The thing about ditching your kids for a two-week, six-city trip to The States is, you have to make the most of every single moment. So with that in mind, I planned our itinerary to within an inch of it’s life. What’s that? You need a moment to scratch yourself? Sorry, that’ll have to wait until 3.17pm. Next Tuesday.
The the plan for Memphis was: Sun Studio, Beale Street, ribs, Graceland, Stax Studio, National Civil Rights Museum, Blues, more ribs, then early start on day three to continue the roadside itinerary of kitsch from Memphis to Nashville.
Which all went to plan until we turned up to the National Civil Rights Museum to find that it had been completely shut down for the afternoon to do security checks for the arrival of former Vice President Joe Biden, who was to receive a Freedom Award from the museum that evening.
He was being honoured alongside the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who actually stalked us a bit while we were in Memphis. He was on our flight there and we saw him again at the Blue City Cafe late on our second nigh there. Evidently, he popped in for some late-night ribs after receiving an award for his decades of contribution to civil rights. We popped in for some late-night ribs after drinking and listening to music on Beale Street all night. It wasn’t even Hoff’s first ribs of the evening.
Anyway, the point is, the random museum shut down completely threw our plans out the window. I had to be flexible. Pfft. We ended up having some enforced down time (my least favourite kind) and we had to see the museum the following morning. This effectively wiped out our ability to make any stops on the way from Memphis to Nashville as we were on a schedule to do a Nashville tour in the early afternoon.
And I had a cracker itinerary cooked up too. We were going to veer off the interstate to the city of Nutbush, or more specifically, the city limits of Nutbush, and I was absolutely going to make Hoff do the dance with me in front of the sign. If the National Civil Rights Museum hadn’t given Mr Biden and Rev Jackson awards for civil rights that evening, then I reckon Hoff would’ve given them an award for getting him out of that little exercise.
All that said, though, the National Civil Rights Museum was absolutely worthy of a complete schedule overhaul. Based at the old Lorraine Motel, where Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968, the museum uses the activist’s life and work as a starting point to detail the civil rights movement from the first slaves until today. It is stirring, poignant and at times upsetting, but a timely reminder of the movement’s history and the work still to be done.
So after our much-anticipated visit, we grabbed a coffee, waved goodbye to our new mate the Rev and headed east towards Nashville. The Nutbush will have to wait until we get there.
Even if you don’t consider yourself an Elvis fan, it’s a real treat to see a home of this period so well-preserved and so untouched by the trends of the last 30-odd years. There was not a distressed brick wall or exposed beam in sight, I’m happy to report.
It is the best exercise I have found. I have taken one inch off my waist and two off my fanny. Now I know how you keep so thin.
A reconstruction of a primary school journal entry, circa 1990:
On the weekend, mum and dad took us on a long drive to a place called Woodend. We went there to go to a jukebox auction. We bought a jukebox. When we got it home, mum and dad turned off the money bit so you don’t even need coins. My favourite song is ‘Leader of the Pack’ by the Shangri-Las.
At the time, I genuinely thought this was a thing that parent-type people did; go for a drive one random weekend and buy a secondhand jukebox. It was only much later that I asked myself, “What on earth possessed my parents to do that!?”
I’m still not exactly sure, but it was a Rock-Ola model 433 and it was the best.
We got to play whatever music we wanted and we knew where the secret cancel button was if someone picked something rubbish. Our friends loved coming over and playing it (as did their parents) and we had some awesome parties with the jukebox providing the soundtrack. We rummaged through op shops and trash and treasure markets for the elusive record singles it played. It was such a thrill to actually find a few. And when we did, we took them home, catalogued them and typed up a title strip to slide into the display window.
Later mum and dad got a pool table and darts board too so the jukebox lived in the poolroom. It was sort of like the best man cave ever, only better because we all got to play there and the whole idea wasn’t rooted in toxic masculinity.
The thing is, I realise now that the very best thing about that jukebox was the invaluable musical education it gave my sister and me. Absolutely priceless.
So when we got to Memphis we headed straight for Sun Studio which is considered by many to be the birthplace of rock and roll. Walking through the doors, I felt intimidated. Not because of the calibre entertainer that had passed through them before me but because I felt like a bit of a poser. I didn’t know much about Sun Studio, only what I’d read in my dog-eared Lonely Planet, and I was dreading having to feign recognition when the guide inevitably started rattling off the musical names associated with the place’s history.
I thought it might be a bit like that time we went to Florence and went to about forty famous art galleries and museums before we realised we know nothing about art or European history.
But, that wasn’t the case at all this time. Aside from the administrative characters associated with Sun Studio, I had a pretty good strike rate of recognition. No posing for this little tourist, just enthusiastic nods of recognition.
And it made me realise what a good job my folks had done of educating me in all eras of music and in encouraging me to enjoy and appreciate music that had come years before me. Elvis recorded ‘That’s All Right (Mama)’ at Sun Studio in 1954 and the fact that this music remains relevant to me today makes me feel totally warm and fuzzy inside.
I’m not suggesting every artist I know passed through that old Rock-Ola, but the fun we had listening to old music on that thing certainly gave me a taste for different styles of music. More than that, it gave me a fundamental understanding that there is value and reward in looking back and in preservation.
This is my absolute favourite thing about travelling. That thing that happens when you take the time to venture out and try something new, and the connections your mind makes when you’re trying to make sense of it all. In my case it was realising how lucky I am to have parents who not only exposed me to all kinds of music growing up, but who created such happy memories in my childhood. Memories that suddenly come flooding back standing in front of a tour guide at a 78-year-old Memphis recording studio.
Here’s the thing about football: I’ve never…. really…. got it. If you’ve ever read any of my previous blogs you’ll know that I’ve spent a good portion of my typed words talking about football, specifically, rugby league, so this may come as some surprise. Permit me to explain.
I am not an athlete. I have never been interested in playing sport. I avoided it at all costs. And I have always found the experience of not being athletic to be an alienating one, which I assume is not uncommon. It could be why so many people gravitate to sport as spectators. Those who can’t do….watch?
As I kid I bonded with my dad over a love of the Melbourne Demons (Aussie Rules, for those requiring translation). But looking back, I think my love of that experience was more about time with my family. My cousins were all Dees supporters too and I have some really fond memories watching games together. Aside from that, (and one particularly striking nude photo of Stephen Tingay in the Herald Sun circa 2000), I don’t have many of memories of the specifics. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t about an appreciation of the sport itself.
Fast forward to 2003 when I meet Hoff, who was a rugby league player and had never dreamt of being anything else. The only one more surprised than me that I have ended up married to a professional athlete would probably be childhood me. Or maybe my mum.
In those early days, I was well and truly a rugby league convert. I went to every game, I devoured every news story and I made a concerted effort to understand the sport and all its nuances.
But, as Hoff and I grew more and more serious, my relationship with sport became more and more problematic. Rugby league, went from being “that thing we do on the weekends”, to “that thing that controls our lives, determines where we live, what we do most days and our livelihood”. Sixteen years of being involved at a personal level is enough to give anyone a slightly different viewpoint, I think, particularly for someone like me who never really understood it in the first place.
All that said, I had an absolute ball at Monday Night Football in Green Bay. Go figure.
We went to Green Bay with the sole purpose of attending a Green Bay Packers home game. It was a bucket list item for Hoff and far be it from me to stand in the way of lifelong dreams.
We kicked off the experience with a tailgate event, which started a couple of hours before the game. It was incredible. So many people, so much food, so many drinks and not a shot measurer in sight. Eek.
Honestly, these people know how to do football. There were people everywhere and such a joyous vibe about the place, that it was hard not to be excited (even though I could only name one player on the whole team and even then only when I was standing behind Hoff wearing his jersey with said name on it.)
The attire was a site to behold too. Cheese wedge hats (which had me lamenting the finite space in my suitcase), green and yellow pinstripe suits and so many Packers jerseys that I was beginning to think they were compulsory town uniform. From the minute we got up that morning we barely saw a person – working in a professional capacity or not – who was not wearing one.
And holy hell was it cold. We’d been keeping an eye on the weather in the lead up to our trip and feeling grateful that it wasn’t looking too bad, then the day after we arrived a cold front blew through the mid-west and knocked about fifteen degrees Celsius off the mercury overnight. We’ve been cold ever since. Green Bay was absolutely no exception. I was so cold that I purchased a lovely pair of gloves, which I think really bring out the colour in my eyes.
I also chose to combat the cold by donning my ‘whiskey jacket’, which actually proved to be pretty effective (thank goodness for Americans and their generous pours). Also, thank goodness for the 80,000-odd other people who attended this game. It made for a cozy walk to the stadium and a good amount of body heat once we were there.
(I was less excited about the number of people at the game when I went to the loo at one point and genuinely got lost on my way back to my seat. Dammit, Hoffman, if there’s one sports-related thing you’re supposed to be good at after 16 years of professional fandom then stadium navigation should really be it.)
It was a good game too, I’m told. I can read a scoreboard and so obviously I know that the Packers won, but that’s about the sum total of my understanding of how it all went down. You get to yell ‘First Down’ every now and again, which has something to do with yards gained, but as I’m not exactly sure what a yard is either that doesn’t really help me much. Metric all the way, baby.
So even though I am a bit of a sportaphobe, I’ll always be grateful for having had this once in a lifetime experience. Not only was it all kinds of fun, I got to forget all my hang-ups about sport and just be a fan. (Coldest, least knowledgeable fan ever, but a fan just the same).
Ever since I was a kid I’ve loved sketch comedy. Full Frontal was my favourite and I adored Eric Bana’s Poida. I might be the only woman alive who found Eric Bana more attractive before he was a big Hollywood star when he sported a blonde mullet on Australian television.
When I was in high school my friend Loz and I made our own sketch comedy show. My favourite sketch was when Loz interviewed me as Dr Miriam Stoppard, who was the author of a sex education book Santa had pointedly given me that year. We filmed it sitting fully clothed in an empty bath with stockings on our heads and we thought we were hilarious. That’s probably why we called it The Funny Show.
After The Funny Show went into permanent hiatus, I moved on to watching Saturday Night Live, devouring anything any SNL alumni went on to make and reading memoirs of all my favourite performers. And time and time again this same place kept popping up as a training and breeding ground for almost anybody who’s ever said anything funny: The Second City in Chicago. It’s been a dream of mine to see something there ever since. So here we are.
And did I mention there’s also a touring Saturday Night Live exhibition that just happens to be here right now as well? I love my life.
We started our stay in the Windy City with a food tour. I learned was that Chicago is known as the Second City because it burned to the ground in 1871 and was completely rebuilt, not because it’s second to New York City, which is absolutely what I assumed. Apparently they get a little tetchy about that common misconception too. It’s their koala bear, evidently. Whoops.
And then onto Saturday Night Live: The Experience. Honestly, if there were a Make a Wish Foundation for adults in full health, it’d be my wish to spend a week at 30 Rock seeing how SNL is put together, which is exactly what the exhibition was. It was split into days and detailed outlines of what takes place on each day and it was absolutely incredible.
This epic day was capped off with a visit to Jack’s Pumpkin Pop-Up which was essentially one giant, orange Instagram opportunity but super-fun, whatever the case. (Sidenote: do Americans have a problem with obesity because they see vegetables as decorations? Hmmm. Food for thought. Get it?)
Friday saw us split up for the day because honestly, it’s been a long time since we’ve spent an extended amount of time together so we are pacing ourselves. I did a tour of the iconic Chicago Theatre and Hoff went to this sports museum where they something, something, home run, something, something hall of fame, something, something, World Series. I swear I was listening.
We reconnected in the late afternoon for a Prohibition Bar Tour, which was great because if you can’t find a tour where you get to eat and learn about a city, surely a tour where you get to drink and learn about a city is the next best thing, if not better.
I’ve recently discovered that I have Scotch whisky distillers in my family tree and not so recently discovered that I really like alcohol so I’m always interested to learn more about its role throughout history. Predictably I learned much more in the first few stops of the tour than the last few. The basic take away was that Prohibition was doomed to failure from the outset and the whole thing was an exercise in futility but now we have themed speakeasy bars so it’s not all bad.
And then finally, on to Second City which did not disappoint. We saw the 107th Revue on the Mainstage with a cast of six pretty great comedic performers and if one or two of them aren’t famous sometime in the next decade, I’ll be very surprised. Hoff and I laughed our heads off and it wasn’t just because of all the cocktails we’d had at Club Lucky before we arrived.
The last few days in Chicago saw us live out a few more of our Windy City goals – I did a deep dish pizza making class and Hoff spent college football Saturday sitting in a bar with about 63 televisions watching half a dozen different football games, drinking beer and eating BBQ chicken wings.
We also spent a second night at Second City seeing a completely improvised musical based on an audience suggestion, which happened to be “Flying Covered Wagons”. It was one of the cleverest things I’ve ever seen on stage. I tried to hide in a broom closet in the Second City training centre at the end of the night so I could sneak into some classes come Monday but Hoff found me and made me come back to the hotel. We’re off to Green Bay next to see the Packers play Monday night football and apparently he’s not keen on missing it.
In the meantime, thanks for the memories Chicago. We had a ball.