I have to admit that my reasons for wanting to visit Memphis were tenuous at best. I’ve always liked the Paul Simon lyric “for reasons I cannot explain there’s some part of me wants to see Graceland”, the song Walking in Memphis is great, their basketball team has a couple of players who used to play for my favourite team and I just really like the name Memphis. Oh, and the main character in the film Gone is 60 Seconds is called Memphis – however this is totally unrelated to the city so I’m not sure it even belongs on a list as vague as this one. This meant that upon arriving and Rosanna asking me “so what do you want to see here?” I had no real answers aside from a basketball game and Graceland – but I couldn’t explain why some part of me wanted to see it.
The first real tourist attraction that we visited, somewhat by accident, was the Memphis Pyramid. Built as a nod to the city’s Egyptian namesake the pyramid stands at nearly 100m tall on the bank of the Mississippi. We saw it from a distance and had no idea what it was but decided it must be worth a visit. When we reached the front door we discovered that it was a hunting store (the largest collection of hunting paraphernalia in the world apparently). We then remembered that our Uber driver from the night before had recommended this place to us, but we hadn’t realised it was in a pyramid. When he started telling me about his favorite hunting store, in between struggling to read the map on his phone and trying to inform me that I was in a lot of danger in Memphis and even more so in Chicago (“the murrderr capital erv the kerntree!”), I stopped listening. Inside, the pyramid was incredible. It was a store dedicated to blood sports so obviously that’s a big negative, but there’s something fascinating about seeing something so unique and different. Towering fake trees stretched to the lofty peak above us while fish and alligators swam in the pools that wound around the shopping islands. Stacked four stories high around the outer walls are mock swiss chalets which are available to rent if you want to stay the night there. They have several bars, a shooting range, a bowling alley and an arcade. One area is purely for boat sales and of course the pyramid is large enough that the boats are on view inside on water. It was like a real life Where’s Wally picture, no matter where your eye rested there was some bizarre new scene to behold. I really don’t want to encourage people to go to a hunting shop but the pyramid is a unique experience and that’s one of the things I wanted to maximise whilst travelling. I just can’t decide if I place it in the same ‘unique experience’ category as bungee jumping or heroin.
The pyramid was originally built as a 20,000 seat arena and was the home ground of the Memphis Grizzlies basketball team. In 2004 the team moved to a purpose-built stadium called the FedEx Forum, known to fans as The Grindhouse. We bought seats way up in the nosebleeds to go and watch the “Grit’n’Grind Grizzlies” play the Philadelphia 76ers – neither team is having the season they’d hoped for which explains the low ticket price. When we reached our seats they were the furthest from the action that we’ve purchased and the arena was basically empty. Just as we were getting settled a man climbed the stairs to our position, held out a pair of tickets and said “would you like to sit down there by the court?”. He said he was a season ticket holder and he normally watches the games with his wife but she couldn’t make it so he’d be happy to switch tickets with us. We were somewhat confused but obviously accepted! His seats were about 3 rows off the floor; even though I was supporting neither team it was impossible not to get immersed in the action from that close. Plus I got within about 5 meters of Mario Chalmers. Yes the Mario Chalmers… I KNOW! Thank you mysterious season ticket holder, you made our night.
Further research into the city revealed that it was also the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination. The Lorraine Hotel where he was shot is now the site of the Civil Rights Museum which is one of the best museums we’ve visited. The whole thing is linear, taking you though the history of black people in America from the slave trade through to the moment of MLK’s death. The exhibits all have headline information and then so much further detail beneath that you could spend days there reading it all. The struggle for equal rights is very inspiring and the methods espoused by Doctor King are so admirable. A quote from his last speech really stuck with me; he was in Memphis to support a strike by sanitation workers in the city and said: “The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That’s the question.” At the end of the path through the museum you walk into the room he was staying in the night of his death, and are faced with a view out over the balcony across to the building from where the shot was fired.
We concluded our accidental tour of locations mentioned in Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ album (Tucson, Lafayette, Mississippi, Memphis) by going to the Graceland Ranch*. We were aware that it cost around $45 for entry so we decided to just go and see what we could without parting with any money. Plus we’d been informed that the souvenir shops near Graceland offered the best value for money. We decided to get the bus out there (an uber was $12) as there was a direct service from the city center. However this direct service never turned up. After 20 minutes of waiting we asked the driver of the next bus to arrive if he was going anywhere near Graceland and he said “no, but I can take you to a bus stop where you can catch another bus there” – apparently the routes had recently changed and some drivers for the Graceland bus were doing the old route out of stubbornness and therefore not stopping where we had been waiting. This helpful driver refused to take a fare from us (he apologetically told us we would have to pay for the next one!) and dropped us off shouting “enjoy Graceland!”. This was our second free bus ride in the US. What you can see of Graceland from outside the mammoth grey buildings that encircle it isn’t much to write home about. Still there’s a cool wall next to the entrance where pilgrims from all over the world have written messages of love and support for the king. We got an excellent price on 4 postcards and a magnet and then went back to our hotel. I think the lesson learned here is don’t go way out of your way to visit a place because a musician you like doesn’t know why you should go there.
If anyone is interested Paul Simon had already written and recorded the music for the song Graceland whilst in South Africa and was struggling to think of lyrics for it while sat in Lafayette. The only word that kept going round and round his head was ‘Graceland, Graceland’ so he decided to go. He went, did the tour and then decided that the song should be about the journey he just took. So now you know!
Here are the full pictures from our time in Memphis:
*Actually there is a line in Graceland where he says “There’s a girl in New York City, who calls herself the human trampoline” so technically that’s where the tour ended, but Graceland is more poetic!