Soul-Searching

By Rebecca Bengal
Sunday, September 16, 2007

"HELLO OUT THERE, YOU'RE LISTENING TO THE PARTY BLUES," a deejay voice smooth-talks over an instrumental intro. I'm headed to Memphis, the big city of the Delta, driving past a strip of clothing stores and roadside bars. A hard, fast rain drenches the cotton fields and casinos to my right and left on Highway 61 as I turn up the volume on the car radio. In a firm, yet soothing voice, she continues: "When I have a good day, I want to tell everybody about it. But if I'm having a bad day, I'll maybe tell you if I feel like it. This is a song about talkin'. We all need to talk more in our relationships. Maybe we havin' too much sex, not talkin' enough. Y'all stop makin' love a minute and talk to each other."

In a few miles, city limits signs pop up along the roadside, the storm disappears over a bluff, dusk settles in, and I am driving par-allel to the Mississippi River and a fast-moving train into Memphis.

MEMPHIS TAKES ITS NAME FROM A GREAT LOST CIVILIZATION, and in recent years its landmark has been an outlandish 32-story, blue stainless-steel, Egyptian-style pyramid jutting out on the north end of downtown toward the big, sloppy Mississippi. A former arena, it shut its doors this year after a Bob Seger concert.

In the months before I went to Memphis, I read that the city was in contract discussions to allow Bass Pro Shops to open a $75 million store in the Pyramid Arena, with an indoor rifle range, fish tanks and manmade rivers flowing in and out of the base of the arena into the Mississippi. I read that the legendary Stax Records was being revamped by a Los Angeles record label. I read rumors that the new owners of Elvis Presley Enterprises were hatching plans to eradicate the strip of motels and stores that neighbor Graceland, even to tear down Heartbreak Hotel and replace it with a Vegas-style resort hotel. I was curious how Memphis, a city that has survived both a yellow fever epidemic and the assassination of Martin Luther King, was holding its own against these kinds of transformations that developers tend to describe as inevitable. I had long been a fan of Memphis soul and blues and its many distillations, and I wanted to find out whether that music -- which in its purest form tends to thrive best in the smallest, dingiest and less-traveled places -- was still being played in town, whether those out-of-the-way places remained. I wondered if I could see the old Memphis through these changes.

MEMPHIS IS THE CITY OF CONVENIENCE, BIRTHPLACE OF THE FIRST SELF-SERVICE GROCERY STORE, the Piggly Wiggly, as well as the Holiday Inn, which was founded in Memphis to provide a clean, comfortable and consistent stay no matter where in the world you might find yourself. But consistency is not what I'm after: I want to know that I'm in Memphis. I check in to one of the cheapest places I can find, a hotel in midtown whose dark lobby walls -- and ceiling-- are hung with Expressionist paintings and oil portraits of Moorish princes; whose sinks are silver bowls; whose excessively formal staff addresses me as "Madam" when I call the front desk to ask for a new bulb for the bedside lamp.

Within seconds, the bulb arrives; I screw it in place, and the lamp illuminates a large, deliberate-looking hole in the wall, surrounded by a footprint. A clear, well-defined footprint. After living with it for half an hour or so, I begin to find it oddly comforting. It seems to complement the framed flowers-in-a-vase print, as well as the view from my window, a 24-hour Walgreens.

The anniversary of Elvis's death is looming, and news of Elvis Week is naturally in all the papers -- the tribute concerts, the tell-all biographies, the Elvis bingo, the Elvis spaghetti dinners and candlelight vigil -- but the cover story is the death of Arthur Lee.

Lee was an eccentric and visionary psychedelic musician, the first so-called black hippie, leader of the band Love, whose 1967 album "Forever Changes" is often compared with "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." But unlike many artists who followed them -- Pink Floyd, the Doors and Jimi Hendrix are among those who've acknowledged a debt -- Love remained relatively obscure.

Lee was born in Memphis and died there. In between, he lived tumultuously in Los Angeles -- during the Love years, in the former Laurel Canyon home of Bela Lugosi. I know "Forever Changes" practically by heart, its songs fusing a Byrds-influenced folk, layered orchestral arrangements and mystical lyrics with the dirtier garage rock sounds that hearkened back to the blues and early rock-and-roll music of Lee's birthplace.

You go through changes, it may seem strange/Is this what you're put here for? goes Love's "You Set the Scene," from 1967. It's Lee's death I'm thinking of, not so much Elvis's, as I drift off to sleep underneath the hole in the hotel wallpaper.

AT THE ELVIS CANDLELIGHT VIGIL, SOMEONE HAS MADE AN ACCURATE CHALK RENDITION OF THE KING on the closed-off part of Elvis Presley Boulevard in front of Graceland; other shrines are handmade collages of photographs and glitter. Behind Heartbreak Hotel, where I park, RVs are strung with colored lights, and Elvis songs play on boomboxes. The Elvis diner and the strip of souvenir shops, arranged in a row across the road, next to Elvis's jet, the Lisa Marie, stay open all night, and people filter in and out with T-shirts and baskets of fries and then sit back to watch the long procession of candles bobbing up the dark driveway to Elvis's grave.

I talk to four middle-aged women from Ohio and Dallas who are gathered in lawn chairs with coffees and diet sodas; they say they have become friends through the death of Elvis Presley. They are content to wait before joining the visitation queue -- "Some years we haven't made it to the grave until the morning!" -- but are none too happy about some of the changes that have occurred over the years, especially Elvis Presley Enterprises' takeover of many of the shops.


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