Postcard from Memphis

In my second-final year of high school the first girl I ever loved took me by the hand and led me into the arcade by the Odeon Cinema in Cairns. The arcade housed small businesses: palm readers, crystal sellers, tour companies and the kind of food joints where a baine marie doubles as a counter. She took me inside, about fifteen metres off the street, and into an emptied store-slot with the roller door up. A few artifacts from the previous business were still littered around: plastic potted plants, cabling, that sort of thing. She said "Give me your hand." I held it out to her, she turned it over and then gently let it go. I stood there with my palm facing upward.  She said "Do you feel that?" I did. It was like there was a small, dense weight in the palm of my hand. "Something important happened here," she said.

A year later she was gone, having packed a bag an fled her ex-Marine father: the one with the plate in his head who had removed the door from her room, read her mail, monitored her phone calls and insisted on being called “Sir.” I was in the rainforest with five of my best friends. Something happened up there, something a good friend had shown me, and I remembered Rachel, turned my palm upwards and felt the weight of the place.

A year after that I was in rehearsal for a show with the Cairns Little Theatre. I was on stage at the Rondo.  A New Yorker named Helen was directing me. She was telling about her experience in a production of Our Town when she was a girl. She told me something I’ve never, ever forgotten. The meat of it was this: when performing it’s tempting to think that power and presence come from sound and fury. It’s tempting to be loud, demonstrative, passionate. This, in fact, can have the opposite effect. Helen played the narrator character in Our Town. Part of her blocking was, toward the end, when describing the town and its people to the audience, to lift up her hand as though the entire town were right there in her palm. Her director had told her that if she stood very still while delivering that monologue, and resisted the urge to ‘act’, when the time came to raise her palm she would feel the weight of the audience right there in it. And it’s true: you do.

When I was in that one recording room on the bottom floor of Sun Studio – the place that gave a start to Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, dozens of others and rock-and-roll itself – I didn’t need to extend a hand. I felt it pressing on my shoulders like a blanket.

If you want a reminder of what the place looks like, U2's famous clip for Angel of Harlem was recorded there.  It's maybe... seven metres by five?  A long glass window at either end: one for the control room, the other between the studio itself and the preserved office of Marion Keisker – the secretary who was the first person the deal with, and listen to, Elvis Presley.  It was her passing the recording on to her boss – the recording that Presley had made as a gift for his mother – that resulted in Elvis having a career at all.

You can trace the course of the latter 20th century, the change to every single life on planet Earth, to that room. If you believe the Russian cultural commentators, music producers, fans, citizens, government representatives and journalists interviewed for the BBC Documentary How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin, you can even trace the fall of the Soviet Union to that struggling, off-white little studio on the corner of Union and Marshall Avenue.  Indeed, to a three-by-three metre square of space if you really want to nail it down. Passion, inspiration, poetry, resolve, revolution, courage, tragedy, sorrow, freedom, agency… the very shape of all those things and so much more was cast in that room for my parents’ generation and every generation thereafter.

We were taken through the place by Jason, a bearded young man with an anti-gravity haircut and an enthusiasm for the history of the place that's utterly infectious.  Jason's a working musician himself, performing on various soundtracks for films you've probably heard of.  My companion had looked around and asked Jason if he ever got used to it: being in that place every day.  He thought about it for half a second, shook his head and said “No. Not really.”

As it turned out I visited Graceland the same day.  Being in Graceland felt like having broken into an old lady’s home; one who is too medicated to know you’re there or that your friends are laughing at her stuff. Sun Studio is like being in the only temple on the planet.

And it doesn’t look that salubrious, which somehow made me love it even more.