The Middle Distance 7.4.14: Brown Sugar
In the summer of 1972, my big adventure was a trip to Nashville for the Rolling Stones concert. I had just graduated high school in Memphis, and my best friend David had bought tickets as a combination birthday/graduation gift. We had waited with rapt anticipation, following the media storm that accompanied the Stones’ decadent romp across America. Finally, June 29 had arrived.
David borrowed his father’s car and we drove the 200 miles from Memphis to Nashville early in the day, giving ourselves adequate time to hang out a while before the concert. The drive wound past summer meadows and lounging cows, through a Tennessee countryside still trademarked, at that time, by barn roofs painted with tall letters: SEE ROCK CITY.
Compared to Memphis, which started at the Mississippi River and stretched in a straight line eastward to its distant suburbs, Nashville was a compact, friendly city, circles of roads and hills all surrounding the beating heart of its center. David and I decided to picnic at Centennial Park. Our moods heightened and our appetites exaggerated by long tokes on a fat afternoon doobie, we stuffed our faces with barbecue, climbed the giant stone steps of Nashville’s Parthenon, and frolicked on the great green lawn until it was time to hightail it to Municipal Auditorium.
My memory goes blank at the moment we discovered we’d lost our tickets. There must have been a frantic search through our pockets and the car. In the blur of it all, a pay phone. David, stoned and self-assured, calls the ticket office at the Municipal Auditorium and finds the woman who’d sold him his tickets months earlier. She tells us to come on down; she’ll meet us at the box office.
It’s hard to believe 40 years later, out here in the jaded and digitalized middle distance that she actually did remember David and did meet us at the box office and did show us to our seats, high up above the stage. The opening act was a virtuoso, solo, multi-instrumental performance by Stevie Wonder. Then the sky cracked open and the earth shook when the Stones took the stage with “Brown Sugar.” Mick Jagger strutted and preened and tossed handfuls of rose petals into the crowd. David captured a few and stuffed them in his pockets and we left Municipal Auditorium in a trance.
We had agreed to meet up after the concert with some older friends of David’s from Memphis, one of them a college junior at Princeton where David would go in the fall. What remains in memory of that visit to their hotel room is the startling vision of two couples, completely naked, casually sitting on two double beds, passing a huge jug of wine, conversing with us as if all were perfectly normal. David and I sat at the end of one of the beds, fully clothed, trying not to notice the dark shadows on those bodies, the jiggling buttocks of one of them racing to the bathroom. We escaped finally, and nearly collapsed in true comic relief.
But our adventure was not over. In the Municipal Auditorium parking garage, David’s father’s car was frightfully silent as he turned the key. A parking lot attendant came over and listened and shook his head. Yep, it’s the starter, he said and kindly called an all-night garage a few blocks over on Third Avenue for a tow truck. While the car received a new starter, now well past midnight, David and I wandered lower Broad, the seedy part of downtown Nashville back then, with guitar-themed porn shops and dirty men with missing teeth stumbling in and out of darkened bars. Tired and more than a little scared, we took refuge in an all-night diner with a miniature jukebox at every booth. We poured nickels and dimes into it, guzzled bitter coffee, and listened to George Jones, Hank Williams, and Charlie Rich until 3 a.m. when the car was ready.
Buzzed with caffeine and the drug of new experience, we headed back to Memphis and into the darkest, quietest, loneliest night imaginable. No trucks, no cars, just a black sky with a million stars overhead, and I-40 stretching endlessly before us. Even the all-night disc jockeys sounded weak and tired as David drove and I turned the radio dial. We settled on an AM station and a teenaged evangelist we knew would keep us awake with his shouts. We arrived home just as the sun illuminated the flat expanse of Memphis. I hung my Mick Jagger rose petals on the bedroom wall with a thumbtack, then slept like a stone.