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Mystery Train: Memphis Blues Again

What seems so extraordinary to me about Mystery Train, watching it again twenty years after its deadpan arrival, is not just how fresh and vivid—how utterly timeless—it remains but the extent to which it truly embraces both the myth and the reality of Memphis.

I know, I know—I’m risking a logical disconnect here. But it’s that disconnect that is at the heart of both the film and Memphis. “It’s the laziness of the rhythm,” Willie Mitchell said, in seeking to define just what it was that gave Memphis music—jazz, blues, rock and roll—its soul, the special push and pull that set it apart from other great regional styles. “You hear those old, lazy horns half a beat behind the music, and you think they’re gonna miss it, and all of a sudden, just so lazy, they come in and start to sway with it. It’s like kind of shucking you, putting you on.”

That’s what Memphis has always been for me—I’m not sure about the shucking part, but I knew from the start, without having any of the tools to analyze it, how Memphis drew me in. It was, of course, the music, long before I ever caught a glimpse of the city itself, but when I did, it only bore out the acute sense of self-invention, of hyperreality, that I had drawn from all that listening.

I drove down from Boston in 1969 for the second annual Memphis Blues Festival—the same kind of unparagraphed, all-embracing hegira that Jack Kerouac celebrated in the original “scroll” edition of On the Road. Each little town that we passed through as we crossed into the southern hemisphere was redolent not just of its own particular reality but of the romance I had assigned to it from my solitary exploration (within the confines of my own room) of the limitless vistas of the blues. My brother, Tommy, and I—just as excited as the Japanese couple in Mystery Train, just as passionate about the music, and just as far removed from any literal source—quoted lyrics back and forth at each other as we drove. “I’m going to Brownsville, take that right-hand road”—well, maybe it wasn’t exactly on the right. “If you’re ever in Memphis, stop by Minglewood”—from Noah Lewis, the incomparable harp player for Cannon’s Jug Stompers. “I started down Main Street / Headed up Beale / Looking for that good gal they call Lucille.” Or, in a completely nonlocative Furry Lewis lyric that was for us the very essence of the blues: “They arrest me for murder, I ain’t never harmed a man / Arrest me for forgery, I can’t even sign my name.”

It was a world of limitless and unfathomable wonders. The festival itself took place at the Overton Park Shell. (The Overton Park Shell!! Where Elvis himself had first performed just fifteen years before.) There was a kid selling yellow Sun records I had never even heard of out of the trunk of his car. The performers were a procession of legendary names—Furry Lewis, Sleepy John Estes, Reverend Robert Wilkins, Bukka White, Fred McDowell, Napoleon Strickland and his Como Fife and Drum Band—most of whom I had seen already in sterile folk surroundings. But to see them all now, all at once, in this steaming, shimmering setting that was as preposterous as it was profound—somehow it was all encapsulated by 102-year-old Nathan Beauregard (at least he was advertised as being 102) toothlessly wailing “I got nineteen women / All I want is one more,” while frailing away on his cheap Japanese electric guitar.

I simply couldn’t take in the reality of it all—and yet, like Jim Jarmusch’s innocents abroad, I was fully absorbed in its magic. It was almost the way Sam Phillips described his own first visit to Memphis in 1939, as a sixteen-year-old on his way to a revival meeting in Dallas: “Well, I’d heard about Beale Street all my life, pictured it in my mind, what it was—I could not wait! We arrived at three o’clock in the morning in pouring-down rain, but I’m telling you, Broadway never looked that busy. It was like a beehive, a microcosm of humanity—you had a lot of sober people there, you had a lot of people having a good time. You had old black men from the Delta and young cats dressed fit to kill. But the most impressive thing to me about Beale Street was that nobody got in anybody’s way—because every damn one of them wanted to be right there. Beale Street represented for me, even at that age, something that I hoped to see for all people. That sense of absolute freedom, that sense of no direction but the greatest direction in the world, of being able to feel, I’m a part of this somehow. I may only be here a day or two, but I can tell everybody when I get back home what a wonderful time I had.”

I guess that pretty much sums it up for me. And it’s that same combination of inchoate memory and unarticulated desire that animates “Far from Yokohama,” the opening chapter of Jarmusch’s strange, off-kilter, uncompromisingly eccentric film. “Elvis,” “Carl Perkins,” “Elvis,” “Carl Perkins” is the debate that engages Jun and Mitzuko as they traverse a mysterious landscape that showcases the inscrutable majesty of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as a hotel night clerk, a Japanese-speaking Rufus Thomas, and a man fishing by a barber pole. This is the same landscape that once incorporated Dewey Phillips, the legendary Memphis DJ who introduced Elvis Presley’s first record to the world and, like his unrelated “blood brother” Sam, who recorded it, believed so strongly in the untrammeled spirit of the music—the music of Howlin’ Wolf and Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Hank Williams and Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis and Carl Perkins too—that it became, in a sense, its own system of belief. Individualism—in the extreme—was Sam Phillips’s eternal call, and Dewey’s too, and it could just as easily stand for the Spirit of Memphis, portrayed here, in Mystery Train, in all of its glorious desolation, in all of its desolate glory.

I remember when I made the mistake of revealing to Sam Phillips some twenty years ago the title of my forthcoming biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis. Last train,” said Sam indignantly, repeating the title several times, which was only a prelude to a twenty-minute peroration on the subjects of Memphis, the nature of personal worth, and historical speculation. “What are you talking about, ‘last train’? Do you mean to tell me that was the last train? You know, there’s been a lot of trains since then. And there’s going to be lots more—long past the time that you and I are perambulating around this dusty old planet.”

What could I do but hang my head and silently assent—while, equally silently, resolving that I would never again reveal the title of any book I happened to be working on before it was actually published? But I knew in my heart of hearts that in the cosmic sense, of course, Sam was right. There’s always going to be another train. For all we know, it may be rumbling through right now.

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