Travel: Memphis Blues

by Kevin Isom

Some people come here just to be near Elvis. But Memphis, Tennessee is more than home to the King, even if it does have the highest per capita concentration of Elvis impersonators outside Las Vegas.

Set on the banks of the wide and rolling Mississippi River, long the center of cotton trade in the South, Memphis is home to the blues, much as New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz. Flashy Beale Street, akin to Bourbon Street in New Orleans, is not far from the river. Just follow the music and the lights to the pedestrian-only street, which stretches for several city blocks. Every night, the music halls overflow with patrons listening to blues, jazz, and rock, as the smells of Southern cooking waft into the air from the many restaurants. Beale Street once drew performers from Louis Armstrong to B.B. King, but its most famous denizen was W.C. Handy, the "Father of the Blues," whose statue stands at the end of Beale Street.

Just up from Beale Street is the Peabody Hotel, Memphis' premier hotel. If you're not staying there, at least stop in for coffee or a drink, to experience the opulent elegance of the Old South. At 11 a.m. every day, the Peabody ducks parade into the ornate lobby, down a red carpet, into the central fountain.

Another favored area is Overton Square. If you're not going to stay at the Peabody, the French Quarter Inn on Overton Square is a good choice. If jacuzzi tubs built for two aren't reason enough, the walking distance proximity of Memphis most international restaurant, Paulette's, and THE barbecue ribs restaurant, The Public Eye, should be. Paulette's is a great place for a romantic dinner, and they won't look askance at a gay or lesbian couple, even in this very socially conservative Southern town. The prices are reasonable, and if you wish, you can just go for crepes for dessert. When you go to The Public Eye, take your antacid if you're not used to barbecue.

Not far up Poplar Avenue is the gay and lesbian center of night life, Amnesia. It may not be hard to remember, but it is hard to find. It's in a large warehouse behind a row of shops, so be sure to call first to ask for the latest landmark at the place to turn. Amnesia features three bars in one: a video music bar, a lounge jazz bar, and the large dance area. There's also--I kid you not--a shallow swimming pool outside the dance area, should you wish to cool down later in the evening. Many of the regulars do just that. Wet Calvins cling nicely. So do bras or t-shirts.

Another popular bar is the Pipeline, a stand-and-model bar, Memphis style. No dancing, just plenty of beer. Try it before you go to Amnesia, but definitely not as an alternative.

When you've recovered from a night on the town, you may want to go for coffee in the Midtown area, an increasingly artsy--by Memphis standards--area that has long provided the favored housing for gay and lesbian Memphians. Not far from the University of Memphis, Midtown Memphis is a pleasant area of historic homes.

When you're fully awake, you may want to take in some of the museums. A city marked by deep racial division, Memphis is home to a serious reminder of civil rights history: the high-tech National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Graceland, Elvis Presley's home and final resting place. Set gracefully back from the wrought iron gates adorned with musical notes, the mansion offers both the reverent and the curious a chance to view the tacky late-Elvis period interior. Expect lots of velvet. Along with gold records, glittery costumes, and Cadillacs. Afterward, you can pay your respects at Elvis' grave, then go inside the Lisa Marie. Elvis' plane, that is. At Christmas, Graceland is all done up in lights--blue, of course.

In addition to Graceland and the Civil Rights Museum, Memphis had two good art galleries, the Brooks Museum and Dixon Gallery, as well as several historic houses open for public view. Both galleries have fine permanent collections, charming grounds to walk through, and excellent temporary exhibits, a surprise in a city of Memphis' modest size. Brooks Museum, incidentally, is also next to Overton Park, a pleasant tree-filled park.

Every other year during the summer and early fall, Memphis plays host to a "Wonders Exhibit." Somehow they are able to create exhibits that no one else in the world can match. Past exhibits on Napoleon, Catherine the Great, and last year's Imperial Tombs of China (they brought in statue warriors and horses buried with ancient Chinese Emperors) have attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Finally, a monorail to Mud Island in the river will take you to the Mississippi River Museum (remember the scene with Tom Cruise in "The Firm"?). Just down from Mud Island, not far from actress Cybill Sheperd's condo, you can take a ride on an honest-to-goodness riverboat, complete with red paddle wheel and smokestacks. From the River, you can also marvel at the giant stainless steel pyramid, the city's coliseum, designed to hearken back to Memphis namesake in Egypt.

The river is an important part of Memphis life all year round. Each year during the Memphis in May International Festival, would-be barbecue chefs from all over the world--it's in the Guinness Book of Records--compete to be the best, using barbecue contraptions of all shapes and sizes, down by the river. The festival also offers symphony concerts by the river, and appearances by the Cotton King and Queen, in this Memphis-cotton-aristocracy-goes-kooky-while-taking- themselves-seriously tradition.

Memphis is a quirky city, as you might expect an old Southern city built solely on commerce would be. If it's tacky, they've bought it, like Elvis' mansion, the neon of Beale Street, and the stainless steel pyramid. But if it's classy, they've bought it, too, like the art museums, the Wonders exhibits, the blues, and the symphony beside the river.

If you're in the mood for curiosities and Southern history, Memphis is worth a stop. Then you can get a picture of yourself in front of one of Elvis' pink Cadillacs. Just be sure to wear your blue suede shoes.

Kevin Isom is an attorney and writer in Atlanta. His columns appear in newspapers and magazines throughout the U.S. and Canada. Other work has appeared in Paris Transcontinental, The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review, and other magazines.
©1996 Oasis Magazine. All Rights Reserved.