Visiting Ghosts in the Deep South


Crossing onto the Tybee Island Expressway most Frats visiting the spring-break seaside resort probably wouldn’t notice they were crossing Johnny Mercer Boulevard. Indeed they might miss it because they would be looking for the turn-off for the only large supermarket, to stock up bulk on beers.  Mercer’s boulevard is a clue that one of the world’s greatest songwriters was from around these parts – he wrote the words for Moon River, Lazy Bones, One for my Baby and literally hundreds more. I saw Mercer when he appeared on Parkinson in the early seventies and never forgot what a funny old cove he was. He also sang a few of his favourite songs beautifully. The Bonaventure cemetery where he and his family rest is a Goth’s dream, a rambling graveyard of huge marble monuments, family plots, southern oaks draped in Spanish moss. Indeed it has been a film set; as we enter, a young guy asks me where it was they shot the sequence in Clint’s ‘Midnight in The Garden of Good and Evil’. At the Mercer family plot is a nervy blonde woman giving a scant tour to a bunch of sightseers. But she reminds us, or maybe we forgot, that Johnny had a lifelong love affair with Judy Garland, and many of his songs must have been written for her or at least with her in mind. Ginger, Johnny’s wife, was clearly long-suffering, as Johnny also liked a drink or two, but there they are lying alongside each other in the shade of the mossy trees with the Savannah (Moon?) river flowing quietly nearby.

At Graceland, you can move around Elvis’s pile with an audio tour if you wish – I like to do my own imagining. In fact it’s quite a small place, the ticket office and gift shop and car collection have been kept across the road, so the house is mercifully as The King left it on the night of his death in August 1977. On this chill, March day only a few customers are with us as we pass through the living room/dining room, the legendary kitchen and jungle room and down to his basement den decorated in yellow and black. In the Racket Court is another leisure area and an upright piano, he was singing around this on his last night apparently. So much of my youth is embedded in this place it feels quite strange to be so close to The King at last. For people of my generation Elvis kick-started something that enabled the Beatles, and therefore enabled me to be sitting here writing this. I wouldn’t say he is a godlike presence but the fascination I sensed when, at the age of four, I first became aware of The King, continues.

In the garden are Elvis’s grave and those of his parents, Vernon and Gladys. A small plaque commemorates, Jesse, Elvis’s twin who died at birth. I find an orange, Dunlop guitar pick in my bag and place it at the base of Elvis’s grave alongside a faded flower and a teddy bear left by someone else.

Macon is a grand old Georgia town; the façade of 1812 B&B where we stay could be a movie set for any Southern romance…’Quite frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.’ We discover that the 1812 is on College Street, which runs directly down to the Rose Hill cemetery, where Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band is buried next to his bass player mate Berry Oakley. Walking down the street we pass gorgeous Southern mansions complete with Doric columns and porches. Easy to imagine the wealthy of the nineteenth century striding across the white-painted verandas or fanning themselves, exclaiming at the heat or the price of pecan nuts. Unlike Mercer’s grave at Bonaventure, Duane’s proves a little more difficult to locate. Two elderly guys on Harley Davidsons are cruising around looking too. Both Duane and Berry were killed on their Harleys, so it adds a frisson to the barmy afternoon to have the soundtrack of the grunty V Twins; almost as if the Rock ghosts were hovering above us. Duane Allman was one of the great blues rock guitarists of his generation, by the time of his death at 24 in 1971, he had already immortalised his sound by being the creator of the unmistakeable rolling riff and slide solo on Eric Clapton’s ”Layla.”  In the end we spot the plot and guide a couple of Silvertops who have driven their drop-head Mustang into the cemetery on a similar quest. The gravesite is now fenced off due to fans celebrating the lives of their heroes by anointing the marble topped memorials with beer and reefers.

Talking to Gloria, the landlady at the 1812, Duane’s surviving brother, keyboardist and gravel-voiced singer, Greg, often stays at her B&B and is on “good form and doin’ well after his liver transplant”.  The Allman’s band, too, recovered from the double deaths of two of their key members little more than a year apart, and after many line-up changes they still survive and are loved in Macon.  Our young waiter at the excellent Dovetail restaurant told us that the Allmans used to hang out in the cemetery as teenagers and even named an instrumental, ‘Little Martha’ after one of Rose Hill’s inhabitants, Martha Ellis who had died when she was twelve.

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