Month: January 2010


The Southern Smackdown Part Two: So Nero, Yet So Far…

Arriving in Memphis after our three-hour mini road-trip from Nashville – via a bizarre lunch stop at Loretta Lynn’s diner and the world’s most racist, wi-fi enabled gift shop – it was time, apparently, for more food.
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Sarah was keen for Peter and me to experience her favourite fried chicken place – Gus’s Famous Fried Chicken – and more importantly to compare it with Princes in Nashville. Comparing like for like was tricky, given that I’d had to experience Princes’ chicken reheated in a hotel room microwave, following my enforced Chicago stop over. My feeling, acknowledging the unfairness of the comparison, is that Gus’s chicken was considerably less spicy and, by a nose, slightly more delicious. But only slightly.

What really clinched it or Gus’s, though, was dessert: a local specialty called ‘Chess Pie’. Apparently – and this comes from Wikipedia so you know it’s true – the dish was so named because the woman who invented it was once asked “what kind of pie is this?” to which she answered “it’s jus’ pie”. Which became ‘jess pie’ which became ‘chess pie’. It’s stories like that which earn a restaurant – and a town – valuable extra points.

But the excitement of Chess Pie soon paled in comparison to checking in to the Madison Hotel: no sooner had we dropped our bags than we were turfed back on to the streets because the building’s lifts elevators were on fire. What made the incident made even more troubling was the fact that we were almost certainly the last people to use them before they burst into flames. In fact, come to think of it, maybe Peter started the fire to try to tip the scales back towards Nashville. In which case he failed: you know any trip that begins with a hotel fire is going to be amazing.
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We took refuge from the not-very-towering-inferno at the Madison in the lobby of The Peabody hotel. The Peabody is very much a Memphis institution, thanks in large part to the ducks which swim around the fountain in the lobby each day. This after they’ve been lead, via a red carpet, from their house on the roof – a house which, by the way, is an actual full sized house. On a roof. We arrived slightly too late for the ‘march of the ducks’ but we headed up to the roof anyway, just to say hello. Or “quack.”

After the ducks it was time for even more food – tapas-style things being all we could force into our chicken-stuffed stomachs – before heading out on Sarah’s meticulously-planned bar crawl, beginning with The Lamplighter which proudly claims to be the city’s oldest tavern. This was my first glimpse – unless you count the fried chicken – of the ‘real Memphis’; the Memphis that Sarah and Geoff know and love, and the Memphis that – they hoped – would decisively win the #smackdown. Certainly the place had character. Character and even more fried food.

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After an abortive trip to Wild Bill’s which (apparently suffering from the curse of Nashville) was closed on Monday nights – we ended up at Alex’s: Sarah and Geoff’s favourite bar. Given the two jukeboxes and the shuffleboard table, I can understand why. Interestingly, despite being in one of the most dangerous parts of one of the most dangerous cities in America, Alex’s felt incredibly safe. A feeling that might have something to do with the fact that, at about 1am, a group of police officers strolled in and helped themselves to drinks from behind the bar.

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For me the highlight of the evening was shuffleboard: I fucking love shuffleboard. Team Paul and Peter took on Team Sarah and Geoff and I’d like to say we enjoyed a decisive victory. But that would be a lie – Sarah and Geoff had been practicing over Christmas and as a result, kicked our n00b asses. Soon enough it was 2am and Sarah decided it was time for yet more food. Burgers!

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Day two was Sarah’s birthday! – but with no sign of the birthday girl by 10am Peter and I headed via the trolley to The Arcade – Elvis’ favourite diner, Peter claimed – for breakfast. After all of the fried chicken and burgers from the previous day, my chicken club sandwich and fries seemed positively vegan. Peter had eggs.

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Fortunately balance was soon restored when Sarah and Geoff emerged and we headed for MORE FUCKING CHICKEN, leaving Peter back at the hotel to do some ‘work’ (I think he was just worried he might explode from all the food). I just about managed to eat a barbecued leg, washed down with some freakishly red soda.
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And then came Graceland. We opted for the basic tour – $28 to see the home and final resting place of the King, complete with digital audio guide, but without the planes and Sun Studios. I don’t know what I was expecting but, with the exception of the jungle room, I think I was anticipating Elvis’ interior decoration tastes to be more tacky. In fact, it was kind of cool, in a 70s sort of way. The television room was just brilliant….

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….although, according to Sarah, one of the televisions used to be broken; a reminder of the time when Elvis decided to shoot it with one of his many guns. Already the tour skips over Presley’s addictions and totally ignores his womanizing, so perhaps the repaired television is part of a plan to completely whitewash the man’s reputation by his 100th birthday in 2035. As one of the plaques in the mansion reads “Elvis was dangerous, but not too dangerous”.

The grave site itself was odd; and unexpected. I’d completely forgotten that Elvis was buried at Graceland and so stumbling across his grave at the end of the tour was like discovering an altar at the back of a McDonald’s. I hope that I die famous enough that mourners can listen to an audio tour when visiting my final resting place.
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Graceland done, we took a quick swing by the Stax museum (or at least the gift shop) and the civil rights museum (closed Mondays) before Sarah and Geoff went off to attend to family things and Peter and I hit yet another bar for YET MORE FOOD. Just potato wedges this time; no sense filling ourselves up before dinner.

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And what a dinner. Barbecue, Memphis style at Rendezvous, to celebrate Sarah’s birthday. The last time I remember having ribs that good was at a barbecue at chez Lacy Ellis last year. “This was where we flew the ribs in from,” explained Sarah. Which made sense. The evening finished with a surprise guest – Olivia! – who joined us on the final stop of the smackdown: Earnestine and Hazel’s.

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There is literally only one thing you need to know about Earnestine and Hazel’s and that’s that it’s a bar underneath a former brothel. Sure, there’s a great jukebox and, yes, a girl who I’m sure is will turn out to be my future wife stumbled in blind drunk and proceeded to provide at least half an hour’s brilliant free entertainment. But – seriously – who cares about any of that when there’s a former brothel underneath. Of course Geoff took pictures, including this one which is the cheesiest band promo photo of all time…

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And so that was Memphis, and that was the #smackdown. All that remained was for me to announce my verdict the next morning at breakfast.

The decision was tougher than I expected in many ways – I had a great time in both cities – but when it came down to it, there was no real question which city had won. Peter did an epic job of showing us around Nashville – despite being saddled with a Sunday where, being a God-fearing town, half of the town is closed. I’m still amazed by the Parthenon, and I doubt Sarah, Geoff and Peter will ever forget the crippled boy in the fedora.

And yet, as I explained at breakfast on the final day, much of the fun I had in Nashville was down to the people I was there with. Peter, Sarah and Geoff are really fun people to hang out with, regardless of the city, and as I said in part one, too much of Nashville could easily have been found in Austin or – perhaps – any other southern city. The things I loved about Nashville were really things I love about the south – the food, the music, the vibe – rather than uniquely Nashville things that would win the city the #smackdown title.

And the funny thing is, by the end of the Memphis leg, Peter agreed. In fact, he made his mind up before I did. He admitted that being back in Memphis he’d been reminded of all of the thing he loved about the city; things that I’d come to love in the two short days I spent there. The Memphis barbecue, the touching weirdness of Graceland, the grimy bars but also – and this is where Memphis had its real advantage – the genuine love that Sarah has for the place. Every street brought another story, every bar another memory. It was impossible not to be sucked in, and it was impossible to declare a different winner.

Would Nashville have won if Peter had been born and raised there? Possibly. But that wasn’t the point of the #smackdown. The point was for Peter and Sarah to sell their respective towns to me, and the fact is that Sarah (with more than a little help from Geoff) sold Memphis so well that even Peter ended up wanting it to win. So congratulations Sarah – and Memphis – for your victory, and congratulations Peter – and Nashville – for putting up such an enjoyable fight.

Apparently we’re going to do it all again at some point – I think Omaha was mooted, or Atlanta, or something. I vote Bruges.

(All photography – except for ‘eggs’ and ‘fire!’ by Geoffrey Ellis)


The Southern Smackdown Part One: No Sugar No Cinn, No Butter No Whip

Like all the best ideas, the Southern Smackdown found its genesis at the bottom of a Champagne glass.

Back in September of last year, Peter LaMotte was in San Francisco for a wedding, and he, Sarah Lacy and I met up for a drink. Peter and Sarah both went to college in Memphis – Sarah’s home town – before Peter headed to business school in Nashville, and so it was somewhat inevitable that before long the two would be fighting about which town was better. That seems to be what Americans do. Particularly when Brits deliberately goad them, knowing how entertaining it will be.

I listened to the back and forth for maybe ten minutes – “Nashville has country music” “Memphis has amazing barbecue” “Nashville has Pottery Barn downtown” “Memphis tries to murder you” – before stepping in with a joke. “You know, this would actually make a great idea for a TV show. Two Americans from competing towns try to convince a Brit that theirs is better”

As is her wont, Sarah saw a ridiculous idea and ran with it. “We should totally do that,” she insisted, firing up the calendar on her Blackberry “let’s arrange it for the week after Christmas when I’m back home anyway.”

“Works for me,” I said – flexibility of plans being just one of the perks of living in hotels. “Peter?”

“Sure,” said Peter, with all the enthusiasm of a man who knew that the idea would be forgotten the moment we left the bar. Peter would soon learn that, when it comes to ridiculous ideas, Sarah and I don’t forget. Two months later – after recruiting Sarah’s husband Geoff as our official photographer – the smackdown was on.

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After much dicking around with schedules (I had to fly in from London, while Peter was travelling from DC) we’d agreed on 26th – 30th December for the competition, with 26th and 27th spent in Nashville, 28th and 29th in Memphis and the morning of the 30th for my final judgment. It was the perfect plan, unless of course I found myself stranded in Chicago in the snow for the whole of the 26th.

Still, the competition began in earnest without me – Sarah, Peter and Geoff enjoying fried chicken at Princes before hitting up the The Station Inn where four men in overalls – including one playing a jug – provided the warm up for a sixteen year old crippled boy in a Fedora telling Walmart jokes. Oh, and John Prine did an unannounced set.

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You had to be there, apparently and – thanks to the magic of Geoff’s photography and video – when I finally landed in town the next day, I felt like I had been. They’d even saved me some chicken which still tasted pretty damned amazing out of the minibar.

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Our real breakfast was served at the Pancake Pantry, a restaurant which Peter proudly (and unnecessarily) boasted served pancakes with everything. The pigs in blankets were delicious but from the point of view of the smackdown, I was far more taken with the check which listed – in abbreviated form – all of the items on the menu. This might not sound like the most entertaining thing in the world and yet it kept Sarah and me captivated for at least twenty minutes by items like “Dr P. Sprite”, “Fruit C. Cheese” and the wonderfully understated “Pigs.” I asked for a blank one as a souvenir and with that, Nashville took an early lead.
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Next up, Peter had planned a visit – via Music Row – to ‘the Parthenon‘. Remarkably this is an exact, full sized replica of the Parthenon in Greece, complete with full-sized statue of Athena inside. Apparently it was originally built in wood for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, before becoming so popular as a tourist attraction that they replaced it with a concrete version. A replica of the original replica, if you like. Unfortunately in what proved to be a foretaste of things to come, Nashville’s most ridiculous tourist attraction was closed. Also closed was the Country Music Hall Of Fame and the steak house that Peter had originally hoped to take us to for dinner.
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Foiled in our attempts to be tourists, it was time to hit the bars, starting with one – I should have written down the name – which boasted Conway Twitty album covers on the wall and a guitar which, according to the accompanying sign, was signed by “George Hamilto IV”.

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But even Mr Hamilto was knocked into a cocked hat by the amazing mural in the front window. Yes, that’s Ray Charles. And yes, he’s reading the funnies.
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Sadly there was no jug player at the Station Inn on night two, but there was a jam session featuring a group of old men with banjos, and some kind of chocolate thing which – I gather – is called a ‘moon pie‘….
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A quick break for dinner and then it was on to the bar crawl proper, with Peter having mapped out a comprehensive trail of venues, none of which – to our collective astonishment – turned out to be closed.

The thing that struck me most about Nashville bars is how much they reminded me of the bars in Austin. Obviously both towns love their music and there was nary a venue without some kind of live band playing. But, like Austin, they all somehow felt very generic – very hipster kids playing guitars – very edgy-but-not-too-edgy; very generic southern rather than in any way specifically Nashville-y. The bartender at our first stop proudly told us about his band and urged us to check them out on MySpace. “I’m kind of the creative force behind it,” he boasted. “What kind of music do you play?” asked Peter. “Some people say we sound like Jason Mraz or Maroon 5,” he replied, without a hint of shame. More interesting was his response when Sarah mentioned that we were heading to Memphis…

“You guys should check out Beale Street” said Jason Mraz, “it’s still pretty cool – but it’s gotten darker recently. That’s why they call it Mem-frica”

Wow. Did Maroon 5 mean what it sounded like he meant? And had he really said it to four complete strangers? Yes and yes. The next morning, on our way to brunch on the ourskirts of Nashville – at a place that, sure enough, turned out to be closed – we would discuss the differing attitudes to race in Nashville and Memphis. Peter argued – apparently reasonably – that Nashville’s attitude had come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, while Sarah – equally reasonably – pointed out that it still has a hell of a long way to go. And she’s right: if people are still comfortable describing places as having “gotten darker” just because they have an increased black population then you still have a serious problem with race. And if those people are 20-somethings trying to earn tips from people who are in town from San Francisco, then you haven’t even begun to address that problem.
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After fried pickles and more live music at another bar, our night finished at one of two adjacent karaoke bars. For some reason Peter had opted not to take us to the one boasting “nude karaoke” but instead to one jam-packed with college kids belting out country songs that I’d never heard of.

It was the night of the Kentucky / Clemson game and fans from both teams packed every bar, and our hotel. Although not part of the overall competition, it’s worth reporting that – by a mile – the Clemson girls were hotter while the UK fans had more oversized cars with flags on their roofs. Also, the score was 21-13 to Clemson. Go – uh – Tigers!

The experience was saved though by Sarah’s impromptu rendition of Paradise By The Dashboard Light. To say it was a force of nature is to understate her Hurricane Katrina-like enthusiasm for the song. Fortunately Peter caught the start of it on video.

And with that, we headed back to our hotel, tired, still full of pigs and pickles and excited by what the second – and deciding – stage of the journey would hold. A three hour drive, for sure, to a city with an insanely high crime rate and a real possibility that one of us – probably me, knowing my luck – would be shot and killed. We agreed that if any of were killed in Memphis then the city would automatically be declared the winner…

…a rule that seemed slightly funnier before we arrived in Memphis and checked straight in to a hotel fire.

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To be continued

(All photography – except for Moon Pie and Racist Dolls – by Geoffrey Ellis)

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