Memphis: It took a town of losers to produce the King
As the faithful flock to Memphis for Elvis Week, Alistair McKay explores the complex character of the home of rock 'n' roll
Sunday 10 August 2008
By the time we got to the Zippin' Pippin it was midnight. My guide, Mike McCarthy, had led a ghost tour of Beale Street – a thoroughfare routinely described as the birthplace of the blues – which ended at the statue of the young Elvis Presley. Then, the real tour began.
We drove through midtown, pausing beneath the broken neon of the derelict Lamar Theater, which had a starring role in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train. Next, we rode on to the state fairgrounds, where the Pippin, the second oldest wooden roller coaster in the world, was rotting behind a fence.
Why were we there? Because the Pippin has become an accidental symbol of Memphis, Tennessee. It used to sit at the centre of Libertyland, and was Elvis Presley's favourite roller coaster. He rented it from 1am to 7am in the week before his death. But, as the pilgrims gather for the commemoration of the King's death on 16 August, all that remains is real estate, and an argument about the value of ghosts.
The campaign to save the Pippin is both simple and complicated. The simple bit is that the Save Libertyland campaigners want to revive their childhood memories. The city of Memphis wants to develop the site. Legally, there is stalemate. The city owns the land, but Save Libertyland claims to own the coaster. And nobody has any money to do anything about it.
It is a very Memphis story, and its appeal to Mike McCarthy is obvious. When he wasn't directing exploitation movies such as Sore Losers, the Tupelo-born artist worked on a different ghost tour, showing tourists round Sun, the recording studio that spawned rock'n'roll. There, McCarthy would explain the history, noting that Presley didn't write "Blue Suede Shoes": that was Carl Perkins, who had a car crash and had to watch from hospital while Elvis performed the song on television. And, McCarthy argues, it's the spirit of Perkins – "the loser's quality" – that defines Memphis. "People go to Nashville to get famous or make money or lose their artistic integrity."
Clearly, this is not the perspective you get at Graceland, Presley's former home, and a reminder of what happens when you give a truck driver the means to satisfy his every whim. It remains to be seen whether its shagpile charm will survive the reinvention planned by Robert F X Sillerman, who bought Elvis's name from Lisa Marie Presley in 2005. It will not be a celebration of the loser aesthetic.
Recently, it's Johnny Cash, not Elvis, who has prompted a renaissance in Memphis. Following the success of Walk the Line, efforts have been made to emphasise the city's suitability as a movie location, a plan made plausible by the success of local film-maker Craig Brewer. When I visited Brewer's office, he was in Hollywood, but he explained on the phone that he remained dedicated to making films based on a love of Memphis, inspired by childhood trips to Beale Street.
"From a very early age I could not help but view Memphis – even in its dilapidation – as a beautiful city. But even more important was that it had its own soundtrack. If you're driving westbound on Madison, and you're just passing Sun on your right, there's an overpass; when you go over it there's a unique skyline view, and the sun was going down, when on the radio Al Green's song "Jesus Is Waiting" was playing. And I thought: I don't think that this music or this city could have existed, separate from each other."
I asked Brewer to provide a map to the Memphis he loved: he started with Graceland and ended at Wild Bill's club on Vollintine Avenue. I hitched a ride in the 1955 pink Cadillac driven by Tad Pierson of American Dream Safari tours. Tad ferries visitors around the Memphis of their imaginations. Inside, the Memphis Soul Survivors were playing "Soul Serenade", which sounded thrilling and timeless, as if in Memphis, the great music had never stopped.
Mike McCarthy tried to define the essence of this city of ghosts. "You're only 19 miles from Mississippi," he said. "The blues was created there. Rock'n'roll seeped into Memphis from that mentality – white people trying to sound black, white people who were just as poor as black people."
Memphis being a city of losers clearly was a blessing. "It's a spiritual thing," he said, adjusting his quiff. "Jesus was a loser."
How to get there
Continental Airlines (0845 607 6760; continental.com) offers return flights to Memphis from £530.
Memphis Tourism (01462 440784; memphistravel.com).
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