In watching broadcasts of Memphis basketball (Tigers and Grizzlies, thank you) lately, I've noticed, logically enough, a promo for Memphis tourism pitching "Memphis: The Comeback." Though I have much respect for the fine work done by my friends at the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, I can find painfully little to like in this limp campaign or its lame concept — the apparent creators being the talented and capable folks at Sullivan Branding.
Born into a family far south of prosperous, I've nonetheless had the good fortune to travel, having visited and lived in a number of the "great" cities dotting the map of this grand country and coming to appreciate them all. But the fact is, I was born here, in the heart of a city whose name is celebrated in more songs than that of any other; a town whose palpable yet indefinable groove has etched itself indelibly on the minds of people everywhere. Memphis has measurably altered world culture — not with skyscrapers, flash, or skin-deep sizzle, but with the very real depth of its people, and how what they do always seems to be an extension of what they feel — good and bad, but mostly good. That's what keeps me here.
The Comeback? From what —yellow fever? The Great Flood of 1927? I can still remember a time when a thirsty soul couldn't buy a drink in Memphis, when deciding which terrific restaurant you wanted to visit didn't take any time at all. (You wanna go to this one or that one, honey?) A time when you likely saw everyone you knew at a particular event, because that was the only thing happening in town. If Memphians saw top-notch professional and college sports in world-class arenas, it was on television. Art galleries? Great parks? Bike lanes? Yeah, we'd heard of 'em. Seen 'em? Not so much.
Well, they're all here now. But, the fact is, Memphis was a pretty damn cool town before any of those lovely perks were available to us and our lucky visitors. I can't count the times I've sat on the bluff above the Mighty Mississippi River, sipping a sunset beer through an all-day smile. I saw B.B. King, the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, and Billy Joel — all in nightclubs. As a slack-jawed adolescent, I met Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, here to remix Led Zeppelin III at the old Ardent studio. That stuff don't happen in Terre Haute, people. I've had the best ribs on the planet and sweated through some of the hottest, most magical summers God ever made, watching all the world's wants and needs rolling down the river from Memphis to points unknown.
Most of these experiences were shared with smart, pretty women and crazy, talented guys — locals for the most part, who still sing, dance, paint, play, cook, create, and charm me every single day. Most of them, like me, can live anywhere they want. Yeah, the perks are nice — we've got a lot of great things in this town that we once didn't have, though most of those you can find some version of in nearly any big city — so much icing on the proverbial cake.
But I digress. The point of this whole dissertation was to address what, to my eyes and ears, seems a city marketing campaign almost apologetic in tone, as though Memphis is begging to be given another chance (what did we do wrong?) based on its cool personality and good intentions.
Isn't "comeback" a term usually associated with having once been down and out — a generally accepted has-been? Like,"Well, you know, Uncle Daryl's makin' quite a comeback since he got out of prison" or "Wow, that's a pretty good comeback, considering Earline's massive head injury."
I don't know about you, but I doubt most folks are gonna call Uncle Daryl to babysit or ask Earline to drive. I've been here awhile, folks, and Memphis isn't Darylton or Earlineville. In my eyes, this city has done nothing but swing up from an already pretty cool position.
The Comeback? Please.
Bob Nelson is a Memphis musician and realtor.