Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Strange Facts Concerning Memphis


I lived in Memphis for about five years.

Five of the strangest years of my life, and believe me, that’s saying something.

Most of that strangeness came from the city itself, the way it operated, the odd position it held somewhere between worlds. On one hand, it was completely modern, a hub of industry and commerce and so on. It had street gangs. Modern architecture. One of the best zoos in the country. Insane crime rate.

On the other hand, there were ghosts on every street corner, ghosts of rockabilly wannabes and blues warblers, even less substantial phantoms of slavery in the old cotton warehouses, lingering around the now-invisible blood-and-tear-stains of Front Street. On the Bluff, over-looking the Mississippi River, you could still pretend that the shimmering glass Pyramid wasn’t there and see instead the steam-boats, the sweating black bodies unloading crates, the finely-dressed landlords and cotton barons walking the promenade before retiring back to their massive homes on Adams Street.

It was a city that wore sins and accomplishments on its sleeve and didn’t bother to distinguish between the two. What would be the point, after all?

The Tennessee-Mississippi border is only minutes away, so close that Memphis is often referred to as the capitol of North Mississippi. And while that might be a lie geographically, it’s the gospel truth culturally. My time in Memphis included countless visits to the outskirts of Holly Springs, where Junior Kimbrough or R.L. Burnside would play raw, sinister N. Mississippi blues (and don’t mistake it for Delta blues, cuz that ain’t what it is) and if you and yours were the only white faces in the joint no one cared, man. Not the guy in the parking lot selling vicious little bottles of moonshine or the fat black woman doing a bump-and-grind against your leg or the pool-player stopping long enough to straighten the velvet painting of Oprah Winfrey on the wall.

We’d also head down to Oxford sometimes, see the home of William Faulkner, visit the alley he used to throw up in just outside the bar on his way back home.

Something about this bizarre place-- one part David Lynch, one part John Waters-- struck me somewhere deep in my guts. I fell in love with Memphis for a while, this place that I would never fully understand, where I met so many strange and wonderful people, where I almost got killed at least twice (those are other stories…), where past and present did a dirty little voodoo, and I knew that this would be the place where my first novel would be set. If I could capture some small fragment of Memphis and North Mississippi I would have something unique.

That’s how The Bastard Hand started. With a place.

As it happened, around the same time I was discovering Memphis, I was reading a lot of three different writers: Charles Willeford, William Faulkner (since I lived in Memphis, I felt it my duty) and Shelby Foote (a writer most associated with his brilliant three-part Civil War narrative, but also for a stunning crime novel about kidnapping and race relations in Memphis called September, September).

Oh, yeah, and I was also reading the Old Testament, for various reasons that are too complicated to go into here… maybe another time.

Regardless, all these ingredients went into the sorcery, along with heavy quantities of beer, crawfish, mean blues and raucous rockabilly.

What came out was The Bastard Hand.

I left Memphis a long time ago, made my way back to Detroit.

Do I miss Memphis?

Yeah, sometimes.

Hell, I miss it all the time.

They say it’s changed a lot in the thirteen years since I lived there. Maybe it’s for the best.


  1. Fantastic post, I really enjoyed this. As a Southerner raised elsewhere (Army brat) it took me a long time to appreciate the Southern tendency to keep the scary ghosts and crazy uncles right out in public with the fine china and the modern electronics. The evocative way you describe Memphis would hold true for most of the South.

    It's also nice to come across someone who knows that Delta blues and Hill Country blues are not the same thing. I am so very jealous you got to hear Kimbrough and Burnside live in Holly Springs. I got to see RL at a festival in Oxford one year (the Double Decker) and T-Model Ford another year - they were awesome.

    The Bastard Hand has been on my wish list and now it's been bumped up to the top.

  2. Great post. Same here, you just sold a book.

  3. Great post, Heath. I lived in Memphis for a time early in my musician career, when music led me around by the nose.

    It was 1978. Elvis was dead, but his death had not yet become a multinational industry. Many of the early rockabilly artists were still around, but mostly forgotten. Beale Street was boarded up, awaiting the restoration that would later occur. Corruption pervaded all of the city government, hamstringing any attempt at reform or renewal. The music scene hung on by a thread, and a slender one at that.

    One day, I entered the original Sun Records studio. It was then a tourist attraction, though few showed up. Mostly fanatical Europeans. The guide was a glassy-eyed little 21-year-old girl, and she merely recited her rehearsed spiel without any real knowledge of the cataclysmic events that occurred in that small building. I said I wanted to know exactly where Elvis was standing when he sang "That's all right, Mama, that's all right for you."

    Naturally, she had no idea what I was talking about.

  4. Sonya, I got lucky in my timing. It was only a couple years after I left that Junior's place burned down... the end of an era.

    Thomas, thanks very much. I hope you dig the book.

    Mike, that's a great story. You were there much earlier than me. When I was at Sun, the tour had changed dramatically by that time and it was actually really fun. But that's because I was giving it... ha. But "fanatical Europeans" were still the majority of visitors.

  5. You have a knack for living in violent places, Heath? I have to admit that Memphis is really a big question mark in America thought. Seems like it has the best and the worst traits within itself.

    Oh and I can totally see the young man in the Johnny Cash photo (thanks Facebook) getting in Memphis streetfights with murderous bluesmen!

  6. Ben, ha! Yeah, murderous bluesmen on every corner..