Road-tripping Discoveries: Clyde Hopkins

On Beale Street, in downtown Memphis, an elderly gentleman caught my eye for his dapper clothing – resplendently suited and booted, smelling of nice cologne and with a twinkle in his eye.

Clyde Hopkins, legendary blues singer, 91 years of age, comes down to Beale Street every Wednesday, to chat to folk and to plug his CD, still on sale in the Memphis Music Store (of course we bought one!) He’s even got his own brass music note on the Beale Street walk of fame.

Born in 1921, in his mother’s blues club, Big Baby’s, Clyde says he learned from the greats who played there when he was a small child, and by the 1930’s, he was himself playing in the clubs in Memphis. An inspiring gentleman, and just goes to show, following your passion keeps you young at heart!

Road-tripping Discoveries: The Peabody Duck March!

The Peabody, built in 1925,  is a beautiful hotel in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, famous for the Peabody Ducks that march daily from their home on the rooftop to swim in the fountain in the lobby.

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The Duckmaster announces the arrival of the Ducks! Celebrity ‘Duckmasters’ at the Peabody have included Stephen Fry, Patrick Swayze, Kevin Bacon and Oprah Winfrey.

Each morning at eleven, the Ducks march from their penthouse on the roof of the hotel, via the elevator to the lobby. To a musical fanfare, they march across a red carpet, and step into the fountain, oblivious to the crowds that gather everyday to see them.

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Happily waiting for the Duck March! I am easily pleased!!

Then, having had their daily swim, at five o’clock each evening, the ducks are ceremoniously led back to their penthouse home! The custom began in the 1930’s when the hotel manager, returning from a hunting trip, allowed his decoy ducks to swim in the fountain. The guests loved it, and the tradition was born!

Road-tripping Discoveries: Jeff Buckley…The Last Goodbye

2013 has so far rocked and rolled its way into autumn with all of the light and the dark of life being lived. Betwixt it all, there came significant birthday milestones for both myself and the better half. With that, the excuse to embark on some much-needed escapism in the form of three weeks of celebratory vacation time that took us from the auld hometown of Dublin, Ireland and encompassed Chicago, Illinois and Orlando, Florida, with an exciting road trip in between that covered Nashville, Memphis and Franklin, Tennessee, and Tupelo, Mississippi. So many highlights, too many to mention, but some too good not to share!

Starting with a poignant reminder of the fragility of life…

While strolling close to the Beale Street Landing, along the banks of the Wolf River in Memphis, we came across a bench, bearing a small plaque inscribed with a tribute to singer and songwriter, Jeff Buckley. Placed there by Mike Todd and his family in September, 2013, you can see Mike’s message to me in the comments section below…a beautiful gesture.

buckley 2 Memphis 2013

Posthumously famous for his haunting cover of the Leonard Cohen classic, Hallelujah, Buckley moved to Memphis in 1997 to work on his album, My Sweetheart the Drunk. During this time, he also played weekly shows at ‘Barristers’, a downtown bar, located beneath a parking garage off Jefferson Avenue. On the evening of May, 29th, while waiting for his band to arrive from New York to work on his recordings, Jeff, having swam there several times before, dived, fully clothed, into the Wolf River for a spontaneous swim.

Wolf River, Memphis 2013

Wolf River, Memphis

The River, which enters the Mississippi near the northern end of Mud Island, north of downtown Memphis, is also the route for many tugboats. Jeff tragically drowned, his body found six days later, having been pulled under the wake of such a tug vessel.

Despite some rumours of depression and suicidal tendencies, the subsequent autopsy showed no signs of drugs or alcohol in Jeff’s system and his death was ruled as an accidental drowning.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUq9sgPqfJ8&list=RDisYhMK3tP0c

His passing  inspired musical tributes from many of his contemporaries, including Chris Cornell’s Wave Goodbye,  PJ Harvey’s Memphis. Rufus Wainwright’s Memphis Skyline, and Aimee Mann’s Just Like Anyone. He was just 30 years of age.

Hope he’s resting in peace there, on his very own bench, on the Riverbank…

King, Kubrick and The Ahwahnee Hotel

Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining, forever deemed a classic of the horror genre, is nonetheless, a thing of contradictions and theories that run a gamut of themes and ambiguities. The talented legend that is Stephen King, who has admitted that while writing the novel, he was an alcoholic with tendencies of rage, was exploring the themes of the disintegration of the family and the dangers of alcoholism through the medium of the supernatural.

It is suggested that he was not happy with the downplaying of the supernatural element of the film, which he felt “took the “bite” out of the story and made Jack a less sympathetic character.” [Quoted from an interview with Laurent Bouzerau for a television production, A Night at the Movies: The Horrors of Stephen King.] According to King, he viewed Jack as being victimized by the genuinely external supernatural forces haunting the hotel, whereas Kubrick’s take viewed the haunting and its resulting malignancy as coming from within Jack himself.

There are also many social interpretations and references in the film that could allude to Kubrick’s concern for The Holocaust (the flowing of blood scenes and the motif of the number 42) and also of the genocide of the Native American Indians ( the rich tapestry of motifs throughout the hotel set), and the reference that The Overlook was built on an ancient burial ground.

All of these theories are well documented and are open to discovery and further interpretation, so let’s leave that forum to run on and on…

In this article, there are three photographs, not, as Shining fans might first presume, of images of the fictional Overlook Hotel, they are in fact, from the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park. The Ahwahnee, built in 1927,  and named from an Indian word meaning “deep, grassy valley” is now an American national historic landmark building, which I had the pleasure of visiting during a recent trip there.

At the time, though I can admit to a slight sense of déjá vu, while warming up in front of the gigantic open fire, and walking through the big old generous spaces, steeped in native american imagery, rich heritage and art deco, I had no idea of the connection of the place to the film, but have since learnt that Kubrick based some of the interiors used in the film on this very hotel.

Although neither is an exact likeness, Kubrick modelled the lobby and the great lounge for the movie’s Overlook Hotel set, and the Ahwahnee’s lobby elevator doors, with their vivid black-and-red frame, are very clearly featured in the film.

The Ahwahnee is no stranger to Hollywood, having also been featured in the movies, The Caine Mutiny (1954) and  Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day (1996) and has also been host to guests such as Walt Disney, Charlie Chaplin, Gertrude Stein, Ansel Adams, Lucille Ball, Will Rogers, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Greta Garbo. In 1943, the US Navy used the hotel for the convalescence of war veterans…

In the script, written by Kubrick with Diane Johnson, the character of Halloran, played by the wonderful Scatman Crothers, explains to the telepathic young Danny, played by the amazing child actor, Danny Lloyd, of the mystery of The Overlook Hotel…

Not things that anyone can notice,  but things that people who shine can see.  Just like they can see things that haven’t happened yet. Well, sometimes they can see things that happened a long time ago,  right here in this particular hotel – over the years, and not all  of them was good.”

Good or bad, I can’t help but feel that The Ahwahnee itself must harbour many secrets from its interesting past, that perhaps only people who shine can see!

Apart from my personal journal, for this article, I have also researched information from wikipedia.org, and yosemitepark.com and I do not own the copyright to the images reproduced here.

Alcatraz…and a spoiler alert…of sorts!

Scheduled for release this year, Fox TV have slated in the upcoming Alcatraz, a brand new series, described as a chilling thriller centered on the most infamous prison in America, the one-time home to the most notorious criminals in the United States. Coming from executive producer J.J. Abrams and writer and executive producer Elizabeth Sarnoff, the series stars Sarah Jones, Jeffrey Pierce, Robert Forster, Sam Neill, Jorge Garcia, Jonny Coyne and Jason Butler Harner.

This is the latest in a catalogue of film and television offerings based on or about the prison. Other well-known titles include The Rock, The Birdman of Alcatraz, Escape from Alcatraz…and many, many more. For some lesser known titles, see posters at foot of this article.

So I often wondered why the place continues to hold such allure for authors, screenwriters, film and television viewers, not to mention the many thousands of tourists and visitors whom flock there every year. And just like them, I recently took the boat to the infamous, island prison museum. Or rather, I took the tourist cruise.

It is what it is, and to be honest, initially, I was a little underwhelmed. Sure, it must have been a frighteningly harsh reality for the men, some as young as eighteen, whom landed there to face the communal showers and the naked walk of shame to the tiny, five foot wide, nine foot deep cells, where nothing but a steel bed, an uncovered toilet, a tiny sink, and a table and stool, fixed to the wall, complete with the “regulation rule book”, awaited them.

Though a minority few did allow the streaming warm rays of sun that beamed across the San Francisco Bay to filter down from the high-up, fortified windows of the cellblock, most of the cells did not allow natural daylight. The threat and reality of solitary confinement was very real for unruly souls incarcerated there, but no inmate ever had to share a cell, and Alcatraz offered every prisoner three square meals a day, all they could eat, as long as they ate it and didn’t waste food. One of the aspects of the tour of the prison is a story of how all 200 and odd inmates upturned their tables because their spaghetti sauce tasted so bad. A couple of discharges from a prison officer’s rifle was enough to restore order, and later, the quality of the dish! They had access to medical treatment, which the likes of raving, syphilis-riddled Al Capone and the dangerous psychopath, the Birdman, Robert Franklin Stroud, availed of, spending most of their prison terms there in the slightly more comfortable infirmary.

A rehabilitative approach came later, when prisoners at Alcatraz could sketch, paint, crochet (yes, you read that right!) had music hours when they could play instruments, had a library and could read as many books as they wanted, none of a violent nature, obviously. They could study academic courses, earn visitation rights, albeit through a partitioned glass, as well as the opportunity to work in the surrounding island gardens. Some of the prisoners even worked on cleaning and cooking duties in the Wardens house.

Perhaps the Native American Indian, Mexican and Black American prisoners received the harshest treatment, which was mainly perpetuated by other redneck, hick prisoners, forcing segregation that added a further punitive layer for those particular men. This says more about the racism that was reflecting in the society of the time as a whole, rather than a unique Alcatraz experience. In its lifetime as a federal penitentiary, 1934 to 1963, there were eight prisoners murdered by their fellow inmates on Alcatraz, five committed suicide, and fifteen died from natural causes. There is no record of any inmate having died through ill-treatment at the hands of the prison officers.

Harsh is the reality of any punitive system, and based on what I learned from my visit, the practices at Alcatraz seem no worse than anything that you cannot see today in prisons all over the world, where systems are failing miserably in their approaches to punishment and rehabilitation. For instance, the statistics for our very own Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison make grim reading: http://www.amnesty.ie/sites/default/files/HRII/UPR12,%20Amnesty%20International%20submission%20for%20the%20UPR%20of%20Ireland,%20March%202011.pdf  And need I mention Quantánomo? http://amnesty.ie/news/ten-years-guantánamo-–-decade-failure

I’m not painting Alcatraz as a picture of an idyllic prison environment here, far from it, but I am differentiating between the myth of movies and the reality that was. On the wall of the bookshop, there is a quote from an ex-prison officer, that alludes to the movie myth of the twitchy-eyed Governor and the sadistic prison warden…but the reality is that, apart from the unruly few, for the most part, and in the context of the time period, age of the building (The building that exists now was erected in 1906 from a fort that was built in 1859) and its unsheltered, weathered exposure to the damp-inducing elements, prisoners were treated in humane conditions, with inmates and wardens getting along just fine.

So to my earlier question as to why the place continues to hold such allure? Perhaps, as I stood there, on the inside, looking out, and so encased in that ugly, decayed beast that juts out from the belly of such beauty, and the pleasing-to-the-eye skyline of the city so near and yet so far…my imagining of times past and of festive, celebratory nights there gave me an answer. Nights such as New Year’s Eve, when the teasing, haunting sounds of the revellers must have carried over that mass of water and in through the barred windows, and indeed, still do.

And from that sense of place and emotion, I came to understand, sort of, true isolation and the solitary meaning of being completely unfree…and no matter how fantastical the myths of Alcatraz become, that this one devastating glimpse into the essence of humanity must linger in every crack and crevice of that ancient cellblock, prickling the intuitive mind, and taunting the imagination of those very same authors and screenwriters that I mentioned earlier…a mecca for story inspiration, and a haven for the ghosts that surely linger there…immortalised in fiction, but immortalised nonetheless…