Mystery Train

MEMPHIS – We should all be lucky enough to get such advice at life’s critical moments. And receive it from a sage like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

“You should do like I do,” counsels Hawkins [1929-2000], a midnight desk clerk schooling a bellboy dressed in a ridiculous uniform. “Go over and buy your clothes at Lansky’s . . . I mean, you know . . . the clothes make the man.

“Look at that damn hat on your head,” scolds Screamin’ Jay in the since demolished Arcade Hotel. “You look like a mosquito-legged chimpanzee . . .”

A MOSQUITO-LEGGED CHIMPANZEE!

“Mystery Train” is the fourth of Jim Jarmusch’s remarkable run of films since 1980’s “Permanent Vacation.” To my mind, this monument to American music is second only to the writer/director’s “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” in balance and satisfaction.

“Mystery Train” – which opens with a gorgeous scene of freight cars coming ‘round the bend – was filmed on location here on the Chickasaw Bluff above the Mississippi River.

THE OLD DAISY THEATER, BEALE STREET, MEMPHIS

It features Rufus Thomas and Joe Strummer (who died in 2001 and 2002, respectively) and the voice of Tom Waits as an unseen disc jockey who plays Elvis Presley’s haunting interpretation of “Blue Moon” just before a gun goes off.

Waits voice alone is a movie unto itself, conjuring long, rainy days and gray bus rides.

When is the last time you rode the bus?

Not hopping on the No. 10 at the corner of Eastern and Ponca to run out to Eastpoint to watch Matt Porterfield film “Metal Gods” at the mall. I’m talking Greyhound and last year I rode that pale dog across Tennessee to see Waits ( whose best screen performance is not Zack “Down by Law” but Renfield “Dracula”) in concert.

A round-trip ticket from Nashville – where I spent a day reading “The Savage Detectives” by Roberto Bolano in the shadow of the Dixie Parthenon in Centennial Park – to Knoxville for the “Glitter & Doom” tour – was $70.

You pay a little more than money, however, when you step aboard a public motor coach. You step into that unkempt pie chart known as your fellow Americans.

If the bus is crowded and you’re traveling alone, you’ll be next to a stranger for the duration.

If your prayers are answered – the elderly woman across from me, Annie Morgan, had homemade “Jesus Loves You” bibs safety-pinned to the front and back of her dress – the seat remains unoccupied.

As the Interstate 40 highway signs for Lebanon, Cookeville, Crossville zip by, you look out the window, contemplate what you left behind for what lies ahead and try to ignore the guy broadcasting his life story to whomever will listen – the “woulda/coulda/shoulda” near-misses of a music career; his hateful ex-wife; his crazy-quilt religious beliefs; and how he won $12 on a lottery scratch-off the day before yesterday.

From Knoxville, quarries of pink marble provided the material for the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Where, if there is any justice in this world, a portrait of Tom Waits will soon hang.

Back in Memphis, however, “Mystery Train” does not feature the straight-pin and tape measure joint where Screamin’ Jay tells the self-conscious bellhop to go for some respectable threads – Lansky’s.

A Beale Street institution since the end of World War II, Lansky’s put the clothes on Presley’s back for the King’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in the which-end-is-up days of white men sporting pink shirts.

BEALE STREET, MEMPHIS

Now operating from the lobby of the fabled Peabody Hotel on Union Avenue downtown, Lansky’s remains the clothier for the likes of Robert Plant, Dr. John the Night Tripper and once upon a time, Count Basie, a cameo in “Blazing Saddles” and star of the 1955 film “Rhythm and Blues Revue.”

Earlier this year, at the Lansky emporium, I met Bernard Lansky, the merchant who befriended a young Elvis before the singing truck driver could afford anything in the store. I bought a pair of two-tone black and white shoes for Easter Mass and had them shipped to Crabtown.

As Mr. Lansky drew up the paperwork, I asked what kind of music he liked.

Upon which the octogenarian pointed to the cash register and said, “The Jewish piano.”

Elvis, who as a Memphis teenager served as “shabbos goy” for a rabbi named Alfred Fruchter and his wife, who lived upstairs from the Presleys, never would have talked like that. [1989]

Rafael Alvarez is the author of A People’s History of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He can be reached at crabtown@alvarezfiction.com.

IMAGE SOURCE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

 

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