I wrote about how “God is in the transistor” for LENT MAG (“feel free to give us up”). It’s about growing up in suburban Alabama and being in love with the radio, how “[s]omewhere in the basement of a home on the outskirts of Birmingham there’s a cassette tape filled with half-songs . . . .”
LENT MAG’s “about” page is just a picture of a bunch of Krystals, which really sums it all up.
In July of 1954, a person named Dewey Phillips was playing records and broadcasting live on the radio from the Hotel Chisca in downtown Memphis. People were still playing music like they always had, but they’d figured out how to contain the vibrations in the air made when fingers plucked metal strings, wooden sticks hit drum, a larynx warbled. They captured the sounds and carved them into a flat piece of sturdy circular plastic. This was called a record. You could play a record by running a tiny piece of metal over it at a certain speed. When you did that, you could hear the music etched into the record, even if it had been sung five months ago or fifty or a hundred miles away. It was magic.
You could also let other people hear the record if you had the ability to transmit signals. There were machines that could modulate electromagnetic waves, the kind that vibrate lower than you can see with your eyes, the kind that maybe people on Mars can see, but not us, not yet. You would play the record on an electrical-type machine that would make the air move in a certain way, and it would spit the shaped air out in a way that other people could listen to it, if they had machines that could taste the spit right. People that played records for other people were called disc jockeys, or DJs. Dewey Phillips was a DJ. He spit music into the night. This was also magic.
That summer night in 1954 the DJ spit a song sung by a nineteen year old. The teenager didn’t write the song. He was from somewhere nobody cared about. He wore shirts that were dyed bright colors and had lace cuffs and liked to put a cosmetic device on his eyelashes called mascara. In another city named the same as the city the teenager lived in, people would mix a powdered copper rock with honey and smear it around their eyes to ward off evil and protect their souls. Maybe the teenager did it for the same reason. This, too, is a type of magic.
People in Memphis who had air-spit machines loved the song the teenager sang. The DJ ended up spitting it fourteen times into the smoldering night. People will go just crazy for a song that they like. It makes them feel good and they want more of it. There is a juice in human bodies called serotonin. It is like a radio that only spits out your favorite songs. Music can induce feelings of euphoria, possibly through triggering higher discharges of serotonin. This is most certainly magic.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, scientists spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get human bodies to make more spit like this, or not to get rid of it as fast if their bodies could actually made it in the first place. The scientists tried to determine how to replicate the spit in the same way that records could play back a song. This was a holy mission in search of the rarest of magics.
The concern some expressed at the time is that there is never enough of this spit. There was only the first time that Dewey Phillips played the record by the teenager; and certainly by the fourteenth time it felt differently. There was only the one time where you kissed your first kiss ever in the back of your best friend’s dad’s Buick. There was only the one time you stood at the wall of the teenager’s house and pressed your hand onto the sharp-edged rock. There was only the one time you held hands in the back of a cab on a January night when it felt like nineteen degrees outside. There was only the one time when you pressed your face to the cold brick of the Hotel Chisca, ruined and empty. There was only the one time when you buried your face in your hands on the banks of the Mississippi River. Not all records can be played twice.
I just stood there on the sidewalk for a minute, staring at the pastel reflection of the neon sign from the jeweler across the street. Tightened the scarf around my neck; hunched my shoulders. Years ago someone had carefully painted these letters on the store window, and now the sun and time and the sodium streetlights had revealed every brushstroke. Each letter was golden, a black shadow dropped to the left of each stroke, with pencil-thin white for highlights.
I leaned forward and pressed my forehead up against the glass. It felt like a Coca-Cola bottle in July, the kind you could get out of a vending machine at the Forestdale Pool, the bottles slender and green, yanked out through the circular grate with a dull and violent clank. It had been a few months, maybe even a year, since I’d been back. The wind burned my ears. A stubby white Christmas tree made out of plastic sat on a dusty wooden table in the window. It was decorated with a dozen red poinsettias, synthetic as the tree. I wondered who painted the sign, wondered what they looked like.
A car alarm throbbed in the background. It began to sync up with the pulse beating through my cheeks and face against the shop window. My phone buzzed once in my pocket, then again. Two text messages in rapid succession. I tried to remember what was even on the menu that I could eat. Did they even have an actual salad you could order, or was it just a trio of fist-sized bowls filled with creamed corn and asparagus and boiled potatoes? It didn’t really matter, I would just eat a few rolls and drink coffee either way. The alarm shut off.
The phone buzzed in my pocket again. I leaned back from the window. There were three little cartoon kids standing on the last letter, pulling another one up by a thick brown brushstroke. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and looked down at it. Where r u? I looked at the sign. The car alarm started up again. The phone buzzed in my hand; incoming call from MOM. I looked at the little boy climbing on the letter in the sign. “SAVE OUR YOUTH,” it said.
3734 E.P. Blvd., Memphis, Tennessee 38116, Polaroid 600, film expired July 2007, Photo taken November 2013.
YOU ARE TWENTY-ONE YEARS OLD and on Beale Street. Just like every other 21 year old in the history of Memphis who is 21 and on Beale Street you have been drinking whiskey and dancing to the blues and sweating even though it’s wintertime. There was an hour of R.L. Burnside and then J.S.B.X. screaming about how now they got worry. Between the two bands there is a century of blues. You’re pretty sure they ain’t got the heat turned on in the burned out old theatre you’re dancing in.
Christina from Boss Hogg is there amidst the busted Budweiser bottles and she is impossibly tall and wearing a floor length white mink coat. She is the most beautiful woman you have ever seen. There might as well be a forcefield around her, a ten foot invisble cordon. After the show you shake Judah Bauer’s hand and it is a massive paw, your hand like a little kid’s in the middle of this great rhythmic device of calcium and cartilage.
You are with your two best friends. One is a drummer and the other a singer and sometimes you will make fliers from cut-up bits from 1960s DC romance comics and then pull on a pair of your girlfriend’s fake leather pants and put on a lot of makeup and plug in a knockoff Les Paul and drink Colt 45 and make a lot of noise. You are 21 years old and drunk on whiskey and you want to be in a band so bad, the only thing you really believe in is holy blues, sacred rock and roll. It is the only thing anyone on Beale Street at midnight truly believes in.
Sweat freezing on tender young necks, y’all load up in the van, drive ten minutes South, wind down McLemore and Mississippi and spit out onto South Bellevue—that’s what they still called it when you were little, even though they’d changed the name a long time ago—and there you are, he’s long gone, long gone, Johnny Bye-Bye. But when you put your hands on the rocks and blue suede Converse scrape against mortar you can just believe, cutting your hand on the stone, you can just believe that if you make it to the top of the fence he’ll be standing there, and in the dark you can see the long limbs of the Weeping Willow sway, if you just make it to the top everything’s gonna be okay.
I am standing in front of the stone walls of Graceland. They’re covered with names from all over the world. I wasn’t going to take a picture but there’s a Weeping Willow. I love Weeping Willows; I don’t even know if there’s one in Jackson. When I was little I liked to run through them, and feel the gentle fronds brush against my face. I thought of them as a character in a book: capital W, capital W. They weren’t necessarily sad, just ancient, majestic, filled with knowledge: like Aslan. Weeping Willow. Even the name is beautiful, like something I would name a plantation or a mansion if I ever made the money, bought up an old place outside of Minter City. I mash the big red button, but there’s just a dry click, and no whirr.
I am sitting in the stands of Bryant-Denny. I’m laughing because my Pop won’t use the crimson and white shakers they put on all the seats. Men of a certain age won’t; it’s unspoken but well understood. I have decided that I will give in a jump around to all the dumb songs that I was sick of even back in 1992. When “Thunderstruck” comes on, Pop starts to cheer, and I say “don’t you feel bad for grounding me from this concert now?!” He throws his head back and laughs, and the tall guy next to me who looks like Vince Vaughn starts cracking up, he can’t help it. He really did ground me, but Amy Leath brought me a fake dollar bill with Angus’ face on it, one of thousands they dropped from the ceiling during “Money Talks.” I’m just as happy 20 years later with being able to say I got grounded from seeing AC/DC as to remember the show. I wish I knew where that Angus dollar was.
The Vince guy is wearing one of the rented radio earphones, which lets me know that he is both hardcore and also probably a guy I like. He wants to hear what Eli Gold is saying about the game. He is not afraid to use the shaker. He also flips it around and uses it to stir bourbon into his co-cola. He’s got the same flask I have: heavy pewter, with his initials stamped into it. Every groomsman in America probably has one. I jacked the top of mine up at a Drivin’N’Cryin’ concert one time, couldn’t get it open. Mine has sat empty and cold for the better part of four years now. Maybe I should give it to somebody who could use it, but it feels like giving somebody an obligation, or a bomb.
There is an older couple in front of us. The man stands, gingerly; he’s wearing a khaki coat. We’re in section N, high up, just under the overhang, so the driving but gentle rain rarely reaches us. The wife doesn’t stand so well. She has the close cut white-gray crewcut of a cancer survivor. Maybe she just likes it short. It looks good; like an Emmylou Harris color, silvery shot through with dark gray. After Bama scores in the 4th on another run by T.J., the man leans in, and they kiss very softly, very sweetly.
The picture from Graceland didn’t turn out, but I kept it just the same. I’m going to smear an inky red thumbprint on the blank lemon-colored front, scrawl an apology on it, and mail it across the ocean. I don’t even know where yet. A bottle in the ocean with the same message on bloody parchment, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, it was all my fault.
You got to run the window unit, she said. And put the fan on too. I did. Her teeth were kind of bucked out, in a sexy way, like how Lauren Hutton has that gap thing. I know you’re too young to know what that means but it used to be a big deal.
She didn’t have to tell me to turn on the damn a.c. It was August in Alabama. If you weren’t running the a.c. it was because somebody had stole the window unit off the sill or you were poor. I had been in both situations before but we were in good shape for the moment. The Redmond Motor Court had little bars over the window units so nobody could get at them. Plus the electricity was figured in with the weekly rent. I didn’t mind the heat outdoors so much but if you were inside you couldn’t really breathe.
We need to go get some beer, she said, which we did, and I said okay. I told her to put her shoes on and she made a face and made a point out of walking out into the parking lot in her bare feet and leaving the door wide open.
She wanted to drive and I said okay, it was her car after all. She put on the radio, which was always playing the same Aerosmith song on Rock 99. Either that or that damn Queen opera song. I used to like Aerosmith just fine but all of a sudden they were always on tv and had a video for every song they had out. I thought they used to be a real rock band but I have been wrong about a lot of things. Anyway she declared that the song that was always on was “our song,” that it really spoke to her, and I wish that I could ever understand what that meant.
When we got back to the Redmond she squeezed my hand and said baby I want a little alone time and I am not the jealous type so I said okay and took the High Life and went on in and watched tv. The Redmond had HBO real big on the sign outside but all that was ever on HBO when we stayed there was Overboard and Innerspace. I had gotten where I had probably seen both of them four or maybe even five times a piece and neither one of them really stood up to that much rewatching. I was partial to Innerspace because I liked science fiction quite a bit but I cannot stand that Martin Short. He just about ruins the whole experience.
So I just sat there and listened to the movie and sipped on a couple of High Lifes and when the sun went down I didn’t turn on the lights and I just laid there on the bed. All you could hear was the fuzzy sound of the a.c. and the hum of Highway Eleven. I guess you are supposed to call it the Super Highway but I never figured out what made it so much better than the other highways.
Even though she wasn’t with me there was still the smell of her everywhere, a good smell of that perfume she got at the Big B, plus a summersweat smell from riding in the Datsun with the t-tops out. I know that perfume is probably cheap but that don’t mean it’s sorry. Peanuts are cheap & they’re good. M&M’s are fifty cents and they’re good. Peanuts M&M’s are the best and they’re the same price as normal M&M’s plus you get peanuts. It’s a real bargain.
I got to wondering about that Aerosmith song and whether it was a good or bad to have as our song. I pulled out my wallet and counted out how much money we had left. I figured maybe we could go down to Carnaggio’s, which was our special place to go, and spend the rest of it on some lasagna, pretend like we were in The Godfather. I wondered if she’d ever seen The Godfather. They didn’t show it on HBO. She didn’t really like to sit through a whole movie. She liked Overboard pretty good though.
I heard the Datsun rattle up outside. The door flung open, and she was there smiling with those cute buckteeth, eyes all bloodshot. She made a little noise and jumped onto the bed, hopping up and down and knocking my beer over. It was so dumb I had to laugh. Then she yelled bodyslam and bellyflopped on me and I would have been mad but it was funny and she didn’t weigh nothing.
Get out of the damn bed until you take a shower, I said, because she had been running around all day with her flip flops off and had grocery store feet like a little kid. She poked her lip out and I said I didn’t care, those feet were gross and I didn’t want them on the bed. They are just on the bedspread, she grinned, and I almost gave in but I think when your feet look like that it makes you white trash. Come on, let’s go get some Italian, I said, acting like I was all put out, and she squealed and hugged me.
The perfume was called Star, I think. Boy I sure loved it. It really almost made me love her.
They used cracked and splintered
porch doors as stretchers for the bodies,
for the mommas and cousins and math
(Whatever would do. They were out of
proper stretchers, and bandages, and
morphine. The Red Cross was set up
at the Piggly Wiggly. You don’t get
choosy in wartime).
The house where we played Neuromancer
on the Commodore
The house where you’d put my hand
under your black bra
The house where we’d listened to Tesla
But these were just places, just
gray plastic and dull copper,
Dothan brick and Bessemer steel.
Fresh cut wood, that’s what my daddy
told me it smells like after the storm, after
the phone lines are back up.
(He told me this on April 27, 2011, as I stood
in the middle of Saint Mary Street and stared
at the sky, biting the insides of my cheeks).
His house didn’t get exploded, he wasn’t
left with shatterered femurs twisted under
concrete blocks, he didn’t have to ride on
a busted porch door to the Red Cross shelter
down at the Piggly Wiggly.
They don’t even give the damned tornados
names like they do their slow, fat-assed cousins,
lumbering in from the Gulf, chewing up
everything in sight, names so kind, almost
mild: Camille, Hugo, Katrina, the names of
mommas & cousins &