The year 1989 saw incredible change. Revolution swept the Eastern bloc nations culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall, collapse of the Soviet Union, and end of the Cold War. In China, protests in Tiananmen Square ended in tragedy. On the technology front, personal computers were getting smaller and smarter, and the first internet service providers launched in Australia, setting the stage for the modern internet.
In the Bluff City things were changing, too. "The Big Dig" was the city's defining public spectacle, in which a giant illuminated shovel was dropped from a helicopter, piercing the earth on the north side of downtown, where "The Great American Pyramid" would soon be erected, charged with all the occult power of Isaac Tigrett's crystal skull, soon abandoned, and ultimately designated as the future site of the world's pointiest sporting goods store. A massive fireworks display was set to the music of Elvis Presley, Al Green, B.B. King, and Otis Redding, climaxing with David Porter's 10-minute, synth-funk-meets-New-Age oddity, "Power of the Pyramid," which you've never heard of — for a reason.
Meanwhile, on the south side of town (I'd say the other end of the trolley line, but there was no trolley line), MM Corporation, then the parent company of Memphis magazine, launched a cheeky urban tabloid called the Memphis Flyer, to considerably less fanfare.
What was Memphis like in 1989, as described in the pages of a young Memphis Flyer? It was a city filled with fear, corruption, pollution, urban blight, and plenty of school system controversies. It was also a city full of artists, entrepreneurs, oddballs, and all kinds of music. And best of all, according to advertisements featuring a rainbow-striped superhero, for only seven yankee dollars Memphis Cablevision would "fully cablize" your home, including your choice of "high tech home improvements" like HBO or the installation of cable converters for non-cable-ready TVs.
Hustle & Flow director Craig Brewer was 18 years old and living in California in 1989, but the foundation of Memphis' modern film community was already being laid. A list of Memphians to watch, compiled for a pre-launch sample issue of the Flyer, encouraged readers to "thank Linn Sitler the next time you bump into Dennis Quaid at the Cupboard." The actor was in town with Winona Ryder filming the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic, Great Balls of Fire. Sitler, who'd been tapped to head the Memphis Film and Tape (now Film and Television) Commission in 1987, had been instrumental in bringing Great Balls to town. She was also praised for her lesser-known work with a Japanese-produced independent film identified in the Flyer's preview issue as Tuesday Night in Memphis. It was a languid, lovingly-shot ghost story shot in Memphis' empty and dilapidated South Main district. It was released to critical acclaim in the summer of '89 under the new title, Mystery Train.
The sample issue's list of up-and-coming Memphians also included grammy-winning sax player Kirk Whalum who went on to become the President and CEO of the Soulsville Foundation in 2010, as well as Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway, a 6' 6" junior at Treadwell High School who was averaging 34.5 points a game.
Although the initial "who's who" column may have missed a few of Memphis' future notables, many could be found lurking elsewhere within the early Flyer's 20-odd pages, sometimes behind bylines. Robert Gordon, documentarian and author of It Came From Memphis, and Respect Yourself, the story of Stax Records, penned a misty cover-length goodbye to jazzman Phineas Newborn Jr. The paper's first official issue also included a column by humorist Lydel Sims that was topped by a striking caricature of Memphis Mayor Dick Hackett depicted as a bespectacled, Nixon-nosed Egyptian pharaoh. The artwork was created by Frayser-raised actor Chris Ellis, notable for appearing in films like My Cousin Vinnie, Apollo 13, and The Dark Knight Rises.
That was also the year Memphis City Councilman Rickey Peete went to jail for the first time, and the Flyer asked if it was really the councilman's fault that "he was out of the room when all the other politicos were learning to play the game?"
Although its focus was Memphis, the Flyer also localized national issues and stories that would define the coming decades. The Christian Right and the hyper-conservative forces that would eventually become the Tea Party were in their ascendancy; ongoing national political dialogue was captured in a pull quote from Jackson Baker's profile of Memphian Ed McAteer, who founded the Religious Roundtable, a conservative Christian group that did much to secure the Christian right's influence on American politics. "Liberalism in a politician," McAteer said, "must be the consequence of either ignorance or deceit."
If Flyer readers weren't surprised by 2008's "too big to fail" economic meltdown, it may be because of reporters like the Flyer's Penni Crabtree, who penned this prescient line in 1989: "Banks aren't going out of business because they give loans to low-income folks — it's because they are doing speculative real estate deals with their buddies. ... Now we as taxpayers will have to bail the bastards out to the tune of $100-billion."
Future Flyer editor Dennis Freeland was primarily a sportswriter in 1989, but he was also concerned with urban decay. While other reporters focused on the new Pyramid and the proposed Peabody Place development, Freeland turned his attention to Sears Crosstown, a "monumental" building and neighborhood lynchpin that was listed for sale for a mere $10,000. A quarter-century later, Sears Crosstown is being redeveloped, as if in accordance with Freeland's vision.
The Dixon Gallery & Gardens opened an eye-popping exhibit featuring the lithography of French innovator Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in 1989, but the more interesting homegrown action was happening in the weedy, rusty ruins of South Main, where the Center for Contemporary Art (now defunct), and the original TheatreWorks, an experimental venue for performing artists (now in Overton Square), were establishing the area as a viable arts district. The trolley line wasn't proposed until 1990, and the fate of the area's "Lorraine Civil Rights Museum," was still in question. But something was clearly happening in the crumbling, artist-friendly ruins around the corner from the Flyer's Tennessee Street offices.
The Flyer's first food writers raved about the smoked salmon pizza with dill and razorback caviar being served at Hemming's in Saddle Creek Mall and saw a lot of potential in Harry's on Teur, a tiny Midtown dive with big flavor. They were less impressed by the Russian-inspired finger food at the Handy-Stop Deli and the side dishes at the Western Steakhouse, which was decorated with murals by Memphis wrestler Jerry Lawler.
In music, Tav Falco's Panther Burns were still bringing the psychobilly punks out to the Antenna Club, the famed alt-rock bar that, at the dawn of the 1990's, seemed to present as many Widespread Panic-like jam bands as it did hardcore acts. Falco's outspoken drummer Ross Johnson underscored the city's musical diversity by writing an early Flyer feature titled "Saturday Night in Frayser," about the Lucy Opry, a long-running country and bluegrass venue.
What did Memphis sound like at the dawn of the "Alternative" era? The college rock influence of bands like REM and Echo & the Bunnymen were carried on locally by the ubiquitous 5 That Killed Elvis. Dave Shouse of The Grifters, Easley/McCain studio engineer Davis McCain, and NTJ/Afghan Whigs drummer Paul Buchignani were playing Midtown clubs in a transitional art-pop band called Think as Incas. Shangri-La, the record store/indie label that employed Goner Records founder Eric "Oblivian" Friedl, while releasing singles and CDs by local artists like The Grifters and Man With Gun Lives Here, was one year old.
The biggest Memphis Flyer story of 1989 had to have been Leonard Gill's "Read 'Em and Wipe," a cover story that collected Memphis' best bathroom stall graffiti, including this probing question from the men's room of the P&H Cafe: "A generation stoned. Who will do the cooking?" I am happy to report that 25 years later, the author of this brilliant line was a newly-minted Rhodes College graduate named Chris Davis who, having majored in theater and media arts, was stoned, hungry, and wondering what on earth he might do with such a silly degree.
It would be eight more years before I'd get an official Flyer byline, reviewing the Broadway production Phantom of the Opera, prior to the tour's first visit to the Orpheum in Memphis.
You've got to start somewhere, am I right?