On Memphis Soul, Tabernacle preachin' and the evil Dr Tulsa

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

After a 6-week stay on a farm, I hit the ground running in Memphis, starting with a visit to the Stax Records museum. The record company, which became insolvent and closed in 1975, provided an oasis of racial harmony in segregated 60's Memphis, and produced some of the world's finest soul music. Otis Redding, Sam & Dave (and local talents such as Issac Hayes and Booker T) were amongst the stars that helped Stax soundtrack black America's dignified response to the cancerous bigotry of the day.
I then trudged along the open freight tracks leading to downtown Memphis, where I met Dr Tulsa, who'd offered to show me around.
Hey man whats up you seem like one crazy fucker you will fit right in here in Memphis I can get whatever you need to feed your head hit me up man I know where all the bodies are buried. You must experience a Missouri titty fuk while in this area its better than cornbread.
As expected, Tulsa wasn't your benelovent kind of doctor. A native Memphibian, mid 40's, working at a medical cannabis dispensary, the only conditions that Tulsa treated were those of sobriety and boredom. I jumped in his car and we drove to his wooden house, where he took a few bong hits and told me about krunking and jookin.
"Krunkin' is what the black girls do when they git behind you and shake their tits after they are all fucked up on drink and coke. What the fuck are you writing down?"
"What you just said. Can I get a glass of water?"
He stared at me incredulously before shuffling off to the kitchen.
"I'll get you a beer and a water, you fuckin' freak."

He came back with the drink and flopped a map of Memphis down on the table, scattering dried cannabis leaves everywhere. "And here is a map, in case your bitch-ass wants to see sumpthing." Tulsa had an odd habit of not contracting his verbs, of pronouncing each one meticulously but with a nasal Tennessee accent.
"And I bet you did not notice the cocaine spoons fastened to Bobby Blue Bland's shoes in Stax. He kept four on him at all times so he could stay high during his performances."
He held the bong between his legs and wrapped his scraggly blond mustache around the mouth piece, taking another hit. The radio played Solomon Burke's none of us are free.

"You know I was here when Elvis died in '77? All these dumb fuckers think he is still alive, I got that close, inches away from his face, when they displayed his body up at Graceland. That motherfucker was dead - his sideburns were fake and his face was swollen but it was him. A million people must have come down to Memphis that weekend, most of them with no plans and no money. I spoke to a woman from Pennsylvania who had grabbed the kids and started driving down as soon as she had heard. She called her husband to let him know when they reached Kentucky. That is how they did it back then."

I stuffed my hip flask into the arse-pocket of my jeans, Dr Tulsa put on his trucker cap, and we left the house, reaching Wild Bill's blues bar around midnight. A cheroot-smoking honey-pie took our $10 cover on the door. The house band had already warmed up, and were playing howling for my baby. The room was set out like a long mess hall, but veiled in a dim red light. We headed to the back of the room to buy a 40oz bottle of beer. "What kind do you have?", I asked the bar lady, who was also smoking a cigar.
"Bud or Bu-ud Lite."
"I guess I'll have a Bud."
"See that air conditioner?", Dr Tulsa interjected. "How it is locked down with a chain so no motherfucker can steal it?" And so it was.
Some ramrod-postured gent in a button-down party shirt greeted us from his position on the back wall. "Y'all havin' a good night? You should be, it's always a good night when Chris Pitts is playing. He's somehow related to Albert King, ya know."
Mr Pitts was on vocals and lead guitar, interacting with a row of women at the front of the room. An older gent in a Daddy-pinstripes suit and shiny shoes was side-shuffling to the beat, leading the room from his 50sq cm radius with the slightest swags of his padded shoulders.
"C'mon y'all", said Mr Pitts, over a swaggering delta beat. "How many a y'all have ma-ade love... in the back of the car?"A number of women in the audience raised their hands and hollered.
"How many a y'all have ma-ade love... in the front of the car?" A few women raised their hands, the others cackled like crows. "How many a y'all have made love... in the back yard?", asked Pitts, before striking up some sleazy guitar chords. The drummer kicked in and the women were up on the dance floor, hands suspended in the air, hips swaying provocatively.
"You could probably fuck one of those dykes", Tulsa yelled in my ear. "By the way, they'll probably send a tips bucket around soon, there's a lot of white folks in here tonight."

Mr Pitts
One such man with a crew cut and a baggy, beer-bottle t-shirt stood up and made vague inebriated gestures at the dancing women. They didn't notice, so he turned to two large black ladies who were sitting to our right, training one eye onto them as though staring down the barrel of a gun. He rolled his shoulders, scratched his balls and pointed toward the tiny dance floor. The largest lady knocked her friend's arm with the back of her hand, and her friend obliged, lifting herself out of her seat so she could join this Tennessee Flat Top and his baggy gestures. She began pumping her awesome thighs like pistons, sweeping him up in her gravitational swell. At one point she leant forward slightly, presenting her rump so that he could rake his rough digits down the back of her thighs. Everyone on the floor clapped and yelled, and Old Tennessee Flat Top aimed his squinty eye at the pretty white girls who hadn't previously noticed him, and then started pumping his mama doggy-style, before raising one triumphant hand in the sign of the horns.

Tennessee Flat Top
"Step up to the bar now y'all," advised Mr Pitts, as his band readied themselves for a short break. "The more you drink the better we're gonna sound."
The dancing mama came back and slid up next to me on the bench. Her name was Tamara and she asked me what I was writing. "Whatever you write, make sure you say you was in North Memphis. This is North-North Memphis, ya know?" I asked her if she wanted to write something on a blank page in my diary, and she did.
This is my first visit to Wild Bill I tell you it is all the name makes it out to be.
Have a Fuckin good time while you are here. Memphis do have a lot to offer.
Love, Tamara.
The message made my heart swell, and my heart burst when she smiled and I saw that she had a shiny gold tooth. The bar lady approached us holding a paper plate full of greasy chicken wings, which she presented ceremoniously to Tamara. "These come courtesy of a gentleman at the bar."
My phone vibrated in my pocket. It was a message from Dr Tulsa.
Watch her eat those wings and imagine her sucking your dick
I'd let him alone for five minutes, and now the twisted old goat was standing at the bar, hands in his pockets, all southern-gentleman-like. Tamara looked surprised, and waved in thanks, and I prayed that she wouldn't fall for Tulsa's seditious trap, yes I prayed that she had already eaten, or that she made a rule of not accepting fried chicken from strangers.
Instead, she obliged the odious swine and placed the plate between herself and her friend, and thus so they began to appreciatively work on the chicken together. I shot Tulsa a loathful look across the room, but the wretch just stood there smiling heinously, a picture of evil, as Tamara tried to act right dainty, lifting each chicken wing to her mouth, little finger held aloft.
My phone vibrated again, and I knew it was bringing more underhand terror from that evil Dr Tulsa:
Bless their hearts
Meanwhile, Tennessee Flat Top had been watching me getting cosy with the women, and, still staggering around the dance floor, tried to impress us by pointing his fingers as though holding a rifle, and putting us in his scope. He caught me looking at him and took it as invitation to march over and tell me something.

"You wanna take the first slug?", he asked, standing stiff as railway timber but having difficulty focusing on my face. "You ok?"
"I'm all good.", I answered.
"Yeah you're all good", he said, a laugh gurgling out of his throat like Delta mud. "Wanna come back to my house", he asked, and I knew he meant it, he'd had at least 3 quarts and wanted to be lovin tonight or fightin tonight and nothing in between. "It flows", he said, flexing his bicep and tracing a finger across it. "It flows like... like... you like knives? I got knives at my house. They protect me."

I'm saved by the band who've started again - Mr Pitts is serenading a woman who's seated right in the middle of the dance floor - cruising for trouble if you ask me - he's down on one knee, playing the guitar over the back of his head, she's indulging his virtuoso performance, and before anyone knows what's hit them, his face is buried in her lap, and she's screaming with laughter, her friends look on and clap, scrabbling around after a camera but he's already out of there and has jumped straight into some Hendrix guitar riff, the room has lit up and anything is possible now, he's playing with his teeth, discharging rolling, sonic waves of music, exploding with a culture so rich that it hangs in the air like gravy, a culture so rich that it beats and creeps through the crappy tables and dining hall tiles and miles and miles of wooden walls, waiting to be picked up by your feet and carried (through the beat) straight to your head. He goes back to picking with his soul fingers and the drummer fires out a never-ending, orgasmic solo, and everyone's on their toes, Old Tennessee Flat Top is pointing his finger-rifle everwhichways, Daddy-pinstripes is dancing with Tulsa's dykes and even Ronny Ramrod's in there, meanwhile Big Tamara is shaking her tits and shaking her hair, I'm stomping around in my mucky boots and oh Lordy I believe that I am receiving a krunking.
We got out of there by sunrise and Tulsa went home to hit some more pot. I was just settling into his sofa and gathering my thoughts when he was back on his feet and reaching for his trucker cap.
"Get up you fucking freak, it's Sunday and you need some Jesus - people like you need to take Jesus with both hands."
I pulled my mulching boots back on and we were back out the front door before the rising sun had even started poking through the cracks of the doctor's shack, and on our way to the Full Gospel Tabernacle where Al Green (a former Stax and Hi soul singer) is ordained as pastor. We made a brief stop at Graceland on the way to the church and looked at Elvis's house from the perimeter wall, which was completely covered in hand-written messages.
You are always on my mind, Elvis
Elvis is the King and he LIVES
Hey Elvis email me - ibelieveinjesus321@hotmail.com
But we couldn't stop because Tulsa knew we'd both drop if we didn't keep the momentum going, so he kept the motivation coming thick and heavy. "I know you'd rather go and sleep but this is Memphis and in Memphis we go to morning mass. Don't be shaking your evil-ass bobbing head at me, goddam cold-blooded Brits, no wonder they call you Roast Beef, you're half-done."
We pulled up to the chapel just as the chorus of "Halle-jullaaaaah" was starting, and got us some seats in a middle pew. Tulsa had told me the story of Al Green's girlfriend earlier - she suspected he was cheating on her and didn't want to marry her, so she poured a boiling-hot pan of grits on him whilst he was in the shower, and then ran to her bedroom and shot herself in the head with a .38.
"Ever since then it's like he's decided 'fuck that' and now he never wants to leave the church.", Tulsa said.

Members of the 18-strong choir were clapping their hands and providing backing vocals on the altar, whilst a man in a shiny grey suit worked the crowd, screaming for an 'amen' here and a 'hallejullah' there, storming around the pews, physically punching bad energy out of the room, bringing tears to the eyes of large-hatted ladies with his conviction and charisma. The preacher explained that he'd found God after having a triple bypass, and was now asking members of the congregation to give reasons why they believe.
"He put shoes on my feet!"
"He delivered me from drugs!"
"He held me in my right mind!"

Once the crowd were warmed up, most standing in their seats, arms aloft as though trying to catch the balls of goodwill that were bouncing around the room, an ageing, spherical woman with a short afro approached the microphone stand. The gospel band gave her a light bass line and drum beat. The choir started clapping, which seemed to send some electrical charge through the old mama's body, for she threw her head back and belted out a soulful battle cry that almost shattered the stained-glass windows.
'Ev-ery Daaaaaaaay!' (God!)
'Ev-ery Daaaaaaaay!' (God!)
'Every Daaaaaaaaay!' (God!)

With that, she fizzed around the room like a charged electron, her mouth gaping wider than Kermit's.
"God-God-God-God-God-God-God-God-God-God-God, ev-ery daaaaaaaay!"

The lady collapsed onto the front row and fanned herself with a hymn book. A man in robes strolled out and wrapped himself with a velvet cape, upon which 'Pastor Al Green' was written in gold lettering. He approached the pulpit, and everybody stood up, even the exhausted Mama.

"I see we have some new visitors here today...", said Al Green, looking at the people in the back row. "Ya know, one time we had a visitor from another country, and you know what he said?"
(What'd he say?!)
"He said, Oh I'm sorry to see you're all cryin'... and I said no brother! These are tears of joy!"
(Yes! Yes! Amen! Yes!)
He smiled for the first time, and you knew something was a-coming.
"I said brother, you need to let the holy ghost into your heart!"
(Yeah! Yeah! Amen! Hallejullah!)
He pumped his fist for the first time, and you knew it was building up inside him.
"I said BROTHER, you need to let the HOLY GHOST on in!"
(Yeah! That's righ! Yeah!)
"Ah said, let the holy-ghost, let the holy-ghost AAAAAAAAEEEEEEEEEEEOOOOOOWWW!"
The band kicked in, the chorus clapped their hands and provided backing for their charismatic preacher, and Al Green jittered away from the pulpit and let loose on the congregation.
"Yeey! Yeey! Aaeey! Aaeey!"
The organist pushed cosmic sweeps of joy across his keys, and members of the congregation were jumping up and down in their seats, some clapping, others frantically head-banging, unabashedly letting themselves go, moving with a velocity that you've never seen at any rock concert, shaking away the devil and the hard times until their nicely combed Sunday-hair comes loose, wild, free and electric, because Soul is something that moves you on the inside and well as the outside.