Monday, August 24, 2015

Digging My Southern Roots....Memphis

A high school reunion in Louisville seemed the perfect excuse to expand the celebration with travels south. Destination -- Tennessee, for the music of my childhood. High 90s temperatures were predicted at every stop on the map. But hot, humid summer days go hand in hand with sitting in the back seat of the family Oldsmobile as Patty Page delivers a lilting Tennessee Waltz from my dad's tape player; and on many a warm summer night, my Uncles Eddie and Skippy would prop guitars on their knees after a family picnic, to strum the chords and offer their own versions of Johnny Cash's Walk the Line and Tex Ritter's I Dreamed of a Hillbilly Heaven. It's been a long time coming, but I can't deny it. In the past few years I've had a growing desire to sample more of the blues, bluegrass, and country music that fertilized my southern roots. And why not check out the home of a homeboy who took the blues, gospel, and a touch of country to fashion a new sound called rock 'n' roll? Who knows, maybe I'd discover how the music shaped the person I am today, and maybe there'd be surprises along the way.

First off, a girls trip with high school friends to the Mississippi river town that "gave birth to the blues," and Graceland and the National Civil Rights Museum as well. After my friends collected me at the airport, we gps'ed our way back to town, into the art deco condo that became our trendy dorm for the next three nights. The itinerary was finalized weeks before, so we were off and singing the blues the next day.

Day one in Memphis was the  Mo Jo Extended Tour that revved up at B.B. King's place on Beale Street. With crispy green-fried tomatoes and cheese-smothered nachos warming our plastic carry-out bags, courtesy of B.B., we jumped on the packed tour bus ready to munch and rock.

Where or where can you find a honky tonk tour like this, with an aspiring star on a high stool at the front of the bus, belting the blues and sharing the stories while passengers click, clap, and rattle their instruments (courtesy of our tour leader) in time to the music? Sheer joy. All the hot spots passed like a slideshow across our window frames...Elvis' family home, Johnny Cash's first apartment, the Sun Record building, Lorraine Motel, and Beale Street joints. Memphis is like a lot of smaller towns in the south, with leafy avenues, stately historic homes, and older business districts with abandoned buildings.
For the extended tour, we returned to Sun Records,  the studio that "gave birth to rock 'n' roll." Housed in an aging brick structure with a neon guitar hanging from a corner of the roof, it was, undoubtedly, a more prominent place decades before. Sam Phillips established the studio as a place where anyone could record a song for a small fee. As history would have it, some pretty big names found their way to his front door. Goosebumps rippled my arms as we squeezed into the crowded main room bubbling with tourists, vintage photos, and '50s-'60s memorabilia. Every square inch of wall space was papered with black and whites of famed performers while familiar voices crooned like ghosts from speakers overhead: That's All Right Mama,  Blue Suede Shoes, Folsom Prison Blues, and Great Balls of Fire. This was holy ground, where they first stood to create classics that are as much a part of American musical history as "The Star Spangled Banner."

L to R: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins,
Elvis, Johnny Cash
The famous photo of the Million Dollar Quartet hangs high above the stage area and glass-fronted recording bay. The story we heard is that Elvis stopped by to say hello during a break in Memphis, and it just so happened that Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash were in the studio at the time. The four of them launched into an impromptu jam session and the camera clicked. There were some contractual reasons why Elvis' picture couldn't be used, but the photo landed in the newspaper the next day anyway. Before we said good-bye, we gripped the metal rod of the standing mic, tilted it sideways, and leaned in to pose for iPhone camera shots. Our moment in the spotlight!

Day two at Graceland: As girls of the '60s, my high school friends and I started our tour thinking we knew Elvis' story. What more did we need to know? I had to confess I'd never been a fan until he died. It was then that I started to listen to Elvis' music and appreciated it on a whole new level. And Graceland had never been on my list of places to see before I died, but my Carlsbad neighbors urged me to go. So I pushed it with our group, one of whom passed on it when she visited Memphis years ago.

The house is a mansion of the 50s/60s, which is to say that it's got a log of swag, shag, and the token animal motifs, figures, and patterns. Stepping back in time, the 1950s interior reflects the era, with interesting color combinations (pink and green tile in a bathroom), and rooms to spare.

The entrance to his parents Vernon and Gladys' bedroom on the main floor is a few feet from a youthful Elvis portrait, full of innocence and blondish hair hanging inside the front foyer, at the steps to the second floor.

Outside, the smell of fresh cut grass greeted us along a walkway that weaves through lush grounds bordered by flower beds. In earlier days, horses grazed in the distant pasture, and golf carts roamed the landscape where Elvis, Priscilla, and Lisa Marie played games with family and guests. But it's the buildings beyond the main house -- a former racquetball court, offices, garages, etc. -- that house the treasures and showcase the life and career of the king of rock 'n' roll.

The walls down one narrow room, maybe the length of a football field, are lined with gold records. How could any human accomplish so much over a lifetime, let alone a life cut short? It was impossible to take it all in -- the endless beaded and sequined costumes, vintage posters, a gazillion photographs, paintings and portraits that were gifts from fans and artists worldwide, original videos, and assorted memorabilia. Even the antique cars, in a circular display around a drive-in theater set with a gas station, are fascinating. 

But the final stop on the house tour is the one that weighs heavy on the heart. It's the meditation garden, now turned into a cemetery where Elvis, his parents, twin brother (plaque only), and a grandmother are laid to rest. My Carlsbad friends called their visit a "spiritual experience." I now knew why. What struck me as gauche at first seemed appropriate seconds later. I didn't want to leave the beautifully landscaped area, unlike anything I'd ever seen on the grounds of someone's home. I later read that Elvis and his mother were first buried at Forest Hills Cemetery in Memphis, but someone tried to steal Elvis' remains a few weeks after burial, and he and his mother were moved to the meditation garden. 

Throughout the tour, including stops at shops and restaurants in a Graceland strip mall, I couldn't stop thinking about the sad parts of Elvis' life. They hover in sharp contrast to the legacy displayed. His twin brother died at birth, and his dad landed in prison for three years when he was a baby. As a toddler, he made the three-hour bus ride with his mom to visit dad, who moved the family to Memphis the year Elvis turned thirteen. Gladys died at the age of 46 from a heart attack related to hepatitis. Elvis took leave from Army training in Texas only two days before she died, and some say he never recovered from the loss of his mother. He placed a star of David on her grave to honor her Jewish heritage. It's also been said that the twin brother's death haunted him his entire life. The marriage to Priscilla ended in divorce, with Lisa Marie the gift of that marriage. But in the end, there weren't enough gold records, cars, movies, and not even a daughter to keep him from the demons and drugs that ended his life. Thanks to Priscilla and Lisa Marie, Memphis has an exceptionally well developed landmark that tells the story and documents the career of Elvis Presley.

Each year, during the week of August 16 (the day he died), Elvis is remembered with a ceremony and candlelight vigil at Graceland. A fitting tribute to the music industry legend who sits at the top of the mountain. The 2015 Vigil and Auction at Graceland included Priscilla Presley, Lisa Marie Presley who speaks to the gathering, and her two daughters.

Day three at the National Civil Rights Museum  (NCRM) in Memphis had nothing to do with my quest for music, but everything to do with the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s, as much a part of my childhood as the songs in my dad's car and at family picnics. Again, my friends and I grew up in the 60s in the South, and some of us marched or volunteered in the battle for civil rights. In high school and college, we witnessed history in our city, in our TV news, and in our classrooms. We knew a lot. At least we thought we did.

Adjacent to the Lorraine Motel where MLK died, the NCRM is a reminder of where we've been and how far we have to go. This is the history of blacks in the United States, from slavery through the Civil War, migration to northern cities, Jim Crow, sit-ins, freedom riders, and the continuing challenges of modern day. Exhibits are informative, provocative, poignant, and disturbing.

The stories and voices that bear witness to history are displayed and recorded in interactive stations with earphones and on room-sized screens. Extensive TV footage of events that shook the country highlight the context, with tension and trauma front and center, reminiscent of popular films, The Butler and Selma. Rosa Parks' bus features a figure of the courageous woman in her seat near the front of the bus. When you step inside, a voice booms, "Move to the back of the bus. You can't sit there. Move back!" In a flash, I'm there, with generations of blacks denied a simple right to choose a seat and so much more.

The original lunch counter for the student sit-in in Montgomery anchors youthful figures and nearby hecklers while a nonviolent training video plays on the wall behind the exhibit. The charred bus of freedom riders in Birmingham stands as a symbol of white supremacy at its worst. We weave through the black power movement that addresses nonviolence, women's rights, war, riots, poverty, and integration. Several hours pass and  exhibits are coming to a close when I look up to see Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel before me. Dirty plates with napkins tossed over them. Drapes pulled aside for a view through the glass sliding doors. Again, I am there. This is powerful, profound, unforgettable. The feeling lingers, well beyond the exit and rest of the trip. The NCRM is among the top three museums I've visited, alongside the World War II Memorial in New Orleans and the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem.

Since the NCRM opened in 1991, the annual Freedom Awards recognize individuals who have made significant contributions in civil rights and who have laid the foundation for present and future leaders in the battle for human rights" in the United States and around the world.

NEXT STOP: Louisville for the Muhammad Ali Center and a High School Reunion

Saturday, August 8, 2015

A Time for Sports Heroes

The past few months have given us a string of sports events and winners for the ages. Lots to celebrate, and it's only fitting that I start with a sports hero honored tonight.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2015 ceremony in Canton, Ohio was a bittersweet occasion for San Diegans. We will always miss Junior Seau, one of the eight inductees, because he was the hometown hero who gave us so much joy as a San Diego Charger linebacker, the one who propelled his team to the Super Bowl in 1994. Seau was born in Oceanside, spent part of his childhood in American Samoa, and returned to Oceanside High School to letter in football, basketball, and track and field. With a long list of player trophies, and named to another list of championship teams, he went on to a brilliant three years at USC and was later named to the USC Athletic Hall of Fame (2009). In 1990, Seau was drafted by the San Diego Chargers and became a driving force on the team for 12 years, and with the National Football League for 20 years, closing out his career with brief stints as a Miami Dolphin and New England Patriot.  

In 2012, retired only three years, Seau ended his life abruptly, along the coast where he lived in Oceanside. After his passing, studies of his brain tissue by the National Institutes of Health concluded that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which sparked a national debate about the harsh effects of the game on a player's health, specifically brain health. For that, we can be grateful. It was past time.

Here's what bleacher had to say about the face of the San Diego Chargers during the 90s:

So we remember the Tiaina Baul Seau Jr. who was selected to 12 Pro Bowls, who was one of the most disruptive defenders of his generation and who was among the most recognizable sports heroes in his city's history. We also remember a football player whose untimely death opened our eyes to the unseen dangers of America's brutal, beautiful obsession.

Seau was the greatest linebacker of the 1990s, perhaps the greatest defender of that era. His gifts, beyond his outstanding athleticism, relentlessness and passion, were versatility and unpredictability. Seau recorded 56.5 sacks, 18 interceptions and over 1,500 tackles. Opponents never knew whether he was rushing the passer, dropping into coverage, staying at home against the run or following a hunch about where the ball was heading. His own coaches sometimes didn't know, either.


Photo: San Diego Union-Tribune

The Junior Seau Foundation was Seau's passion while he played and when he retired, helping countless kids who benefited from the devoted leadership Seau demonstrated at board meetings, raising funds, and engaging partners. He is sorely missed by everyone who supported his efforts and experienced his enthusiasm. Now run by volunteers, the JSF continues to honor its founder's dream.  Here's what the San Diego Union-Tribune had to say about Seau's dedication to the foundation:

The intensity translated to millions of dollars for the cause of San Diego’s at-risk children, a different sort of legacy than the on-field accomplishments that got the late Seau voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Partially in honor of the induction ceremonies Saturday in Canton, the JSF donated $500,000 to support a pediatric urgent-care facility in Oceanside, hereafter to be known as the Junior Seau Foundation center. 

During the Hall of Fame ceremony, Sydney Seau, the oldest of Seau's four children, was interviewed onstage about her father, who had asked her to talk about him when his time came. It was an emotional tribute and the highlight of the entire program. When it was time to uncover his bust, her brothers joined Sydney onstage. The New York Times  posted a video of Sydney giving the speech she prepared. She was not allowed to deliver the speech at the televised ceremony since inductees are the only ones allowed to speak (in past years, a family member or colleague presented first).  

American Pharaoh is a different type of athlete who took to the tracks this year to dazzle the horse racing world and the entire country. His legacy resonates far beyond the racetracks of America into the history books of the sport. The Kentucky Derby win on the first Saturday in May was euphoric, followed by a wet Preakness win with mud flying high two weeks later. But it was the Belmont Stakes on June 6 that raised the bar to the highest standard for three-year-old thoroughbreds and set the third sparkling jewel in the Triple Crown -- for the first time in 37 years. Bells are still ringing throughout the horse community. Credit must be given to an infectious, joyful Victor Espinoza, riding the champion, and legendary trainer Bob Baffert, who has achieved one of the most impressive records in the sport. After the dust settled, then came the curtain call. It was racing royalty on August 2nd when the  handsome thoroughbred with jockey Espinoza on the reins won the 2015 William Hill Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park in New Jersey -- the latest notch on their leather crop. Personally, I'm hoping for another trophy at Del Mar this month. Maybe the 22nd, since my ticket is purchased and my hat is ready.

Like a glorious thoroughbred, young Jordan Spieth played the rainmaker of American golf when he won  the Master's Tournament in Augusta, Georgia in April, and followed it up with another majors win at the U.S. Open in University Place, Washington in June. Could it be our spring awakening gave us two heroes to revive horse racing and golf? They're hardly comparable, since one will likely retire soon, to sire the next generation of elite thoroughbreds, while the other fine tunes his game to go after a career grand slam and records set by names like Woods, Nicklaus, Hogan, Jones, Palmer, Snead and Watson. Spieth came within a breath of the hole at the British Open a few weeks ago for a chance to collect the third jewel of the 4-jeweled majors crown. It was heartbreaking to see him lose, but he is human, after all. The maturity and wisdom he's displayed since turning pro in college are credited with leading the 23-year-old to a string of wins that have placed him in the number-two-ranked spot worldwide, behind Rory McIlroy, who leads by a little over one full point.

With horse racing fans applauding their hero, golf fans wonder if Spieth could be the one to end their drought, which started when Tiger dropped off the leader boards. Which begs another question. When we speak of sports heroes, we have to ask -- will Tiger make a comeback? The scandal, the injuries, the setbacks...they've all taken their toll. There have been hints that he still has it in him, but  the good starts don't turn into leads like they did in bygone days. Even with his current status in the rankings, some will argue that Tiger Woods is the best golfer of all time. Others will counter, because his record against Nicklaus for majors won is the measuring stick (Tiger 14, Nicklaus 18). The believers point out that he's far beyond Nicklaus and other golfers for the most records overall, this during a time when the competition was at its height. Like most things in life, time will tell.

We love our winners and want to hold onto them. Whether it's a football game, horse race, or golf tournament, a World Series or Olympics, it's exhilarating to witness greatness. We want our heroes to live into old age, to retire to green pastures, to rise to the top, and to make a comeback when there's a setback. When they face disappointment or worse, for whatever reason, we're disappointed too. We want them to continue winning, for them and for us. We don't want to give them up.

Thanks for the memories, Junior.

And for a heartfelt, poignant speech, Sydney.