A Thursday Night In Memphis
by Robert A. Mitchell
For a town so steeped in the Blues, it is the swaths of neon reds bleeding across the streets that dominate the Memphis nights. I arrived in the Bluff City four days ago for an interview fluff piece on a transplanted pop musician. As elusive as the pop singer has so far proven to be, his latest song is omnipresent. The over sentimental lyrics underscored by a twangy guitar are seemingly on every radio, of every bar, sidewalk store speaker and car cruising by.
My days have been spent wandering the city. The hard, uneven sidewalks my guide as I aimlessly walk past red-bricked buildings, vacant lots and failed business store fronts. Inevitably I’m drawn towards the Mississippi river. I lost a couple of hours this morning as I looked at the water slowly flowing South. As I sat on a bench, I took out my notebook under the guise of working on my great unfinished novel. My hangover proved too dominant, and I just wound up doodling ink swirls.
My nights have heeded the siren call of Beale street. It being early Spring, myself and a bunch of conventioneers are the only ones sharing the rails of the bars. Walking past the bars and walk-up windows, my weariness of talking about carpet prices had me pick the place that had the least people. The front entrance informed me “Best Blues On Beale“. I saddled up to the bar. Almost instantaneously the bartender tossed down a coaster.
“What’ll it be?”
“I’ll take a Ghost River.”
“Ale, Riverbank, Reserve?”
He procured a beer from the fridge, popped off the top and placed it on the coaster. He turned his attention back to the basketball game. I took a long swig of beer and then fumbled into my pockets for my notepad. I began to jot down my observances and musings of the day. I was nearly finished with my first beer when, by means of introduction, the man sitting down beside me said,
“Are you a writer?”
“On a good day I am.”
“What kind of day is today?”
“I’ll let you know when it’s over.”
I looked over to my new neighbor. His eyes looked at the graffiti-ladened lamp in front of us. He wore a baseball cap and an unkempt beard. I immediately thought the man was a truck driver passing through on his way to who-knows-where.
“You from Memphis?” He asked.
“Well, I’m originally from Indiana, but I’m living in Chicago these days.”
“Indiana! Go Hoosiers! Don’t tell anyone around here I just said that. I like Chicago. Haven’t been in a dog’s age. M’sure it’s changed since the last time I took a train up there. What brings you to Memphis?”
“I’m working on an article for a music magazine.”
“Music. Seems like you’re in the right town. You’ve been to Sun Studio?”
“No, not yet.”
“You have to go. So much history in that tiny building. You know one day, Ike Turner was on his way into the studio to record and he dropped his amplifier in the parking lot. Smashed it all up. They recorded anyway, and that is how distortion in music was born. My favorite musician Howlin’ Wolf recorded in that very building.”
“I’m sure you’ve been over to Graceland?”
“Well, what the hell are you doing in this town then? Man, you have to see that beauty. You could really just live life in that house. It has its own firing range right on the property. Truth be told, I like Graceland more than the White House.”
BZZZZZZZZZT. BZZZZZZZZZZT. BZZZZZZZZZZT. My cellphone began to interrupt my Thursday night drinking buddy.
“Excuse me a second,” I said as I picked up the phone and hit the green button on the screen. “Hello…..I’m good…..well, the thing hasn’t quite fallen into place…..it’s all been back and forth emails with the agent and manger…..no one actually meets anymore these days; it’s all hiding behind an email….I was under the impression this interview was a go, not me cooling my heels for several days while this pop icon hides in his mansion….cool, cool….don’t worry you’ll be the first to know if anything changes….thanks, bye. Sorry ’bout that. My editor. This story I’m working on is proving near impossible.”
“Why, what’s the problem?”
“The singer I’m trying to interview. He doesn’t want to leave his house or have anyone there.”
“I know a little bit about that. I’ve known many an artist who became successful or more apropos, famous and it broke them. It’s a funny thing to put yourself out there and be so venerable and then people pickup on it and like what you’re doing but then it becomes way too much about you and not the music or the painting or whatever it is you’re doing.”
“Tell me about yourself.”
“Not much to tell. I guess you can say I’m semi-retired these days. I came to Memphis many years ago. Loved to play guitar, took up with a band. We had a good run. Played a lot of clubs around here. Pressed a couple of records. Started going on tour. The van, gave way to trains, then planes. Tiny bars, to bigger ones. Got to play some stadiums. That was groovy. Then like most things the guys got older. Some fell in love; others out of it. We all had kids. Priorities shifted. Life creeped in and with it problems. Some nights we got along, other nights the only time we spoke was on stage. Eventually we chose to go our separate ways. Man I miss those nights.”
“You mentioned your semi-retired. What do you do now?”
“Oh, I try to keep busy. I drive a tour bus back forth between Graceland and Sun Studio when I get the urge to drive around; I like meeting people who travel here from all over the world. My eyes aren’t what they used to be though, so I don’t get to drive around as much as used to. Sometimes I help out at bars on nights when there is a good band playing I want to see. I still strum the guitar. I’ve even been known to sit up on a stage and sing some Orbison or Jerry Lee. Those nights don’t happen as much these days. My hip gives me more trouble than not and sitting on a stage brings back too many memories. Good ones and sad ones.”
“If this article doesn’t pan out for me, I think I should interview you.”
“That’s a nice thought Mister but I ain’t got much to say these days.”
“If you’ll excuse me a sec, these beers are catching up to me.”
“No problem, as we know, you don’t buy beer, you rent it.”
I sat up, the effect of several beers buzzing around my head. I made it to the restroom. Noticing the lock didn’t work I placed one foot against the door as I did my business. As I wandered back to the bar my new-found companion was reaching into his jean pockets and tossed a bunch of crumbled up bills on the counter.
“Thank you, thank you very much.” He said and left the bar.
I sat back down at the bar. “Excuse me.” I said to the bartender. “What was that man’s name?”
“The guy who just left?”
“You feeling alright, Mister? It’s only been you and I for the past two hours.”