Memphis - Home of the Blues (and Elvis)!

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December 22nd 2008
Published: August 30th 2009
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Davenport, Iowa - Memphis, Tennessee

Sunday 28th September (Day 34)

Today we were heading for Memphis, but we still had a little time to spend with Kelly and Robbie before we left (and with Bradlee and Dustin, playing on the game cube). We went out for breakfast (somewhere - I forget, sorry) but eventually had to say goodbye, and head off back through Davenport, over to Moline airport in time to take the rental car back and catch our flight to Memphis. Awesome guys - great to stay with you in your home. Thanks for having us!

We again had to fly down through Atlanta, although it wasn’t so much out of our way this time, as Memphis is down in the same general direction. From the air, Atlanta was very impressive. It seemed fairly flat but has loads of trees, and was an incredibly large city. We had considered stopping off in Atlanta for a few nights, but unfortunately didn’t really have any way of making it work in our itinerary this time - maybe next time!

We eventually made it to Memphis, although we were stuck at the airport for a while looking for our misplaced luggage when we realised that there wasn’t really any way in to the city, apart from taking a taxi (as it was a Sunday, apparently even the airport bus doesn't run, despite the population of Memphis). We grabbed a cab and made it safely to our hotel - the driver was pretty helpful so it was all good in the end. Our hotel wasn’t really very close to anything. It wasn’t near the central city, although there were a lot of medical centres and medical schools around us, plus a convenience store and an Arby’s (burger joint) - better than nothing! We asked at the hotel about getting into the city to get some dinner and were told we could take the tram, which would stop just down the road, every 20 minutes or something. We waited there for over an hour with another guy from the hotel who had been told the same thing. Eventually we realised that the trams had already stoped running for the night (because it was a Sunday). The people in the hotel didn’t actually seem to know what was going on, and were more interested on filling the lobby with their family members so they could watch the football on the big screen TV. It was a bit weird really. Anyway, we had already been to the convenience store so we knew where the Arby’s was. We suggested to the other guy from the hotel (Ryan) that he could come with us and we would show him where to grab some dinner from. Ryan was in town for only one night, as he had an interview at one of the medical schools the next morning. On the way to Arby’s, we had to pass several seriously messed up homeless people. They were all raving about the end of the world, and one guy looked like he had a nest of birds in his hair. The cops came along to take away one lady that was raving on the corner, and we managed to make it safely down to the shops. It was actually really interesting, as Memphis was a lot smaller than I had anticipated (I’d thought it would have a population of several million, but in fact, it is only about 660,000) and the largest ethnic group was clearly African American. Memphis is apparently also one of the most dangerous cities in the USA. That didn’t put us off however, and we spent some time talking with Ryan about this topic as well as many others, while eating our food in the restaurant. I think he was just grateful to have someone to walk with so he didn’t have to venture out on the streets alone. Eventually we walked back to the hotel together, said goodbye to Ryan (and wished him luck), and just had a relaxing evening in our room in front of the TV. Not bad - we hadn’t been able to get into town, but our evening had been interesting all the same.

Monday 29th September (Day 35)

We woke up in the morning and headed downstairs for a quick breakfast in the lobby (muffins, fruit and coffee, pretty much). We were quite excited as we were off to GRACELANDS, the Home of Elvis! Memphis seemed quite difficult to get around without a car, and we had to hunt down a bus to be able to get there, which was not easy. However, we managed to get it sorted and were on our way not long afterwards. The ride out to Gracelands was really interesting. Memphis seemed to be totally filled with abandoned buildings or buildings in severe need of repair. There were hardly any people around, and many of the ones that were, looked a bit like they were suffering from alcoholism and/or mental health issues. There was so much space though, and Gracelands was actually a lot further from where we were staying than we had anticipated. We got off the bus and I was surprised by how dilapidated the area was, even right where Gracelands was located, although Gracelands itself was really something else. There was also a main complex that was across the road from the actual Gracelands mansion. It housed multiple museums/display galleries of the different times of Elvis’ life, as well as many of his cars, costumes and awards. First off we went to Gracelands itself - you can only get into the grounds on an official tour bus, so you sign up for one and then get taken across the road. The building certainly must have been so incredibly luxurious in its day! We went inside with a few other people and had a tour. There were a couple of foreign Elvis freaks in our group which was kind of amusing too. I think the thing with Gracelands is that it was really set out in a crazy manner - like the basement room with 4 TVs, the oversized kitchen (where Elvis probably made his famous cheese and bacon dishes that contributed to his death), the Jungle Room (which was like a lounge, and even had carpet on the ceilings, and a wall fountain on one side). At the time, many of these things would have just seemed so bizarre and of considerable luxury. Unfortunately you can only look around the downstairs areas, but even that was awesome. After leaving the mansion, we visited a couple of display galleries at the back of the property, filled with fantastic memorabilia, and then ventured around to the swimming pool and the graves of Elvis and the rest of his family (naturally - who wouldn't want to be buried next to the pool?). I found all of it incredibly fascinating in all honesty - much more so than I had expected. If you would like to find out more about Gracelands, then you can click here.

After leaving the mansion we went back across the road to the main complex and visited a few more Elvis museums, as well as the car and plane displays. There were quite a few gifts shops (which of course, I had to venture into as they all sold slightly different items), although I only bought a couple of little things. Although overall I thought that the main complex could do with a bit of a tidy up, it wasn’t as overpriced as I had expected because you really got to see a lot of different things. Vaughan was even entertained pretty much all day, and we were both really pleased that we had made the effort to visit Gracelands. It was pretty cool!

However, our visit to Memphis wasn’t over yet, and we had a lot more to see. In the afternoon we jumped back on the bus to head back to our hotel. School was out and there were loads of kids on board. We suddenly realised we were the only white people on the bus, which I thought was kind of amusing, as in so many other cities it would be the African American people who were surrounded by millions of white people instead. We made it back to our hotel, dropped a few things off and then headed for town, finally managing to catch the elusive tram. On the way we stopped off at Sun City Studios, considered to be the most significant studio that contributed to the birth of rock and roll, and it is rumoured that this was where Elvis (among many emerging artists at the time) cut his first record. Sun City Studios was a tiny place and so we decided to give the actual studio tour a miss (as Vaughan gets frustrated in small places), plus it was so intensely hot and sunny, so we were feeling a bit dehydrated and irritable. The entrance to Sun City Studios was kind of like a combined food diner and memorabilia shop, so we ended up staying there for a while, drinking cold milkshakes, so we could get a break from the sun for a little longer. It was nice sitting there, looking at all the pictures on the walls, listening to the music and watching people come and go.

After a big of a rest we headed back towards the city, and when we jumped off the tram in the main commercial area, we immediately noticed how many buildings were for sale (even modern commercial ones). There were hardly any people around at all, and the city just seemed kind of, well, dead. Vaughan and I kept asking each other where all the people could be. For a commercial centre I had expected business people, busy Starbucks cafes, exclusive stores, etc. Considering how many large cities we have seen on our travels, we were certainly surprised by central Memphis. We made it to Beale Street (the main street, known as the home of the of blues music), which was about a 10 minute walk away. We were stopped about 6 times on the way by beggars, and they were going for the hard sell, sob story and all, not just asking for your odd change, but giving you the whole bit. It was pretty full-on. I was just glad it wasn’t dark, as there were still hardly any people around. Once we got to Beale Street though, I actually felt better because there were more people and lights, and there was music coming from every bar and restaurant (the blues, naturally), and it was really exciting, trying to choose which ones to go into. We had a wander up and down the street first and ended up finding a live band that was already rocking for the evening, out in a small park just off the main street. Of course, they wanted donations every 15 minutes, but that was OK. There were quite a few people to donate to them, and the music was awesome. We sat on some steps and offered a bit of change every so often. There seemed to be about 10 guys in the band, all able to play about 5 types of instruments each. Their music was fantastic and they played a lot of covers that got the crowd going. It was pretty funky at times too. I could have honestly sat there for the entire night, outside in the fresh air, just listening. We were there probably an hour when Vaughan decided it was time to get something to eat. We went to a place across the street called Alfred’s which was meant to have a good reputation. We sat at a table on the roof and could still hear the music from the park. Alfred’s had their own band but it wasn’t as good (at least, not at 7pm on Monday, anyway). We found both the food and the service at Alfred’s to be below average, so we didn’t stick around afterwards, and soon found ourselves back at the park. It seemed to be the most happening place at the time, but we knew it was just because it was a Monday that the rest of Beale Street was looking a little lacklustre. We stayed out watching the band in the park until quite late, but we had to head back to the hotel before the trams stopped running, so we ran the gauntlet of beggars again, stopping briefly outside one restaurant that we had heard about, which offered something like a burger with 1kg of meat, salad, fries, etc, and if you eat it all within an hour, your meal is free - I was thinking Vaughan might like to go there for dinner the next night! We managed to make the last tram (phew), and headed back for the night. What a completely awesome day. We had seen so many crazy and amazing things! I was seriously loving Memphis (including all it’s challenges). Bring on tomorrow!

Tuesday 30th September (Day 36)

We started off the day by not rushing too much, and then ventured back into the city by tram. We headed away from Beale Street, as it was the middle of the day and very little would be happening there. We walked around the commercial centre and over the hill to the river (the good old Mississippi) to see the paddle boats, although there were only a couple there, and they weren't in the condition we had imagined. We walked along the river for about 45 minutes (the walk took us up onto some bluffs for a nice view on the way), admiring the riverfront homes, and finding out way into a small gated community for more of a look around. It was a pretty hot day again, and there were quite a few people out for a walk or jog along the riverside path, and almost all of them said ‘hello’ to us, which was nice - almost like being back home in New Zealand! It seemed that there were almost more people just a few minutes walk away from the central city, than in the central city itself, even in the middle of a working day.

After we finished with our walk we headed back towards the central city which wasn’t too far away, past many warehouses and a few more abandoned buildings, although we soon established that we were now in a more ‘arty’ part of town, as small art galleries, organic cafes and bohemian jewellery stores etc stated to pop up around the place. I decided it was time for a history lesson of sorts, so we walked to the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in 1968. The motel had avoided demolition over the years (as of course, business dried up after he was killed there), and it is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum. We didn’t go inside the museum, but spent a few minutes looking around outside the motel and reading the signage. When we finished up there we headed back toward the Beale Street area, passing more abandoned buildings on the way. We went past a roller disco place, where ‘cruising’ in your car is forbidden during certain hours, to try and reduce the amount of drive-by shootings in the area. At one point, a guy (who was painting a house) came out to ask us if we were lost, which cracked me up - I guess we must have looked out of place, although we weren’t lost. For the whole time we were in Memphis, we never felt like we were in the ‘wrong’ neighbourhood, and didn’t feel threatened. The guy that asked us if we were OK also seemed genuinely concerned (he was black), so despite the poverty, despite the beggars and despite the figures which indicate that Memphis is one of the most dangerous cities in the USA, we really didn’t have as much trouble as anticipated.

We made it back to the Beale Street area and went into the Gibson Guitar Factory shop, so we could have a play on the guitars, which was pretty cool. Then we went on a factory tour, which I thought was so awesome! The Memphis guitar factory is where Gibson guitars originate, but there are several factories around the USA at this point, and they all make different types of guitars. The Memphis factory mainly makes semi-hollow electric guitars. We got to see the guitars at different stages of the manufacturing process, and I was surprised that you were allowed to take photos during the tour. My favourite parts of the tour were watching the guitars get spray-painted all the different layers, colours, and protective coats, as well as the final testing process where several guys get to string them, tune them and play each guitar for a few minutes to make sure that it sounds right and there aren’t any faults. Tough job! It was awesome knowing that someone would buy each guitar, and love playing it, and hopefully learn enough that one day they might play in a band, or be famous, or just enjoy jamming with their mates. It was pretty cool!

After we finished in the factory we went back to Beale Street - it was the late afternoon and there were loads more people around than there had been the day before. We wandered up and down, considering the different restaurants and bars, and finally ventured into one very quiet bar with a solo country guy singing the blues. He was OK but the atmosphere wasn’t too good, so we came back out onto the street and kept looking. We ran into one of the same beggars from the night before, and when he asked us for more money, we gave him loads of grief about asking us twice, and totally took the piss out of him. He didn’t seem to be suffering from anything other than wanting some cash, so we stood and chatted to him for a while, and he recommended a few good restaurants close to where we were standing. We asked him what had happened to all the people in central Memphis and why there were so many abandoned buildings, but he just seemed to think that Memphis was more of a low socio-economic city than ever, and that people were basically just moving away because it wasn’t what it used to be. It kind of went in line with something that Vaughan and I had made up - every time we saw something in Memphis that was cool, we would say “Now this is Elvis’ Memphis”. If it wasn’t good we would say “Elvis would be ashamed of this Memphis”. I think that seriously, Elvis would be ashamed of a lot of things about Memphis these days, but as for Vaughan and I, we have never looked for an adventure that was easy, nor one where the harsh realities of life are glossed over by the tourist sights that can sometimes obscure your view of a particular place, and we were grateful for all that we had seen in and around the city, and certainly the friendly reception we had received from all of the people. Memphis was certainly a challenge, but a good one. We were having a great time!

After sussing out a few of the bars and restaurants, we again decided to head down to the park, to see if any bands were playing. Lucky for us, the same band that we had seen the previous night was there again. Many more people were watching, some were dancing, and a few of the young local kids were allowed to randomly play a song or two, as the band was willing to let them give it a go. One kid (who looked about 14) played an awesome Jimi Hendrix cover and we could see that the guys in the band were quite impressed. It was pretty cool to see the way that all the musicians interacted, supported each other and encouraged new talent. Next to the park was a small shack selling Big Boy Beers and cheap spirits with mixers for a really reasonable price, so we sat down with some of those (Vaughan had beer and I had some type of margarita slushie) and just listened to the band. We ended up scoring some plastic chairs at the front (they belonged to the drink shack) and more people kept turning up, so we actually had a really awesome position to watch from. We had a few more drinks (without losing our seats) and sat there probably for about 3 hours in the end. It was fantastic! We walked back down Beale Street as everything was in full swing and went to a little restaurant around the corner. It sold local catfish and general seafood, and the place had plastic chairs, plastic chequered tablecloths, and was set out kind of like a riverside shack. It was so laid back and just cheap and tacky really - just good food and great service (and bottomless coffee). Vaughan ordered a whole catfish, but I’ve forgotten what I had. Both meals were fantastic though, and were exactly what we had been looking for, to top off a fantastic day. We took our time with dinner and strolled back down Beale Street again for another look. While we had been eating, all these street (hot rod) cars had parked up along the street, in some kind of show, so we got to see some all-American muscle cars and stuff, which was pretty cool. People were really excited to see the cars. I just liked the combination of the music spilling out of the bars, the smells from the restaurants, the bright neon lights advertising the blues, and the way that the lights bounced off the incredibly shiny and well cared-for cars. Sadly though, to catch the last tram back towards our hotel, we were not able to stay too long. It had been a fantastic experience. While several things in Memphis had not lived up to expectations (just the city in general really), many other things had surprised us about the place, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there. Thanks Memphis - keep on playing those blues!


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