Jan/Feb 2008 Travel

Walking in Memphis

by Jim Parks

Photo by Steve Wing

Crazy Larry would have said, "The shadow man used to stay right in there behind old Jim Dandy, you know." He said.

"He run him right down that Miss-iss-ipa to N'awlins to where he could really be free!"

He laughed.

"He made a stop down in there at Memphis to see about Elvis and all them trips he made to Texas, up in them piney woods over in the oil fields up in there at Longview, Kilgore, and everything."

Now I was on the last leg of my trip to Memphis, to Beale Street, and Crazy Larry's voice was following me like a mockingbird.

I got turned on to the Delta Blues by that wasted white boy, Crazy Larry, a guitar man strictly from hunger, who lived in that funny little Texas cotton town.

My great grandparents fled there after they lost that Civil War.

They got there in covered wagons. It was the place where they took refuge, growing that extremely useful, highly cultivated weed, cotton, that was first developed in the delta of the Nile, transplanted from India, ginned and shipped to England.

The guitar man, Crazy Larry, was an outcast, someone who had been an inmate of the state hospital many times, not because he was crazy, but because multiple head injuries had caused his brain to misfire so badly that he was afflicted with seizures. A sojourn in state hospital was a highly stigmatized form of treatment, but it kept him alive. He could sit down with his flat top box and show you the evolution of the rhythm in the blues from gut thumping, walking tunes like "Kansas City" to shuffles like "Pride and Joy" and "Peggy Sue."

He put the there there in the rock and roll world—same rhythm, same blues—but a human and walking, talking the blues. He was no jukebox and he was no transistor radio. He was up close and personal, sitting on the steps or the curb.

He could hold his guitar up and show you how the chord changes progressed logically along the pattern laid down at the opening. The lowest note of the first chord progressed to the fourth note on the scale above that, then to the fifth. One, four, five. Then, he could show you how the individual notes were flattened half a tone, bent "blue," or the chord diminished, or augmented by the "seven" for the quality of blues.

He was a master of rhythm, a rock'n' roll king.

He said.

That was Crazy Larry. He showed me that Elvis was really just a Mississippi Delta Bluesman, that Buddy Holly got his licks from folks like Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, Robert Johnson. He showed me how Jerry Lee Lewis could make a walking blues turn around and boggie, how Chuck Berry's lyrics worked because they laid up against the chords and made the rhythm work hard, driving, the way it's supposed to work.

He told me—showed me—how a blues man should be able to conjure an audience, make them see and feel the feelings he felt inside, make them laugh, cry, shout out that they were with him, holler for more.

He always introduced himself as Crazy Larry, the traveling mayor of Snook, Texas, located just three and a half miles east of Resume Speed, Texas, which was located somewhere along Highway 6 in the big middle of a construction project where the highway department had put up a sign cautioning motorists to slow down to forty miles an hour. If you would just turn left at the sign that said "RESUME SPEED," and go three and a half miles, you'd be at Snook. He said.

He said he was a radio personality, had once been the star of a porno movie, and he always added "I was the guy in sunglasses and black socks."

On forays to the open mikes of the big towns like Dallas, he'd pick out an imaginary woman in the audience and address her, saying "I see you laughing at me, honey. I know you seen me in that x-rated movie, but you don't want nobody to know it. Remember? I had a speaking part in that picture. I said, 'Did I hurt you, big mama?'"

I would emerge for a break from the steamy depths of the stupid old brick newspaper office, "Est. 1888," on the courthouse square, its Victorian-era brick and cast iron facade retaining the one hundred plus degree heat of that evening sun. He would be waiting on the steps of the Post Office across the street. Waiting with his guitar. Then, he'd sing, play, slap the face of the old Martin, hum, stomp his feet, snap his fingers, and get right back to it.

Then, I would dance, sing, throw back my head and howl, stomp, boogie, blow the harmonica, shout, moan, groan, grunt, grind, rattle, hum, snap, pop my backbone, let it all slip in and out of gear.

Then, you'd look at that ruined face scarred in a hot tar midnight West Texas auto smash, the shaved head with the lumps and bumps and the hot pink scars of the surgeon's hand.

Then, you'd listen, and listen carefully.

You'd listen in the land of cotton, in the time of double four.

You'd listen in the place where the Pharaoh died.


The closing flap on the tool bag, all polished black leather and chromed conchos but nevertheless the same design as the one carried by The Fool in the deck, the Book of Thoth, I fasten by its buckles and cinch it tight enough to keep the wrenches from rattling on the bumps in the road. Got to keep things tightened up and adjusted.

The Super Glide, all hot oil and polished aluminum, chrome steel and heavy iron from the heartland—the source of the big, two-hearted river throbbing and warming its life blood, is lovingly lubricated, adjusted, massaged.

It's a farm boy's machine that is made by farm boys for farm boys. An object of kinetic sculpture as much as a motor vehicle, it will carry me into the city of the blue suede shoes. I adjust my leather helmet, my gloves, goggles, and the multiple zippered vents on the black leather jacket.

It's the trip of a lifetime, the place I always said I'd go, to Beale Street.

That Harley was important to me because it was emblematic of some mystical American industrial quality of competence, a miniature radial aircraft engine balanced and adapted for the clutch and transmission with dual flywheels and interdependent connecting rods, overhead valves and rocker boxes all shiny and graced with flash.

I kick that Super Gide into gear, swing onto the freeway and the approach to the new Mississippi River Bridge, crossing the muddy alluvial flats, all geometric precision and chemical laden, fallow in the cold overcast of dawn, and waiting for the next planting of cotton.

I meditate on each mechanical element of the ride, the four strokes of each of the V-twin radial cylinders. I dig on the slotted interdependent connecting rods rotating the twin flywheels and drive shaft, which is connected to the primary chain and its system of two shifting forks to move the propulsion motive from the constant mesh of the low to the high gear.

The object of the meditation is to make each evolution as smooth as possible, using the machine's inertia and compression to accelerate and brake. I take the curves with the precise movement of counter steering the handle bars opposite the crown of the road, downshifting at the bottom of the power range of each gear and gently racing the engine to the top to catch the lower gear without a hitch in its heartbeat.

That hog, a mechanical anachronism scrimped and saved for, rebuilt with parts from a dozen older machines and the wise counsel of gearheads with graveyard hands and tombstone minds, is my sculpture, the one that stands in my living room at home dripping oil into a pan and shining brightly. It's the symbol of what once was, and always will be, in my mind, the best of what my homeland had to offer, and still does. I ride it on pilgrimages, for ceremonial purposes.

Rising on the bridge, the peak of the glass pyramid, the city's downtown arena and convention center, breaks the horizon and shines in the rising sun. It is the moment I've been waiting for in the darkness of the truck stop with its chugging diesels and lurid decor, like living inside an oily neon pinball machine that stretches from coast to coast.

I take the first exit over the mud island with its anachronistic steamboats like wedding cakes, thread the Harley down the riverside to a stop light, lean the machine to catch it green, and roll around the corner, skirting the neighborhood where the blues were born. I tour the industrial area beyond with its warehouses and freight terminals, old brick factories.

I circle the block where the Hollywood Lounge stands, just where Crazy Larry told me it would be, all bare in the morning sun, stripped of its neon and colored bulbs like a lady of the night shivering on her morning porch, caught in her wrapper and curlers, without makeup, to bring in the cat.

I cast a peripheral glance down the street to the stark outline of the stone retaining wall with its white trash rooming house above, where the pitifully cheap shot came out of the bathroom window to travel only a few yards across the way to tear off the reverend doctor's jaw where he stood on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

To think that it all happened over a garbage strike, it hardly seems real.

It isn't real. What is real is that part of the civil war, the part carried out in the courts, on television, in the military, a hundred years after the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, carried a message that was loud and clear. I know that, in those days, every time a black man chose to speak with me about anything substantive, he always chose to preface his remarks with the statement "I'm a man just like you a man."

"I AM a MAN," the strike placards read.

Read, hell. It was a shout in big, bold letters on the evening news.

He told them that he'd been to the mountain, like Moses in Exodus, that he'd seen the Promised Land, that it was there, but he might not get there with them.

Someone shot him the mouth for saying it.

Wheeling into Beale Street, I find a parking place in front of the empty facade of Boss Crump's old headquarters building, which looks surreal with its masonry and cornices, doorways and windows hollow, all dressed up but with nowhere to go and lacking any substance, preserved as some nasty reminder of some nasty anachronistic historical significance.

I lift the toe of my boot and the shift lever clicks, beautifully, precisely, once, to freewheel the bike into neutral as I stop and begin to back it, slantwise, to the curb.

Potato, potato, potato, potato, the v-twin mutters, snoring at the idle.

"Safe, Big Daddy," he yells, holding his arms out wide, the way a baseball umpire signals at home plate. "Back it on in here, Big Man. You in the right place!"

He's a street urchin, as black as the night and dressed like a kid in cut off blue jeans and high top tennis shoes and a t-shirt that says "No fear, my ass. I'm about scared to death."

As he starts a speed rap, I lift my goggles and see that he's really about 30 going on a hundred years old. His voice flats every third note, a half tone, perfectly tracking the progression of the base chord from one, to four, to five tones above the original note, the blue notes standing out in sharp relief and borne on a syncopated delivery.

"Big man, I know you here on business cause I can tell by the way you carry yourself; and I know you was a high sergeant when you was fightin' off in the war; and you be beatin' it back to your main lady, cause I can see it in your eyes."

He says.

He passes a small table model radio back and forth between his hands as he speaks, eyes roving over my shoulder, left and right and behind himself.

"Look here, Big Daddy, I got to explain something to you cause I know you come down here to dig this scene, man. It don't be strange to you cause you be done lived it all your life and don't even know it, dig?"

"Yo, blood," I say. "Who are you to say what I know, what I don't know, dig?"

"I don't be trippin' on that, Big Daddy," he replies, the tone of the put-on so well honed it slides to a perfect fit. We both know where all this is headed. We're comfortable with it. "I just want to show you around," he says.

As I fold my gloves and goggles and the light leather helmet, strapping them under the tool bag's flap over the forks, he speed raps and dances around on his toes, making his feet lay down a syncopated beat that is counterpoint to the harmony of his blues.

How do I handle this guy?

My father and grandfather would say that I should ignore him. They'd given me charge of a battered pickup when I was fourteen, given me the responsibility of rounding up a hoe squad before daylight and getting them to the cotton patch at sunrise. I was to provide a file for keeping the hoes sharp, a water can iced down with a tin cup tied to one of its handles. I was to have them carry two rows, make sure they flat weeded the cotton, getting rid of sunflowers, cockleburrs, tie vines, and blood weeds. If any of them fell behind, I was to help them catch up. If everything was going well, I was to stay out in front of them and keep my mouth shut.

"Don't talk to them," my father had said. "They don't want to hear it, anyway. Let them talk to each other and go on about their business. You won't know what they're getting at, anyway, and besides, you're not out there to talk. Just keep them moving. They'll work at the same rate of speed that you do. They will do just as good a job as you do. If you want a better job done, do it yourself, slow the line down, take your time. But don't talk to them."

Somewhere, Crazy Larry strummed that old guitar. He cut down on "Big Boss Man."

"Old Elvis was a blues man, you know. Sho' was. Sho' nuff." He sequed into "High Heel Sneakers." Same shuffle. Same rhythm. Same blues.

I could just hear him. It almost sounded like the prattle of an insane child.


On Beale Street, the urchin said, "See, Big Daddy," he paused to tug at his crotch, "things be funny cause my old lady be done throwed me out the crib, you dig, ya' unnastan' what I mean, and I ain't got no home. I been on the streets for days, man; and, baby, it's cold outside. Looka here, Big Daddy, gimme a piece of change for this here little ol' radio, this here box, man.

"It's got a lot of experience. It's played all the great tunes in its time."

He hoists it into my face as if it's Aladdin's lamp; tourists in Bermuda shorts and funny straw hats with cameras around their necks snicker as they pass and hear this dialogue in all its dramatic delivery. The mothers guide the children in a wide circle around us—there—where we stand on the sidewalk.

He has invaded my space, thrust himself into the circle of the brilliance of reflections from the surfaces of the shiny shovelhead as its engine and exhaust pipes tick, cooling down.

There are cigarette burns on the top of the little radio. The plastic crystal on the alarm clock is cracked deeply, testimony to an evil morning, an unwanted awakening, an angry moment in a succession of a thousand such. One knob is gone, and a piece of coat hanger with twisted aluminum foil serves as an antenna.

His face lights up in a smile, all ablaze with ivory teeth and blue gums, as he shouts, wildly, "I hate to see—that evening sun go down. Lord, I hate to see—that evening sun go down. Cause I be sleeping on a park bench, man. I got to get me some change and get me something to eat, Big Daddy, cause it's early in the morning and I ain't got nothin' but the blues."

"I know the feeling, baby," I say, trying to sound noncommittal, even though he's already set up the scene, a consummate showman born with the talent to manipulate the attentions of perfect strangers.

"Why, I don't know," my father would always say, "but you seem to attract every nut and wacko in the whole damn world." I hear his voice in rich overlay to Crazy Larry's blues and the urchin's rap.

"You do. And you stand there and listen to the shit. Walk away. Turn and walk away. You ain't got time for that. Hell's bells, boy."

I realize that our appearances, so different at first glance, are similar. We are both so different from the tourists—and the Beale Street regulars—passing by. I am a three hundred pound white boy in bug-spattered black leather; he is a middle aged Negro midget dressed as a child. We are as inconspicuous as a Halloween party thrown by schizophrenics on the set of the evening news, and he has brought all this to bear through the street theater skills of sheer stagecraft and expert timing. He's playing to a live audience that is passing him by like a conveyor belt, one that he will catch later, down the street.

He sets up the scene, making eye contact with the workadaddy tourists and their families, winking at them, pointing his chin over his shoulder at me. I feel the derision. Their glances tell me they think I'm a fool to put up with all this, that I ought to keep on walking.

So, I do.

He raises his voice to the level of a virtuoso actor, belting out "You know why W.C. Handy hate to see that evening sun go down? Huh, Big Daddy? Cause he sleeping on a park bench, too, at the time. Look here, man, there his statue right down there. See it? See that little old house next to it? That was W.C. Handy house, man. That's where he used to stay."

He points to a life size bronze of the short black man who wrote those hit blues tunes so long ago, the most famous blues man of his day.

He sings:

You know a black-headed woman make a freight train jump the track
You know a black-headed woman make a freight train jump the track
I sho' miss my baby, but that won't bring her back

He points to a museum, a former drugstore, where a cigar case is displayed in a showroom window. He shows me a placard that proudly proclaims that the great Handy wrote his lead sheets and scores on the top of that very cigar case, where it was part of the furniture of that very corner drugstore.

"Man, let me get five dollars for this little old box, Big Daddy," he implores me. "You know you can dig it."

I say I'm traveling light, have no use for it.

I've strolled down a block or two. He has followed me all the way, rapping, just behind my right heel. Across the street, a small group of bluesmen have set up under a pavilion next door to Handy's house in the little park where the statue stands.

They swing into "I Left That Town," and the little man starts to dance, hamboning and making his fingers pop. He sings along:

I was stayin' in Memphis in nineteen thirty-nine, Woman I was lovin' wouldn't pay me no mind,
But I left that town, man I left that town. When I left Memphis, you know, man, I was St. Louis bound.

"Can you do it, Big Daddy? Come on, man, you got soul. You know you can do it, baby."

He dances, shuffles, bucks and wings, finger pops, hambones, jumps, jitters, starts over.

I demur, ever more conscious that the small crowd gathering is very much aware of this distracting little drama on the fringe of the crowd listening to the excellent rendition of the blues traveling up the river to the queen of the midwest, Chicago, the heavy metal bread basket whizbang gizmo hometown of the industrial heartland.

He winks, shuffling in and out in front of my face. "Come on, man, I know you can do it. Come on."

Suddenly, gripped by the feelings of the bass notes coursing through the vessel of the melody, I swing into a little buck and wing, careful for my bulk and the awkward engineer boots with their steel toes. I'm swinging, really feeling it. I close my eyes and make my backbone pop, snapping my fingers and bucking my hips, beating my clodhoppers on the concrete, heel and toe.

"Damn, man, that's all right, Big Daddy. That's outa sight, man. You can do it, big man, you can do it," he shouts proudly. "I just knew you had some nigger in you."

The crowd begins to laugh with a smooth ripple that swells and turns into outright applause. The put-on complete, he bows and shouts in laughter. I, too, throw back my mane of dirty blonde shoulder length hair and roar until my watery green eyes glisten with tears. It's exquisitely funny, just hilarious, and the laughter bubbles out of me like fine champagne from a dusty thick green bottle that's been hidden away in some cellar for decades.

He quickly pulls a St. Louis Cardinals cap from his hip pocket and passes it among the crowd of tourists and blues enthusiasts. When he is finished, he passes close by me and whispers. "Good work, Big Daddy. A little more than twenty dollars."

He travels back up the conveyor belt, dancing and stashing coin in his pocket. I ignore him, turning my back, stretching, looking for a cup of coffee and a cigarette.

After the set, the bass man wanders over and takes a Kool out of the brim of his Kangol cap, asking for a light. "You think that was something new?" he asks. The voice comes from somewhere as deep as his groin.

"I wouldn't know, man."

"Sheeit, man, that ain't nothin' new. That fool been doin' that stuff down here for years. All he do is fuck it up for a good man."

"Well, man, people seemed to appreciate it," I replied.

"Well, people—you know, people, man," he shrugs, blowing smoke at the sky, spinning on a toe, planting a heel. He wanders away to talk to the keyboard man, hoisting a jug of wine behind the stack of amplifiers. He comes back with a toked-down reefer, hands it to me, and nods. His visage is fierce. He regards my face, deeply. "Man, you part Jew, ain't you? Yeah, man, hell, yeah! I can see it in you, now I'm lookin'."

"I wouldn't know, man. Those folks did a lot of traveling we don't any of us know anything about."

"Shee-it, man, my man be right about you. There ain't nothin' come out of Africa but a black man, and you know that's right." His laugh is not easy to take lightly. "Ain't that a hard pill to swallow, partner, when you find out what the blues is all about?"

Under the pavilion with his bass, he returns to the anonymity of the thumping bottom line. He makes the jive jump.

When I head back to the freeway, I pass the larger than life statue of Elvis at the corner of the city's old principal commercial thoroughfare, Cotton and Beale.

More than ten feet tall and garlanded with flowers in a ring around the pedestal, he stands as a reminder of what he was, the man, the white man that Sam Phillips of Sun Recording Service had proven could sing and dance like a black man—and drive them crazy—for more, more Miss-iss-ippa, more Father of Waters, more delta, more rhythm, more blues.


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