Thursday, May 23, 2013
395 Sunflower Ave.
I CRAVE authenticity. The real deal.
It’s getting harder and harder to find it in our homogenized, franchised, mass-marketed modern America.
That search for the real thing is what brought me to the corner of Sunflower and Martin Luther King Boulevard on a Sunday night in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
I love the blues.
From Chicago electric blues to the hypnotic rhythm of North Mississippi Hill Country blues to acoustic country blues played on a bottle neck slide that originated right here in Clarksdale, this authentic brand of American music is one of my favorite genres.
Virtually all modern forms of popular music, from rock n roll to hip hop to R and B, derived from black cotton pickers strumming homemade cigar box and dime store guitars here in the fertile Mississippi Delta at the turn of the last century.
While the blues originated as a black genre of music, now days if you go to a blues club anywhere in America, you’ll find yourself surrounded by middle-aged white guys sporting beer guts, beards or pony tails -- or, more than likely, all three.
In the 21st Century, the blues audience is almost completely white.
And chances are the performers are too.
Sure, there are a few black blues artists like Kenny Neal, Shemekia Copeland and Duwayne Burnside who are literally following in their fathers’ footsteps, but the majority of modern blues artists look a lot like their audience.
And I supposed that’s fine. People should be free to listen to and perform whatever type of music they want.
But whenever I’m sitting there in a strip mall blues club sipping one of my microbrews listening to some white guy play a tired version of “Sweet Home Chicago”, I can’t help but let my mind wander…
…to some smoke-filled shack hard against the railroad tracks deep in the heart of the Mississippi Delta -- where the blues started.
The real deal.
Dim lights flickering, beer bottles clanging, an old weathered black hand sliding a bottle neck across the strings, big legged women rhythmically swaying their hips to the low down dirty blues beat.
A place where Suit757 doesn’t belong.
A place where I have no business being.
A place where sketchy-looking characters could cut me with a switch blade if I look at them the wrong way.
Yeah. That’s why I’m talking about!
Okay. Some of my friends think I have an unhealthy fixation on danger.
But that’s not it. I just crave something authentic.
That’s why I came to Red’s Lounge.
I heard it was perhaps the last true juke joint left in America.
Juke joints are the down home places where blues were first performed for an audience.
They were places for hard working black people to unwind after hot days under the Mississippi sun picking cotton.
For the most part, the local white sheriffs had no interest in interfering with the goings on in black juke joints. Liquor laws, last call, fire regulations went largely unenforced.
Cuttin’ and shootin’ was an occupational hazard for blues players in juke joints.
But as the musical tastes of black folks have evolved beyond their blues roots and the casinos with their free whiskey have drawn them to their riverboats on the Mississippi River, juke joints with live blues have all but disappeared here in the Delta.
Except for Red’s.
Red Paden has been running juke joints for most of his adult life. And he loves the blues.
At his namesake blues club in the heart of Clarksdale, he still schedules live blues every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night in a run-down former music store. Whether any one shows up or not.
Walking through the front door of America’s last standing live music juke joint was the fulfillment of a life-long fantasy.
I’ll admit, I was a bit nervous -- for all the aforementioned reasons.
Plus I had talked to a guy in Memphis who told me Red sometimes “has an attitude” about white people coming to his place to soak up the black juke joint atmosphere. “Although he’ll happily take your money,” he quickly added.
Another guy said when he tried to videotape one of the performers, Red threatened “to cut him”. The opinion of the regulars was divided on whether Red was kidding -- or not.
But that which made me nervous was exactly what made me so excited as I parked my rental car on Sunflower Avenue and slowly walked toward the low rumbling blues pouring out of Red’s door.
As I pushed on the weathered handle and paid my $7 cover to the friendly lady at the front, my apprehension eased a bit.
I pulled up a battered stool near the front door and ordered a beer from Red. Three bucks for a 12 ounce bottle of Miller High Life (I wasn’t about to ask Red for a beer list).
Plus I tipped Red a buck. He seemed to appreciate it.
No sign of a switch blade. That’s a relief.
As it turned out, I didn’t have anything to be nervous about.
The crowd was almost entirely white, except for a few folks who seemed to be kin to the band.
Right up front was a table of five 20-something white girls downing 18 ounce bottles of Bud. I figured they must be European (as was much of the crowd). American chicks would never walk into a place like Red’s by themselves.
It was close to a packed house. That’s a couple dozen people in this cozy joint.
Every last one of them seemed to be damn glad to be there, soaking up the authentic divey charm and the kick ass blues band.
The real deal.
These adventurous blues lovers were just like me!
The band was in the midst of a full blown scorching set of electric blues when I walked in.
Taking the lead was a 14 year old kid named “King Fish”.
Yes. You read that right. Fourteen years old!
Maybe there is hope after all for the future of black blues.
On keyboard and occasional vocals was David “Space Cowboy” Isaac.
Perhaps most entertaining of all was Space Cowboy’s nephew on drums, aptly named, “Hollywood”.
Hollywood looked like he was twelve at the most, but spent the entire evening effortlessly banging out the blues beat with a charismatic smile plastered on his face.
While Red’s Lounge wasn’t quite as scary as I had feared/hoped, it was plenty authentic.
Years old posters haphazardly tacked to the walls.
Various flotsam and jetsam piled high against the windows.
A tapestry of plastic trash bags staplegunned to the ceiling to minimize the leaking rainwater from the roof.
A soft glow of red snake lights shaped into musical notes.
Most authentic of all was Red himself, stumbling around behind the bar, drinking his own profits and soaking up the kick ass blues unfolding in front of him in his own place.
Red wore a tattered holey Red’s Lounge t-shirt that read “It is what it is”.
I was jealous.
Our entire Suits in Strange Places rating system was devised with places like Red’s in mind.
Uncool touristy places make it easy to buy a t-shirt. They are ubiquitous. Exit through the t-shirt gift shop on your way out.
Think Hard Rock Café, House of Blues, B.B. King’s Blues Club.
The coolest places make it HARD to get a t-shirt. You’d feel like a loser-tourist-idiot even asking for one.
THOSE are the AWESOME places.
The harder it is to buy a shirt, the cooler it is to wear it.
That’s my Suit757 t-shirt philosophy.
I really wanted a Red’s shirt but I was too chicken to ask for one.
Roger Stolle, who owns the Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art store down the street, told me the next morning that Red’s does indeed sell t-shirts.
Roger said, “I keep telling Red to put up a sign or something if he wants to sell them. But he won’t do it. ‘This is a juke joint,’ he says. I guess to be an authentic juke joint, you have to have some ridiculous conversation to buy a shirt.”
Rating: I really, really wanted to buy the shirt…but I wimped out.
Monday, May 20, 2013
205 Beale St.
“Memphis is not what it used to be.”
-- Texas songwriter Owen Temple from his song “Memphis”
No, Memphis is not.
I suppose most folks think that’s a good thing, especially when you hear Will Shade, leader of the legendary Memphis Jug Band describe Memphis’ infamous Beale Street about a century ago:
"You could walk down the street in the days of 1900 and like that and you could find a man wit’ throat cut from ear to ear.
"Also you could find people lyin’ dead wit’ not their throat cut, money took and everything in their pockets, took out of their pockets and thrown outside the house.
"Sometimes you find them with no clothes on, throwed out of winders here on Beale Street. Sportin’ class o’ women runnin’ up and down the street all night long."
After reading that, I suppose I grudgingly agree it’s a good thing too.
I’m not all that keen on having my throat cut.
But there is something sad about such an iconic part of America existing now as nothing but a memory -- and a 21st Century Disneyesque mockery of the blues.
At least that is what Beale Street has become.
And if you don’t think that is an indictment of all of Memphis, consider the words of the great B.B. King, whose B.B. King’s Blues Club now stands as the flagship Disneyesque attraction on Beale Street:
"I don’t think of Memphis as Memphis. I thought of Beale Street as Memphis."
Before the days of urban renewal, Beale Street was the place black people from all over the mid-South and Mississippi Delta came to live, work, party and die.
All of it to the soundtrack of the blues -- the soulful, haunting sound that gave birth to almost every form of modern popular music from rock n’ roll to R&B to hip hop.
Beale Street was a bustling, bubbling gumbo of sweaty fun.
Beale Street entertainer Rufus Thomas once said, “If you were black for one Saturday night and on Beale Street, never would you want to be white again.”
But just about all of THAT Beale Street is long gone, plowed under by progress, so called.
The black juke joints were replaced with Coyote Ugly and the Hard Rock Café.
Drunken black revelers from the Delta replaced with drunken white tourists from Des Moines and Buffalo.
Authentic, gritty, gut bucket blues replaced with what I derisively call “tourist blues” -- countless repetitions of “Mustang Sally” and “She’s a Brick…
But I’m happy to say there is one piece of old Memphis that survives to this day.
The grease at Dyer’s Burgers.
Yes. Dyers’ has been deep frying burgers in a cauldron of hot grease that has not been changed in over a century.
You read that right.
Dyer’s deep fries its burgers.
And Dyer’s has never changed the grease. Not once in 101 years.
Oh sure, at 4am last call, one of Dyer’s employees will strain out all the burger and fry remainders and occasionally add some fresh oil to the mix, but change the grease?
No way. It’s never been done.
In fact, the Memphis police gave Dyer’s skillet of precious grease an armed police escort across town when Dyer’s relocated to 205 Beale Street years ago.
And you know what makes it even more awesome?
Sticking it to nanny state Communist dictators like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg telling me how many ounces of Coke I can buy.
The beef patty and cheese are submerged in Dyer’s gurgling heirloom grease for a few moments and then placed on a soft squooshy bun.
The result is hot, gooey burger bliss.
Especially at midnight after an evening of too many renditions of “Mustang Sally” and Beale Street Big Ass Beers.
Admittedly, my Suit757 palate was a bit numbed by the time it got to be Dyer’s time.
But one thing I have no doubt about -- the decadence of a Dyer’s burger standing in the middle of Beale Street at midnight is one of life’s great sinful pleasures.
Granted, no one other than Michael Bloomberg would compare this sort of sinfulness to that displayed on Beale Street in the time of Will Shade and Rufus Thomas.
But at least I won’t get my throat cut for it.
Rating: Bought the Shirt!
Friday, May 17, 2013
Lee Circle Grocery
87 Calef Hwy.
Got lost in New Hampshire (someone told my GPS to avoid tolls -- great joke somebody)
Saw this sign, which I fell for....
Look any place that looks like this with that sign, must be a diamond in the rough, real suit territory
Well, don't believe everything you read on the internet and I don't know which three people voted for this place, but it sucks.
So avoid Lee Circle Grocery in Lee NH. Do not even stop to use their restroom. Better yet, take the turnpike and avoid the whole town of Lee all together.
RATING: Clean Grill With Shirt
6313 4th St., NW
I was sooo disappointed with the Owl Cafe. 22 years ago it had the best green chili cheese burgers, now it was fair to bad. Or maybe I'm just older and my taste-buds have changed.
I was about to write New Mexico off the culinary map, and then....I fell in love with Sophia's
Ok she's nothing to look at, but the food is great, cheap - well just like I like my women (not).
Fish tacos, great deserts, great service, hole in the wall looks, what is not to like about this place?
RATING: Seriously Thought About Buying Shirt
Thursday, May 16, 2013
16806 Chesterfield Airport Rd.
This is the new standard that all burgers shall be judged: Annie Gunns near St. Louis. I had no expectations, I was just tired and hungry and this was near the hotel. What a great surprise.
Save up your per diem if you are in the St. Louis area. This is worth every penny.
You might want to make reservations. I had to fight for a seat at the bar. And it was worth it.
I am in awe of the burger. The steaks here are great, and the trimmings are what get ground into burgers and these bad boys are huge, flavorful and every topping you could want.
Great beer selection, excellent scotch, whiskey and rare bourbons.
Rating: Heck, Don't just buy a t-shirt, buy stock in this place.