MEMPHIS--Nothing against the capitalistic instinct that turned what started off as the Great American Pyramid into a Bass Pro Shop megastore, but I swear the branding makes it look like a matte painting from some B-movie imagining a dystopian future. Maybe it's the monochrome silver-on-silver aspect of the logo, but it just looks brutal and sad.
Inside the pyramid--the store--it's cool and pleasantly mood-lit with trickling artificial streams and green-glowing tanks of fish. Somewhere there is allegedly a bowling alley, though we didn't find it. And we didn't pay the $10--which would have been applied to any purchase had we made one--to ride the elevator up to the observation deck and gaze across the Mississippi into Arkansas. We can only play tourist so long.
I sort of like Bass Pro Shop, though I have little use for most of the gear they sell. Still, we fill out forms to win $5,000 gift cards; I will wear flannel shirts year 'round if we win. But isn't it at least a little ironic that such an ambitious endeavor has ended up a novelty brick and mortar (or in this case, glass and steel) emporium? It was modeled on a tomb. The irony isn't hard to grasp.
On the other hand, there's nothing blasphemous about this particular pyramid being converted into a mercantile temple; that was the idea all along. This is the first time I've been inside the pyramid that I didn't have to pay for the privilege. The first time that the building itself was the actual attraction.
I have an uneasy relationship with Memphis; considering its proximity, we don't go there often. Over the years I've seen a few shows in the pyramid, a couple at Mud Island. For a time I used to occasionally drive over for movie screenings. I know London as well; I know Paris better. I don't have any go-to restaurants (aside from the obvious tourist-heavy barbecue spots; though a friend swears there's amazing Mexican food in Germantown).
I want to accept it as a great city, or at least a city of deep character, but when we stay downtown we're often disappointed, and when we stay in the suburbs it feels like Cincinnati. (No offense, Reds fans.) Memphis may be one of those cities best experienced through the prism of art. (For starters I'd suggest Jim Jarmusch's 1989 film Mystery Train, Robert Gordon's 2014 book on Stax Records Respect Yourself, Stephen Schottenfield's 2014 novel Bluff City Pawn and the eight-CD Sun Rock Box: Rock 'n' Roll Recorded by Sam Phillips available as an import from Bear Family.)
But in real life, Memphis is like a lot of America. A little threadbare. A lot polarized. And, most of it is, unlike the Bass Pro Shop, very real.
To embrace the rot of the world also runs counter to the American notion of the perfectibility, if not of man, then of his environment. We humans can live anywhere thanks to central air conditioning and cable television, and if we watch the fat in our diet and don't smoke, perhaps we can live forever. Longevity has its lures; as a people we have yet to come to terms with the inevitability of extinction.
Yet for some it is satisfying to know that nature eventually retrieves its own, that the clutching hands of men slip away into heaps of carbon. Fans of decay should like this city of curated seediness.
Memphis is a city of grease and fat, of weathered wood and cracking cobblestones. A city that demands you pay attention; here you get sized up by hard hungry eyes socketed in ash-gray heads of willow-limbed men drinking from brown paper bags at bus stops. To be happy and prosperous here requires luck, and luck, my man, is a finite resource, the sort of thing that might run out on you just when you need it the most. You can't store it up in the bank and access it through an ATM--it's either there when you need it or it isn't and sooner or later on some wild bourbon-ripped night you're gonna reach for it and come up with nothing.
Which is, after all, what you came into the world with, and all that you're taking with you.
Even Beale Street is real in its phoniness; it makes no effort to conceal its kitschy theme-park soul. It's two blocks of neon and barkers with new-ish cheap buildings hiding behind period facades. It ain't for nothing they call Memphis the Bluff City.
Blues is scary stuff. Got red eyes--glow like the tip of a sucked-on cigarette, they say--and big hairy hands 'bout to cuff you to the ground. Don't wanna meet up with no Blues in no dark alley, no sir, Blues just might not like the way you looking at it, reach right out and grab itself a souvenir.
Flesh is soft and bone is brittle but don't worry--Blues ain't been seen around here for a while. Maybe dead. Maybe it sneaks into Clarksdale every once and a while, plays a set at Baton Rouge's Pastime Lounge. More likely Blues just got old and tired of answering questions, put on its best shabby suit coat, moved into four rooms of the decrepit old silverwood family manse, sealed off the upstairs and covered the kitchen windows with aluminum foil. Bought itself a window unit for the bedroom it uses (used to be the pantry), turned that sucker up to "snow" and went into hibernation.
Anyway, Blues ain't been to Beale Street anytime recently, has no intention of ever going back. So, go on, take the kids. It's perfectly safe to look for Blues here. And in the Bass Pro Shop.
Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.
Editorial on 09/13/2016