The kitsch and cult of Memphis – from the King of Rock ‘n Roll and the King assassination, to the quacks in its top hotel, the air of Memphis is a heady mixture.
The Duck cult of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee is larger than the pampered lives of the few birds who live in the stateliest hotel in the American South. If you come to Memphis looking for authentic kitsch, your arrival in the elegant lobby of the Peabody won’t disappoint.
Hundreds of tourists gather in the Grand Lobby every morning and evening to see the hotel’s most famous residents. A few ducks take a gilded lift at 11:00 from their Duck Palace on the roof. When the lift doors open on the ground floor, the ducks stand at attention on the marble floor, ready to march across a red carpet to the sound of John Philip Sousa’s King Cotton March. Surrounded by pomp and circumstance, they dive into the marbled splendour of the lobby fountain, splashing around under high ceilings until 17:00 when the "duckmaster" escorts them back across the red carpet to their penthouse.
The hotel manager tells us with pride that the pampered ducks have become accustomed to their celebrity, and even stop to pose on the red carpet for photo opportunities. You might wonder if the webbed celebrities are not forced to stop mid-march by the blinding flashlights of crowds of happy snappers.
Ducks have been living in the Peabody and swimming in its classical fountain since the 1930’s. Duck themes pervade the hotel’s identity from the bath soap to the website. (The hotel is also renowned for its French restaurant which serves duck within meters of the famous fountain, apparently without irony).
The hotel’s gallery of boutiques specialize in every form of duck souvenir. The must-have is a yellow Elvis bathduck in a white rhinestone suit. The Peabody is a precursor to the High Temple of Kitsch, the Graceland mansion of Elvis Aaron Presley.
Memphis hovers between the ridiculous and the sublime. Either way, this city on the banks of the Mississippi lends itself to pilgrimages. The air must be special – not only because of the aroma of barbecued pork ribs that fill the streets and alleys, but also because of the unique vibrations from which musical styles such as Blues and Rock ‘n Roll were born. The air here made the King’s hips roll to the consternation of parents in the 1950’s. This is the air that music pilgrims want to breathe.
Beale Street is an important destination downtown for lovers of Blues music. Blues grew from the influences of the surrounding cottonfields, the struggles and gospel music of the black people of the American South. Today Beale Street is lit in neon lights and full of tourists. Blues burst from every bar, early to late, and souvenirs are crammed into the remaining space. There is Blues in Beale Street, but the heart of it no longer beats in its tourist shell.
The modest wooden cottage of W.C. Handy, the father of the blues, has been uprooted from its original rural address and planted as a tourist attraction at the top of the street. Between die neon lights and tourists, it looks stripped and vulnerable. Although in sharp contrast to ostentatious Graceland, both houses emanate the same vulnerability. The houses of the father of the blues and the king of rock ‘n roll stand empty before the daily voyeuristic onslaught of thousands of people.
At the bottom of Beale Street is a bronze statue of a youthful Elvis – the son of a poor sharecropper who became the hero of a music style that took the world by storm in the 1950’s. The ‘rockabilly’ style, which found its roots in the Blues, Gospel and Country music of Memphis, brought about a cultural revolution – Rock ‘n Roll.
Elvis Presley was always attached to the air of Memphis, which remained his base. Sun Studios made his first recordings here, he bought his beloved Graceland as a 22-year old for the gigantic sum of $100,000 U.S., and he died in Graceland in 1977. His grave (next to the swimming pool) attracts crowds of mourning fans who shuffle (as if in a church) past the plastic flower wreaths of fan clubs.
Graceland, on the outskirts of the city, is the house that receives the second-most visitors in America – after the White House. There is a mixture of solemnity and Disney-fication – typical of the contrasts of Memphis. The visitor's centre (across the street) has the layout and atmosphere of a casino. Hundreds of people of every description cue expectantly to take the shuttle bus that starts the Graceland tour. Between bearded men in Elvis Lives T-shirts, women in tight sweatpants with baby prams and an army of Graceland staff, you can console yourself that even a young Bruce Springsteen came here in 1976, jumped over the fence and was removed by security guards before he could meet Elvis.
Graceland is overwhelmed by the cult and the commerce that supports it. Die house itself is frozen in the 1970’s, and smaller than you would expect. Eccentricities such as Elvis’s mirrored television room, the garish jungle room complete with artificial waterfall, and the kitchen where his favourite peanut butter-and-banana fried sandwiches were made day and night, are amusing.
In between the kitsch, the crowds and the tourist packaging, you may develop a feeling of admiration and empathy for the talented man who led his life on stage. He was the greatest popular musician of all time, a cult figure, who literally died from the demands and adoration of a public still obsessed with him. Elvis has been "seen" more times after he died than in his life. Walk through Graceland and you'll realize he was also a human being.
The souvenir shops around Graceland again objectifies Elvis. Lovers of kitsch can go to town here – clocks of Elvis with swinging hips, Elvis Christmas lights, cookbooks (All Cooked Up, Are You Hungry Tonight?) plates, playing cards, clothes, jewellery.
On the way back downtown Old Man River, the fat Mississippi, is an imposing sight – die giant glass pyramid on its banks. This is the city’s big sport stadium, shaped in honour of the Egyptian capital from antiquity with which Memphis shares its name. Authentic and kitsch can frequently be found hand in hand here.
Memphis’s reputation as the birthplace of Blues and Rock ‘n Roll only enjoys a short lead over its reputation as the best place in the world to eat barbecued pork ribs. The best steakhouse for this speciality is Rendezvous. Aromatic steam and smoke entice meat lovers into the nameless alley where the entrance hides. Pork ribs are thickly powdered with dry spices before being barbecued and then served with sweet coleslaw and beans. The cutlery is made of plastic, the tables are covered in red and white chequered cloth, and photographs of Blues stars adorn the dark walls.
You may remain unsatisfied, though. There may be a feeling in the Memphis air which you are still trying to put a finger on. Or maybe even a sound which you hope will keep the city in your memory.
Old-fashioned trams serve the main street. A jingling ride can take you to the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum is built in the old Lorraine Motel where the Civil Rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated by James Earl Ray on 4 April 1968. Unlike the city’s other attractions, it is quiet.
The exterior of the motel still looks as it did when the single shot hit the charismatic King. Two cars from the era are parked like ghosts in front of the room. The balcony, where King died after saying goodbye to friends in the parking lot below, has a single wreath tied to its railing. It looks like a life buoy on the bow of a ship.
Inside the museum visitors can take a walk through the history of discrimination against black people in America, ending in the victory of equality and human rights for all. The gripping and at times upsetting experience ends in the motel room where Dr. King stayed while he supported striking municipal workers during his last days. The old telephone and newspaper are still lying on his bed. Gospel music plays softly and a pool of sunlight falls on the empty balcony.
Time is disturbed here. King’s friends thought a car’s engine backfired. They thought he was joking. That one shot still hangs in the air. It echoes in the same Memphis air from which great music was born.
In that place you may be able to breathe and hear the air of Memphis, and to reconcile what it feels like. There are many pilgrims and pilgrimages to Memphis. There are many saints. But it is a peculiar mix in the air which seems to hold them together.