This past weekend was the tenth-annual Gonerfest in Memphis, Tennessee. It was a whirlwind festival of about thirty rock ‘n’ roll bands, over a sixty-hour period, from near (Memphis and New Orleans) and far (Australia and France). We first went to Gonerfest in 2011 but missed last year’s because I was visiting family in California.
Memphis really stood up to a second visit, especially since we stayed in Midtown instead of the downtown riverfront area. It’s much more residential area and compact. Although we rented a car, none of our trips were more than two miles long, which is perfect for a bike share system, if you ask me.
As with any trip outside of New York City, there is a degree of culture shock. On this trip, all of that shock revolved around smoke. First, there was plenty of smoking in the bars. For almost my entire adult life, smoking in bars has been illegal where I lived. The statewide ban passed in California in 1998, and five years later, New York City followed suit. For me, second-hand smoke is something they do in movies. Second, if you can find an outdoor spot without smoking, there often is a smoker nearby because everyone in Memphis is mad about BBQ. By the end of the weekend, my clothes and suitcase smelled like an unholy combination of tobacco and hickory, which, if you think about it, really encapsulate a lot of Southern culture. There was a third form of smoke. While seeing a few bands at the festival’s night club. There were a few bands who used smoke machines. I know those things don’t actually use smoke, but since I don’t see too many live shows anymore, the effect was novel nonetheless.
Also on this visit, Memphis reminded me a lot of Portland, Oregon. Although it seems like deprecatory opinions about Portland are widespread today, my initial impression of Portland has been overall positive. Portlanders take a few things very seriously—music, coffee, beer, and nightlife—and it seemed like Memphis treasured a lot of those same things.
In my mind, I was in a Southern version of Portland because of the prevalence music scene and its nightlife. Granted, I was visiting for a music festival with people from all over the place, but it seemed like Gonerfest was more for visitors like us. The locals, however, were still playing plenty of shows during the Gonerfest shows, and they would even complement the festival by continuing to play before and after those shows. For example, immediately after the Saturday afternoon show, a pickup truck pulled up to the venue’s parking lot and inside the truck bed was a four-piece band playing a set. After about ten minutes, they drove off as they continued to play. A moment later, another band began playing in the parking lot of the strip mall across the street. And if that isn’t enough music for you, there were plenty of after-hours shows that would start after the Gonerfest shows and end before daybreak. One flyer announced such an after-hours show with doors opening at 2:00 AM. At my age, shows like that just seem impossible.
Memphis might not yet match Portland in terms of beer and coffee yet, although, there is a great coffee shop downtown that recently opened with terrific cold brew and an outstanding beer selection. But instead of fixating on coffee and beer, let’s substitute BBQ and soul food for that. BBQ used to be a rarity for New Yorkers, but that’s not the case anymore. However, for my friends from Santa Barbara, I can understand why they felt they needed to eat BBQ for every meal. I ate at one place and overate at another. I missed out on the spicy fried chicken and the biscuit sandwiches.
You might be asking, “if you had such a great time, where are the pictures?” Good question. Upon arriving at the airport and leaving all the magic Memphis had to offer, I realized that I had left my point-and-shoot camera in the rental car. Because our flight left at 6:00 AM on a Sunday, we were forced to use the after-hours drop system to return the car. I had locked the car doors and dropped the keys in the lock box before I realized that the camera was in the car. The rental office didn’t open until 6:00 AM. We’ve been calling the rental car office, but they said they couldn’t find it. In retrospect, I just should have missed or changed my flight and waited until they opened to get my camera. By now, it’s probably in a Memphis pawn shop or being fenced on eBay like this one clearly is.
It’s probably not fair to call Memphis “The Portland of the South,” especially since Tennessee already has a Portland, thank you very much. That Portland is near Nashville, a city that constantly compares itself to other places. Consider some of Nashville’s nicknames: “Nash Vegas,” “A Country Boy’s Hollywood,” and most notably “the Athens of the South.” Tell that last one to Athens, Georgia, which was in the South the last time I checked. And a recent article made me think of it as a honky-tonk version of San Francisco. Enough already! ↩