Monday, April 2, 2012

Downtown Memphis, my old stomping ground...

It makes you tremble and it makes you weak 
gets in your blood that Memphis Beat
Jerry Lee Lewis 

As posted earlier, Crew Istaboa is seriously searching for a new dirt dwelling.
And, yes I know, there are those who feel there could be no better life than full time living aboard our boat, however we've been doing the cruising thing for many years and we like to think of the boat life as a dream being realized, though sometimes, for us anyway, it's fun to hop on the bus and say... there's no place like home — and our dream remains floating somewhere awaiting our return.

We're fortunate to have it both ways.

Both ways was once our boat, 'Istaboa',  and a great house in the woods—that's soon to belong to someone else. We're working on a less complicated lifestyle; a space we can just lock up and walk away from when we're ready to return to the boat and the dream.

So... we've been looking in funky old downtown Memphis. (which is very cool)

For me, this is almost a completed circle. As a kid,  downtown was where most of my dreams started being realized; my first glimpse of a city, where I boarded my Pop's tow boat, "The Compass", my first gig as a professional musician, and many, many other momentous recollections.

When I was a just kid and coming of age on the other side of the river, Memphis was like Oz. It had Happy Hal's Toy Store, a zoo, Overton Park, Riverside Park, McDonalds, and anything else a young boy could ever want — but for me, it was a far away, forbidden city.
When I turned 13, rushing from the bliss of youth into the fog of adolescence, my buddies and I learned that for 25 cents we could ride a bus across the bridge and freely experience, without being tethered to a parent, the faraway magic that downtown Memphis had an abundance of. After a few weeks of begging my folks for a release, they relented, and I was finally on my way to Main Street, Memphis. I can't describe the excitement I felt, my first journey into the uncharted unknown.
Life would never be the same.

Main Street was our Mall. Cool stores like Goldsmith's 123 Shop sold the new, "Mod", clothes, music shops such as Berl Olswanger's and O.K. Hauck had the best guitars and amps, record stores like the legendary Pop Tunes would let you listen to any record you wanted, The Magic Shop, theaters with 1st run movies, and just before boarding the bus back home we'd always stop at the old Krystal on Union and stuff down as many 10 cent Krystal burgers as we could afford. And, flirt with the fascinating big city girls, who, of course, shunned us.

This was 1964/65, a wonderful time in Memphis and the peak of Beatlemania. A DJ named George Klein, (Elvis' best friend) hosted a show on Saturday mornings called "The Place"; it was the place we all wanted to be. GK always booked the best bands in town and showed cool movies like the Beatle's Hard Day's Night. George Klein was and I'm sure still is, a genuinely nice guy.
One Saturday, making our small town lives feel a little bit bigger, GK walked to the back rows where we always sat and asked us if we'd like to come back stage to meet The Gentry's, who at the time had the hit record, "Keep on Dancing".
We were so stunned we could hardly talk. Single file we followed him as he walked us past all the hip Memphis kids who were so wondering who we were and why were we lucky enough to be following GK backstage. ( In later years I played bass for the Gentrys and Larry Raspberry who sang that hit. Yep, I was a Gentry and a Highstepper for a while and still friends with Larry Raspberry and Jimmy Hart. Rock and Roll will make you Rant and Rave)

In those days the venue was called the Malco, but it's original name was the Orpheum and it's once again The Orpheum. It's a grand old theater that was built back in 1928 when good acoustics still meant something and today it remains an amazing room for concerts. Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt, Lyle Lovett, and Taz Mahal are some of the acts we've seen there in recent years.

But I digress, back to the kid part:
Riding that bus across the Mississippi River bridge to Memphis, you had to cross Beale Street and at the corner of 3rd and Beale Street was Capitol Loans. The old hockshop's display windows were full of guitars and every time we crossed Beale I'd zoom in on those windows.

For the better understanding of this tale, you need to know that my pop was a river man, though he was born and raised in Marvel, Arkansas, the river frequently took him up to Memphis.
I remember the stories he'd tell about the old Pontotoc Hotel, (that I'm sure were watered down for the family's sake), about how it wasn't much of a hotel, certainly not the Chisca, but how much he like the little Pontotoc and how exciting Memphis was.

So Pop was experienced and for my first solo trip, he sat me down and told me that it was okay to hang around Main Street, but, and I remember him looking me directly in the eye as he said, "keep your butt off Beale Street." Well, of course, after a couple of bus trips I mustered the courage and decided it was time to explore Beale Street.
What was there at the time was a mashed-up array of pawn shops, clothing stores with clothes the likes of I had never seen, an old store named A. Schwab's who's windows displayed things called hoodoo charms, and several juke joints.
What immediately caught my attention was the pawn shops. (Occasionally I would stand out front of the beer joints to listen to the music that was resonating out the open doors from the juke boxes inside. It was music I'd never heard before, I later figured out it was R&B and the blues.) In time, these pawn shops became museums for me, they were wall to wall guitars and some of them were fine instruments. Even at an early age I knew what guitars the pros used and could spot a Gipson, Gretch, or a Fender a mile away; these shops were full of them.
Then one Saturday, at the young age of 13, just a skinny little white kid from Arkansas, I worked up the grit to walk into a pawn shop on the notorious and mysterious Beale Street.

Nathan Novick's Pawn Shop

And Man! was I glad I did. Not only were these name brand guitars, they were deals, so cheap even I could afford one; with some help of course.
As I stood mesmerized, staring through the big display window, a gentleman outside of Nathan Novick's pawn shop noticed me, walked over, and took the time to kindly tell me that if I played my cards right I could get a pretty good guitar for cheap. He explained how pawn shops worked, that most folks used these guitars for collateral and took out a loan they couldn't pay back.  I'll never forget what he said, "I jus give'm mine for a hunnerd dollar front. Lost my damn ticket!"
That old dude was right. Seeing a guitar I wanted, I went in, and after a half hour of negotiating with a man named Lou Raefield I had a deal on a Gipson Firebird; just like the one I had seen Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones playing at the Mid South Coliseum.

 The late Brian Jones playing a version of my $75.00 guitar

I was so damn excited, however, this created a seriously difficult dilemma for me. First, I told Mr. Raefield I'd come back and buy the guitar that afternoon. He was so aggravated that he slammed his fist on the counter and actually yelled at me, "You talk me down, then you walk out?! Get out of here. Don't come back!" (He always put on a great show.) Next, all alone, I jumped on the bus back to West Memphis and ran home. Then, putting on my best shameface, I fessed up to my Pop that I'd done what he told me not to do. I had walked down to Beale Street, but I'd found a $500.00 guitar that I could buy for $75.00.
His reaction was not what I had imagined. I expected him to be furious, ground me, and never let me go back to Memphis again. Instead, he just laughed and asked me where I was going to get $75.00. I pleaded, "Please Pop, I promise I'll pay you back." He chuckled under his breath like he always did when amused and said, "get in the car and don't tell Mama." we drove back over the bridge to Memphis and he loaned me the money, but sat in the car while I went in alone and closed the deal.
I could see through the window of our old Mercury, my Pop was laughing out loud when he saw me walking out with that Firebird in hand. Mr Raefield was on my heels, waving me away from his shop, and yelling at me to never come back to his shop again. I'd talked Lou out of charging me tax which riled him even more. (Lou Raefield and I later became pretty good buddies and I bought many guitars from him.)

My Pop was a good man who not only found humor in my wily ways, he often financed them.

Yesterday, walking around downtown, my mind was swirling with these memories — bringin it all back.

Mel and I had drinks at the Green Beetle after looking at a friend's condo and yes, another story.

The Green Beetle was the first speak-easy in Memphis and it hasn't changed much since it's official opening in 1939. Frank's Liquor was actually a liquor store in those days.

Back in the 70's, in a previous life, I rented the home of the original proprietor, the Infamous "Big" Frank Liberto. Not the one connected with the MLK assassination, but the Frank Liberto rumored to be Memphis' foremost bootlegger. He was a legend and still alive when I rented his estate, we spoke on the phone and he seemed like a nice fellow, kinda gruff, but nice enough, I never met him.
That house was my son's first home, though he didn't live there long; this is also where my first marriage ended. It was a great band house with a huge living room and a giant fireplace; it was perfect for rehearsals. David Porter and Isaac Hayes were neighbors so late night jams weren't a problem. The neighborhood had a good feel and we put together some great bands there.  In my mind, I can still see the hookers working the corner of Lamar and South Parkway East and remember them yelling over the brick wall that surrounded the estate, "Y'all soundin' good... wanna a date?

Wow... Have I dug up some memories or what? Seems my mind and my fingers just couldn't stop reminiscing, but I'll stop now, though I could go on for hours.
The streets and alleys of Downtown Memphis are my old stomping grounds and it's looking like I may return to do some more stomping around down here.

There's a particularly mystical significance in Memphis, a weird funk/mojo presence that Memphis' always prevalent and fairly dysfunctional county v. city, white v black, have vs have not culture has never been able to eradicate. I've always said, Memphis is an incredibly cool town, despite itself.

The old town's always being beat up... but never beat down.
Like the old Jerry Lee tune, Gets in your blood, that Memphis Beat

Once a Memphian, always a Memphian.



P.S. We promise a boat trip's in our near future.

So, we bought a place downtown in the S. Main area. Now when we're here I walk around, relive things long forgotten, and make new memories as we go forward.
There's a story around every corner and down every alley.