Gone to Look for America: An Epic Road Trip (Part 6)

Previous Posts: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5

Day 12: Music and MLK

Saturday was another big sightseeing day. My first stop was the Gibson guitar factory (after being harassed by a homeless guy when I parked my car), where I realized I’d made a crucial mistake: I could take the factory tour, but since it was the weekend, there was nobody actually working that day. I cursed myself for not thinking of this and visiting the day before, and passed on the tour, consoling myself with an hour of noodling in the Gibson showroom.

I like guitars. This is news to everyone, I'm sure.

I like guitars. This is news to everyone, I’m sure.

I then went to the Lorraine Motel, the sight of the National Civil Rights Museum and the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I have to say, with the caveat that it’s under renovation and that I don’t know what the exhibits are like normally, the museum was a bit of a disappointment. Understand, I am a pretty big Civil Rights Movement nerd: I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X for the first time when I was like 12 years old; I scored a perfect 100 on the midterm in Otis Madison’s Black Studies 6 class, an exam that is infamous on the UCSB campus. I know my shit. And the museum really only offered a cursory look at the broader Civil Rights Movement, with very little about Malcolm, about the sit-ins and boycotts, Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, the Freedom Rides, etc. There’s just so much rich material on this history, and I saw hardly any of it. The biggest exhibit is dedicated to the conspiracy theories surrounding MLK’s assassination, and come on, everybody knows the CIA killed him. There were a few nice panels about how the city of Memphis has changed in the last 50 or 60 years, but overall, I was underwhelmed. I mean, this is the NATIONAL Civil Rights Museum.

With all that said, there is an undeniable power in standing up on the balcony where MLK was shot, looking into the room where he stayed. It’s an experience I’d sort of compare to looking at the Vietnam Wall, or the gates of Auschwitz. Obviously, the scale is smaller here, but MLK is so huge a symbol for us today that it ends up feeling similar.

Early morning, April Fourth, shot rings out, in a Memphis sky

Early morning, April Fourth, shot rings out, in a Memphis sky…

It also left me feeling sad. Not only for the loss of such an obviously great man, but also because, for all that he accomplished in his life, and as far as we’ve come from the early twentieth century, I think if MLK saw what our society looks like today, he’d be disappointed. Our cities and our schools are still de facto segregated. White kids go to Piedmont High, black kids go to Oakland Tech. Black males in America are more likely to go to prison than to graduate from college. We may not have ridiculous laws like “Separate but Equal” or black and white drinking fountains, and sure there’s Obama, but the fact is that we live in a country that is still profoundly, systematically racist (and then there’s the whole Prop 8 thing, which I won’t even go into here). I could go on and on about this, but really, for the love of all that’s holy, just go watch The Wire.

The point I’m getting at is, sure we have a museum and a once-a-year holiday to commemorate MLK, but if you really want to honor the man and his sacrifices, then make some sacrifices of your own, do something in your own life to try to make our society more just. I’ll get off my soapbox now, since it’s not like I’m leading any marches on Washington myself.

After the Lorraine Motel I went over to the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum, which is a block off Beale Street, right next to the arena where the Memphis Grizzlies play. The museum is small, an outgrowth of a Smithsonian exhibit, but if you’re a music nerd I really highly recommend it. There’s a great audio tour that takes you back to the field hollers and Saturday night porch picking songs of turn-of-the-century sharecroppers, both black and white, and shows how this music became the blues, country, bluegrass, and later rock ’n’ roll. There are dozens of iconic songs you can listen to on the audio tour, from Robert Johnson to Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family to Big Bill Broonzy, up through Elvis and B.B. King. When you get to the early 60s, the exhibit switches to talk about soul music; this was about the time of the British invasion, when Memphis saw its influence on rock music began to wane, but at the same time became home to Stax Records, Otis Redding, and many famous soul artists. There’s nothing at all on post-1970 music, but it’s still a wonderful, informative experience.

I’d worked up quite an appetite walking the museums, so I headed over to a famous dive bar a few blocks away, Earnestine & Hazel’s, which is known for a classic greasy cheeseburger they call the Soul Burger (sorry, no picture, I devoured the thing). I had a Budweiser and chatted with the bartender, who told me the bar had been featured in a Justin Timberlake video, and that Timberlake spends a lot of time in Memphis, as he’s apparently now a part owner of the Grizzlies. I gotta say, the more I hear about him, the more I think Timberlake is just a legitimately cool dude. Especially since he ripped on Joe Buck during the MLB All-Star game.

The other cool thing about the bar is that the upstairs used to be a brothel, and they let you go up there and wander around. I dug this place, and I’d say it’s a must-visit for anyone who comes to Memphis.

It's been the ruin of many a poor boy...

It’s been the ruin of many a poor boy…

Home of the Soul Burger

Home of the Soul Burger

Leaving Earnestine & Hazel’s, I realized I was still pretty hungry (the Soul Burger is tasty, but it’s not huge—like the size of an In-N-Out burger). So I drove a few blocks over to Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken (seen on Man vs. Food here), which the guy working the register at Sun Studios the day before had told me was the best food in Memphis. I’d driven by it a few hours earlier, but had seen the line out the door and said “fuck that.” (I really hate standing on line.) But I reconsidered, because who knew when I’d be back in Memphis, and decided to give it a shot. There was still a pretty hefty line, but again being alone worked in my favor, because I was immediately seated at a small table next to the register. I ordered a sweet tea (ye gods, the sweet tea again) and a wing/breast combo with baked beans and slaw. And let me tell you, I may have only eaten at like three restaurants in Memphis, but the guy at Sun Studios was right: This is the best food in Memphis. The chicken was the perfect combination of crispy, spicy, greasy, and moist. I’m pretty sure they could fry a homeless guy’s shoe in that batter and it’d be one of the best things you’d ever eat.

Once again, I started eating before I took the picture.

Once again, I started eating before I took the picture.

It was at this point in the trip that I swore off fried food forever, both because a) I’d had nothing but fried food for weeks on end, and b) because I would never eat any fried food as good as this again. I almost immediately broke this vow, but it oughta give you some idea of where my mind was at.

One more thing on Gus’s: This was where I kinda fell for Memphis. Aside from the delicious food, I really loved the vibe of the place. Growing up in liberal enclaves, I brought a certain preconceived notion of the south with me, in particular in the way I expected people of different races to interact with each other. At Gus’s, the staff (who wear t-shirts that state, absolutely truly, that “If you haven’t eaten at Gus’s, you haven’t eaten fried chicken”) is mostly white, and the diners, at least when I was there, were at least close to a majority black. And I didn’t see any tension at all. Everyone was in a good mood, joking around with each other, totally comfortable. I can’t tell you at all if this is indicative of the rest of the culture in Memphis, or how much the food being so good makes a difference in this kind of thing, but I thought it was great, and it exceeded my expectations. Is this indicative of the New South people talk about? Or is it a Memphis thing? If anyone has thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

After a short break back at the hotel, where I watched Kyrie Irving win the NBA All-Star 3-point shooting contest (that guy is the motherfucking truth) I went out to check out the music on Beale Street. Renowned for being both the birthplace of the blues and the onetime “Main Street of Black America,” it’s now kind of a tourist trap, a few blocks cordoned off from traffic where you can walk around, drink a 32-ounce beer, and go to B.B. King’s supper club.

Beale Street. That's B.B. King's joint on the right.

Beale Street. That’s B.B. King’s joint on the right.

It wasn’t a busy night, probably at least partly due to being 35-degrees outside, but I went in a couple of bars and spent a couple of hours watching music, the best experience being at Mr. Handy’s Blues Hall, where I saw the Brandon Santini blues band

Brandon Santini

Brandon Santini

These guys were GREAT. Really good guitar player, and just kickass vocals and harmonica by Santini. They played til midnight, and then I headed back to the hotel, not wanting to have any more beers and drift into DUI territory.

Next Time: Fear and Self-Loathing in Nashville

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