Veni vidi vici Got myself a “get out of town” pass for 48 hours recently without having any real reason to leave town. I just made my way toward Nowhere, all for the heck of it. Sometimes that’s the only place worth seeing. So I saw.
Call me what you will — a dirt knot, a bottom feeder, a trash bucket — I don’t mind. I love Florida. The slow morning warm-ups, drinking coffee in bare feet heating on crushed stone, whiffing at that sweet-smelling Bermuda grass. And of course, the intense cocktail vibe Florida so wonderfully provides is reason enough to go. If you like to get up in the mix.
But I didn’t go to Florida. I went to Mississippi, Clarksdale to be exact. That’s right, the Delta, home of the Blues, Devil’s Crossroad. I’d been there before, a few times, starting in 2004 when the Boston Globe sent me on assignment as a correspondent for the travel section. What luck! For three days I stumbled through that tiny town teeming with the memories of some of the greatest originators of blues music. I grew not just to love Clarksdale for the grit, the people, the history and the music. I grew to need it.
Now, it took me decades to learn to love the blues. And there was some tough learning along the way. The Robert Cray Band didn’t do it for me. They’re far too clean. Stevie Ray Vaughan was slick as slick gets. But I never loved it. Not until I heard The Wolf and R.L Burnside and Lightnin’ Hopkins bending them strings towards the Killing Floor was I hooked. Like a wild dog, you don’t try and force the blues on a leash. You wait for it to arrive, and when she does, you hold it tight and start lapping at all that bittersweetness.
That’s the blues, to me.
But I didn’t go to Mississippi necessarily for the blues either. I went for the quiet, for the distance that Nowhere provides. “Try and find me. Good luck.” That kind of distance.
Days ago, sitting in an enclosed porch attached to a one-bedroom sugar shack, swaying back and forth on a two-seat swing, I got lost in the golden glow that fell over the old plantations in Hopson, a non-governed region just outside Clarksdale. The sunset cooled me to the point of paralysis, providing me a private baptism of sorts.
Earlier in the day in Memphis, a former wrestler named Ohio arrived at the airport terminal in a black minivan with heavily-tinted windows, sporting a porny-looking mustache and a Colter Walls T-shirt. Waiting outside baggage claim, Gate Z, Ohio pulled to the curb and signaled me in. “Let’s go.” And off we went. Not to Graceland, not yet. The next day we would sign the wall at Graceland then skirt our way through Grind City, sniffing all the old microphones at Sun Studios, peeling back the layers of wonder, knowing Elvis Presley stood in this tiny room, creating The King. Too much.
We would also visit the very spot where the great Martin Luther King met his fate, at the Lorraine Hotel, second-floor balcony. Now a monument, the eeriness of the hotel is no recreation. The revolutionary died right there, right outside door 306. Hard stuff.
“First things first,” I announced to Ohio as we drove into Clarksdale, some 70-miles south of Memphis. “Time for a haircut.” I need one every two weeks. If I don’t get a cut, I’m a mental disaster, an unkempt tyrant pouting the hours away.
We walked into the first place I saw, the International Hair Design on Third Street. Walked in, sat down, ten minutes later, clip, clip, I was a new man. Now, we both were ready for our free birthday shots of whiskey at the Ground Zero Blues Club down on Delta Ave. It was early in the day for a shot, sure. But not too early for a couple Taurus.
Derailed at “Hambones” for nearly an hour, talking to the owner of the small art and music club on Second Street, the man of many lives, Mr. Stan Street, was the perfect launching pad for our visit. Street, a longtime bluesman and an incredible artist (I own three of his works), regaled us with talk of travel and art and desperate women, those willing to take a blade to a working canvas in vengeance.
There was no music playing at noon on a Tuesday at Ground Zero, so we ordered fried okra and some hot wings to-go, snapped back our shots, a couple mugs of local beer and we were shack bound. Shack life is the best life, the one I hope to live in heaven when my time in purgatory is complete.
Over the better half of the next twelve hours, I would periodically lapse into a mini coma due to all of the beauty the deepness of down south provides. Beauty in the sky, the grass, the crops and telephone wires. In the old faces, the vast burned out roads, restored theaters. Beauty in the air, the barstools, the tongues of foreigners, the voices of musicians, all flowing out the tip of my uncovered toes as I sat barefoot at dusk, swaying, thinking about everything and nothing at once.
“The Steener,” as my friend mockingly refers to Bruce Springsteen, writes wonderfully on his new song, “Hello Sunshine,” about feeling the need to just get out of town.
You know I always liked that empty road
No place to be and miles to go
But miles to go is miles away
Hello sunshine, won’t you stay?
I get that. But then, suddenly freed from my state of unconsciousness, I would burst through the screen door leading out into an open field, some fifty yards from a trio of old grain bins, and run amok outside our sugar shack, drunk on freedom, on distance, knowing that nobody could hear me, see me, need me, loathe me.
I was Nowhere. Exactly where I wanted to be.
Gone, baby, gone.
Rob Azevedo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book Notes From The Last Breath Farm: A Music Junkies Quest To Be Heard is available at the Bookery on Elm Street and Amazon.