Saturday, April 10, 2004

Music, Memphis, Tourism: A Huge Rant

(This post just got out of control. It's huge. Longest thing I've written in a while. Settle in before you start reading, OK?)

USAToday has a big cover story in their Friday Travel section on Memphis. I guess we should be happy, but reading the article betrays a lot of what's wrong with Memphis, or at least how we present ourselves.

The story is keyed to the 50th anniversary of rock and roll. The big picture that accompanies the article is of the Memphis Music and BB King's club neon signs on Beale. How cliche, even for a travel article. Look at the things they tip for tourists to see: Beale Street, Rock'n'Soul Museum, Stax, Graceland, Sun.... Yeah, this article is historically focused, but in running from that past through to today, you get no sense of a vibrant now leading to an exciting tomorrow. You get the sense of a city that squandered its heritage and now survives by pimping the corpse to tourists.

That is what we do. Memphis has incredible music happening right now -- rock, rap, alt-country, funk, blues. Ever since I came here fifteen years ago, I've been blown away by the vigor with which this city produces bands and music. Heck, Memphis has had more obscure great bands than many cities have had big-buck scenes! Great bands grow like weeds in our fertile soil. Then die from neglect.

Our City Leaders have decided tourism is a vital industry, and so many of our musical touchstones have been tapped by the Midas finger and turned into relics. Beale Street was killed and then revivified as a Disney-ised "blues experience." Bits of black culture and history were slapped over a white-safe plastic mannequin for our amusement. Stax was allowed to die for lack of $50,000, by a City government that will spend that much for skyboxes.

The problem for the music scene is getting the word out to the rest of America and the world. There we fall down. Both the Commercial Appeal and the Memphis Flyer do a spectacular job in their pages of covering local music. You have to give them props here. There's always room for improvement, maybe in more features about bands that are in that hopeful zone where they are a full-time proposition but not yet making the bucks. There are quite a few bands out there touring and trying to hit the spotlight who could benefit by the reminder to the public. But by and large, the papers do their bit.

Other than the papers, though, that's it! Radio is, locally speaking, a total wasteland. Nowhere on the dial can you regularly hear the bands we produce. (Excepting WEVL, which is hit and miss, and surprisingly little-known in Memphis.) Nearly every station is formatted by some national consultant instead of being locally programmed and DJ'd. No wonder there's so little recognition for Memphis music -- who hears it? If we won't even listen to it, why should anyone else? Until that changes, we're stuck.

Memphis does have a lot of clubs, but if I don't know what the bands sound like that are playing that night, I'm not likely to put up with the noise, smell and drunken stupidity. Plus, Memphis is reknown for audiences that want to hear cover music. I suspect that's tied in to the radio situation. But outside of Beale Street and possibly Cooper-Young, we don't have a "club district" to match something like Birmingham's Five Points South, where folks can go from club-to-club and sample what's playing. Memphis has a whole slew of venues of every size, from tiny clubs to the Overton Park Shell to the Mud Island Amphitheater to the Coliseum, but they don't seem to get much in the way of creative use by, say, packages of local acts giving value for money to attract new listeners. Nor do moves in that direction get enough community notice and support.

Memphis does have a Music Commission, but it's larded with a lot of the usual suspects and seems to think more like a quasi-governmental agency than musicians and singers. Their "solutions" seem institutional and more geared to the tourism thing than to counteracting the problems local music faces. Same but even worse for the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Music stores aren't a problem either, as we have national and local chains as well as places like Shangri-La and others. All do their part in pitching in, I think, especially Cat's and Pop-Tunes. Access to music isn't a problem. We could do better in tying in the stores to the live scene and the tourists, though.

It still comes back to hearing about it and hearing it in the first place. That's where we need to work. When more locals hear what we produce, we'll get more local interest. Then folks passing through will hear it and take that back home with them. Folks in the area will spread the word into and around the Mid-South. It goes from there.

Back to the USAToday story. Let's look at some excerpts from it.
Events throughout the year, including the month-long Memphis in May celebration, will honor the milestone, reaching a crescendo July 5 when radio stations nationwide are to play Elvis' single simultaneously, led by a broadcast from Sun Studio.
Backward looking, and worse, at something that's static and dead. All we can do is flog new variations of old material. It seems unproductive in the long run to build your tourism around that, but then Williamsburg seems to do fine, so what do I know?
But on a broader front, this Mississippi River outpost of 1.1 million with a small-town feel is healing the psychic trauma by getting in tune with the times, finally embracing its entire musical legacy and moving beyond a careless, destructive past.
An aside. It always bothers me to see numbers like that bandied about. That 1.1 million is for a seven county area. The city proper is something like a third- or half-million. I'm sorry, but Atoka, Germantown, Hickory Wythe, Olive Branch and West Memphis are not Memphis. Shelby County damned sure isn't Memphis. No disrespect.

I would also argue that "small town feel" is something to embrace and celebrate. Some feel stifled here, but I love that sense of Memphis being America's biggest town. City leaders may have decided that "Downtown is Memphis," and maybe a few other similar spots, but the vast constellation of neighborhoods that make up the city are its real strength. For a community that struggles with racism by crying for celebrations of diversity, we sure drop the ball in equally recognising and promoting our neighborhood diversity. Individual neighborhoods themselves do a lot, but outside of selected, special, blessed areas, most other parts of the city struggle alone.

And that bit about a "careless, destructive past" hits the nail right on the head. We do turn our backs on our heritage far too easily, only to watch developers prey on that neglect by razing our history to build something, anything else on it. Even rebuilding the past with shallow imitations, ie. Beale Street and Main Street. Look at the careful, deliberate neglect going on right now, in front of our eyes, at the Fairgrounds. It's dying a slow-motion death and I'll guarantee that the Mayor, City Council and their cronies know it, because they want it to happen. So we can raze it and build anew over the grave.
"Memphians have never gotten it together ? I've heard it a million times. That's why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland," says John Doyle, executive director of the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum. "But now we have it together. People realize the music is more than a hobby. It is the thing that makes Memphis different. It's as viable as anything else as a brand."
That comment right there encapsulates so much that is very wrong, that is the heart of the disconnect between Memphians and those who purport to "lead."

The vast majority of Memphians, I believe, are quite happy with strong, vibrant neighborhoods collected into a loose, large, free-wheeling city. The town grown too big. Not a lot of Memphians want us to be the next Atlanta. It's only the power and money guys and their lackeys in the print and television media who buy in to the whole "world class" hallucination. They live separately from most Memphians, and care less about their wants than those of builders and developers. And I'm not talking about the soulless hordes spawning all over Shelby County, the expatriates. What they live in is a featureless, non-descript, bland simulacrum of a city. I'm talking about the folks who stay and do the hard work of making a city hang together.

We don't rally behind marketers and promoters like Doyle and his ilk because we don't especially care. Talking about unity in a city like Memphis is like herding cats. You'll find that Memphians rally around the things that matter. We will get involved in trying to hold on to our shared history and community touchstones. Just because some snake-oil salesman parades into town doesn't mean we'll fall all over ourselves.

Take a look at the Pyramid. Most Memphians were so-so about it. Schlenker was some big-talker no one had heard of around here. But the money-men and the Mayor's people and the "world class" crowd fell all over themselves to buy some of his patent medication. He suckered a lot of folks. It wasn't until after the whole thing fell apart that the Commercial Appeal began to ask questions, only to find that there were numerous warning signs that regular folks suspected, but the "leaders" had blithely brushed aside, the Commercial Appeal included.

History in Memphis always repeats. The reactions of Memphians to the Houston Oilers were well learned-from by our leaders. The collective response to the Oilers' overtures was "Eh." We knew what a scam the NFL is and were indifferent to playing their game. So, we didn't look like we wanted it and lost out to an organised, aggressive and promiscuous Nashville. Those lessons, when the NBA came sniffing around, resulted in a Tiger Team that blitzed the City with propaganda and reacted swiftly to counter any problems. The media played along shamelessly. They were all shameless and organised and aggressive this time. The public balked, but the Tiger Team held firm and won the day.
The arena already is linked by a shuttle system to other recent or updated attractions that tell the fuller story of Memphis music: Sun Studio, which again holds recording sessions; the year-old Soulsville USA: Stax Museum of American Soul Music; Beale Street's ever-evolving music clubs; the Gibson Guitar Factory, which opened here two years ago and offers tours; and, of course, Graceland and the nearby Heartbreak Hotel.
See? Even outsiders can instantly spot what a gimmick the trolley is. Plus, they give it more credit than its worth. In the memphis.general newsgroup this week there have been some out-of-town posters asking about the upcoming music festivals, hotel accomodations and getting around. The overwhelming consensus from Memphians responding is that the trolley just doesn't cut it. For folks who want to avoid using cars to get from hotels to the events, the trolley falls short in several ways. Not close enough, bad neighborhoods, no parking, short hours.

Here's the litany of neglect I mentioned above:
Though it seems like a no-brainer for a city to capitalize on its century-old status as a center of popular music, most of these projects have come about only in recent years, after stretches of destruction and foot-dragging:

? Beale Street, a hub of black musical culture dating to the turn of the 20th century, was razed in the 1960s in the name of urban renewal before being rebuilt in the '80s in a tourist-friendly version.

? Sun Studio essentially shut down for 25 years after its hillbilly-cat heyday before reopening for low-key tours in 1987.

? Stax Records, once a beacon of black economic empowerment in a tough neighborhood, was shut down eight years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was slain nearby in 1968, and was torn down in 1989.

"Memphis is the last place that understands that Memphis means something," says Bob Merlis, a Los Angeles resident who is co-owner of 3-year-old Memphis International Records here. "They didn't understand that what they had was so unique. They took it for granted."
I would disagree. Memphians know, but we're saddled with City Councils, Mayors and civic leaders who don't understand. They have a vision, tied to developers and Federal government money, that has little room for saving the past. Not when you can spend and build new. They don't want Memphis to be unique, they want what all the other "world class" cities have, and they neglect and then flatten whatever has to be moved to make room for it.
Memphis music also played out against a background of poverty, insularity and race relations that were alternately painful and progressive. "I think we were ashamed of (our past)," says Deanie Parker, CEO of the Stax museum, built on the site of the demolished studio where Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, Albert King and Otis Redding recorded hits. But in recent years, "people from the outside have come in and said, 'Why don't you like this place?' Once we gave ourselves permission to see what is great and wonderful about Memphis, we felt differently."
Race relations are the poison that eats this community. Waaay too many racists on both sides of the color line willing to exploit that poison for their own benefit. Truthfully, I'm not sure what to do there. It's more than I have space for in this already too-long post. I know a good education would be a basic start, though. And we're totally lost there.
Indeed, part of Memphis' true charm lies in the fact that it hasn't progressed too much.
Bingo! Nail, meet hammer.
Beyond touchstones and tombstones, "there is something really grand about the culture, the mellowness of the river," says resident Sam "the Sham" Samudio, 66, whose Memphis-produced hits with The Pharaohs ?Wooly Bully and Little Red Riding Hood ? brought him a burst of fame in the 1960s. "You can leave downtown and in 15 minutes be in a soybean field or a cotton field."
It has always amazed me how this river town has so thoroughly turned its back on the Great Brown God that is its reason for being. The whole riverfront should be covered in walks, promenades, parks, shops and restaurants, bars and concert halls, historical points. It should flow seamlessly into the downtown proper. Instead, it more resembles a back alley or neglected opportunity. Something like the Mississippi River doesn't call for "big development," but human-scale space that allows for contemplating the River and our ties with it.
"Memphis is the best place to be from if you're playing music but the worst place to be in to play music because of the lack of local support," adds Lee Smith, 21, who works at the Stax museum and plays in a band that covers Phish songs. "If you're going to make any money, you've got to play Mustang Sally. It stifles...."

"Memphis is definitely set in its ways, no doubt, but it's looking to change," says Raheem Baraka, manager of Free Sol, a hip-hop/soul band with a rock edge that recently won a regional Grammy-showcase competition.
Getting back to the rant above, where have you heard Free Sol on the radio lately? There's an opportunity for change right there.

Let me close this off by noting the "If you go..." sidebar in the USAToday article. They recommend you stay in the Peabody or the Madison. Hey, only $190 a night! Shyeah, right. And if you want Memphis BBQ, they recommend A&R, Interstate and Cozy Corner. Cozy Corner?! You can tell this person just blew through town in writing this.

Well, let's stop right here.

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