The first time I ever had a drink of whiskey I was standing in a theatre on Beale Street. This was exactly twenty-five years ago. There was fella holding a guitar up on the stage. He was about the age of my grandfather but somehow appeared both older and younger at the same time.
“This is a song I wrote,” he grinned, before launching into “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” which he most definitely did not write.
Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee, Polaroid SX-70 (all photos July 2020)
The musician was named R.L. Burnside and the theatre was the New Daisy. The Hill Country maestro had just told the crowd how much he hated whiskey. “I hate it so much, I want to destroy it,” he mumbled. “I want to just get rid of all of it . . . and the best way to do that . . . is by drinking it.”
Memphis, Polaroid 600
A cheer went up like there was a touchdown in an Alabama game, one of the old ones in the Liberty Bowl or at Legion Field. Along with several others in the audience I brought a rocks glass filled with Jack Daniels back from the bar and dutifully handed it to the blues player, awed, as he knocked it back without even a flutter of an eyelid.
Memphis, Polaroid 600. Robert Johnson got his portrait made upstairs at this exact spot.
My best friends and I had driven up from Starkville. I remember standing in that audience and feeling like I was on another planet. This strange emotion was magnified when Cristina Martinez from Boss Hog walked by in a floor length white mink coat, like royalty from space, or a time-traveler from the 1960s.
Beale, Polaroid 600
This molten performance by R.L. and his band from the same year, also in Memphis, will give you the idea of what it was like that night on Beale Street.
The strongest thing I drink now is coffee. On some mornings, like this one, I make a pot and listen to music made on Beale, played on Beale, about Beale, that I’m thankful I got to hear on Beale.1
Beale at night, Polaroid SX-70
Notable at the New Daisy over the years: JSBX, Lucinda Williams, Testament, Corrosion of Conformity, and Vektor; at Club 152, Pallbearer and Inter Arma. And that’s just one street in Memphis.