Memphis in the meantime
But the focus of the museum is on Stax, though some of that focus needs sharpening. Too many cases are “filled” with nothing but a few vintage 45s and enlarged photographs you’ve probably seen in books. Frequent video monitors show amazing clips that frustrate with their brevity. Then again, there likely isn’t enough time in the world to appreciate fully the sheer joyous weirdness of seeing a 55-year-old Rufus Thomas perform before more than 100,000 fans at the 1972 “Wattstax” concert, wearing pink short pants and knee-high tube socks and doing the Funky Chicken.
Highlighting distinctive individuals is what the museum does best. Often this is accomplished with well-chosen artifacts, both small (Al Jackson Jr.’s jewelry case was wooden and in the shape of an Arthurian castle) and large (Isaac Hayes’ electric purple Caddy has ankle-deep white-shag interior). Other times, a videotaped talking head provides concise insight into how the artists perceived what they were doing. For instance, here’s Steve Cropper, explaining the MG’s formula: “Booker was the singer…the rest was a three-piece rhythm section.” And here’s Mavis Staples of the Staple Singers, talking about the group’s many pop hits: “The only secular song we ever recorded was ‘Let’s Do It Again’.”
The one significant disappointment of the museum is that it leaves the label’s dissolution mostly mysterious. Still, the exhibits unwittingly suggest a partial explanation. While a brief introductory film neglects to mention the passing of most other independent regional labels around the country during the same period, it does allude, vaguely, to the possibility that the end had something to do with the King assassination. Indeed, “We never looked at color” is repeated by many of the Stax musicians in video interviews interspersed throughout the exhibits, though notably it’s mostly voiced by white participants — and this during the height of the civil rights movement and in the wake of King’s death. Could it be that a refusal to “see” color, especially the color of friends and colleagues, was one problem contributing to the death of Stax?
Certainly, race — both seeing it and ignoring it — remains a problem for Memphis today. While the city’s public spaces are among the most integrated in the country, its residential areas remain deeply segregated. It is hoped that a new music school next door to the Stax museum will once again tap and nurture the talent of a neighborhood that has only become more impoverished in the years since Stax closed its doors.
A couple of blocks from Soulsville, on South Parkway, times are even tougher. Though well away from the river, the air here seems to hang hotter, heavier, wetter, and the street is a grim stretch of beauty parlors, liquor stores, abandoned buildings; everything is gray. So when you step into Ellen’s BBQ & Soul Food you may be momentarily blinded by the bright orange tables, burnt orange walls and mustard ceiling. Beneath the menu was an advertisement for a recent Mother’s Day performance by Little Milton.
Ellen’s is widely regarded in Memphis as serving the best soul food in town, which is to say it may well serve the best food on the planet. You can easily fill up on side dishes — black-eyed peas, fried okra, macaroni and cheese, for instance — especially since every meal comes with a stack of Johnny cakes and a bowl of melted butter for dipping. But save room for the meatloaf or, better yet, the fried pork chops, which are thick, delicately breaded and unlike anything you’ve ever tasted.
As much as it is known for music, Memphis also deserves to be recognized for its consistently fine meat-and-threes, barbecue shacks, chicken joints, and homey taverns (check out the pirate-ship-shaped bar at Anderton’s Restaurant), each of them as distinctive from one another as the Jungle Room is from the TV Room in that famous home out on Elvis Presley Boulevard.
There are exceptions. The shops that Elvis Presley Enterprises has placed across the street from Graceland could be those of any tourist trap in the country. You can say the same for Beale Street, where the strip’s most novel elements have long since been homogenized into what feels like the world’s largest and most insufferable Hard Rock Cafe. Still, just a short walk or trolley ride away, you can sit down with an integrated crowd of Memphians to a frigid beer and a cookie sheet full of Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. Outside the cinderblock building, a sandwich board sign perpetually informs passersby: “Today’s special: Fried Chicken.” It’s the sort of place that you never want to leave.
Another recent tourist draw for Memphis, by the way, has been a pair of pandas at the Memphis Zoo. That seems oddly appropriate for this town. The black-and-white panda is distinctive on the planet and should probably have long since been extinct. But one suspects that as long as people see it, recognize its rarity, and feel joy, it will remain alive, like Memphis, and beautiful beyond compare.