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Tuesday, August 19, 2003

DEAD OR ALIVE IN MEMPHIS 

There is a slow burn in Memphis. It's not the heat. It's not the humidity. It's
the songs of the living, the dead- joys & deep sorrows that can be
heard on the Beale, Union Ave. & the banks of the Mississippi.

H & I checked into the Peabody Hotel, home of the internationally famous duck
march- from the elevator, down the red carpet & into the lobby fountain.
Hundreds of onlookers come to see the ducks waddle to a John Philip Sousa
number. The bizarre tradition's roots date back to the 1930's, when the hotel
owner came back from a drunken hunting expedition with his real-live decoys.
Just for kicks, he marched them around the hotel & into the fountain. The rest
is, history.

Our first mission was a visit to Sun Records. We headed up Union Ave. for what
seemed like 25 blocks, but was actually only 8. Heather said she knew just how
the Japanese pilgrims in Jarmusch's Mystery Train felt walking through Memphis,
& I agreed. We were also visibly out of place in Memphis. H was strolling in
her dragon heels & I was in a Cubabera & shades. The sidewalks were desolate- no
pedestrians. Once in a while, a pack of cars would fly by. Then, a heavy
silence.

H walked into a lot to take a photo as I waited on the sidewalk. A car
screeched into the next lot. A woman in her 50's came walking toward me. A
young man jumped from the car & cocked back his fist at her. She yelled &
pointed at me. "He's watching. Help!"

He turned around. We looked at each other. He got back in the car & sped way. I
hadn't moved during the entire episode. She continued walking to me, then
stopped. "That man is a crazy man!" I nodded. She continued downtown & we
walked on.

Sam Phillips(the founder of Sun Studios) died just a few weeks ago. There was
an immense procession through the streets for his wake. A wreath remains on the
door. The tour was great, but the most impressive moment was being in the same
four walls where some of America's greatest music was born. Johnny Cash walked
the line in this room. Howlin'Wolf laid it all down here. Jerry Lee Lewis
became "Killer" here. Ike Turner rocketed here. Wow. All these songs are still
in there, trapped in the holes of the acoustic tile that still covers the
ceiling & the walls. The Prisonaires were led into this studio in chains. Their
record became so popular, the governor gave them a pardon. That's the kind of
corruption that makes me feel like I'm back home in Philadelphia.

Graceland was, in every sense- awesome. The overwhelming presence of Elvis
Presley's spirit is not to be underestimated. The ecstatic & solemn expression
of the King's devotees have never been matched in my Catholic upbringing. We
were two of many- from Brazil, England, Germany, China, France, Wisconsin.
After experiencing the energy myself, I wouldn't dispute Conrad's vision of
Presleyism as religion in the 21st century. I saw the grave. I touched the
flowers. Somehow I wouldn't realize that he was dead.

Elvis Presley is an embodiment of the America I love & struggle with. He is
revered & despised. He is called thief & savior. He loved his cars & he loved
his guns. He was much more generous than he was given credit for. He read much
more than he was given credit for. A hick from Tupelo changed everything in
some way, with a wild sweetness.

Beale Street is a South Street with permission to drink outside. Think Mardi
Gras Philly or Bourbon Street anytime. Touristy, & appealing to the worst kind
of tourists- barely hanging onto their repression beneath the white ballcaps.
We did see a few happening rockabilly shows at Handy's Blues Hall & Blues City
Cafe.

Another pilgrimage led us to the Lorraine Motel- the site of the Martin Luther
King Jr. assasination. In April of '68, a flowered wreathe was placed on the
balcony railing of Room 306, where he was murdered. A flowered wreathe
commemorates the spot today. The motel's facade remains intact, just as it did
on April 4, thirty five years ago. The inside has been gutted & transformed
into the National Civil Rights Museum.

The history of African Americans in America is chronicled from 1619 until the
death of MLK(& the aftermath), with the great concentration on the birth &
evolution of the postwar Civil Rights movement. There are a
number of interactive exhibits, including a replica of the bridge connecting
Selma & Montgomery.

It's fascinating to see who gets highlighted(or not) in historical
museums. Bayard Rustin was almost absent from the presentations. It seems
strange, since I've always imagined him a key figure in the Civil Rights
movement.(FYI- he is the subject of a recent documentary, entitled
BROTHER/OUTSIDER. Brother because of his social justice work. Outsider because
of his sexuality.)The exhibit's inclusion of gay/lesbian liberties as part of
the larger human rights movement seemed tacit & cursory at best. This seems to
be a crack in a church-based movement that continues to wrestle with its own
values and/or prejudices.

I've always been struck by the prescience of King's "Mountaintop" speech on
April 3- the night before he was killed. He knew that death was near(as did
Malcolm X, & Presley for that matter.)As the speech ends, MLK reveals that he
has seen the Promised Land...& that he may not get there with us. I look into
the bedroom of 306, then out to the balcony. I hear the final line. "Mine eyes
have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!" His turn away from the
microphone & away from the pulpit, saying once more- maybe to the world: "Mine
eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"

The museum also owns the former boarding house across the street that James
Earl Ray shot from. Like MLK's hotel room, The bathroom the sniper used is also
preserved and/or replicated. Most of the second floor is devoted to questions
surrounding Dr. King's murder.

Outside the Lorraine Motel, a lone protester sits with her signs. Jackie Waters
has been picketing the Civil Rights Museum for almost 16 years- back when it
was just a proposal. She doesn't want to see tourism in her neighborhood. She
wants to see change, in the spirit of the man slain on the balcony. Ms. Waters
looks to Room 306 every day of her life. She will never get over the murder of
Martin Luther King Jr.

I was born a year later to the day when King gave his final speech in Memphis.
The bruise of America still shows. I've touched it & the skin is tender. The
impact of the dead might loom larger in Memphis than any other place in the
nation. The spirits of the dead sing in this city, & I've taken the songs home.
Walk a Mile in my Shoes. Keep Your Eyes on the Prize. Love Me. Free at Last.

Frank
Sherlock

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