Thursday, September 30, 2010

Adventures in Memphis Part 2: Midtown is Memphis

As a continuation of my previous blog post, here is Part 2 where I delve into the eclectic Midtown area of Memphis.

After leaving the South Main area, we headed to the Brooks Museum to check out the exhibit, Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History 1955 to the Present. We were convinced upon entering to become Brooks Museum members for the year, so it looks like we will be going to a lot more exhibits in the future. The Who Shot Rock & Roll exhibit was a collection of photographs throughout the history of Rock & Roll depicting historic stars in a variety of settings. Separate sections were devoted to pre-fame photos, behind the scenes photos, performance pictures, and various other categories. Looking at the pictures of some of my favorite artists (Kurt Cobain, Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, U2, Elvis, Velvet Underground, and many, many more), and listening to the audio guide and learning the stories behind some of the most famous photos in music history was incredible.

In particular, I was moved by the picture above of Kurt Cobain crying backstage taken by Ian Tilton just minutes after a show. The photo took me back to my high-school years when I thought Cobain was a god. It reminded me how it was such a breath of fresh air when the grunge movement first hit and the artists had passion again after the many years of declining quality in music with the central focus on fame and partying of the hair metal groups. The images in rock music changed overnight from makeup-clad hair metal stars surrounded by groupies to the more realistic images of the “grunge” era (I realize I’m making a generalization about this, as some of my favorite music was made in the 80’s…R.E.M., Pixies, U2, and the multitude of one-hit wonders to name a few, but since we are talking about the images portrayed in photographs in the media, I think the generalization applies).

After the successful trip to the Brooks Museum (and an incredible history lesson in my favorite subject), we headed back across Union to the always interesting Cooper-Young neighborhood. Cooper-Young boasts an eclectic collection of restaurants, bars, art galleries, shopping and some very interesting people.

We dropped off a few books for store credit at Burke’s Books (my favorite used bookstore in Memphis), and headed over to Goner Records (my favorite record store in Memphis). Goner specializes in vinyl and also runs a record label. While browsing I spotted records by Sam & Dave and Wilson Pickett that I had to have. Both of these artists worked heavily with the Stax record label in Memphis, and I think the music of Stax and Hi Records are at least equal to the Sun Recordings when it comes to Memphis’ contributions to the music world. The music Steve Cropper made with Wilson Picket and Otis Redding (see the video below for an example of the power of Otis) ranks high among my favorites, and together, Willie Mitchell and Al Green made some of the finest music in any genre for Hi Records. And don’t forget about Isaac Hayes and David Porter, as they also made some incredible music right here in Memphis.

After a bit more wandering around in Cooper-Young, we decided to check out one more bike shop. I had previously read that Memphis Bicycle Company on Summer Avenue specialized in old Schwinn bikes, and since we are interested in cruisers, we decided to check it out. While we didn’t find the bikes we wanted, he did have a few old bikes that are collectors’ items and if we ever need any parts, it will be one of the first places we’ll check. Having the opportunity to check out some of the classic cruisers (some apparently valued at thousands of dollars and headed to a museum) was really interesting. Anyone who knows Crystel and I, knows about our love for old things (cars, houses, bikes, buildings, etc…). Stop by and check out his collection sometime (be sure and use the side door), although he’s not always open so you may have to stop by a few times to catch him there.

On the way home, we talked about how unexpectedly fun and interesting the day was. The weather was near-perfect, and I think we really felt some of the soul of Memphis. This city has a rich history with lots of new things being added every day and I can’t wait until the next time we irresponsibly forget about our chores for the day and explore our home.

So there you have it, our Memphis adventure. Do you have any experiences with the places I’ve mentioned? Anything else I should check out during our next adventure?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Adventures in Memphis Part 1 – Goin’ Down South (Main)

Like many Memphians, I sometimes get down on my city. The news reports of corruption, crime and poverty, the oppressive summer heat, our low ranking on almost every best cities list and the general consensus that Memphis just isn’t a good place to live make it hard to remember the many great things this city has to offer. And as my friend Anna said in her blog a while back, don’t even consider reading the comments section of any news story in our local media; good or bad.

Living here, we deal with a lot of problems that are merely an abstract thought to outsiders. However, most large cities have comparable problems and being careless in even the safest of big cities can get you into trouble pretty quickly. So maybe Memphis isn’t really that much worse than the cities we like to compare it to (I’m talking to you, our hilly neighbor to the east). Of course there is the option of staying in a small town, but I enjoy the benefits of the city too much for that. So, in an effort to improve our outlook on our city, Crystel and I decided a day of Memphis adventure was in order. A staycation if you will. We decided this at the last minute on Saturday morning, and left the house without a plan. Since we had so many interesting experiences, I’ll be splitting this blog into two posts. This post, Part 1 focuses on our downtown experience, while Part 2 will describe our experiences once we made our way east to Midtown. You can check out my wife’s blog for pictures of our day.

We began our adventure in the South Main Historic District. We wanted to pick up a few items from the Memphis Farmers Market and check out the bikes at Midtown Bike Company. As a side note, the bike shopping was brought on by the upcoming grand opening of the new greenline that connects our neighborhood to Shelby Farms. That’s something to get excited about in Memphis. With the recent hiring of the city’s new Bike / Pedestrian Coordinator, it looks like Memphis might start shedding its image of being a terrible biking city. This may be a future blog post in itself.

After picking up a few items at the farmer’s market, checking out the bike shop (if you’re thinking of buying a bike, stop in and talk to the friendly and knowledgeable staff) and popping in and out of a few interesting shops, we decided to stop by Earnestine & Hazel’s for our first Soul Burger. Earnestine & Hazel’s is one of Memphis’ oldest dive bars and has a rich history. At one point it was a brothel, and tales of ghosts haunting the premises abound. These days, it’s known as a place where celebrities stop by while in town and numerous movies have been filmed. Check out the pictures on the wall for a sampling of the celebrities who have visited. Don’t forget to check out the jukebox for a history lesson in Memphis music.

Our first Earnestine & Hazel’s visit was an excellent and unique experience. We’ve wanted to go there since watching the movie Elizabethtown, in which Orlando Bloom’s character made a pit stop for a quick beer and some conversation, but for some reason we’ve never made it until last weekend. The bartender on duty was the perfect mix of entertainment and information (Crystel thinks his name is Clarence). I loved how he referred to the stars who have visited by their first name. When I mentioned Elizabethtown, he said “Ol’ Orlando, yeah he loved this place.” And “Norah is my girlfriend. She can sing to me anytime.” He told us about the party the night before and the crowds brought on by the South Main Trolley Tour (Definitely check out the Trolley Tour if you get the chance. It’s the last Friday of every month).

Earnestine & Hazel’s lack of a menu was great (When I asked for a menu, I was told “We keep it simple. Burger with grilled onions, cheese and a bag of chips.”), and the soul burger was one of the best I’ve had. Plus, it wasn’t so large that I left there feeling like I needed to be rolled down the street after eating it. I’ll be taking my friends and family there in the future.

After leaving Earnestine & Hazel’s we decided to stroll around South Main a bit more, and wound up standing in front of the Lorraine Motel, home of the National Civil Rights Museum. As I stood there taking in the scene of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, I couldn’t help but wonder how race relations in this country would be different had he lived a longer life, and felt a deep sadness when I thought of the events that transpired there. His message of non-violent protest and a color-blind society should be more widely taught today. I recommend that everyone who has the chance go and take in the scene and really think about what happened on that balcony over 40 years ago. We’ll probably never know the entire truth surrounding Dr. King’s assassination (as numerous conspiracy theories exist), but what is known is that we lost a man who dedicated his life to the struggle for necessary change in this country.

So the beginning of our Memphis adventure turned out to be a mini stroll through history. It was fitting that the soundtrack to our day was Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, which was released a few months after King’s assassination in 1968. I’ll follow-up in a few days with Part 2 which will continue our day into Midtown.

What are some of your favorite things to do in Memphis? We are constantly looking for new experiences, and we know we’ve only scratched the surface of all Memphis has to offer.