Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Swimming to Zambodia

For a number of months in 1987 - 88, my band mates Linda Heck and John McClure lived across the hall from each other upstairs in this building, near the southwest corner of Madison and Belvedere, in Midtown, Memphis. Diagonally to the east were legendary Midtown watering holes Zinnie's and The Lamplighter, and one block to the west was the "world-famous" Antenna Club, where we left a significant part of our youth dissolved in the cigarette smoke, spilled beer, almost impossible darkness and (sometimes) beautiful noise of the place. The downstairs was a dentist's office or something of the sort, ensuring that there was no one around to disturb after 5:00 PM, or at the weekend.

In short, it was the ideal location for our rehearsal and recording activities, and many of the best four-track recordings we made (I have provisionally named a collection of these "Lonesome Train on a Lonesome Four-track") were done here. A couple of tracks even include the staircase of the building, being played percussively by the inimitable Jones Rutledge. The last time I was in Memphis, I noticed as I drove by that it seems to have been converted into a boarding house of some sort.

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The landlord of this then-quasi-respectable abode was one Prince Mongo, a.k.a. Robert Hodges. I only came across him in person a couple of times, when he was stopping by to collect the rent. He was considerably less eccentric than portrayed in this segment from "Real People" in 1981, but he was friendly enough and did refer to everyone as "spirit," never once using anyone's actual name.

My family moved to Memphis in 1974, and given that I spent my early years there either in the rather anonymous East Memphis suburbs, or in the ghetto (where I went to junior high), it took me a few years to stumble upon clues as to just what an unusual place Memphis was. Prince Mongo provided one of the first of these. It must have been 1977 or so, and I was at home, watching the local evening news as my mother prepared dinner. Just before the commercial break, the program cut to a teaser for the next item, a live segment from outside a home in Midtown, the very respectable Central Gardens, to be precise. As the reporter blathered on in the foreground, in the background, a shirtless figure in goggles, sleeveless fur jacket, and tribal-looking jewellery brandished a staff of some sort amidst a front yard full of random junk, baying skyward.

Unsurprisingly, I was eager to see what followed. The live segment featured more of the same in the background as the reporter attempted to relate the details of the dispute between Mongo and his neighbors. Meanwhile, Mongo climbed into a casket and was lowered into a grave dug in his front yard. I was amazed, and started to question just what sort of place my parents had brought me to, but in a good way.

Beyond being landlord to (as yet) unsung legends of Memphis music, Mongo was by turns a restaurateur (if one could count Prince Mongo's Pizza on Highland as a restaurant - the pizza was okay by the standards of the time, and it had staying power), club owner (Mongo's Planet on Front Street was a decent effort for Memphis in the early '80's as interplanetary freak-out decor, though the acoustics sucked and the bands had to play upstairs in a mezzanine space - meaning the only glimpse they caught of the audience was people coming in, or just as likely, going out, the front door. The Castle/Ashlar Hall was altogether classier, but felt a bit too Florida for my tastes.), and perennial mayoral candidate. The Memphis political scene has always been sufficiently surreal as to preclude anyone making much of a mark in the arena of absurdity, but Mongo has scored a few victories as a mocking presence, on one occasion I remember promising a revival of public executions in Court Square if elected. Genius.

As the clip here suggests, Mongo has allegedly long benefited from some external source of financial support, and I heard various versions of the back story over the years. The most common version was that he was the scion of a wealthy family, who left him money in the form of a trust, which could only be tapped if he were deemed to be mentally ill. I have no idea as to the veracity of this account, and it doesn't matter. His gift to Memphis, in my view, has been satire and entertainment - my favorite moment coming in the early '80's (if my failing memory is correct), when he claimed to be tired of this life on Earth and announced his permanent return to his home planet of Zambodia (many people told me over the years that Zambodia was a code word for his alternate residences in Florida). On a Saturday, he staged a farewell event, boarding a hot air balloon (Wizard of Oz-style) at the Mid-South Fairgrounds to the home planet, but unfortunately ended up executing an emergency landing on the campus of Southwestern University, about two miles northwest of his point of departure. He remains stranded in Memphis to this day.

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