Is Memphis America’s second most miserable city?
It sure is – at least according to a new report from Forbes.com, which says only Stockton, California is worse. But things can’t really be that bad for the Bluff City, right? Well, lets take a closer look. Hmm … shockingly high rate of violent crimes? Check. Sky-rocketing sales tax? Check. Widespread government corruption. Check. Their only professional sports team, “the Grizz,” are the proud owners of the lowest winning percentage in the NBA over the past few seasons.
All signs point to fail. And yet, while on a recent business trip to Memphis, I somehow had a blast. What went wrong?
For starters, my dad went to high school in Memphis, and he’s pretty much the best person ever. So that’s something. Oh and my dad’s next-door neighbor back then was Isaac Hayes, who was kind of a big deal. “Shaft” and “Chef” we all know about, but long before his life was destroyed by Scientology, Hayes and songwriting partner David Porter were cranking out timeless chart toppers like (Sam and Dave’s) “Soul Man” and “Hold On I’m Coming.”
Speaking of music, Memphis is really good at it. The blues, rock n’ roll, gospel, “sharecropper” country, crunk (!?!) and other uniquely American genres have origins in Memphis. And Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and B.B. King – the “kings” of country, rock, and blues, respectively – kicked off their careers there. The city’s greatest musical legacy, though, is Memphis soul.
At the center of Memphis soul, was Stax Records
, the groundbreaking label that gave us Hayes, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Booker T. & the MGs, the Staple Singers, Wilson Prickett, Rufus and Carla Thomas, the Mar-Keys, the Bar-Kays, and countless others instrumental in shaping the genre and bringing it to the rest of the world. In the segregated south, Stax was something of an oasis. Founded in 1957 by two white siblings – Jim St
ewart and Estelle Ax
ton – but celebrated for its output of African American music, the label featured ethnically mixed bands in a city where blacks and whites weren’t allowed to eat dinner together in public. Their recordings were emotional, raw, and less polished than the hits coming out of Motown, which were targeted more towards white audiences. The “Stax sound” was somewhat accidental – the studio was housed in a converted movie theater, and the slopped floor (where the seats had been) created an acoustic anomaly, resulting in a big, deep sonic quality.
Really fascinating stuff, though it barely scratches the surface. If you’re ever in town, definitely check out the Stax Museum. Located at the label’s original address, it’s basically a stroll through the history of soul music, including a transplanted 101-year-old Mississippi Delta church, the Soul Train dance floor, and Hayes’ restored 1972 gold-trimmed, peacock-blue Cadillac El Dorado, displayed on a rotating platform in all its shimmering glory. Adjacent to the museum is Stax Music Academy, which provides at-risk Memphis youth with free music instruction, performance and scholarship opportunities.
National Civil Rights Museum
While we’re talking museums, this one
is truly a must-see. It’s also impossibly dense, so if you’re like me and get all weird and OCD about reading literally everything
, you should give up now. I was unlucky and picked a day the place was absolutely flooded with spastic children, including one kid who kept shrieking at his mom to move her “stupid butt” to the Rosa Parks bus. Housed in the former Lorraine Motel, where MLK was assassinated, it chronicles the African American struggle in amazing detail, and ends with you standing by the balcony where Dr. King was shot. Erie and powerful.
Changing the subject completely, lets talk about food. Turns out those bastards at Forbes struck again in 2007, calling Memphis out as one of the least physically active, most overweight city’s in America. After sampling some of its mostly lard-based (and delicious!) local cuisine, it’s easy to see why.
Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken
This is one of those dive-y, hole-in-the-wall places that actually backs up its “world famous” claim. And for good reason. For many, like my roommate in Cambridge, a native Memphian who spent most of his life in the city, it borders on a cult-like devotion. When I asked him what to check out during my visit, he could think only of Gus’s
. We started with fried green tomatoes and fried pickles. Next up was the chicken, piping hot and spicy, served with slaw and white bread. And for desert, sweet potato pie. The meal was so good my heart raced all night. This really started to worry me after a few hours.
Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous
Memphis is the home of the world’s largest pork barbecue cooking contest
and is famous for its chopped pork “barbecue sandwiches” and its ribs. The Rendezvous
supposedly offered the creme de la creme in dry rub ribs. As someone who takes pride in talking to locals to avoid tourist traps, I felt like a sucker for falling into one my first night in Memphis, but it was well worth it. First, the servers all look like they’re pushing 70. And they’re mean to you (well, at least our guy
was). Not like those assholes at Dick’s Last Resort, but in more of a it’s-insane-the-amount-of-ribs-we’ve-seen-in-our-lifetime kind of way. Now, I’m no connaisseur, but these ribs were pretty fantastic. Simple yet effective, with amazing seasoning, and served with slaw and white bread (which apparently comes with everything in this city).
The trip’s most surreal moment came when my dad told me via phone that Charles Vergos
, yes, he of the Rendezvous, has a brother named Nick, who is my godfather. Confused? Me too, still, I think. I had two immediate thoughts: I have a godfather? And could he hook me up with more ribs? Before I left the city, I felt a brief sense of shame for not seeing Graceland before remembering I don’t give a shit about Elvis. There’s lots of other cool stuff, of course – Beale St., Sun Studio, the Memphis Zoo – but I’ll spare you since I think I’ve already shattered drvorhees’ record for longest TLOS post, a record I’m sure he’ll attempt to re-shatter before the end of the week.
Sure, Memphis has its problems. But the city’s musical and cultural contributions are undeniable. So, for the suits over at Forbes.com: I prescribe for you a large order of Gus’s fried chicken with a side of Booker T. & The MGs’ “Green Onions.” Miserably awesome is what that is.