Last month, I discussed It Came From Memphis, Robert Gordon’s wonderful 1995 book about the misfits of the Memphis music scene. I wrote that I wanted to drive around town and take pictures of the locales mentioned in the book–the bars, clubs, recording studios, and hangouts that incubated the artistry of the time. Gordon himself left a comment on my blog, leading me in the direction of the Bitter Lemon. So I grabbed my Nikon, rolled the windows down, and headed for Midtown.
I found many places mentioned in the book, but I also found some other spots that were important to me in a more personal way. Below are some of the pictures I took, most of them on a pitch-perfect March afternoon.
This isn’t, of course, meant to be an inclusive list–it couldn’t possibly be. All of Memphis is a historical site, and just about every other building in town can claim a connection to something significant that happened in this town. The apartment building Renee and I lived in downtown, for instance, was where Stax held a massive 1969 party to celebrate that they were releasing 27 albums at once (Bowman). Renee and I held our wedding reception at the Hi-Tone Cafe, which any good Memphian will tell you was once Elvis’ karate studio. When we bought our new house this summer, we did so not realizing that Elvis bought his first house just a mile or so a way.
Memphis history surrounds us. If you have a concern or correction about anything you see, please feel free to comment below. If there is a favorite spot that I missed, let me know. Perhaps I can add it.
(I’d like to say that I listened to Flies on Sherbert or Furry Lewis while taking these pictures, but that would be a lie. It was all Springsteen, all the way. But try not to let that get in the way of your enjoyment.)
1. The Bitter Lemon
The Bitter lemon is the heart of It Came From Memphis, and it seemed to be the one place, above others, where the artists, musicians, misfits, and cretins could call home. Read the book for lots of stories of late nights there, featuring beatniks, hippies, rich kids, and bluesmen all thrown in together, many running on pills and too much booze.
The Bitter Lemon was located on the south side of Poplar, at that viaduct where Poplar turns into Union. I asked Memphis music maven Andria Lisle to have a look at my pictures, and she convinced me that this is the location, if not the building, of the old Bitter Lemon.
2. “Beatnik Manor”
The proprietor of the Bitter Lemon was John McIntire, the professor at what is today known as the Memphis College of Art. He was patron and impresario of the music scene in Memphis, and his home, a few doors down from the intersection of Madison and Cooper (picture the Yo-Lo Airstream and you’re in the right neighborhood) became the destination for anyone of the artistic bent who needed a place to crash. It was known as “Beatnik Manor,” and Gordon notes that “At one time, there were fourteen people and fourteen cats living there.”
Beatnik Manor is gone, of course. It was replaced with the French Quarter hotel, which later closed down and is a gigantic, falling-down mess that has been deteriorating on Madison Avenue for years. It’s just awful. It’s a fitting emblem for Memphis, where we put up buildings to watch them rot.
Now, I definitely know where this place is. The Antenna was the punk club you’d go to to see maybe The Oblivians, or Impala, or the band fronted by the weird kid in your chemistry class. It closed when I was a senior in high school, so I missed out on most of the fun, but I did get to see a small share of great bands there. I even got to play there one time, in the brief period when it was known as The Void. We played for about five people, but it was a good time and one I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Before going to a show at the Antenna, we’d drop in at “Punk Rock Donuts”across the street. That place is now Tucker’s wings shop, where my teenage students sometimes get takeout. It all comes full circle in Memphis.
7. Rockopolis (Madison and Tucker)
Though not mentioned in It Came From Memphis, I thought I would take a picture of this apartment building. When we were kids, we called this building “Rockopolis”because of all the rock stars that live there. Today, I can’t remember who any of them were. Still, every time I drive by it, I think to myself in hushed tones, Hey. There’s Rockopolis.
8. The Taliesyn Ballroom (Union Avenue)
The Taliesyn Ballroom stood at or near this Taco Bell on Union, just west of the post office. This is where the Sex Pistols played on January 6, 1978. This is not touched upon in It Came From Memphis, but you can read a first person account of the night by Tom Graves here.
9. Elvis’ House, 1034 Audobon
Trade Books, 1997.
Pocket Books, 1995.