HOW DO WE GET THERE FROM HERE?
asks Norman Warwick
We were dining at The Camel, a sea front bar, with a couple of friends of ours, also residents on Lanzarote, at a time of day when paella, for the parents, and ice cream, for the kids, and cocktails with rude names, for young lovers, should have been being served by the tableful to a sixty or seventy cover. However, there were only we four and one other couple to place orders. The serving staff were friendly and smiling and the food as good as always, but there was a desultory air.
It was Thursday 14th January 2021 and the island had already suffered more than 250 days of (fortunately relatively few) covid cases but had also placed itself in economic jeopardy by complying with national and global calls to close borders and cease none essential jobs. Whilst most of the world, though, had plunged into almost total lockdown the virus had continued to whistle its deadly tune, and on this day we had heard that two million people around the world had died from this new disease and its mutant strains. Lanzarote, too, had lapsed over Christmas, strong family traditions here leading to gatherings that risked ignoring social distancing and other protocols and we are now paying a heavy price for that misjudgement.
Sadly our carelessness has been exacerbated by the return of swallows and a sudden mass influx of tourists facilitated by air corridors closed too late and which anyway would have been better left unopened in the first place. Our numbers of cases are, at the time of writing, currently rising as exponentially as elsewhere in the world, and on this particular afternoon, only three days after having been placed in a light tier-two regime we were awaiting news to break on line about our President´s reluctant suggestion that we take a hurdle into an immediate and much more comprehensive complete lockdown, similar to, but not quite as severe as, the one being reported from the UK.
We were sitting in a somewhat sombre mood to be honest, simply listening to the sounds of silence, lost in or own thoughts but a couple of cold beers usually loosen the tongues for me and my mate and a few bottles of chilled white Lanzarotean wine seem to have the same effect on our wives. We were all soon remarking on how privileged we feel to live here, where there is at least sun and scenery and grandeur reminding us of the gladness of life.
Music was playing on the restaurant speakers and I was thinking about how much I miss the live music concerts we seemed to enjoy on an almost nightly basis during our first five years on the island, prior to the 2020 pandemic. My thoughts were lifted though because there was a female recording-artiste giving us her recording of Louis Armstrong´s What A Wonderful World, and I said something to my mate about this version´s jazzy flavour.
He replied that it reminded him of when he and his good lady had holidayed in New Orleans, more than a quarter of a century ago; and so began a lovely dangling conversation of the kind that so efficiently while away the time here.
I was jealous already, after only his opening gambit. When he then told us that they had been there at the time of Mardi Gras I was begging to hear more, asking him, like Paul Simon to come on, take me to the Mardi Gras
where the people sing and play
there is dancing in the streets
and the music is elite
both night and day.
My friend´s description of following the carnival trail showed me all the sights of street-vendors´ food stalls, played me the sounds of jazz and blues that permeate the region, let me enjoy a taste of whiskey and rum, and beer and Dixie chicken, let me the smell the illegal substances being smoked by others and allowed me to feel the voodoo in the air. I felt like I had been walking alongside that parade and was enjoying the stroll, but my friend suddenly started speaking of something I knew well.
photo 4 paddle steamer Within seconds we were down by a gang-walk on the banks of the might Mississippi, boarding an old paddle steamer. Audible even in the cacophony of noise in my head was the frailing of a Banjo player called John Hartford, and somehow I knew what riverboat we were on, despite the fact that my pal had not told me the name of the vessel, for sitting on deck shuffling cards and rousing up a poker game was Chip Taylor and the first hand was already in play by the time the engines whirred and the cry was heard for
if you come down to the river you gonna find people help you to live
but you don´t have to worry, ´cos you got no money,
those people on the river are happy to give
big wheels keep on turning, Proud Mary keep on burning,
rolling, rolling, rolling down the river
and this was not a strutting Tina Turner making the call but was, of course, Credence Clearwater Revival performing the song written by their frontman, John Fogerty.
I was enjoying my reverie, inspired by my mate´s reminiscence accompanied by my own soundtrack, but the spell was broken when my companion asked me if I had ever been to New Orleans. I was forced to answer in John Stewart´s regretful tone that I Never Got To See New Orleans. This was a song written after Hurricane Katrina had devastated the city and created a watery grave from which it was feared the city might never rise again. The lyric has John lamenting the loss of life-style and industry and culture of the fabled city and fearing that he might never now see it in its original glory.
Sad though that remembrance was, it served to remind me that I have at least enjoyed Lanzarote at the height of its existence even if it is temporarily laid low.
I asked my companion if he and his lady had been in the New Orleans for long, but he told me it was something of a whistle stop on an American tour, and that the next destination was Memphis ! My ex-navy sea-faring friend kept his gaze firmly on the horizon of sea and sky as if he could clearly see the city somewhere beyond that line. We both knew he was looking towards Africa but I figured a man of his ranking must have known how to steer his ship to Memphis from here.
His spiel was once again descriptive and attractive and had he been a salesman in a tour operator trying to sell me on Memphis, he would have succeeded, not only because of the clarity of the images he talked about but also because of the sound-track in my mind of my own favourite songs about Memphis.
So he spoke to me about a city along the Mississippi River in south western Shelby County, Tennessee, United States. Its 2019 estimated population was of more than 650,000 making it Tennessee’s second-most populous city. Memphis is the anchor of West Tennessee and the greater Mid-South region, which includes portions of neighbouring Arkansas, Mississippi, and the Missouri Boot-heel. Memphis is the seat of Shelby County, Tennessee’s most populous county. One of the more historic and culturally significant cities of the southern United States, Memphis has a wide variety of landscapes and distinct neighbourhoods.
As he spoke I could visualise those areas in my head and I didn´t need Chuck Berry or Long Distance Information (to) Get Me Memphis, Tennessee. Sure as hell I could clearly see Jimmie Rodgers, across the street chuckling up a blue yodel.
He was standing on the corner, didn´t mean no harm
when the police come over and took him by the arm.
(It) was down in Memphis, corner of Beale and Main,
police said ´hey, big boy, you´d b better tell me your name.
I let my mate keep right on talking as I settled on a happy memory of how
I met a gin-soaked bar room Queen in Memphis
who tried to take me upstairs for a ride.
She had to heave right across her shoulder
and now I just can´t seem to drink her off my mind.
If you avoid some of those seedier sidetracks & detours, though, you find a beautiful city, as described to me when I was privileged to interview two wonderful singer-writers, Janis Ian and Willie Nelson.
We were standing by the river, staring into town.
All the world was on his shoulders and tears were raining down.
All along the Southern skyline, city lights began to bloom.
He said if you only knew her, the way that I do sir,
you would be crying too.
If you could see Memphis the way that I do
she would look different to you.
Queen of the Delta, tip your tiara
to Memphis, the belle of the blues.
The streets were filled with cotton and music filled the air
as all the paddle boats came rolling from east to everywhere
Now the streets are filled with silence and songs no one can hear
but her memory lingers, it slips through my fingers
and into this river of tears
so roll on, roll on, my sweet magnolia roll on
Queen of the Delta, tip your tiara
the belle of the blues.
That song, written twenty years ago now, was intending to show a Memphis in what the writers already considered a fading antebellum beauty, I believe, but their love and affection for the city still shone through. These days, with its line of ´silence´ and ´songs no can hear´ the song might even capture the Memphis of the pandemic,
Somehow, because of wonderful songs like that, I felt perfectly secure as my travelling companion continued his trip down memory lane. Memphis was a city recognisable to me because these songs by the likes of John Fogerty, Chuck Berry, Jimmie Rodgers and the Rolling Stones and Janis Ian and Willie Nelson I really do feel I know the city on the river, and thanks to a brilliant song by Big House I even know what a Sunday In Memphis feels like.
Sunday in Memphis, It’s a hallelujah dawn
I can hear the angels singing such a beautiful song
Nevertheless, my buddy kept talking about Memphis and I swear that for a few brief moments we were right there, Walkin´ In Memphis, with Marc Cohn in step beside us telling us about his first visit to the city
Walking in Memphis
Was walking with my feet, ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis´ But do I really feel the way I feel
Saw the ghost of Elvis On Union Avenue
Followed him up to the gates of Graceland
Then I watched him walk right through
Now security they did not see him
They just hovered ’round his tomb
But there’s a pretty little thing, waiting for the king
Down in the Jungle Room
They’ve got catfish on the table They’ve got gospel in the air
And Reverend Green, be glad to see you
When you haven’t got a prayer
Boy, you got a prayer in Memphis !
Now Muriel, plays piano
Every Friday at the Hollywood
And they brought me down to see her
And they asked me if I would
do a little number
And I sang with all my might
She said, ´Tell me are you a Christian child?´
And I said, ´Ma’am, I am tonight´
With one ear on my mate´s monologue I was listening to I was also smiling at the images evoked by this song in my head but there was another quick change of direction from my friend and guide as we headed off to see Graceland.
Of course you will have guessed by now, figuratively taking us there we were much more literally sitting in the back of a car being driven by Paul Simon, and as we looked across from our restaurant chairs in Lanzarote to Playa Blanca we, instead, noticed that
The Mississippi Delta was shining Like a National guitar
(we were) following the river Down the highway
Through the cradle of the civil war
going to Graceland, Graceland In Memphis Tennessee
Poor boys and Pilgrims with families
And we are going to Graceland
with reason to believe we all will be received
losing love Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow
We´re going to Graceland Memphis Tennessee
We´re going to Graceland
And my traveling companions
Are ghosts and empty sockets
I’m looking at ghosts and empties
But I’ve reason to believe
We all will be received
For reasons I cannot explain
There’s some part of me wants to see Graceland
And I may be obliged to defend every love, every ending
Or maybe there’s no obligations now
Maybe I’ve a reason to believe We all will be received
Graceland is, of course, less the vision of Heaven described in Simon´s lyric than it is a mansion on a fourteen acre estate in Memphis, Tennessee, once owned by singer and actor Elvis Presley. His daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, has been the owner of Graceland since his death in 1977. Graceland is located at 3764 Elvis Presley Boulevard in the vast Whitehaven community, about 9 miles from Downtown and less than 4 miles north of the Mississippi border.
It was opened to the public as a museum on June 7, 1982. The site was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on November 7, 1991, becoming the first site related to rock and roll to be entered therein. Graceland was declared a National Historic Landmark on March 27, 2006, also a first for such a site. The building is the second most-visited house in the U.S. after the White House, with over 650,000 visitors a year.
As Paul Simon´s song alludes to, and those figures confirm, the site has become a Mecca and to my wandering mind we were certainly not the only pilgrims on the way. British songwriter Richard Thompson has already told the tale of a lady who travelled from Galway to Graceland.
She dressed in the dark and she whispered, “Amen”
She was pretty in pink like a young girl again.
Twenty years married, and she never thought twice,
she slipped out of the back door and into the night
and silver wings carried her over the sea
from the west coast of Ireland to west Tennessee.
To be with her sweetheart she left everything,
she went from Galway to Graceland to be with the king.
She was humming “Suspicion”, the song she loved best.
She had “Elvis, I love you” tattooed on her breast.
When they landed in Memphis her heart beat so fast.
She had dreamed for so long, now she’d see him at last
and she knelt by his graveside day after day
And come closing time they would pull her away.
To be with her sweetheart, she left everything
She went from Galway to Graceland to be with the king
In their thousands they came from the whole human race
just to pay their respects at his last resting place
but blindly she knelt there and she told him her dreams
and she thought that he answered her, or that’s how it seemed
and when they dragged her away, it was handcuffs this time.
She said, “My dear man, are you out of your mind?
Don’t you know that we’re married? See, I’m wearing his ring?
I’ve come from Galway to Graceland to be with the king.
this dangling conversation was now becoming somewhat entangled as my good conversationalist took another swig of his beer and moved us out of Graceland before the guards could catch us and drove us into Nashville.
You know me well enough, dear reader, to be certain that although I had never been to Nashville I would nevertheless hold forth on the conversation.
´I´ll tell you something about Nashville,´ I interrupted my loquacious fellow drinker, and I told him that
there’s thirteen hundred and fifty two
Guitar pickers in Nashville
And they can pick more notes than the number of ants
On a Tennessee ant-hill
Yeah, there’s thirteen hundred and fifty two
Guitar cases in Nashville
And any one that unpacks his guitar could play
Twice as better than I will
and when he asked what the heck I was talking about I told him what John Sebastian had told me about how Nashville Cats was the name bestowed on the brilliant live and recording-session musicians the country music city is known for
Nashville Cats, play clean as country water
Nashville Cats, play wild as mountain dew
Nashville Cats, been playin’ since they’s babies
Nashville Cats, get work before they’re two
That´s why the city is called Guitar Town, I explained as my pal´s eyes glazed over. Nevertheless I recounted something songwriter Steve Earle had once said to me that ´if you can´t play guitar you can´t live in Nashville. No, really !´
Steve named one of his most successful songs after Guitar Town and the lyric says that
Everybody told me that I won´t get far
on thirty seven dollars and a Jap guitar
but I´m smokin´ into Texas with the hammer down
and a rockin´ little combo from my guitar down.
Mentioning Nashville as the country music capital and a ´guitar town´ reminded my bud of one of the best parts of his stay in Nashville: a trip to the grand ole opry ! He told me about the decor, the pictures of stars on the wall and he told me that they had seen,
´oh, what was he called, love?´
´who, love?´ asked his lady, wine glass half way to her lips.
¨That fella singing about trains. Billie someone or someone Billy..¨
I hazarded a guess at Boxcar Willie, cursing my luck that I had never actually been to any of the places this mate more travelled than Alan Wicker had mentioned and now he was telling me he had seen one of the very, very few country artists left on a wish list of those I never saw and now almost certainly never will. Certainly that is true of Boxcar as there are a couple of memorial sites named after the man who named himself after a character in one of his earliest songs, although his real name was Lecil Travis Martin. He was adored by his fans as America´s Favourite Hobo as he recorded songs of trains and travelling with studio produced and on stage sound effects. He enjoyed a couple of spotlight years in the UK, too, but unfortunately I never got to see him or hear him perform tracks off great albums like Daddy Was A Railroad Man.
As if to prevent me quoting more lyrics at him my personification-of-Wainwright´s-walks was leading us North, through the Rockies to Calgary in Canada, home of the rodeo. Unfortunately for my poor pal, I know a singer from that area, too, and I love his rodeo and cowboy songs. My pal had seen rodeo events during the day and the show scenes and music at night but I wanted to be sure he knew about what Ian Tyson (formerly of Ian and Sylvia) had told us about that Old Navajo Rug (written with Tom Russell) just like those sat on by the picnicking crowds at the rodeo or his tale of cowboys frittering away their Summer Wages. Tyson also wrote movingly of the rodeo life,…
it gets inside your blood It gets inside your mind
The only way of life There ain’t no other kind
All my thoughts roll back to you hope you’ll understand
Betty leave your lights on darlin’ Going to make it if I can
At that point our dangling conversation, having stretched to a couple of hours, frayed and snapped. For all my gentle jokes here, let me say that, for me, it had been a delight,…..hours spent with a cold beer, in good company on a Lanzarote shoreline recalling music and musicians I have known and loved,…. I mean, really,…all this and heaven too.
The dreaded lockdown news, when announced later on, was not quite as bad as we had all feared, although restaurants have to close early every night, and there are no live arts or sports. We can´t fraternise with friends and neighbours indoors but can meet them outdoors, which I seem to remember was a rule when I first started dating, many years ago ! I survived then, so I suppose I´ll survive now.
The lockdown here on Lanzarote has since changed to a level four but is of nothing compared to the one we hear about from the UK, and I never forget how lucky we are compared to so many millions of people locked down in fear and monotony. I hope, therefore, that those who have listened in on this conversation between four friends joined us on our imaginary road trip, saw the sights and heard the music, because THAT is how we get there from here
If we really do feel the need to go travelling round the world in lockdown in covid times we can at least still do so, from the comfort of our own home. If we want to travel abroad or even back in time, we can simply create a little playlist (like the one we have drawn up below), pour ourselves a drink, pull up a chair in any place where imagination begins, and off we go.
Enjoy your trip.
THE SIGHTS WE SAW, THE MUSIC WE HEARD
What A Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong
Take Me To The Mardi Gras by Paul Simon
Proud Mary by Credence Clearwater Revival
I Never Got To See New Orleans by John Stewart
Memphis Tennessee by Chuck Berry
Blue Yodel Number 9 by Jimmie Rodgers
Memphis The Belle Of The Blue by Janis Ian with Willie Nelson
Sunday in Memphis by Big House
I´ve Been Walking In Memphis by Marc Cohn
I´m Going To Graceland by Paul Simon
Galway To Graceland by Richard Thompson
Nashville Cats by The Lovin´ Spoonful
Guitar Town by Steve Earle
Daddy Was A Railroad Man by Boxcar Willie
Navajo Rug by Tom Russell
Summer Wages by Ian Tyson
Rodeo Road by Ian Tyson
The Dangling Conversation by Paul Simon
all the above tracks can be found on line at You Tube or specialist sites
this is an exclusive virtual selection collated by Sidetracks & Detours