Inside the Walls of Graceland: Four Views of Memphis

July 9, 2011 § 2 Comments

[Editorial note: And now for a departure.  I wrote the piece below in 2000.  It’s the work of a young guy in love (with the woman he’d eventually marry) who’d clearly been reading a lot of David Foster Wallace.  I’ve made a few minor edits but left the major faults unchanged.  Looking back over it recently, I decided to post it here before heading back to Nebraska to visit family: a paean to the Midwest, to summer, to Jaime, to hope.]

Inside the Walls of Graceland: Four Views of Memphis

Well there’s a Memphis down in Tennessee and a Memphis in my dreams, and there used to be a Memphis over in Egypt, back when it was the Memphis, and even if you don’t believe it there’s a Memphis, Nebraska. How much of each makes up the one in my dreams? The world may never know.

So I Had This Dream

a couple of months ago, before I was really aware of any of the Memphilia about to break through to my daily consciousness.

The dream took place in Memphis, it was understood, in that perfectly succinct way dreams have of establishing place — and, well, of establishing practically everything else, too. A lot of the dream is unimportant for these purposes, although I’m pretty sure my parents were around and I know my girlfriend was at least a figure in the dream, if not physically there. (It would help this whole thing gel a whole helluva lot better if Jaime were physically there, but such are the spoils of living apart.) Point is, I’d gotten myself to Memphis, somehow.

Memphis in my dream was a magical city. A holy city, perhaps the holy city. For some while I simply rode around in a car, looking out the window at the buildings (I got a feeling of dilapidation) and the sky (senses-heightening blue), hearing music in the background, always music. Then I was walking down a street, surrounded by green everywhere. The city was full of vegetation, lush, rich, overflowing, Hanging-Gardensish. Fertile. It was spring. I missed Jaime.

The music picked up here, as I recall: organs, ethereal dream-instruments. I was suddenly on what I’ve come to think of as Cathedral Row. There were massive temples here. They were stunning, and when I think of them even now I am struck with a profound sense of how truly gorgeous they were, in my dream. One was all stained glass, purple, made entirely of turrets and steeples and windows and Baroque and Gothic elements, rising high into the sky, a sacred Tower of Babel — so, perhaps not a Tower of Babel at all, but its antithesis. Another contained gorgeous sculptures everywhere, flanking the pulpit, jutting right up into the faces of overeager parishioners in the first rows. There were more: I have sinned, I have forgotten.

Duke Chapel, Durham, NC. Photo by Adam Gerik.

What’s Your Point? #1

I’ve never been one of those people that rolls their eyes at people who want to share their dreams. Seems to me that if you’re not interested in what people are dreaming, you’re just not interested in people. Perhaps I oversimplify.

But this dream most definitely had a point, which is, in a way, the following:

I remember writing to Jaime about it, about what a great dream it was, about how bizarre, to dream about Memphis. I wrote a short piece trying to capture the feeling of that dream, the kinds of things I was actually thinking in the dream. It was a “deeply spiritual” dream, if one is allowed to call anything “deeply spiritual” anymore. Put it this way: the Memphis in my dreams was not the kind of place where you have to put “deeply spiritual” in quotes, to show that you know how hackneyed and flaky you’re being, to show how worldly and un-naive and, well, godless you really are.

I love Jaime very much. We have grand plans to live quietly, happily, peacefully together forever after two years of living apart — right now she’s in St. Louis, I’m in Lincoln. I tell her my dreams; she tells me hers.

And it was on my way to see her, when she was home for the summer in Nebraska, that I ran across a sign for Memphis, NE. The sign (MEMPHIS 10) is posted on a shortcut to her house that I’d just recently begun to utilize. When I noticed it, I quite suddenly wanted to go there, to see the town, to write about it (never thinking even once about the dream I’d had, months before; that connection came later). Nothing glamorous, nothing all that smart, even. Just a piece about Memphis– or rather, Memphises.

How to Find Memphis, NE

From Omaha, take I-80 out of town to the Gretna exit. Go through Gretna, take Hwy. 6 down to near Ashland, then catch 63 through Ashland. After a few turns, you’ll be in Memphis.

From Wahoo, just catch 77 South to the turnoff for 63 East, right before you go through Swedeburg; 63 will take you right to Memphis’s doorstep. (But watch out for the turn, to the right; sneaks up on you. Look for the Country Keno sign.)

From Nebraska City, you’ve got a hike, but not too bad! Just take 75 N to Union, then hop on 34 E for a ways (25 mi?) ‘til you get to the intersection with 63 N (there’ll be a sign for Alvo), and take that right ‘til it ends, breaking off into 6 roughly E and W. Take E ‘til that same Ashland turnoff, 63, up to Memphis. You know the rest.

Or, if you’re coming from Lincoln, like us: you can take the N 14th St. shortcut to 77 (no gravel necessary!), or you can just get on I-80 E and take that to 77, go through Ceresco and Swedeburg to that 63 E exit. Skip Ithaca; get to Memphis.

Failing that, head toward Ithaca, Ashland, or Mead. You’ll find it eventually.

Some Interesting Connections

“Memphis,” the word, can be translated a few different ways (hieroglyphics being a tricky medium for even the most skilled Egyptologist), but it’s most likely that the name means “White Fortress” or, more poetically, “White Walls.” Memphis was the original capital of the unified Egypt, the city which brought together the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, perhaps 15 miles south of the apex of the Nile delta. As such, it was the home of pharaohs and, correspondingly, a religious center.

Temple of Isis at Philae near Memphis, by "Son of Groucho."

Elvis Presley, whatever there might be to say about his (un)originality or mimicry of black forms or rather simple and/or derivative sense of rhythm, was one hell of a singer and did much to unify the Northern and Southern halves of this country in a sound, in rock and roll (however short-lived it was). Would the Beatles have happened without Elvis? What about rap?

Elvis loved Memphis. He built his own White Fortress there, Graceland, a complex structure which allowed him to be simultaneously worshiped and utterly alone behind his many different walls.

Graceland, Memphis, TN, from discoveringelvis.wordpress.com

Most intimately linked to the ancient Memphis was Ptah, a creator-god (but so much more!) who had his main temple there. Ptah seems to have always been an anthropomorphic deity, but his humanity was almost completely concealed within a skullcap and tight-fitting cloth which resembled a leotard. Only his face and hands remained visible. One is somewhat reminded of Elvis’s sequined-jumpsuit Vegas days.

It’s tempting to consider Ptah as the very first rock god, predating Bacchus and Christ and Liszt and Elvis. Ancient Egyptian love songs often call upon him to bring lovers together at night — what more rock-and-roll sentiment exists? In those same songs, Ptah is often known by one of his many appellations, “Ptah Beautiful of Face,” attributable to the fact that Ptah’s skin was made of pure gold. It virtually begs for hieroglyphic newsreels of Ptahmania sweeping the Nile basin, girls swooning at his dreamy eyes, his full lips, his gentle-yet-powerful hands.

Then there are the representations of Ptah themselves, which offer perhaps the most perplexing and intriguing evidence of Ptah-as-superstar. The god is usually shown grasping a narrow staff which symbolizes royalty and which is topped with an ankh (life) sign. The whole thing, held close and directly in front of him, comes to roughly chin-height and is eerily similar in design and appearance to an old-style microphone — such as the one Elvis swings to the side in that very famous photograph, face contorted mid-croon, pelvis swiveled, knees buckled, hair pompadour’d. Ptah as king of rock and roll? Maybe so. Elvis as life-bringer and sexual liaison? Too obvious to expound upon.

The young god Presley, from (yes!) http://www.jesus-is-savior.com

Annoying (but Crucial) Autobiographical Information

We drove to Memphis, Jaime and I, on one of the hottest days of the year. July; mid-afternoon. We escaped from the hot tin box in which I lived and sweated, took off with windows down and radio up. That’s our sort of thing to do.

Embarrassingly, I have never been to Memphis, TN. Or Memphis, Egypt. I first saw the Atlantic Ocean last year. I have never seen the Pacific. I have flown on a plane exactly three times — each time to Boston, within the last year, to visit Jaime. This is, I think, not a terribly unusual state of affairs for a kid from Nebraska.

I’ve lived here my whole life, first in Norfolk (pop. 22,000 or so), then in Hastings (pop. 23,000 or so), then in Lincoln (pop. 150, 000 or so). I will more than likely be leaving it soon, quite possibly for a city with a pop. in the millions. I’ll miss it; I feel a kinship with this place, its people, its sky, its land, even though I’m not a farmer or a farmer’s son. (However, one doesn’t need to travel far here — either geographically or ancestrally — to feel that connection to place, to country.)

So this would be my first Memphis — at least, my first physical Memphis. It seemed fitting. I’d like to go to Tennessee, see Graceland, hear some blues — I’d like to go to Egypt, sometime, maybe, for a while — but Nebraskans like me, for better or worse, filter life through these tiny towns.

But so could I be more in love with this girl Jaime? It was the first summer we’d had together, and the trip to Memphis started, at least in part, as just an inkling of something I would like to do with her. She enjoys exploring such places as much as I do, I think. At any rate, we would get to ride around together, talking, listening to the radio, sweating.

We were doing just those things as we neared Memphis proper, and we actually missed the turn to the town, and had to turn around. As we did so, we found a radio station (I think it was NPR) broadcasting an interview with Charles Brown, the great blues musician.

And wouldn’t you know it, he was talking about meeting Elvis, the King.

What Memphis, NE Has to Offer

There are quite a few very beautiful trees standing in the midst of cornfields around Memphis. One gets to be a connoisseur of such things on the Great Plains; there are some fine examples of the phenomenon in the vicinity of Memphis. The road we took also has a lovely stretch upon which both shoulders are covered in vibrant purple wildflowers, the grass coming right up to the white lines. The flowers — and, hell, Highway 63 in general — are highly recommended in the early hours of summer mornings.

Memphis is also very near the University of Nebraska Agricultural Research and Development Center, which may not sound like a whole lot but is really a pretty big deal, taking up whole bunches of land for ruminant, porcine, and bovine studies, forestry training and research, innumerable crop yield projects, and Lord only knows what else. The site seemed to emanate a kind of mad-science vibe, for me. I think this comes partly from my own ignorance if not outright timidity when it comes to agriculture, and partly from the aura which surrounds the idea of Memphis. To me, the town’s name stands for magic, mystery, alignment with things I don’t or maybe can’t understand.

University of Nebraska Agricultural Research and Development Center.

As not-one-but-two signs point out at the turnoff to Memphis, the town also has “Methodist Church Worship” at 9 AM. I’m not sure if that’s everyday or just Sunday. In any case, worship services are available if you should want to visit: fear not for your soul’s constitution.

And while we’re on the subject, that same Methodist Church Worship is presumably held in the town’s dominant (and loveliest) structure, the Iliff Methodist Church. It is a simple, white, steepled chapel with some lovely painted-glass windows and a charming lack of improvements such as aluminum-and-glass doors or a message board bearing embarrassing inspirational messages.

Town hall in Memphis, NE. Photo taken in 2000.

Memphis has a town hall that looks an awful lot like a storage shed, but this seems to be the unofficial town hall; the other one is just a normal, modest structure, with an old, rusty basketball rim in the driveway.

There are those black sans-serif sticker-letters (the kind that usually advertise things like drink specials on Bud banners in the windows of bars) everywhere in town, including on the advertisements for Methodist Church Worship at 9 AM. Someone’s got a truckload of ‘em, but we never did ask who.

Memphis has a green rectangular sign proclaiming the existence of itself and its 117 inhabitants.

For the residents’ correspondence needs, there is an absolutely tiny post office in the middle of town which flies the American flag proudly, if not really all that high. One gets the sense that the flagpole is short so as to draw attention away from the size of the post office itself.

Memphis, NE post office. Photo taken in 2000.

But as bucolic as all of this might seem, Memphis surely sees periods of heavier traffic, for the town is also home to a state recreation area — a lake, in other words. The lake is man-made, and was created for the booming (now ailing, maybe dead) ice factory the town housed in the early twentieth century. It’s a small, peaceful, pretty lake which comes right up to the road and says hello. On the night we visited, it was completely untouched, completely still.

Near the lake, on the outskirts of town, is a big pink ranch-style house with a huge lawn. Jaime and I both found the house intriguing, partly because of the color and partly because of the proliferation of lawn ornaments (miniature porcelain gauchos, horses, a flamingo or two; oversized porcelain frogs) and partly because of the fertile garden in the backyard, replete with flowers and vines climbing the walls of an enclosed porch. It conjured images for me of the town’s “crazy lady,” living there for unknown reasons, generating gossip and willful tolerance in the other townsfolk. Tending her plants, talking to her lawn sculptures.

The town’s bar — Don’s Bar — is a nice enough place, with fairly good food and a prime rib buffet on Saturday nights. Stop by if you’re in the neighborhood, maybe, but listen, don’t go just for Don’s. It’s standard-issue small-town Nebraska.

Memphis has some streets named after places from antiquity or related to its namesake — Cairo St., for instance, but sadly, no Beale — and some that are just odd, such as Gahala St.

One of those streets leaves an indelible image on my mind’s eye. We turned onto this street, only to find it abruptly ending before us in a wall of wild grasses, trees, and brush. A fire hydrant poked out of the scrub near where the side of the road should’ve been, had the road continued; a cardinal perched on the ruins of an old foundation. How to explain such a scene? Perhaps as the place where a town simply ended, where the walls were erected when its capacity was reached.

What’s Your Point? #2

Perhaps there is no exact point, but a thought did occur to me, while trying to understand the significance of these Memphises. I was thinking of how a piece on Memphis, NE, might be perceived, and the imaginary catchphrase I kept attaching to it was “a travelogue from Real America.” And it kept ringing false.

Because, hey, look: if a fake America exists anymore– and by fake I mean an unseen, Dream America — if it even exists anymore, it is embodied in Memphis, Nebraska. Everything else has been made real, or has made itself real — and by real I mean visible, mediated, artificial — simply by showing itself to us again and again and again, over and over, via innumerable sources. The country is rapidly turning (or has turned) into a big dumb cruelly elitist entertainment complex, and Memphis is just about all it has left of a dreamworld. Not in a fantastic sense, or in an On the Road sense: in the sense of being simply unattainable. Mars, New York and every city on down the line, Tibet, the ocean deep, etc., etc. — everything else is far too real. But Memphis, NE — well, no one looking to make a buck has ever gotten Memphis quite right. Not many have tried. And not many will, more than likely. It’s a hardscrabble life in Memphis, and there’s no bureau of tourism to send out glossies of the buffet at Don’s Bar.

The white walls of this Memphis, while perhaps not intentionally erected, are certainly real and exist in the marrow of every villager. It’s not a matter of avoiding the world. It’s a matter of needing those outer walls to feel safe enough, perhaps, to dissolve those inner walls. Not easy to survive at the center of the universe; not easy to cope with depression and loneliness; not easy to live with the same 115 people every day; not easy to commune with the ones you love.

Why do I love and treasure that dream I had? Getting inside the walls. The walls of Memphis, my own walls. And to me, Memphis will always be a matter of love.

What I Wrote Right After My Dream (Which I Just Recently Rediscovered)

…Memphis is unbelievable. There’s all this greenery (just like You said Everything was so green You went Down South after I left and You loved how green everything was and You said Maybe someday we could live there and I laughed) and the weather is beautiful. Memphis is a revelation. (I expect Graceland…)

Suddenly I’m alone in Memphis (thinking I miss Her, She would love this) and surrounded by the most incredibly beautiful cathedrals. They are enormous and tall and I feel like a very small child looking up at them.

This one is painted green, yellow, and purple (purple Purple’s your favorite color how you would love this) and the whole building is covered in sculpture and it’s like Memphis is suddenly Oz.

This one is huge, wide, creamy brick with metal corners and somehow I know that it is alive.

This one is almost completely stained glass and there is a purple stained-glass fountain inside which makes me want to cry.

There are riots of flowers outside.

(I am not laughing anymore.)

When I Think of Memphis

my thoughts start to wander, and I end up thinking about all of them. It becomes a conflation of my impressions of those cities, centered on the small town I visited.

I think of Elvis, in his pink castle on the outskirts of town, not terribly unhappy, putting together lyrics from those black sticker-letters and strumming a guitar, sitting on his back porch, amid the gauchos and gigantic frogs and the other kitsch he’d strangely become related to in another world far away. The alchemists and oracles in the ARDC laughing madly over their magics, creating cows that never stop giving milk and ears of corn as big as Cadillacs. Pyramids on the floor of the lake, buried beneath water, their stone guardians and sloped walls defending their inhabitants from intrusion, violation. A jukebox in Don’s Bar playing Charles Brown’s blues. Kids coming together to walk after midnight, guided by Ptah to the Church at the heart of town, to walk the streets and hold hands and make love their own. The trees in the cornfields spreading their limbs over the cornstalks like revival preachers blessing their congregations. The white walls, too tall to climb, at the place where the streets end in a profusion of weeds. The whole town set down in the middle of the plain, encased, like the City of Gold, Jerusalem.

And I think of love, Jaime, and wanting to make those walls between us disappear. I think of times when they do, when they have — when we have walked the streets of Memphis together, amid the riot of flowers and through the towering cathedrals.

She’s in St. Louis right now. It’s only four hours from Memphis, Tennessee, she tells me. Will we get there? I can only hope; I can only hope we go together, hand in hand.

The American Nile floods Memphis, TN, 2011.

Xerox City

February 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: GraceLand, by Chris Abani.

“Name it and Lagos had a copy of it, earning it the nickname “One Copy.”

Our narrator, Elvis, is a copy of sorts himself: named after Elvis Presley, and in love with dancing, he makes the logical choice to become an Elvis impersonator.  He’s growing up in ’70s and ’80s Nigeria, in the slums of Lagos, having moved with his father from a smaller town after his father loses an election.

But there’s no such thing as an exact copy or a perfect impersonation, and therein lies the interest.  Wearing a wig and “white shoes and trousers,” covering his face with talcum powder when he runs out of “sparkle spray” — but still aware that “this was not how white people looked” — he sings “Hound Dog” and dances for tourists at expensive hotels.  Humiliatingly, in the encounter we witness at the beginning of the novel, the tourists try to get him to stop with chocolate, then pay him a pittance to go away.  And when he goes back to the bus after this embarrassment, a woman getting off asks him, laughing, “Who do dis to you?”

If Elvis took it all as a joke, just bilking tourists out of their money with a minstrel show of one of their Western heroes, it would be one thing.  But he grew up listening to Presley, his hero.  His identity is intertwined with the white American’s.  And he takes his act very seriously: it is what he loves to do.  It is an act of art.  Constrained by his inability to use makeup (so as not to be confused with a prostitute or homosexual), confused with a beggar or huckster, he is stuck with his existence like a cheap copy.

Abani weaves these threads of cultural cross-pollination, post-colonialism, and skewed facsimile through the beginning of his narrative quite skillfully: songs on the radio (American, Caribbean, African), the movies Elvis becomes addicted to (the cheapest old silents, the newer Bollywood films), the snacks he eats watching them (American soft drinks), many other subtle asides.  It’s not simple symbol or allusion, though: there’s nothing forced or artificial about these references, just a portrait of lived life in Nigeria at the time.  A cool example that made me laugh in delighted surprise: the girls and women of Elvis’s family plaiting their hair into elaborate patterns and shapes, as Al Green plays on the radio in 1976.  “Aunt Felicia had invented a plait called Concorde, complete with a Concorde-shaped aircraft taxiing down the crown of the head to the nape.”  Even the dialogue of  Elvis’s grandmother Oye, who speaks with a kind of Scottish accent and idiom she picked up from missionaries, is utterly believable in a strange way.

Is Abani playing with one of the great themes of world (especially European) literature in the 20th century, the Double?  Is Lagos a doppelganger of sorts for a western city, a kind of distorted mirror image, with its massive disparity between large numbers of  millionaires in mansions and hotels and a huge impoverished population in swampy shanty-towns built on stilts?  I think there’s more to this than that; I think Abani’s novel is shaping up to be rather distinctively its own thing, just as his Lagos seems like quite its own thing despite its “One Copy” of everything; but I also think he’s keenly aware of and interested in traditions, literary and cultural.  Elvis reads a lot of western literature (which I hope to talk about in the next post), and before most of the chapters there are descriptions of Igbo rituals and recipes.  This novel’s blazing a trail between canon and experiment.

Just for the hell of it, and because it’s pretty great and I’d never heard of it, here’s one of the greatest music hits from Nigeria in the ’70s, mentioned in the novel, “Sweet Mother” by Prince Nico Mbarga:

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