Memphis is hot like its own asphalt in the middle of July. It’s mosquitoes and jumping crickets. It’s bungalows and porches. It’s the claustrophobia of the narrow lanes on Poplar Avenue. It’s the memory of my poor childhood in Frayser and the taunts from the nouveau riche in Germantown. It’s my momma smoking a cigarette leaned over the kitchen sink. It’s ten outside cats dragging dead possums to our porch. It’s playing softball at James Road and the summer storms that flood the fields, the memory of the naked man swimming backstrokes in that water and thinking how if he swims hard enough, he may make it all the way to that muddy river with a current strong enough to pull him out to sea. It’s the Mississippi river and, of course, it’s also the music.
Richard Hell, former musician and a current writer, came to Memphis in 2013 to promote his latest book. He read an excerpt from an older book where he reimagines the poet Rimbaud and his lover Verlaine in Memphis in the 1970s. The narrator describes Memphis as a city with an abandoned downtown and a river that everyone ignores. That felt true for the time period in the book as well as for my childhood in the early eighties. Downtown, there was the Mid-America Mall where, at age five after leaving the Enchanted Forest (a seasonal depiction of `Santa’s magical forest), I discovered my fear of escalators. Other than the mall, there were tons of empty buildings that felt like apparitions of a city that could have been. And much like Richard Hell described, I never thought about the river as a child. I knew it was there. But I didn’t visit its banks until I was in my late teens.
In the nineties, downtown started to slowly be revised, Beale Street became alive again, the South Main district pushed out the poor and added art galleries and overpriced dining. The people of the city started to acknowledge the Mississippi’s might, and the river began to pop up in the songs of local bands again. Then, as Lucero sang, my friends and I attempted to drink the river’s weight in cheap beer and wine as we all stood young, alive, inside the Hi-Tone, with tallboys in our hands, shoulder to shoulder, sweat sliding down our faces, singing along about drinking ‘till we were gone. Around the same time, I drank with friends on the banks of the river behind Channel Three where we’d sometimes see the weatherman on the back patio recording the forecast as we made our way through the brush and trees, climbing down the jagged bluff onto the concrete banks below. The old bridge sat next to us and over us and sometimes my friends climbed its beams to swing from the rafters as the moon sparkled across the muddy water below.