where he finally gave up the ghost. The spirit of Elvis, it seems, has left the building. The air seemed so depressive by the time we shuffled out the back door into a fine mist of rain, I was grateful to see the grave site. There he lay, beneath a bronze slab between Gladys and Vernon, beside a fountain just down from the swimming pool. I stood in the drizzle for a while, impressed less by the wreaths, posters and teddy bears than by the endless and surprisingly international stream of mourners and gawkers.

The only redeeming factor at Graceland was the Elvis Presley Automobile Museum, an impressive brick labyrinth with a '59 aquamarine Cadillac lying like a lion out front, and a bevy of classics inside. The most delectable, for my taste, was yet another Cadillac, built the year I was born, bright pink from the point of its hood to the tip of its trunk. There were rare Harley Davidsons and two hog-engined tricycles painted in '70s psychedelia like something Barbarella and Buck Rogers might have ridden across the face of Mars. In the center of the building stood a white picket fence around rows of old car seats. Up front, a drive-in theater screen showed a loop of movie clips in which Elvis and the Hollywood beauty-of-the-week sped along in race cars, sportsters and motorcycles.

On the way out, I strolled down a glass-lined hallway tantamount to a time machine, where Elvis' outfits from the 1950s--baggy chinos and loose cotton shirts--gave way to the Army uniforms and leather of the '60s, and then to the regal gaudiness of his '70s-era pantsuits. Somehow it all left a bad taste in my mouth, and I went away feeling not only divinely uninspired but downright cheated and cheapened.

Next day I headed south out of Memphis, across the state line into Mississippi where, on a curvy stretch of asphalt near the tiny crossroads called Hernandez, I found the small spread belonging to Jerry Lee Lewis--the rocker known affectionately, if not ironically, as the Killer. There was no historical marker, no sign of any kind, but I knew it had to be the place when I spied a 100-yard-long clapboard fence, spray-painted from one end to the other with all manner of graffiti, standing alongside the roadside like some long-lost Expressionist painting. The only scrawled comment I can recall was something about "Jerry Lee's lovechild," a wisecrack that cuts close to home. In 1955, my daddy's sister Betty Jean had named her son Jerry Lee before he was stillborn. I came into the world a month later, and Aunt Bet tried her best to talk Mom into giving me the name of her dead child. Unwilling to flirt with the fates, Mom compromised and dubbed me Larry Dean, so I have always felt a kind of spiritual bond with Mr. Lewis, the only man I know with hair any wavier than mine.

I pulled into the driveway and was surprised to see a perfectly normal, medium-sized brick ranch house. There was a black Jaguar parked by the side stoop, a large pond in the backyard, and off to the left a ways a corrugated aluminum shed with "THE KILLER'S KAR KOLLECTION" hand-painted above the double doors. No sooner had I shut off the bike than a pack of barking dogs ran out from behind the house. I held them at bay while wrestling my helmet off, and an old man in blue jeans and a T-shirt stepped off the back porch to glare at me like, "What the hell are you doing here?" I didn't know what to say, so I waved at him and just stood there, trying to keep the smallest dog, some kind of fuzzy poodle-mix yapper, from nipping my leg. Finally a casually dressed young woman stuck her head out the side door and called, "Come on in the house."

After the crowded, noisy, three-ring circus of Six Flags Over Elvis, it turned out I was the only person here to see the home of the rocker who, in the mid- to late '50s, was giving Elvis a run for his money as the king of rock 'n' roll--that is, until he up and married his cousin. I stifled a giggle when the tour guide told me in passing that she was Jerry Lee's first cousin twice-removed, or some such distant kin.

The small foyer had been turned into a gift shop, full of the same kind of kitsch I had seen in the full-blown souvenir store at Graceland, minus the high prices. My guide spoke with genuine warmth of Jerry Lee's hard life, the loss of two wives and a son, and of his generosity in supporting several charitable causes.

The house held more pianos than I've ever seen in one place, most of them miniatures donated by adoring fans. The one piano that caught my eye was a hardworn old standup, the dark wood scarred and the ivory of several keys chipped. Among all this tacky glamour, it leaned against the wall like a poor relation.

"What's that?" I couldn't help but ask.

"Oh, that's the piano Jerry Lee's daddy mortgaged their house to buy when he was just a little thing. He'd drive Jerry Lee and his cousins, Jimmy Swaggart and Mickey Gilley, around the neighborhoods in Farraday, La., so they could play for nickels and dimes." Nickels and dimes indeed, I thought as she led me down a long hallway hung from one end to the other with gold records and the many awards Jerry Lee has received over the years. At the end of the hall she pointed to a pair of closed doors leading off to the right. "That's the part of the house where Jerry Lee lives."

"I don't suppose he's home, by any chance."

"No," she said with a proud smile, "he's off touring, but here, take a look at the kitchen."

It was a Dr. Seuss moment when we stepped outside and walked around the black-tiled swimming pool cut in the shape of a grand piano, complete with white and black keys at the shallow end. She would not let me linger, however--perhaps because this was where Jerry Lee's young son had drowned. As we stepped back into the gift shop, the TV/VCR showed a ghostly pale wild man, reddish hair as thick and wavy as ever, pounding a real baby grand onstage in a stadium chock full of screaming fans.

"Oh," she said when she noticed me watching, "there he is in Hungary. After the Wall came down, he was the first Western performer who got asked to play." Now in his 60s, with a past that would have (and has) finished off many a weaker man, Jerry Lee was assaulting the keyboard as if it had personally insulted him. One thing about the Killer: He is a survivor.

I rode back to Memphis for one last stop before heading home. Throughout this long ride, I'd thought I was headed for Graceland, to see Elvis, to walk in the footsteps of The King. How could I have known that along the way I would stumble into the presence of a very different kind of royalty?

In a timeworn, down-at-the-heels section of Memphis, the Civil Rights Museum is built around the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Across the open courtyard is the balcony where, in the old black-and-white press photo, Dr. King is standing with his brothers-in-arms. The picture taken moments later shows the good doctor lying where the lethal bullet left him. Jesse Jackson and the others are leaning over his body and pointing desperately toward the sound of the shots. As these stark images rose up from my memory, I felt an inexplicable quivering deep in my gut. I looked up from the plaque commemorating Dr. King's life, and someone behind the plate glass window was pointing in the same direction Jackson had.

Standing in patchy sunlight, I swapped stories with an elderly gentleman from Birmingham, Ala. We talked about our youth, about getting assaulted for hanging out with friends of the other's race. I told him I had grown up in a small town in South Carolina, where Dr. King's death was prophesied whenever his face appeared on the news, where the term "Negro" was preferred over its bastard cousin only in the presence of blacks, and oftentimes not even then. His eyes softened, and he said, "Well, son, all that's behind us now."

I felt sad, and wished I could believe it were so. Surely this man, I thought, has seen our society change in ways I could never imagine. Yet I stood there, sweating in the heat of my ongoing battle against the seeds of racism that were planted in the innocent soil of my heart before I had ever noticed the difference between white skin and black. When you're told from your mother's knee, verbally and otherwise, "we are better than them," is your unlearning ever complete?

In stark contrast to the spiritual emptiness of Graceland, Dr. King's ghost haunts the very hallways of the museum, a monument to the legacy of a simple, noble man whose life and tragic death sing out the very spirit of the blues. Its graphic displays chronicle the long, painful history of the civil rights struggle. Alongside a mother and her children, I sat on a bus where the driver barked, "Go sit in the back, boy!" We watched film footage of protesters attacked by police dogs and water hoses. Down a trash-strewn alleyway, stony statues of National Guard troops trained bayonets on a line of garbage collectors carrying placards that read "I AM A MAN." A Ku Klux Klan robe hung from a nail around the corner from the charred carcass of one of the doomed Freedom Rider buses.

Up to this point I had felt like a spectator: a stranger among these pilgrims whose history was portrayed, mourned and celebrated at the Lorraine Motel. But the moment I pressed a button and heard the strong voice of Dr. King giving his "I Have a Dream" speech beneath the seated, silent figure of Abraham Lincoln, I knelt on one knee and wept. Two elderly women stood nearby and watched what had to be a strange sight: this leathered white biker falling to pieces.

I pulled myself together and stood up, having remembered that we all have a place in Dr. King's promised land, that the civil rights struggle was and is as much to free me as anybody. The dream of "Mar-tin Rod-ney Lu-ther King," as Ben Harper sings it, means more and more to me as I settle into my 40s--a decade he never lived to see. It is a prophetic vision for everyone, that someday we might do unto all others as we would have them do unto us, allowing each of us the equal dignity and respect that comes with being a living creature on this good Earth.

I sat for a while in the courtyard and watched the other pilgrims make their way through Dr. King's room, No. 306, where the bed is still unmade as if he had just stepped out onto the balcony. A tune slipped into my head, mournful and sweet:

Has anybody here seen my old friend Martin?

Can you tell me where he's gone?

He freed a lot of people,

But it seems the good die young.

I looked around, and he was gone.

My soul felt as empty as that balcony, and I caught a stark glimpse of the dark profundity of the blues. But then a little boy, no more than 3 or 4 years old, poked his head in the window, and he waved at me. I smiled and waved back. No casual kindness on the part of a stranger has ever made me happier. When a mockingbird hopped nervously across the hot bricks of the courtyard, I stood and headed for the bike and my long journey home, stepping ever so lightly on that hallowed ground so as not to frighten her. EndBlock

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