It finally happened. There's a "For Sale" sign in front of the Harbert Hellcat Hotel (aka Mistyland, the Old Gray Lady, and the Cherry Mansion), that notorious hotbed of girl-band activity and bohemian intrigue. After 16 years of holding down the fort, Misty White -- drummer, promoter, and perennial booster of the Memphis music scene -- is preparing to leave her beloved home.
That's 16 years of holidays, parties, get-togethers, band practices, roommate skirmishes, and everyday life. Her annual vegetable/herb/flower gardens -- forests of 20-foot-tall sunflowers, zinnias, roses, and butterfly bushes and the biggest eggplants in Midtown -- will bloom no more. Her compost pile next to the alley wall will go unturned into that good night. Her cherished Elvis Presley Memorial Water Closet will fade into collective memory. The music that was fostered and shared throughout 1508 Harbert's echoing, high-ceilinged rooms will be silenced forever. The old house is settling down, soon to become home to a traditional family.
Plucked from what's left of the underground scene, the place was a casualty of the World Wide Web: According to the property manager, someone posted the address as a great free place to stay for touring alternative bands who are gigging in Memphis (old news, really). "It came up at the Central Gardens Neighborhood Association meeting in the fall," the manager explains, asking us not to use her name. "We got a phone call about a Web site that listed 1508 Harbert as a free place to stay for bands. [We were told that the association's] fixing to sue."
For a neighborhood association increasingly concerned with renovation, this nugget provided the impetus for an ultimatum: The house had to be renovated and/or sold ASAP. No more musicians, hippies, or otherwise scruffy artist types; no more shabby rental property; no more mess. Central Gardens is letting Memphis down, in a way. This is a music-lover's city, after all, and 1508 Harbert probably deserves a historical marker, not a realtor's listing.
For the record, the gray brick house in the heart of Midtown's garden district has sheltered some of the coolest, if not the richest or most famous musicians of recent years. (See sidebar, following page.) But now it's practically the only remaining rental property on a street filled with yard-of-the-month competitors, bringing to mind an old Arkansas truism: "You can't have nothing."
"That revolution -- when the renters all rose up against the landlords -- they had to kill 'em even if they liked them, " Misty jokes as I walk through the massive packet doors into her downstairs living room. The house is nearly empty now. Two families left during the holidays when the owner announced his intention to sell. Misty is the last holdout, and why not? Outside, the windchill is brutal. Inside Mistyland, as a little sign proclaims, things are warm and friendly.
"We live in a run-down house, and that's no longer acceptable," Misty explains. She has tried for years (to no avail) to effect repairs, work some sort of deal to fix the place up. While the house remains impressive due to its sheer size and zip code, it's obvious the owner abandoned maintenance sometime during the first Bush administration. The porch roof is falling, a support column lies toppled Ozymandius-style beside the driveway, and the chimney bounces bricks onto parked cars on windy days.
"My friend's windshield got smashed while he was parked back here. He thought someone was trying to burglarize his car," Misty recounts. "I told him it was the chimney again."
She has battled leaks, electrical outages, even intruders over the years in her quest to maintain the integrity of the place. One quiet Sunday afternoon, she surprised a serial burglar who'd slipped in the back door. Luckily, he was too loaded to fight back. Eight squad cars, a SWAT team, and a sizable population of Central Garden-ites swarmed the block. The burglar was captured without incident as he lay in a fetal position on the bathroom floor, arms around a blaring radio. "The policeman said that when they burst through the door 'People Are Strange' by the Doors was playing and it felt like an Oliver Stone movie," says Misty.
A recent Internet search failed to locate the information that proved offensive to the Central Gardens Neighborhood Association, but entering Misty's name brings up a mix of info, including details of a three-album stint drumming with those Memphis vixens, the Hellcats. She's played drums with R.L. Burnside at Junior Kimbrough's now-defunct juke joint, backed Joe Walsh at an Automatic Slim's gig, even toured Germany with the late, great Townes Van Zandt -- a nicer experience than a California run with that maestro of the unapproachable Pantherburns, Tav Falco. "We did L.A. on five dollars a day," she recalls.
"It's ironic," she continues. "People get a Web site, they think they're part of the underground scene. Then they post something and suddenly it becomes mainstream. And I don't even own a computer!"
In between road trips, Grateful Dead tours, and Hellcats forays up both coasts and across Canada, Misty has promoted Memphis music, providing a chance for up-and-coming bands to reach audiences. Her subsequent bands include Alluring Strange (which at one time boasted a line-up of seven women) and the Chiselers, whose sporadic appearances seem like instant holidays. Her twin Kristi, who sings and plays guitar in the Chiselers, has stood beside Misty onstage and off.
This queen of DIY has also managed to put on dozens of events and festivals over the years, aiding and abetting diverse musicians: CounterFest (for a while the underground's answer to Memphis in May); SinFest (a blowout on the beautiful grounds of the Ornamental Metal Museum); InFest (at the late Coach and Four Hotel); White Christmas parties; the annual, highly anticipated Hell on Earth Halloween series (at 17 and counting). There's just no telling how many seminal events Misty has generated in the blur of the past decade and a half. Silkscreening her own posters, bicycling to venues if necessary, exhibiting pit-bull feistiness in an often-sexist music scene, making more friends than enemies in the slippery world of music promotion, the woman has rocked her way into the millennium.
On the back wall of Legba Records in Cooper-Young is a display of silkscreened posters and flyers that chronicles two decades of "Misty Productions." It's a who's-who of dozens of bands that found their audience here in Memphis. Fragments to shore against ruin, perhaps, or evidence of something unseen, the posters prove that some people do what they do for love -- an increasingly rare phenomenon in the music (or any other) business. If a band played in Memphis, a visit to Misty's version of a Left Bank salon became a tradition, the cycle of cookouts, brunches, and philosophical discussions on the porch broken only by post-gig makeup sleep.
"There was a Smithsonian-funded movie about Townes Van Zandt that was filmed here, also a scene from Dan Rose's film Wayne County Rambling. And it has been fun hosting Japanese and German fans of Memphis music," Misty says of the many international visitors over the years. "Some of them even brought their dogs. All I know is, we've had quite a run here."
"I told the property manager I was moving April 1st," Misty adds, with a familiar gleam in her eye. "I will host a going-away party," she states emphatically. In true show-must-go-on fashion, she's not going to let little setbacks like an economic downturn, a looming war, and the imminent loss of her home deter her from her self-appointed rounds as cultural ambassador. She's more concerned with promoting a Valentine's Day "sweetheart's shindig" at the Hi-Tone.
Looking around her spacious abode, filled with heirlooms, original art, family photos, and archives of her promotional efforts over the years, Misty sighs and says, "The owner tells me if the house doesn't sell by spring, he's gutting it, so I'll have to be out anyway. I'd rather be left alone, but in the end, what can you do?"
Noteworthy guests and/or tenants of the Hellcat Hotel on Harbert:
Alex Chilton; Townes Van Zandt; Leggs McNeil (Spin music writer); artist Charlie Miller; Ray Farrell; Lydia Lunch; R.L. Burnside; Mick Collins; Ron Easley; Tav Falco; Lorette Velvette; Matt Pappy Johnson; Roy Berry; Diane Green; Jonathan Cinamataro; Greg Cartwright (Reigning Sound); filmmaker Dan Rose.
Bands: The Mekons; Faith No More; Young Fresh Fellows; Southern Culture on the Skids; The Reverend Horton Heat; Firehose; the Deadly Snakes; Jean Caffeines All-Night Truck Stop; Vegas Thunder; The Gabe and Amy Show; and no telling who-all snuck in under cover of night.
Denise White is a Flyer copy editor and Misty White's sister.
This Friday, February 14th, will be a reunion of sorts at the Hi-Tone Café, when Hellcat Hotel alumni and friends, La Paloma, the Chiselers, the Turnstiles and the Reigning Sound perform a Valentine's Day concert.