Editor’s Note: The following text arrived on my doorstep early Tuesday morning, sealed in an envelope, written in miniscule 10 point font, along with a flash drive containing music samples, an e-version of the text, and several unflattering photos that have since been excised from the document. Buried on a small post-it note somewhere around page 10 was a small note directed to me: “T. Piece is finished. More or less vacant from all mental faculties. Publish as soon as legally accountable. OK here. A.C.B.” At the risk of running afoul of his vengeful wrath, I have published the following piece under the heading of “Blak and Blu: A Music Review” though it should be noted that the actual byline of the piece was enclosed on a successive string of Post-It notes (all colored blue, for some odd reason that seemed important at the time) and directed to headline the page itself; including a rambling editor’s note was optional, yet something that I felt was essential to the integrity of the text, as well as the general strangeness of the weekend itself. It is important to note that, regardless of who or what is involved, the words below are my associate’s own, pure and unfiltered. Take them as you will.
Hendrix is Alive and Well and He Lives in Austin, Texas: Gary Clark Jr. and the Renaissance of the Texas Blues; A Complicatedly Simple Study of the Condensing of American Music Tropes into a Wholly Original and Wholly Impressive New Sound That Will Soon Shake Your Windows and Rattle Your Walls; a Further Study of the Road and Its Dangers Whilst in Pursuit of the Glory of the New as the Times are Changing
A Review by A.C. Bromfield
1. The Inciting Incident…Trouble in Paradise…The Needle is Broken.
Chicago is built for the inclement weather that strikes at any and all opportunities, a condition in which the city residents worship the angry gods of the Northwest that regularly send down the cold fronts of Arctic ice that pulverize their bodies and shake them to their bones. It is not unusual to emerge from one’s apartment into a frigid, icy wasteland, something that would be highly irregular on a May day in, say, Cincinnati, Ohio. However, these are things that the good denizens of the Windy City have grown to accept, paying homage with clasped hands at the El stations dotting the urban landscape.
I hate this weather.
It’s the worst thing to happen to this country since the Sand Creek Massacre, Wounded Knee, and 9/11 combined. Like most of my spoiled generation, I am perfectly conditioned to live in a processed atmosphere between a cool 65 degrees and a balmy 78 with strong sunshine, beneath a sky dotted by the occasional appearance of clouds. When inclement weather strikes, it must be all or nothing; a thunderstorm with blows of lightning that rattle windows loose from their frames, punctuated by driving rain that strips the flesh from your face is the only variety of precipitation that I deem acceptable. Anything less is simply the weather playing tricks with your day.
It was on one of these lesser days that I found myself sitting alone in my Edgewater apartment. I had recently transplanted myself from the comfortable suburb of Livonia in an effort to follow the natural drawing power wherein all roads lead west, only to find construction barrels blockading I-80/90’s progress into the nether regions of northern California, forcing me to settle into a sub-par existence freelancing for some local rags as a means of getting by. To say it was beneath me would be stretching my words too far, yet it is safe to say that my particular talents and abilities were not necessarily being stretched to far either through the work I was doing. A jazz trio at the Green Mill one night that owed too little of a debt to mid-period Miles Davis, a garage band that had listened to too much latter day Black Keys and not enough early White Stripes performing in some anonymous Wrigleyville backstage the next. These are the things that shattered dreams consist of, with a soundtrack by way of modern pop music, which is to say a wasteland of rehashed influences of the lesser spawn of early ‘00’s radio. On this particular evening, as I have said before, I was pouring over the demo mix of the aforementioned lesser garage band, pondering the results of taking the downloads from the band’s eponymous website, producing a cassette tape on my old stereo, and then symbolically and ritualistically shredding the results on the lakefront as a means of appeasing the musical gods for the band’s irreverent sins. To commit such an act, however, would result in far too much labor on my parts, awarding the band even more attention than I was prepared to give them. To ignore the rotten fruits of their spoiled labors would be a far better tribute than any half-assed ceremony I was endeavoring to perform.
As a means of avoiding my efforts, I turned my high powered desktop computer’s Internet capabilities back to the “on” position; I find that in order to get anything done, it is essential to seal one’s self away from the World Wide Web, a network of resources and distractions alike. Logging into my virtual home away from home, I surveyed the social media’s updates, carefully selected and provided for me by the malevolent forces that oversee all of our daily interactions. “A libertarian’s worst nightmares,” I grumbled, scanning through the mix of duck photos and painfully unfunny memes that passed for a worthwhile daily life for many of my comrades and compatriots. How one manages to put up with this façade in place of meaningful experiences continued to baffle me, as I leaned back and removed the last of my eclectic hash from a carefully prepared bowl. As the smoke cleared my vision, I stumbled across a simple status update from my associate, one T. Cook, that featured a link to a streamed video.
The wording was simple, yet deliberate and bombastic, reading “Ladies and gentlemen, Hendrix lives.” As far as messages go, this is a phrase that is continually uttered every six months or so by someone looking to proclaim their profound judgment upon a musician who has listened to far too much Black Sabbath in their days to be able to render even the minutest aesthetic decision. I was prepared to ignore this status entirely when my desktop involuntarily (or did I do it myself? The answer to this question will haunt me to the end of my days) clicked on the link.
I had been preparing mentally to go to bed at the relatively early hour of 11:00 pm, CST, given that I expected to make a long drive up to Milwaukee to take in a promising eight piece ensemble that owed much influence to the heyday of Stax-Volt, complete with three belching horn players. After a few minutes more of savagely destroying the hopes and dreams of the Black Keys-wannabes, I would relax in my chamber, draw the shades, and sleep until 7:00 in the morning, taking the Amtrak for the lower reaches of Wisconsin.
This video destroyed any chance of that trip happening.
As soon as I pressed play on the video, my desktop speakers began to physically tremble, as though a low pitched take-off was being recorded and played back through my laptop. Feedback, played at the highest possible volume, pierced my ears and severely upset the uppity collie that lives the floor above me, sending him into a barking frenzy at the forces that had disturbed his tranquil rest.
And then the sonic vibrations were disturbed. Trouble in paradise indeed. My speakers were not built for this sonic overload, and as the slim, bearded man on my screen rose from his bed, a riff straight out of the sludge of the Mississippi River belched forth, covered in fumes and toxic wastes, asserting itself with all the potent powers of a robotic colossus. Here was a sound indeed, possibly THE SOUND, something prophesied long ago by the masters of the universe, that would one day rise up and force all to bow down before its majesty. This was the noise of some ancient wounded animal, the last of its kind, backed into its lair by the spears of men, snarling and feuding with those who would destroy it, raging against its dying light.
Just when I thought the riff could not sustain itself any longer, Gary Clark Jr. began to sing, moaning about his inability to feel anything. If this musical structure represents an inability to feel, a descent into depression, then I wanted to be depressed. I wanted to feel the kind of numbness that strikes one to the core, rendering the body immobile in an effort to defend itself. The video traced his journey from a bedroom quarrel to the side of a highway in an old Cadillac, set up on some desert pathway with an amplifier straight out of the pawn shop.
And then he began to play.
Two hours later, I came to my senses and realized that the video had auto-played somewhere in the vicinity of two dozen repetitions. The collie upstairs might have been dead from the overwhelming forces of evil that the feedback of the guitar had unleashed. No less than three vases seemed to have been smashed in my apartment, whether by the tumults from the speakers or by my discovering the necessity to fling them against my small print of Hopper’s “Nighthawks” in frustration and rage at feeling so numb to the world. Shaking off my stupor, I glanced at my smoldering speakers, supplicated and systematically smelted to their core elements by the fierceness and volume of the music within.
Here was the source. At long last, it had been discovered.
Frantically, I grabbed at my cell phone, fumbling for the keys as I speed dialed the first connection I could think of, my associate in Ohio. As the sound of the connection pierced my ears, I paced nervously around my living area, as though I were waiting for news of a soon-to-be-born child. Never mind the hour, I thought, this is important stuff. This is the real deal, the Xanadu, the Rosebud. The Big Picture.
Somewhere in Ohio, Mr. Cook answered, his voice thick and growling. “What is it?”
“Your link,” I whispered spastically. “Your – your link.” Words were failing me in all of the excitement. Breathing became a secondary impulse, controlled by the basest instincts of the medulla.
“It’s 4 in the morning here. What the hell are you talking about?”
I forced myself into cohesive words. “The video,” I explained. “Gary Clark Jr. This is the stuff, man! The real deal! And THE SOUND. The one we’ve talked about. This is it, man! No bull shitting! You’ve stumbled upon the Source!”
“Couldn’t this wait? I’m trying to sleep here, I’m still recovering from finding it, myself.”
“True, true, mankind is not built to know such things. The senses must be awakened slowly.”
“Or not at all.”
“No time for that, man! We must find more of this! What do you know of him?”
There was a pause on the other end. “Go look at Wikipedia, you fucker. This guy’s been around for a while, now. Just finally breaking big.” There was a click, signaling Mr. Cook’s descent back into slumber. Never mind him, I thought. The poor bastard will come around in the end. Just have to make him see.
I clicked back onto Wikipedia, breezing through a rough summary. Gary Clark Jr., Austin local, had played with Clapton, Alicia Keyes, B.B. King, Jagger. The list went on. Several EP’s, independent releases, appearances at local festivals. First studio album was Blak and Blu, released last October. Jubilation! It was available for download!
Retrieving a credit card that had somehow not been maxed out by my cross-country research and travels, I downloaded the album immediately, only to discover that my melted speakers were no longer capable of sound. The needle was broken, to say the least. This was a problem that could not be solved by normal efforts. For something of the magnitude of THE SOUND, only the greatest and most strenuous exaltations would suffice. This was war, and the most extreme measures would be called upon.
“This will call for a fast car,” I muttered to myself, too far gone to retreat to my bedroom. “This blows my whole weekend.”
2. Extemporal Coney Dogs…A Madcap Descent…Something’s Happening Here.
The Chevy Impala was not my first choice, but one that I settled into at the car rental office outside of O’Hare. My credit was accepted here, and with assurances that the car would be returned within 72 hours, I sped off down the Kennedy Expressway, a thin streaking line against the darkness of outer Chicago in the early hours of the morning. I was on a bit of a Dylan kick, not the latter day masterpieces, nor the middling period of the 70’s and 80’s, but the trilogy from the mid-60’s, wherein the doom of the decade was prophesized by Kerouac’s heir to the throne. As I revisited I-65, I pounded “Highway 61 Revisited”, the noise washing over me as I kept my eyes trimmed towards the road.
Dylan knew what was in the transient nature of the roads that we poured over. The bastard never really had to leave Greenwich Village once he’d set up residency. I mean, the traveling across the country beforehand and assumed name were all part of pooling a collective instinctive personality from several swatches of life. How else could a white boy get away with singing about being “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again”? It’s a form of hobo poetry by way of the beats that speaks to…well, something inside of us. There’s never been another Dylan, for the reason that there never was a Dylan in the first place. Just a rehashing of everything that came before.
There may be another Hendrix, however.
After four and a half hours of white-knuckled, knee-shaking driving, I poured through the dripping hills of southwestern Indiana into the treacle-coated hills of Cincinnati. This is the land of Procter and Gamble, a land soaked up by industry and spat back out like so many used wads, devoid of its instinctive promise in favor of broken dreams, soapy smog, and a certain existential despair that hasn’t quite saturated the area to the extent that it has the metropolis of Cleveland. These are depressing days in the Queen City of Ohio.
Weaving up and down the fabled seven hills (of which the natives claim the Zoo is built upon six), I jolted into downtown, a bundle of nerves and misplaced agitation. I had pondered pulling into the nearest record store upon my arrival, only to note that record stores don’t actually exist in mass quantities anymore. There is no means to simply walk into a Borders or a Barnes and Noble and pick up a CD. Everything is at the mercy of the fat swollen corpse of Steve Jobs, symbolized by a cruel, cruel apple. As it was, there might have been a local music shop around the corner for me to peruse, but I didn’t have the time. Fumbling with my phone, I steadied my fingers, forcing them to dial the correct number to reach Mr. Cook. Pressing business awaits us, I thought. But what?
“What’s the purpose?” I asked as my friend picked up the phone.
“Purpose of what?” asked Cook, his mouth obviously full. I glanced at my clock, noting that it was the early lunch hour. “What is it now?”
“Never mind that,” I growled sharply. “Where are you now? There’s pressing business awaiting us.”
”I’m not in Chicago, if that’s what you’re asking.”
”Don’t you think I know that, ass clown?! I meant where the hell are you at this general hour?”
“In Cincy,” he muttered, swearing beneath my breath. I’d have done the same if the man on the other end of the line was a raging lunatic fighting for air. Which I wasn’t, by the way. That’s just the general impression I give off. “I’m having lunch.”
“Where’s that at?”
“Skyline Chili. Having a three-way, not that it matters to you – ”
“Leave your god-damn sex life out of it! I don’t want to know what depravities you get up to while you’re masticating! What’s the address, god damn it?!”
“Calm down, man,” he said slowly, sensing the slight rise in my volume. “It’s on 4th Street. I’m just downtown, waiting for a bus. I’m supposed to be back in Chicago in two days and I planned on getting in early to get some writing – ”
“Plans change,” I said, swiftly cutting off the phone. Better to leave him hanging, I thought as I shifted my rental Impala into gear. He’ll chalk it up to insanity and sleep deprivation before returning back to whatever two girls he’s attacking for lunch. Should help to catch him by surprise.
The Impala hung a sharp turn, nearly running over a construction worker on Vine Street as I bolted (the wrong way) down 4th Street. Cars swerved, and more than one finger was raised in my direction. I waved them away, figuring the locals would pass it off as a damn foreign visitor from Kentucky. The rivalry between the two states is somewhat inspiring, bringing to mind friendlier days gone by.
The Skyline in question was easy enough to park in front of, provided the parking was improvised by the driver. Making space between two generously planted elm trees, I slipped from the café, thinking to grab a loose jumper cable from the back seat at the last minute. This could get ugly, I thought to myself as I kicked open the door. Best to be prepared.
The scene before me was almost pastoral. A waitress bearing a plate of hot dogs piled over with shredded cheese and cinnamon-flavored chili stood frozen, her mouth forever locked in mid-chew on her purple bubble gum. A man at the counter, bow tie and glasses, poured far more salt into his drink than he had originally intended, while a bowl of chili gathered moss beside him. Scanning the tables, I spotted Mr. Cook frozen, a fork wrapped twice over with spaghetti comically half in/half out of his mouth. A look of scorn and pure terror exuded from his face, the look of a man caught stuffing his dead wife into a wood chipper while only wearing kangaroo boxers. This is not how I intended to go, such a man would think. Had I known you were coming, I’d at least have thrown on a decent bathrobe.
“Forgive me,” I muttered, limbs flopping noisily as I passed through the restaurant. My associate frantically looked for his waitress, hoping to pay his tab before I reached him. His efforts proved in vain, however, as I was being given a decently wide swatch of path through the room, a path wide enough for several rhinoceri to walk safely through.
“Better finish up fast,” I muttered, slipping into the booth opposite of Mr. Cook. “We won’t be stopping until Memphis, at the earliest.”
Mr. Cook seemed to be locked into a struggle with his own tongue, trying to force it to move against his own will. “What the hell are you doing here?” he asked finally. “You’re in Chicago – but – Memphis?”
“I’ll explain as we go,” I said, grabbing at his extra oyster crackers. “Say, these are delicious!” I turned towards a waitress, trying to bolt past us in an effort to reach the inner sanctity of the kitchen. “Grab a dozen boxes of these and package them to go. Don’t worry, I have exemplary credit.”
After paying for our bill, I dragged Mr. Cook into the Impala, throwing him into the passenger seat and springing over the car roof. Throwing the damn automatic transmission into gear, (I detest ATM’s of all sorts, driving and banking alike. Give me manual transmissions and pure American plastic all the way, baby doll.) the Impala belched under protest across the sparkling Ohio River and into the Commonwealth below us.
“Here’s the scoop,” I explained as we roared up I-71 at speeds far too excessive for those around us, who chose to swerve into the rumble strips that surrounded us. “Those are for safety purposes, you jackasses!” I shouted at them, turning my head to take in their panicked expressions. “That video you sent me, the Clark video – ”
“What about it?” asked Mr. Cook, struggling to grasp at some thin straw of insanity that might tie his shattered world back together.
“It’s hot stuff, man! Just like I told you last night! We’ve stumbled onto THE SOUND! This is what we’ve been searching for all these years!”
”It’s been two years, it’s not like this is a breakthrough. That’s like saying NASA had a breakthrough when they built a rocket that didn’t explode. They still weren’t on the moon.”
“Poor perspective, man! This is the dream! We’ve found it!”
“Okay, say that we have found it. Why have you kidnapped me?”
“Don’t think of it as a kidnapping,” I soothed, my voice dripping with honey. “Think of it as a temporary relocation against your better judgment for reasonings far more profound.”
He looked at me casually for a moment as though I had grown antennae, twitching and fidgeting around in the car as Kentucky sped by beside us. Finally, his thoughts formed into words, exploding with a violent force that shattered my temporal feelers. “Where the fuck are you taking me?!”
“It’s simple,” I explained. “Gary Clark Jr. is from Austin.”
“I read his Wiki, too. I know where he’s – oh, don’t tell me the rest, I don’t want to know.” He collapsed onto his seat, hands flung over his face.
“Well,” I continued, ignoring his flair for the dramatic, “Since the only true sound can be encapsulated on vinyl – ” “That’s an opinion, just so you know” “ – the only way to truly experience the sound is by embarking to our destination in pursuit of the truest source of THE SOUND. There’s something happening, now, god damn it, and we’re obviously at the center of some violent hurricane shift in pop culture. Don’t you want to be at the epicenter when it breaks across the nation?”
“Why the fuck are we driving to Austin for a record?”
“How else are we going to get THE SOUND in its purest and most visceral form?”
“I have to be back in Chicago in 36 hours! Austin is, what – 20 hours away?”
“From Cincinnati?” I did a quick calculation in my head. “No, more like 16. We’ll be there in that time, assuming we don’t stop.”
“But then how do we get back? I’ll just fly home.”
”Nonsense, I have to return the car. We’ll drive back, be there in no time.”
“Sometimes, I wonder why I associate myself with you.”
”Because nobody else appreciates THE SOUND like I do. And nobody else is willing to go to the means I’ve pushed myself to countless time after time. And because nobody – ” I opened the glove compartment, spilling out a dozen individually marked red medicine vials. “ – NOBODY else has such access to pure, unlicensed Torodol.”
Mr. Cook fingered one of the vials longingly, twisting it open and downing its contents in the blink of an eye. “Fine,” he said, tossing the empty container into the backseat. I hoped the residual acids from the medicine wouldn’t scar the upholstery. It would be a sad, but necessary, victim of the trip, but one I’d prefer to avoid at this stage. “Just take me to the hospital if my leg starts falling off like Jason Taylor’s.”
I nodded, though I knew that in the madcap desire to pursue the quest, what he was really asking me to do was to drive like a madman towards our destination. Beside us, the road blurred, a vision streaking into the depths of the Kentucky hills, omnisciently peering over us as if to say “The Jig is Up, THE SOUND is ours.” We bolted down I-71, two geeks barreling downward into the heart of the freak kingdom.
3. Ominous Portents…Deep Fried Nuisance…Long Day’s Journey into the Midnight Hour.
After we broke the Tennessee line, I gave up on my insistence of listening to alternating mixes of Bob Dylan bootlegs and past masters of the Delta blues covers to my companion’s desires for a somewhat clearer, more musically driven radio experience. I’e never trusted radio stations in the mountains, mostly because of their tendency to be obliterated by strong piles of granite. True, we weren’t – strictly speaking – in the mountains, but the trees surrounding us on all sides loomed over us, watchful towers of evergreen ecstasy. I had been under the influence of a mixture of prescription drugs and amphetamines since we had passed through Louisville (keeping it weird for the locals sake, not that we had much choice in the matter), which were now building to a feverish head of anxiety.
“There must be some kind of way out of here,” I said to my companion, wordlessly listing in the seat beside me, his hands outstretched before him as though he were grappling with some vile, slobbering mermaid. “Out of this forest. How long since we passed the Memphis marker?”
“Just another thirty miles,” he murmured, still groping away at his aquatic fantasy. “Just keep pushing on. Christ, I know I should have paid for that Nyquil back in Louisville.”
“Can’t be blamed. Too damn confusing out here. No relief until we eat. I can’t get anything!” I pounded the wheel, sending out a blaring alarm into the pathless woods, and shaking Mr. Cook from his fishy dreams. “I know that pharmacy clerk cheated me out of that bottle of Merlot – ”
“You’re not drinking,” said Mr. Cook. “I’m not taking the wheel until we’ve eaten in Memphis. Until then, I need you sober as all hell. I don’t want to wind up six feet in the damn soiled Tennessee dirt.”
“Not that we’d have any earth to speak of, it’s been taken.”
“Why are you talking like that?”
“I’m trying to level with you, man! That’s all! Just keeping it all on the line!”
“Try keeping the car on the line,” he said, stretching towards the radio. Messers. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (that VAGRANT) were warbling about four dead students at some college in upper Ohio (timeless, yet permanently locked into time). “You promised you’d be fine until we got to Memphis.”
“I didn’t give you my word,” I grumbled to myself. The bastard had conned me into driving the first 8-hour leg straight through before passing out on the seat next to me, which led to a mixture of fish love dreams and radio shuffling, a decision I regretted with each passing mile and each consumed greenie. One of these days, the bastard will pay.
“It counts all the same,” he said, settling on a classic rock station based out of Nashville. Immediately, the strains of Hendrix poured from the radio. My nerves flared; good GOD, WHAT WERE THE BASTARDS TRYING TO TELL US?!
“Turn that shit off!” I bellowed, swerving violently. The Impala rocked, fearful of my wavering impulses.
“No reason to get excited,” Mr. Cook said calmly.
“Are you kidding? This is a perfect time to get excited! It’s as though they KNOW what we’re TRYING to DO! It’s a fucking joke! All a fucking joke!”
“Hey, we’re ten miles from Memphis. And if it’s a joke, it’s pretty funny, let’s be fair. Besides, weren’t you on a Dylan kick?”
“That’s not Dylan, that’s a violently talented man who choked to death on his own vomit before he could come into his own! He robbed us of THE SOUND!”
“Alright, you’re done. Pull over, I’m driving.”
“Like hell you are,” I said, leaning over the wheel and gritting my teeth. My foot clamped down on the accelerator, sending us up over 90 mph on our descent towards the home of Elvis, towards Graceland.
“Alright,” I murmured, seeking to calm my companion, who was plastered to the seat with a white knuckled grip on the overhead handlebar (which we’ve dubbed the “Oh Shit Semi” handle from mutually shared experiences). “Calm the fuck down, man, we’re not doomed yet. If the bastards want us, they’ll have to take us where we live.”
“Just shut up and stop mumbling gibberish. It’s getting late.”
We burst into Memphis like a proverbial bat out of hell, though conspicuously lacking in Meatloaf’s scope and girth. It was just after 8:00, and we’d been on the road for eight hours, with only our ill-fated pharmacy venture slowing us down with any real measure. (The scene had NOT been pretty.) As such, our rations were low, which was especially bad considering that they had been non-existent in the first place. Only a few crumbled chips lay in the bottom of the car.
Getting into the drugstore had been easy. I had walked up to the man with a hefty load of Nyquil, a bottle of Cameltoe Merlot (chosen for the aftertaste), and several other forms of rations that I hoped to use as mid-night sustenance on the long, grueling drive in the blackness towards Texas. A thin, balding man with a lip that sneered like a vulture, he haphazardly scanned my food items before stopping at the Nyquil.
“I’ll need to see some I.D., sir.”
“Of course,” I muttered. “Force of commerce, rules are rules now.” His processed, silicon vest glimmered in the angular fluorescent lighting. Reaching for my wallet, I found that I had left it in the car. “Uh, I seem to have left it in the car.”
Rather than allow me to leave and return, he had withdrawn firs the Nyquil and then my merlot from the counter. “Sorry, sir, we don’t allow underage consumption of alcohol, or the sale to those underage. That’ll be $11.27, please.” He almost smiled as the words dripped off his tongue.
“That’s preposterous! Just let me get my wallet!”
“Sorry, sir, but I’ve been given reasonable cause to deny your sale. You’re lucky I’m letting you have the beef jerky.
Naturally, my outrage was palpable, and the only thing that prevented me from wrangling the man’s neck was my companion’s reentry from outside. “We have to be going, you see,” he offered by way of an explanation as he physically dragged me by the scruff of the neck from the store. The countertop vampire grinned after us, wolfishly in the night.
It was only after I had gotten us back on a southbound trail that my companion revealed his theft. “You made such a distraction up front, I just walked out behind you. Didn’t even notice.”
I considered this, grunting finally. “Serves the bastard right. Gets what’s coming to him.”
Arriving in mid-town Memphis on a Sunday evening is an exotic experience, though not as festive or bucolic as one might have experienced in its heyday. The neon streams and electric atmosphere are lessened, replaced by boarded up windows, run down brick-face buildings, and archaic institutions that might have once been fairly clean and prosperous sometimes in the decade where Eisenhower ruled. It was alternately enlivening to be at the home of so much rock and roll history and depressing to realize that the very historical significance was in danger of being ground under foot by time itself.
“Must be a metaphor in that,” I said to myself, though audibly enough for my companion to notice.
“A metaphor in what?”
“Never mind that, just tell me where this place is.” Mr. Cook had mentioned a small diner that he had discovered on the Food Network one afternoon, a place that deep fried their burgers. Being well-reputed American citizens, I could see no alternative but for us to patronize the place, find out if it was really up to snuff or not. We pulled up outside and I threw the shuddering silver Impala into park; already the engine was giving ominous sounds of kicking – to the untrained ear, these might be sounds of protest, a warning that we were pushing the car too far and too hard. I knew different – it was a sound of demand, of yearning for the open road, pining for high octane thrills on the blacktop leading into the heart of the south.
My companion reached over to open the passenger door, but I stopped him with an arm bar that would have made Walter Payton proud. “Hold up,” I barked. “We’ve been on the road for eight solid hours. It would be a mistake to go into that hellhole so unprepared.”
Mr. Cook sighed, reaching towards the glove compartment as he leaned back in his seat. “I hate that you’re always right. Never any leeway. Takes all the fun out of things.”
“Fun? Who said this was supposed to be fun? This is a quest for THE SOUND, god damn it, not a malarkey vacation. Now, take your god damn medicine or you’ll be stone cold asleep by the time we make the Arkansas border.”
Three greenies later, we sprang into the dingy establishment. My companion, babbling away ominously, told me that the same cooking fat had been used since the diner’s first opening, and was stored in vats in a guarded safe in the back of the house. A safe containing nothing but giant, bubbling drums of molten oil seemed like the last place I wanted to be at this point in time, but I allowed him to lead me into a booth that looked like it had been last used by Elvis himself, judging by the thick layer of green grime covering its retro-style upholstering. Behind us, halted in mid-conversation by our nervous twitchings, a pair of gruff men wearing overalls and seven-day beards eyed us warily; they resumed their conversation only when I saluted sharply, snapping it at the wrist with extra gusto.
“What’ll it be?” asked our server, a young boy, clearly no more than seventeen if he was a day over twelve. Maybe it was the greenies, or maybe it was the extended roadway playing with my poor addled mind. We both snapped off orders for double cheeseburgers and cold beer, fries be damned, and leaned back into our relative comforts. Both of us looked as though we were afraid to be the first to speak, as though the utterance of words in that booth would lead to violent tremors that would disturb the complex, incandescent order of the restaurant. Who knew what else might happen? There used to be bears in Tennessee, and there may well be one day again when we’re long gone, abandoning the state to its own violent and transparent destiny.
“Here you go,” said our server, dropping two plates bulging over with food before us. His words freed us from our paralysis, allowing us to dive into our meals with gusto.
“You think he’ll be there?” asked Mr. Cook, mouth half-filled with French fries.
“I doubt it,” I said. “I didn’t scan the man’s website, but I’m sure that a man of Mr. Clark’s talents must be touring constantly.”
“You see that he toured with Clapton? Well, not toured, but played the Crossroads festival?”
”It’s exciting, surely, but it gives me pause. If this man’s supposed to be THE SOUND, there’s a few set of criteria that he has to follow, and one of those is that he can’t be accepted or embraced by the establishment.”
“I see what you’re saying, but on the other hand, Clapton knows his shit. If he likes Gary Clark Jr., doesn’t that supersede Clapton’s being part of the boomer generation of rock?” Behind him, I could see the two men perk up at our conversation, turning their heads to take us in. I involuntarily shrunk lower into the booth, something my companion failed to notice as he continued to babble away. “I get that Clapton is a downright touchstone of the boomer’s, even if the only thing he did that really superseded any of his work with Cream was Layla, and even that was a shared accomplishment – and where do the deceased players enter in? Does Duane Allman count towards THE SOUND’s pursuit? He was an original – but his output was limited. Mostly live too, come to think of it. And if it’s a question of output, where does Gary Clark Jr. enter into the debate? All he’s got is this album and a series of EP’s? I mean, how many people on the street know about him?”
“Excuse me, fellers,” said one of the over-all clad men, having turned around in his booth to face us. “Sorry to bother you – ”
“No, I understand,” I quickly apologized, fearful of disturbing the locals any further – Memphis need not be a victim of our great quest. “We’ll keep it down, be out of here shortly. We’re just friendlies here, out for burgers.”
“No, I was gonna ask – are you two talkin’ ‘bout Gary Clark Jr.?” His eyes lit up, and his dialect snapped on his T’s like a whip from space.
“That colored fella’ what plays the guitar?” his companion chimed in, thick and low pitched – someone had clearly turned his vocal’s bass level up to 11.
“Well,” said Mr. Cook, proceeding cautiously – perhaps my training was beginning to pay off! – “He does play the guitar.”
“Shit, man! He’s the best!”
“Wait,” I said, “You’ve heard of him?”
“Heard of him?” The first man (whom I began calling Jim in my head) laughed, a deep belly laugh that would give Santa Claus pause. “Sheeyit, we’ve seen him in concert! Ain’t we, Jim? (So much for that name, I thought privately. Maybe Bill?)That Crossroads festival they’s talkin’ ‘bout here, that was it, wunnit?”
“Yessir,” said Jim/Bill. “Him and Mr. Eric Clapton! He even played for the President!”
“So, you’re both fans?” asked Mr. Cook. His face reflected mine, a growing fear that we had, once again, happened upon the Next Big Thing after it had already been chewed up and spit out by the general public, made available for mass consumption and stripped of its freshness, its vitality, its virginal lack of awareness. This was a major threat to our Quest. And it was depressing the shit out of me. My burger sat on its plate, alone and tasteless, a monument to overproduced generic crap everywhere.
“Course we is!” laughed Bill/Jim in my head. “Shit, everyone we know’s a fuckin’ fan of Gary Clark Jr. round here! He’s come down a few times before, played us some real good blues guitar.” The way he said guitar made it sound like two separate words, their T’s amplified by his repugnant dialect. “Surprised you feller’s ain’t heard of him before.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, rising slowly and throwing caution to the wind.
Now it was Jim-in-my-head’s turn to look uneasy. “Calm down, feller, I just figured that you city folk might have known of him a’fore we did.”
“City folk?” Mr. Cook’s eyebrow furrowed – having been raised in the hills of Southern Ohio, my companion is known to take offense both at the implications of being a country boy as well as at being mistaken for an urban native. I think it has something to do with trees, but he’s always been vague on the true source of his irritation. “You both live in Memphis!”
“Actually, we’re from Murfreesboro. Just stopped in for some burgers.” He clapped the table happily. “We’re actually headin’ over to Graceland. Bif of a – what’s the word for it – journey? Mission?”
I swallowed miserably. “Quest?” Our mirror images, and they weren’t looking for THE SOUND. They’d already found it – and were reverting back to the Valhalla of Gross Decadence, a monument towards the worst tendencies of the birth of rock and its death in a bathroom stall long after it should have been wiped from the face of the earth.
“That’s it! Thanks, feller. Where you boys heading?”
“Austin,” I mumbled, though just audibly enough for Jim/My Elvis-Obsessed-Doppelganger to hear me. “Looking for Gary Clark Jr.”
He nodded, unsure of what to make of us. “Huh. Well, the best of luck to you fellers. We’ll let you get back to your fixin’s.” The two men returned to their food, leaving me and my companion to glumly commiserate looks. We said nothing further, choosing to eat quickly, pay up, and leave.
Outside, a skyrise apartment building loomed over us like some great dark tower, watchful in the oncoming night. As I flipped the keys to the Impala to my companion, I caught sight of a blonde woman standing between the curtains overlooking us, naked as the day was long. She seemed to lock eyes with me, lingering a moment before drawing the curtain over her pale body, too far away for me to make out any details. In the windows below, people passed back and forth before the windows, carrying on with their lives. A barefoot homeless man, peddling bowties, loitered in the streets beside our car, his smile craggy and broken through years of living on the streets.
“Drive, man,” I said, falling into the Impala, shivering with the cold that the night had dropped down on us. All I could think of was the immense distance to Austin, and the long night that awaited us. The portents were ominous, indeed – was our quest doomed? Were we just part of a long series of inadequate gestures on the behalf of an irrelevant genre of culture? Or was it something deeper than that? Was there any depth at all?
The car streaked into the night, the headlamps illuminating a single black segment of roadway at a time. As I rolled down my window, I fancied that I heard the sounds of feral house cats roaming the streets. Growling. Mewling. Hunting, living, and dying. We rolled on, two lone riders on the road as a biting wind began to howl all about us as we drove into the black.
The story continues in Part 2.