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Saturday Night Live!

Memphis nightlife: the good, the bad, and the weird.



It's Saturday night and you want to boogie. So what are you gonna do? Sure, you could hit Beale Street and have a great time, but there are a lot of other options out there in the Bluff City: college bars, karaoke clubs, after-hours joints, gay bars, music clubs. The Flyer staff fanned out across town on a recent Saturday night to conduct an informal report on Memphis after dark. What we found confirms the old adage: Variety is the spice of (night) life.

One More

2117 Peabody Avenue

Okay, listen up: Olivia Newton-John is not a lesbian. If you think or heard otherwise, you are wrong.

That's what the woman from Dallas said. She and a friend drove seven hours from Texas to hear Newton-John perform in Tunica, and if there's anything you need to know about the Australian songbird, she's the one to ask. She's the one with the Olivia Newton-John tattoo on the small of her back.

Now, how she made it here to One More on this Saturday night, who's to say? What's more, it doesn't even matter. This tiny place at the corner of Cooper and Peabody is, by definition, a lesbian bar. In spirit, though, it's a neighborhood bar. It's the kind of place to take a load off and maybe have one beer too many. A place to shoot pool at its one table or maybe throw darts at its electronic board. It's a place to slow-dance and to stay until all the songs you entered into the jukebox have played (Stevie Nicks is my bitch!).

According to Dan, who does maintenance work for One More, there's no rough stuff. The only fight he remembers is the one he was in himself. Earlier, though, the girl from Dallas whipped off her T-shirt to reveal her sports bra, but she was just trying to one-up the woman who was bent on interrogating a stranger about religion (Do you believe in God? Or do you just think you do?) and making a show of her ability to make a gal squirm by staring her down and asking way-personal, emotion-plumbing questions.

By 10:30, One More starts to fill: a straight couple, a gay couple, and women, women, women. Within these four walls, painted with a mural involving a number of flamingos, the women mingle and high-five and talk and talk. Your ex-husband wanted a three-way? So did mine. There's some discussion about coming out and about how difficult it is for gay people to adopt a child. Two Hawaiian honeys -- one with a heck of a hickey on her neck -- help the woman from Dallas name all eight of the Hawaiian islands and pronounce them correctly. Every now and then, someone cases the room looking for anyone who might know the score of this night's Arkansas game.

And above it all is Floyd. Literally. According to the bartender, Floyd was a homeless man who did odd jobs around One More. Two regulars took him in, and then he passed away. A son in another state didn't want him. So here he is now, cremated and in an urn resting on top of the beer cooler.

It's not a bad place to be. -- Susan Ellis

Yosemite Sam's

2126 Madison Avenue

Frank Sinatra, Madonna, the Beastie Boys, George Jones, and Joan Jett: The weirdest mixed bill in the history of music? Well, sort of. In one roller- coaster five-song stretch, the karaoke crooners at this Overton Square hangout took listeners from Ol' Blue Eyes to Ms. Blackheart and never missed a beat. Well, actually, they did miss a few beats. And a few notes, too. But it's all part of the gig at this oddball beer-joint cabaret.

The club is a sprawling space, decorated with an eclectic splatter of dangling inflatable objects, old music posters, football team lights, and beer signs. A large cartoonish mural of the man -- Yosemite Sam himself -- dominates one wall. Also of interest is the club's "Celebrity Board," which features signed photos of Elvis, Bear Bryant, Larry Bird, George and Barbara Bush, and Lou Gehrig, to name but a few. One suspects that most of the celebrities never set foot in the place, though there is a rumor that George and Babs snuck in one night and laid down a mean version of "Suspicious Minds."

The routine is simple. You look through the songbooks scattered around the joint, write down a song title and your name on a piece of paper, and hand it to the deejay. In a few minutes, you'll hear him say, "Dave, c'mon down," and the fantasy begins. You're Bob Dylan or Shania Twain -- or whoever the hell you want to be. It's cheap therapy, if nothing else.

The musical mix is as eclectic as the level of talent. I heard, for instance, the worst version of "Me and Mrs. Jones" ever offered to human ears. (It was compounded by the fact that the tipsy woman who "sang" the tune changed the lyrics to "Me-e-e-e-e-e-e and Mister, Mister, Mister, Mister Jones ... ") Mind-bogglingly hideous. She was followed by a man we came to call the "one-man Rat Pack." All night long, he sang Sinatra and nothing but. Wearing a suit and white turtleneck, cigarette dangling from his fingers, he did the Chairman of the Board's memory proud. Or, at least, Joe Piscopo's.

At the end of each number, there is at least polite applause, often led by the genial bartender, Marty. No one boos or groans or makes fun of the performers, no matter how pathetic the performance. And once in a while somebody with a voice gets up there. We learned, for instance, to look forward to one tall blonde woman's appearances. She had it goin' on. Her version of "I Will Survive" made us believe she would.

And near the shank of the evening, Flyer writer Chris Davis and some guy named Bruce delivered perhaps the finest version of "Sweet Caroline" ever poured into a microphone. Brought down the house. You should have been there. -- Bruce VanWyngarden

The Lounge

Second Street and George W. Lee Avenue

At the Lounge, a singer-songwriter is finishing his set early. His guitar keeps crapping out on him, he tells the audience, a crowd of married couples and their friends. A couple of them comment on the irony: If there is any place a guitar should sound good, this is it.

The Lounge, a fledgling venture (just weeks old), is housed in the Gibson Guitar factory, a few steps from the Memphis Rock 'N' Soul Museum. And entering the new club, it's evident that music is the main focus here.

Paying the $5 cover and slipping through the opening in the heavy black- velvet curtains that circle the inner sanctum is like bribing your way onto the set of Unplugged, MTV's old acoustic concert series. Oversized booths, café tables, and square backless couches all face the small elevated stage, giving everyone in the house a good seat.

But if the leather armchairs big enough for two, rhomboid tables, and high ceilings provide a beautiful 14-carat-gold setting, the stage is the club's crown jewel. It gleams with a high shine, blue light bouncing off the gleaming floors and the top of the baby grand piano. Below is a small moat where a few enamored souls gently dance.

The singer-songwriter, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, engages the similarly dressed crowd from a stool in the center of the stage. Most of them seem familiar with his work; during a song about the shortcomings of one-night stands ("minutemen" and women who are uglier in the morning), these 30- and 40-somethings bark along with the refrain.

The early crowd seems a little underdressed. The long, glossy, dark wood bars that rim the entire place like chrome on a '57 Chevy practically beg for a Coyote Ugly turn, but no doubt the management frowns on that sort of thing. But the place has posh down pat. One could easily imagine well-dressed celebs piling into the banquettes and sipping champagne.

It's a perfect place to see and be seen, but this bunch isn't here for that. They're here for the music. When the singer puts away his guitar, they leave in a mass exodus, as if they have to get home and pay the babysitter. The crowd, which once filled almost every seat, dwindles to a handful of couples and a group of men collectively celebrating their birthdays. An eclectic variety of music sporadically blasts from the speakers overhead: Tom Petty, Al Green, Brian Seltzer Orchestra.

As the night becomes morning, a New Memphis crowd -- young, attractive types who live in renovated downtown lofts or desperately want to -- slowly gathers at the bar. Trendily dressed and showing more skin than the early crowd, they drink cocktails and buzz around each other. In fact, it's so Sex in the City there is actually a couple getting it on in the bathroom. Once disturbed, they quickly take their show on the road. They obviously didn't hear the one-night stand song. -- Mary Cashiola

The Highland Strip

Conventional wisdom may suggest that Poplar Avenue is the city's choicest spot for running down pedestrians, but I'd like to place a vote for the weekend nights on the Highland Strip. With a passel of bars, a load of hard- partyin' U of M students, and exactly zero traffic lights between Midland and Southern, Highland is an always precarious game of human Frogger.

Crossing Highland was the only thrill-seeking proposition on this otherworldly sleepy Saturday night. With University of Memphis classes only recently in swing, you'd expect the strip to be jumpin', but on this night it seemed an almost languid experience. The Tigers football team is trouncing UT- Chattanooga down at the Liberty Bowl at the season's first home game and the bars were bare. Even Newby's, the strip's cornerstone club, seemed to be taking the night off. With no band playing, the club's door people sat out on the patio gabbing all night. Over at R.P. Tracks, three students who all looked like the drummer for Limp Bizkit got drunk and debated the merits of Taoism. Three other less-academic-looking young men entered in full Tigers paraphernalia, only to have to watch a bar TV showing Tennessee slog its way past Arkansas in a rain-soaked game as directionless as the mood on the strip this night. In a side room, a wedding party provided more intimate, low-key revelry.

Elsewhere on the strip, punk and goth kids hung out in front of the Hideaway Café, a couple made out for at least an hour in front of one of the strip's tattoo parlors, and the male-to-female ratio at Highland Cue was at least 4-to-1. A group of orange-clad frat types stood around the bar as Tennessee finally pulled away from Arkansas, Nelly's appropriately laid-back hit "Ride Wit Me" flowing out of the jukebox. -- Chris Herrington


4698 Spottswood

Don't let the name fool you. Patrick's is anything but an Irish bar. Nestled into the corner of Spottswood Plaza across the parking lot from Target in East Memphis, it's a laid-back, unpretentious place -- think Huey's without the toothpicks in the ceiling -- that is packed to the gills with guys and gals of a certain age and type every Saturday night.

And what age would that be? Well, let's just say Patrick's is what they call a "cougar" bar in the Pacific Northwest, cougar being a semi- affectionate moniker used in those parts to describe a youngish -- in her 30s or early 40s -- woman, usually divorced. (Note my use of the word youngish, indicating, obviously, on which side of the chronological Continental Divide yours truly sits.) Still, youth must be served, wherever and however you choose to define it.

It's a happy crowd, no sloppy drunks in sight, where folks pay way more attention to meeting and greeting than to adult-beverage quantity and quality. Time-honored pickup lines that have been passed along from generation to generation are overheard at the bar and on the dance floor, where, fortunately for those watching, just about everyone has done a reasonable job of keeping themselves in good physical shape, despite the challenges presented by Father Time. Thank God as well that that blinding guy-glimmer you used to get at places like Rampage a decade ago is nowhere in evidence. Gold chains are out.

The music is, as my companion Thomas suggests, "not gonna hurt anyone's ears." It's performed more than capably by the Distraxshuns, clearly regulars at Patrick's and well-regarded by most present. Thomas is a firm believer in the fact that not a single great pop-music melody has been written since 1974 and the Distraxshuns do nothing to disabuse him of that notion. Good, solid musicianship of all the rock-and-roll standards we know and love.

After a little bar chatter and dancing, we moved to the periphery to eavesdrop. A handsome fellow whose body language (and body) bespoke many hours pumping iron was chatting up two cougars at the table next to ours, one of whom, shall we say, had a considerable pulchritudinous advantage over the other. Guess where Our Hero's attention was focused? Alas, Maid Marian was no maiden at all but happily married to a pilot who happened to be traveling this particular evening. Which is why she was out with her friend (let's call her "Helen"), who (surprise?) was recently divorced and "really looking to meet some new people," as Marian put it.

Helen had done her damndest to look good for the occasion, but clearly her efforts were lost upon the Workout Guy. Oblivious to her very existence, he was in verbal hot pursuit of the girl from Sherwood Forest. Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead!

We left before the final outcome of this biological tussle was determined, happy to know that some things never, ever change. -- John O'Leary

The Spot

600 Marshall Avenue

The Spot is a modest bi-level place complete with bar, two dance floors, stage, mini pool hall, and room for about 150 patrons. For many college students, The Spot is also The Scene.

We wait in a line longer than that for a Victoria's Secret lingerie show at a boy's school. A group of security guards are on hand to ensure that everyone remains on their best behavior -- or at least doesn't fall asleep waiting. There is even a car show provided by drivers speeding by the club and taunting those in line with screams of "Losers!"

Actually they are the losers, because some very entertaining people are standing in line. You can hear young men spouting laughable lines of love like "I knew I was meant to come here tonight. It was to see your smile." Or "Why aren't you smiling, baby? Is it because I haven't danced with you yet?" (Now there is a long line of women losing their lunches.) And if you don't want to talk, fun can always be found by checking out the latest in urban fashions: Everything from ripped jeans to studded bustiers can be found in the winding line.

Further conversations reveal a little club history. According to frequent "Spotters," the average wait in line on a busy weekend is at least 30 minutes. The cover charge is $10 and students get in for half price after midnight. (Note: If you're older than college age, don't try to masquerade as a college student; they will "spot" you!)

Inside, you are immediately thrown into a world of loud music, smoke, and hormones. Strobe lights work the room, throwing flashes on the dancers and the stage.

The second floor provides some space to look out over the floor below and take in the scene. But because the second floor is also known for more adventurous activities, dallying here too long can lead to fondling. In various dark corners of the upper level, guys apparently can get a lap dance or a "clothed" bump and grind.

At the end of the night, after dancing (to the sounds of Gangsta Boo, P. Diddy, Maxwell, and Nelly), flirting with several handsome young gentlemen, and drinking a cocktail or two, you can relish memories of The Spot as you glance down at the bright-red "PAID" stamp on your right hand.

Oh, to be young again. -- Janel Davis

Beale Street

Beale Street is jumping, literally. Rising and falling like the belly of a panting dog, the whole of the street is consumed with catching up with the next thing to chase. Women in tight dresses and crop-tops sway and sashay in the same way that women on Beale Street always have. Men, sweat dribbling down their faces and onto their Ricky Ricardo button-down shirts, stand around, run around, jump around, each vying for a better view.

Standing in the cobblestone street's party sludge, Beale is positively magical -- a brightly lit temple dedicated to partying. Sucking on a drink table-side and watching the crooners croon and the dancers dance, you know why tourists flock here. It's Beale Street, it's Saturday night, and you're in the belly of the dog.

Recent years have seen Beale imitations pop up in other American cities. "Entertainment districts" they're called, a polite name for neoned blocks of corporate bars and T-shirt stands. To compete, Beale Street has countered with a few of its own corporate bars and T-shirt stands. Some popular spots play Top 40 hits, techno dance jams, and paeans to the disco, but we leave those places to the tourists.

At This Is It! we grab a long-neck and sit at one of the many tables, all of which seem to be in dark corners -- a geometric mystery. The regulars dance the entire set of the live performer and then stay on the floor to dance the entire set from the deejay who plays hip-hop during breaks.

Later, we go outside and get a drink from a street vendor, enjoying the fact that Beale is one of the few city streets in the country (and the only one in Memphis) where you can drink in public. We stroll east, parting the crowds, taking in the catcalls, dancing on the cobblestones. You can sit on a patio -- any one will do -- and just watch the show. But for crowd-watching, the upper deck at Alfred's can't be beat. And inside you can hear Kevin Paige working the crowd into a frenzy with 1980s covers like "Jesse's Girl."

At the other end of the street, the Dempseys thump out energetic rockabilly to enthusiastic crowds at Elvis Presley's Memphis. Instruments are spun, climbed upon, and lit on fire while the sweaty performers never miss a beat -- or a punchline. At Blues City Cafe the drinkers crowd around one bar and -- on the other side of the restaurant -- dancers crowd around the other.

Everywhere in between -- B.B. King's, Silky O'Sullivan's, Rum Boogie, the Black Diamond -- the sweaty, mascara-streaked faces of tourists and locals grin and gleam, heads bobbing to the real sounds of Memphis.

Heading back east, we stop and take in the beer-absorbing grease of a Dyer's hamburger. It's early Sunday morning on Beale, and, belly full, the dog is asleep.

-- Rebekah Gleaves

East Memphis

(and back again)

My husband Jonathan and our friends Joe, Carrie, and Billy explored the Half Shell, the Tap House, and the Belmont Grill. The Half Shell is more a restaurant than a bar and serves a full menu until 2 a.m. We were there early, and so were a lot of families. According to Scott, a bartender, the place exchanges its middle-aged iced-tea special-occasion first-date crowd for the fun-loving big-tipping pre-alcoholic crowd of restaurant employees after 11 p.m.

There was a family near my aunt's place when I was a kid who were constantly making additions to their house. It started as a modest one-level and grew into a towering three-story that looked as if it would collapse at any moment. You could tell where each addition began by its color. The inside of the Tap House has a similarly charming feel -- like maybe the Boxcar Children put it together. Two gals played folk covers for a crowd that was the rough equivalent of a fraternity/sorority three-year reunion. We got the feeling everyone knew one another from college. It was like we were the invisible guests at a private party. But apparently this place gets kicking around midnight.

I confess, I don't remember much about the Belmont Grill. I do remember thinking I was visiting the Half Shell's more down-to-earth sister. We all made further connections between the two. For example, Carrie observed that there was a sensitive ponytail guy at both places. Joe noticed that the Half Shell had a donkey painting and the Belmont had pictures of asses. Both served a full menu until late and both were nice and dark. The crowd at the Belmont was probably more typical of the later crowd at the Half Shell as well. I don't know about the rest of the menu, but the catfish po' boy was great.

We returned to Midtown to catch the midnight animation festival at Studio on the Square, careening into the parking lot around 12:15 a.m., late for the Spike and Mike show. People were standing against the walls and sitting on the floor and in the aisles. Everyone was laughing loudly and applauding. It was a great experience. Memphis could use more celebrations of this kind, where the marginalized people in film, music, and art are showcased and rewarded with a warm, supportive (and perhaps a little drunk) audience.

-- Lesha Hurliman

The Orchid Club

642 Beale Street

We get here a little early -- just after midnight -- after a trek through various parts of South Memphis, sampling hot tamales cooked up by some of the numerous parking-lot and street-corner vendors that are out most every weekend. We've spent a considerable amount of time with Lester, a wiry, hyped- up entrepreneur who says he is carrying on his grandfather's tradition. He began making and selling tamales in the 1930s, although Lester can't seem to remember if that was in Germantown or LeMoyne Gardens.

After drinking the tamale juice (read: spicy grease) out of a large aluminum cooker as Tunica-bound gamblers stop in droves to get their lucky dozen, we find Maurice, an elegant, willowy man in a large Panama hat. He is set up in a big food-vending van on Third Street, complete with lawn chairs out on an empty parking lot and his family, who are there helping him hand out the corn-husk-wrapped beauties.

But we have to make this last stop: the Orchid Club.We have to see our buddy, Sadie, who, after leaving Sadie's Soul Food Kitchen and Cat Fightin' Arena at College and McLemore some months back (and taking yet another few months off while her broken leg mended), is back in action at new digs.

At the Orchid, the famed year-round Christmas decorations are gone, the little nondescript building has undergone a facelift, and the interior has been expanded to take up the entire space. The clutter behind the bar has been replaced with some shelves above a mirrored wall lit with orange and blue lights and dotted with an odd assortment of 1970s stemware.

We're five minutes from the offices of this newspaper and a spit-wad's shoot from The Commercial Appeal building. Yep, it's the old spot that formerly housed Beale's End, the after-hours bar at the un-touristy end of Beale Street. Now, with the interior west wall screaming in big painted letters surrounded by big painted cocktails, it's the home of the Orchid Club.

Sadie's in her big new kitchen, ready for the night to get started. It's a sober, fly-on-the-wall kind of night for us. We meet Hollywood, the doorman, and Womack, the deejay, who's starting to liven things up with a string of R&B tunes as the well-heeled crowd starts to filter in. And even though we're about to explode from the tamales, we can't help it. We have to have one of Sadie's cheeseburgers. She serves up about 100 of them a night on Fridays and Saturdays. They are so good they can't be compared to any other burger in town -- heavy, greasy, loaded with mayo and onions and lettuce and tomato, and gone in a few inhaled bites.

She also cooks up fried shrimp, fish sandwiches, smoked-sausage sandwiches, and about 100 pounds of her famous chicken wings that people come from all over town for. The Orchid Club will be open for a more varied soul- food lunch in a few weeks, but for now it's the only bona-fide supper club in town we know of.

At 2:30 a.m., we're full and tired. Not so the rest of the crowd at the Orchid Club. The regulars are just starting to pour in and it's wall-to-wall people eating, dancing, playing pool, and congregating on the deck out back. When we leave, Hollywood walks us out and makes sure our car isn't blocked in the parking lot. We say good night and know we'll be back because if Sadie's in the kitchen, it can't be anything but real.

-- Tim Sampson

J-Wag's Lounge

1268 Madison Avenue

It's Sunday morning. Afternoon, rather. It's 2 p.m. to be exact. I'm sitting outside of Café Francisco on Main staring down a roast beef sandwich approximately the size of a baby antelope. I stare at it vacantly, much like God must have stared at Adam the morning after time began: as one intimate with every physical detail of the construct before him but a total stranger nonetheless. Though typically an early riser, I've only been up for an hour, and the incredible edible at my fingertips, the exact-in-every-way object that has passed through my lips on countless occasions, is as foreign to me now as the starry contours of Alpha Centauri.

Try as I might, I can't remember what happened last night.

I remember lying down on the slowly revolving sidewalk in front of the Circle K at Madison and Cleveland. I remember having just enough cash left to tip the cab driver when he dropped me at my house. The rest is recalled like some bedtime story my mother told me while I was still in her womb. One of two things is true: Either I failed in my mission to find the beating heart of Saturday night or I am the victim of too much success. This is not a question of seeing the glass half-full or half-empty. It's a question of not being able to see the glass at all. And the most disturbing question is this: Did I have fun at J-Wag's last night? Because I would certainly hate to think I feel this bad for no good reason at all.

There is something decidedly tawdry about J-Wag's, the most storied gay bar in town. From the spare honky-tonk décor to the impossibly dark patio, it has the feel of a rough-and-tumble roadhouse -- the sort of place where the combined number of teeth in the bar is directly proportional to the number of patrons divided by two. Only the penis-shaped stage and dance floor tell the true story.

It's nearly 2 a.m. when I make the scene. The crowd is small but diverse. Drag queens converse with men in cowboy hats and Wrangler shirts. White men hold hands with black men. It is like some bizarre cross between Dr. King's best dream and Jesse Helms' worst nightmare. Nobody is dancing. These are things I remember clearly. There is an array of items for sale behind the bar: cigarette lighters, B.C. Powder, bottles of poppers, cans of VCR head cleaner, and a number of blue aerosol cans I can't identify. "What's in the blue cans?" I ask the bartender.

"Lubricant," he answers with a smirk.

"Oh. Well. What do you know about that? My, my, my, my, my. I'll take a can of the head cleaner." When in Rome Out on the patio I'm instructed by a helpful bystander on how to properly use the stuff. You spray it on your shirt, inhale it through your mouth, and exhale through your nose. Within seconds, half of your brain dies and it feels like a fire alarm is going off in your head. This is when the memory started to go.

The next thing I do remember is standing over a largish African-American drag queen who is on the floor pounding her chest and lip-synching her heart out to "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" from Dreamgirls. I notice that her wig has come off and is nestled like a bird's nest between her knees. A less than hunky fellow in a Hawaiian shirt sidles up to me and puts his arm around my waist as a blonde diva in a purple gown begins to pretend to belt out "Total Eclipse Of the Heart." "No, thank you," I tell the man, removing his arm. He puts it right back around me. "No, but thank you, really."

It's not the poor guy's fault that I'm both straight and damn irresistible. And truth be told, I've hit the age, girth, and level of ugliness where being hit on is quite the unexpected pleasure, even when it's not exactly a Victoria's Secret model that's doing the hitting.

It was nearly 5 in the morning when I finally left J-Wag's and took a half-blind stumble to the nearest convenience store. I knew that hangover city was my final destination. I knew that I would hate myself the next day. I tossed the half-empty can of head cleaner in the garbage then fished it back out of the garbage then threw it back in the garbage again, cursing it. I called it the Devil. A wino clucked his tongue at me disapprovingly. And that's about all I know.

-- Chris Davis

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