All the Way to Memphis

We’re traveling through Egypt when the King appears. That is, his falsetto wail comes wafting from the dashboard speakers. It’s “Blue Moon,” Elvis at his finest and most eerie. With its ghostly minimalist backup and weird wordless croon — like a lovesick lost soul — the track might have originated on the far side of the moon.

“It’s the spookiest thing he ever did,” Dr. Rudy Kilowatt says. He, as usual, is right about such things. The tune is lonesome, beautiful and unearthly.

We pass through Egypt — not the bigger, sphinx-haunted, and more famous one: Egypt, New York — and get a glimpse as Elvis sings his melancholy song of the moon.

I’m at the wheel, sober and devoid of any hallucinogenic chemicals. Dr. Kilowatt is in the passenger seat, working the sound system. His brain is in a somewhat different condition than mine.

When it comes to drugs, I’m the straight man. No acid, no speed, no ludes, ‘shrooms, reds, white crosses, black betties, hash, yagé, ibogaine, bennies, angel dust or cocaine in any form. My two attempts at smoking cannabis were both very disappointing. I didn’t dabble with alcohol until I was forty years old. I’ve only smoked a couple of cigarettes in my life, neither with much success.

Rudy Kilowatt, sitting in my car as we make our passage across Egypt, is today my drug of choice. Contact high? Second-hand smoke? Sympathetic vibrations? Or is he my surrogate psychonaut, enjoying the visionary pleasures as we glide through the gathering dusk?

Egypt, New York, barely exists. Three minutes at a moderate pace and it’s behind us. I’m always disappointed here: there’s nothing Egyptian in town, except the cartoonish camels painted on the fire trucks. They wear fezzes and are shown in full gallop. The town has no miniature pyramids, no sphinx or fake Nile with rubber crocodiles. No King Tut Pizza or Royal Ramses Tattoos.

Passing quickly out of town, Rudy launches into one of his moonlight soliloquies: “Ever since Elvis left the planet, people say that in his last moments here on Earth, he was reading a book about the Shroud of Turin in his bathroom at Graceland. You’ve seen the pictures, right?”

It’s an Italian funeral cloth with a face on it, supposedly Jesus. “Why am I the only one who noticed how much the face on the Shroud looks like Charles Manson?” Rudy asks. “No way Elvis was gazing into those ancient empty eye sockets as he strained to let loose his last load on earth. No way. In fact — and I have this from the highest authority—the King was perusing Sex and Psychic Energy. It’s a book of astro-quasi-porn with lots of pictures that show the best positions for various celestial-erotic combinations. You know, like ‘if your lover’s Pisces is in the proper alignment, and your axis of Capricorn has reached its maximal potential, then full conjugation is at hand.’ That’s what the King was gazing upon right before he said goodbye to his earthly incarnation. He was, as the belt buckle said, “Taking Care of Business.”

“Blue Moon” ends and Egypt is behind us.

Rudy and I have now gone over the line into Wayne County; the birthplace of Mormonism and Spiritualism, and home of the great wizard, Luman Walter. It also contains the largest swarm of drumlins on the planet, and the Wolcott Venus. We’re not, however, stopping at any of these arcane attractions tonight. Crossing into Cayuga County, we pass through the towns of Victory and Conquest, and make it over the Onondaga line just as the sun turns itself into a livid bruise on the horizon. 

There are easier ways of getting to Memphis from my house. Old Route 20, the longest road in America, would do the trick. But I’ve plotted a different path for our rite tonight.

The first Memphis was the capital of Old Kingdom Egypt. Ptah was god of the city, Ptah who according to the Memphite creation myth brought the entirety of the world into being by uttering the names of all things. 

The second Memphis is the hometown, the death-site and burial place of Elvis.

The third, my private Memphis, is a hamlet ten miles west of Syracuse, barely a smudge on the map. Going clockwise around from midnight, it’s ringed by other equally obscure locations: Bangall, Crow’s Hollow, Oswego Bitter, Laird Corners, Peru (pronounced Pee-Rue, of course), Jacks Reef, Daboll Corners. Nearby, the intrepid traveler can also find Dead Creek, Quack Hill, and Satan’s Kingdom.

On August 16, the anniversary of Elvis’ death, I head east into the dusk, with Rudy Kilowatt. Two years before, Rudy had called on this date and left a brief message. “The King is dead. Long live the King.”

Since then, we have been planning to celebrate August 16 in the best little Memphis we can find. Rudy and I have set out from Rochester in my car, loaded with all the arcane instruments and substances we can muster. I have a small jar of white goopher dust (compounded of salt peter, sulfur, cornmeal and pepper) and a fake Egyptian scarab. Rudy has braided sage, sweet grass, a jug of water and a bag of beach sand from Lake Ontario, and two beautiful guitars.

In the hour and a half it takes to get there, we listen to plenty of early Elvis. “Too Much,” the song he recorded on the day I was born. “Paralyzed,” “That’s When Your Heartache Begins,” “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” and a dozen other tunes redolent with Memphite magic. “Blue Moon” gets another play.   

It came out three days before I was born. This track, kept in the can for almost two years, was at last released as I made my final preparations for entering the material world. It took three days for the song to fly across lightless space, bounce off the lunar surface and return to earth. 

Darkness is almost complete as we arrive at the sacred spot. Traveling our convoluted path, we’ve seen no sign telling us we’ve reached our destination. I am sure, nonetheless.

Here, in my secret Memphis, the main street crosses the New York Central trunkline and the New York Thruway. Still, the hamlet might as well be a hundred miles from East Jesus. The woods all around are dense and steamy. Only one building has a light on. We don’t see a single person the entire time we’re at the crossroads, though a few pickup trucks slow down, the drivers apparently wondering what two shadowy strangers with guitars and smoldering sage torches are doing there.

The rite takes place at the grade crossing. Rudy declares, “It’s perfect. It’s a mystery train altar.” He’s right: the road rises to traverse the tracks, the mechanized crossbuck pylons stand like mutant sentries with glowing crimson eyes. The four steel rails stretch off in both directions, symbols of infinity.

Our plan is to open the sacred space with sage smudging and song, but the gods have other ideas tonight. As we walk up to the crossing, a train looms out of the eastern darkness. The noise builds, the ground shakes, the safety gate arms swing downward, and the behemoth comes roaring past.

That close, encircled by swamp shadow, we surrender to the massive energy. I find the root-pitch of the train’s roar and wail into it. Rudy raises his arms and intones something in either Sanskrit or Tennessean English. The train seems endless, so Rudy has a chance to grab his guitar and find the chords to “Mystery Train.” We both know the tune by heart, and sing it until the divine apparition has finally passed. Or maybe it’s just brain-addled ululation, both of us sucked into the power of the rolling iron monster.

Buzzed on the noise and diesel exhaust, we take a few deep breaths. Then I climb onto the grade crossing and pour out an X with my white goopher dust. Rudy pours Ontario water and casts sand onto the track. Using the smoking sage braid, he smudges me: slowly and reverently, up the front, down the sides, around the back, murmuring “Om.” I perform the same ritual for Rudy, then we walk across the tracks slowly, passing from ordinary reality into the hot, humid, swamp-stinking other-world.

“Do you know ‘The Waters of Babylon’ ” Rudy asks. I sure do. So we give that tune to the darkness too. “May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable.” Rastafarians sang these words in the ‘70s, but they’re far older: King James Bible and ancient Hebrew.

The power remains with us as we spy another crimson dot in the far-off shadows. We’re amazed to see the spirit of the rails manifesting again, just as loud, just as huge and terrifying. As the engine reaches the grade crossing, I take a handful of my goopher dust and throw it. For a second or two, the train moves through a powdery cloud.

When silence has returned, Rudy says he wants to offer up one more song. So he gets his other guitar and we do a gentle, almost-reverent, version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” which Rudy says is his favorite non-rocker Elvis tune. I, and the peepers out in the swamp, add some harmony.

There’s an Irish vocal phenomenon called the “whiskey tenor,” and while I don’t have the same soulful caustic croak as the best booze-burnt Irish geezers, I imagine myself someday as an old man making the whispery lonesome wail. I’ve been singing — too loud and not at all pretty — for decades. I get few complaints, and few compliments. What I lack in musical ability I make up in staying power and indiscretion.

We sing for the King, a small, but heartfelt offering for the Big E.

As our parting gifts, I lay the Egyptian scarab on a rock. Somebody will find it one day and have no idea what the little oval of baked clay (with owls and snakes and a tiny baboon-head impressed on its surface) could possibly be. Rudy places a guitar pick on each of the tracks.

Heading back home, we take a more direct route: Federal 20. All the way, we listen to a Krishna Das kirtan recording: much droning and passionate Sanskrit chant to wrap up our rite night. A whole lotta repetitive “Om nama shivaya.” All hail Shiva, who destroys in order to create.

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