Two of the three games were pipe dreams. The likelihood of Nelly's making it all the way into professional baseball, despite his obvious talent, was slim. He played shortstop, just like Ozzie ("I had the back flip down and everything"). A rap star? No one from St. Louis had ever gone platinum, and without a precedent or a St. Louis sound or blind luck, the possibility was pretty far-fetched. The record labels seldom look where there's been no success in the past. The third option, the drug game, was, of course, the most dangerous, the most short-sighted and the easiest to break into. But, chances are, if he wasn't killed on his way to the top, he would end up in jail, would eventually be released a convicted felon, would have to start from scratch years later and would have blown his shot at being a baseball player or a rapper. But it was also the most obvious choice. The success is right there for you -- all you have to is play the game right. At an early age, he decided: "I opened up shop at 13/Dimes, dubs, quarter-sacks and o-z's/From hand-held, digital to triple-beam/Now my pager's an e-mail flip screen/Expanded my game off into amphetamines."
"When you're a kid," says Nelly, "you're like, 'Man, I'm gonna have me a big house when I grow up. And then to see your dreams come true, that's something. When you're a kid, you feel like you're exaggerating -- 'I want about five cars. I'm gonna get my mom a couple of cars, my dad, my grandparents, get a house.'
"My mom always worked fast-food joints all her life," he says, "two of them, sometimes, just to help support me. Imagine working McDonald's for 20 years and then getting off at McDonald's and having to go over to Dairy Queen and working that, and then a Rally's now and then. And I was always complaining about Nike and Polo signs -- I wanted the latest gear, and she didn't have the heart to tell me no, I'm just not gonna get it. My mom was the type of person that she give me whatever I wanted. That's just how she was. But if she didn't have it, she couldn't make it appear. And I always wanted that -- that's something I do for her. Anything she wants, she can have, as long as I got it, because I know she did that for me. "
Nelly relays these thoughts in the middle of August, on the day his debut CD, Country Grammar, has gone to No. 1 on the national Billboard charts, jumping ahead of both Britney Spears and Eminem.
As most of us know, or should know by now, Nelly, 23, ditched both the diamond and the streets, opting instead, along with a few friends who call themselves the St. Lunatics, to make money with hip-hop. As he rhymes on "Ride with Me: "It feels strange/making a living on my brain/instead of 'caine, now." But he's doing it, and he's getting paid.
Who'd have thought, this time last year, that city and suburban kids from Charlotte to Sacramento would be shouting along with their stereos, "Sunday morning, crack of dawn, and now I'm yawning, Natural Bridge and Kingshighway is where I'm rolling"? Nothing all that exciting has happened on that street corner -- maybe a few fender-benders. But Nelly dropped the lines into the first track of Country Grammar and, in the process, pushed it into 3 million (and counting) pairs of ears, turning an otherwise typical intersection into a sort of Midwestern Valhalla.
People from all parts of the globe are being flashed St. Louie points of interest in the year 2000, and not just the Arch: the Galleria, "Plaza at Chesterfield," the intersection of Euclid and Labadie, and Hanley Hills ("in a black sedan DeVille"). They're imagining secret St. Louis corners, corners that most white St. Louisans never knew existed, let alone visited. And it's been happening ever since Nelly became the foremost ambassador, during that first week of August, of all things St. Louie. More so than anyone else this year, including God-boy quarterback Kurt Warner and the perky wife (who really belong to Iowa, anyway), it's Nelly who has screamed loudest, "I'm from the Lou, and I'm proud!" On Jay Leno's show, he wore a Cardinals jersey. In his "Country Grammar" video, the No. 1 video on MTV for two weeks running in August, he juggled Rams, Blues and Cardinals jerseys. In nearly every review of his multiplatinum debut, he's referred to not as "rapper Nelly" but as "St. Louis rapper Nelly."
If you don't know of him, you're listening to too much KEZK and not enough of The Beat; you're watching too much VH1 and not enough MTV, too much Survivor and not enough Phatfarm -- because right now in the pop and hip-hop world, Nelly's at the top. And if that doesn't seem like a big deal to you, consider the only other St. Louisans to make it to the top of similar charts: Tina Turner, Fontella Bass, Chuck Berry. No one else from St. Louis has ever done it. And no other St. Louis artist has ever sold as many records as Nelly has in a mere three months: 3 million and counting. If you're looking for the St. Louisan who's bringing the city national attention in 2000, it's Nelly.
"When I had recorded it," says Nelly, "I had already felt that I had won a little battle for St. Louis, just to even be signed with Universal. That album was more or less a celebration of being from St. Louis and celebrating the fact that, OK, we're here now, we're going to get a chance to make our voice heard, to let everybody hear how we're doing it."
Nelly and the crew from which he sprang, the St. Lunatics, are doing it with a unique style, one that, in the world of rap, has never been harnessed so successfully. "He's got a careful balance of singing and rapping," says Chuck Atkins, program director for The Beat (100.3 FM), the radio station that first broke the St. Lunatics, "and I think it was just time for somebody to come and do that. Nate Dogg on the West Coast was doing that, but he was singing more than he was rapping, so he didn't catch like that."
Rather than barking in rhythm, as many rappers do, or squeezing as much verbiage as possible into a measure, Nelly's style is casual and melodic; he'll do loop-the-loops with his voice, carry a melody while creating a rhyme and hum along gently. Of course, the best rappers harness all the weapons at their disposal, and many of them pepper their rapping with a dose of song-styling (the best at this was Rakim in his prime) -- it's not as if no one's ever done it before. But Nelly has a voice that's tailor-made for the style, and on Country Grammar he strikes a chord. "We're in the middle," he says of his approach, "surrounded by everybody else, basically, and everything meets us right there where we at. That's basically how we get our vibe and how we get our sound -- we take everything from all over and come up with our own."
Nelly kicks off Country Grammar with a simple declaration: "You can find me in St. Louie!" Anyone with a heart for the city can feel his love. But for many, his St. Louis isn't theirs. He continues the rhyme: "Where the gunplay ring all day. Some got jobs, some sell yea, others just drink and fuck all day." The convention-and-tourism folks can't do much with that, or with much else on the record. It's a down-and-dirty St. Louis that Nelly portrays, Redd Foxx's St. Louis, a sort of Wild, Wild Midwest. At least a pound of chronic is consumed during the course of the CD; at every turn, Nelly lights up a blunt, makes a play for a lady, pops a rival, flashes his weapon. It's not a wholesome walk through Tower Grove Park on a spring day; it's the raw stuff, and Nelly's detractors -- and there are many -- can grab a line of evidence in every verse. Other detractors, with merit, say that Nelly's rhymes are boastful cookie-cutter gangsta garbage, filled not just with misogyny and cocksure struttting but with bland misogyny and strutting.
And there's no point in defending him against these charges, no reason to supply the standard line "His reality is the result of the culture that produced him." Nelly can defend himself, if he feels like it. But he probably doesn't; he just wants to make an impact, smoke some weed, hook up with a few "fly bitches" and, most important, get paid. The brainiacs indicting him for the message are no doubt the same collegians who, in their English-comp classes, were instructed to "write what you know." Nelly's writing what he knows, and if what he knows rubs people the wrong way, or sends the "wrong" message to impressionable youth, it makes no difference.
Nelly has two sisters, one older and one younger, and two younger brothers (one of whom, who goes by the moniker City Spud, produced four tracks on Country Grammar and is currently in jail). His parents are divorced, and Nelly was shuttled among them and a few relatives during his teens when he was getting into trouble and learning the hustle. He was obviously a talented kid, though, a star shortstop at U. City High who fielded letters "out the ass" to visit minor-league camps. But, he says, "I took a year off 'cause I was doing the hustle. It was just a matter of the surroundings and not being strong enough to tell your surroundings, 'This is what I want to do.' Baseball isn't a popular sport in the 'hood. I kinda punked out on baseball, like, 'Nah, I'll get it. I'll be back.'"
He didn't come back. Instead, he hooked up with a few U. City friends in 1993 and set about learning how to rap. They recorded a few singles, shopped them around and got turned down by confused executives afraid to take a chance on the Lunatics' weird amalgam before finally catching the ear of a Universal record man. Convinced that the St. Lunatics would have a better chance if they pushed Nelly as a solo artist first, he recorded Country Grammar in 1999 and released it in August of this year. After a strong showing from the debut single, "Country Grammar (Hot Sh*t)" -- a single that's still on the Hot 100 after 23 weeks, currently at No. 8 -- the full-length debuted at No. 3, right behind Britney Spears and Eminem, and gradually pushed its way into the No. 1 position, where it remained for six weeks before L.L. Cool J.'s new album finally dropped Nelly to No. 2 last week.
It's no doubt strange territory for a 23-year-old kid from a town with few celebrities of similar stature. Were this New York or Los Angeles, there would be role models galore, people who understand celebrity, who know whom to turn to for advice and whom to trust. It has to be a little bit scary, even for someone with a tough exterior. "Well, it can be," he says, "but I've been on my own a long time, ever since I was little. But I always had that good bond with myself. A lot of people don't got that. See, my thing is, I trust myself to do the right thing. I talk to people if I feel I really need to, but I feel like, me, I've been trusting myself for this long, and I'm in a pretty good position, you know what I'm saying, and I've got good influences, as far as my friends I grew up with and their parents."
However Nelly moved from acting the hustler and working the streets to simply portraying the game with music, it's worked, and because of Nelly, a bunch of fellow St. Louisans faced with similar temptations stand a chance of getting a label deal rather than being forced to make another kind of deal. It worked, him trusting himself to do the right thing. "To straight see that that type of shit can come true," says Nelly, and you can hear the joy in his voice, "you're like, 'Yeah! Yeah! I can't believe this right now, what's really going on!' Sometimes I wake up and still think I'm late for work or something, like it was all a dream. But it's definitely here, man. And I'm just happy for St. Louis. We deserve it. We definitely deserve it. In the music industry, it's been a wonderful year. Can't nobody touch us right now. In sports, we got voted the No. 1 city in America. Then to have the No. 1 album in America coming out of St. Louis. What? Who wanna deal with us now?"
-- Randall Roberts
Burroughs lived an amazing 83 years, by all accounts retaining his mental sharpness to the end -- no mean feat, considering the well-self-documented assaults he subjected himself to. Although he published his last novel, The Western Lands, in 1987 (on its final page: "The Old Writer had come to the end of words, to the end of what can be done with words"), his last 10 years were extremely productive. His distinctive paintings were celebrated internationally; 1996 saw the publication of a sumptuous catalog of the Los Angeles County Museum's Burroughs retrospective, Ports of Entry. With veteran producer Hal Willner, he made new recordings of his work with music. He collaborated with Tom Waits on the libretto for The Black Rider, Robert Wilson's postmodern opera. He made a memorable appearance in Gus Van Sant Jr.'s Drugstore Cowboy. He spent time nurturing his late-blooming love of cats.
And still there were books: The Cat Inside, My Education: A Book of Dreams, Interzone, Selected Letters. Two significant posthumous books were edited and introduced by Burroughs' companion, friend and manager, James Grauerholz. Burroughs approved the manuscript of Word Virus: The William Burroughs Reader shortly before his death (at more than 500 pages, this collection represents only about 10 percent of the writer's published work). And earlier this year, the moving, meditative Last Words: The Final Journals was released. The tireless efforts of Grauerholz -- who first teamed with Burroughs in 1974 and today continues as literary executor -- allowed Burroughs to shed his "underground" status; they brought him undreamed-of exposure, increasing peace of mind and, eventually, the luxury of time.
Burroughs' literary star began its steady ascension in 1959 with the publication of Naked Lunch (finally judged "not obscene" in a landmark Boston trial), followed by The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express -- a trilogy of sorts in which he experimented with the "cut-up" method of composition-by-juxtaposition that he'd learned from his best friend, painter/writer Brion Gysin.
The Nova Convention in 1978 -- a three-day celebration of Burroughs' work, held in New York City -- featured participants Allen Ginsberg, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Frank Zappa, Patti Smith, Timothy Leary, John Cage and others. The event announced to a larger world that Burroughs' time was coming. When Burroughs showed up on Saturday Night Live in 1981, it was his final public appearance as a New Yorker. Soon he would be off to Lawrence -- the calm base of operations during the most celebrated years of Burroughs' public life.
1981 was also notable for Cities of the Red Night, the first volume of his final trilogy (along with The Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands) -- a last masterwork. A reading tour brought him to St. Louis for the first time in 16 years. Left Bank Books sponsored his memorable performance at Duff's on the day John Hinckley had made his assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. In addition to reading from his new novel featuring Clem Snide, hard- boiled detective and "private asshole," Burroughs also read his "When Did I Stop Wanting to Be President?" ("At birth certainly and perhaps before.... My political ambitions were simply of a humbler and less conspicuous caliber. I hoped at one time to become commissioner of sewers for St. Louis County -- three hundred dollars a month, with every possibility of getting one's shitty paws deep into a slush fund."). Burroughs' ambling, Midwestern tonality (think Missouri farmer meets W.C. Fields) was perfectly suited to his style of delivery: dry, laconic, understated. His performance underscored one of his work's most underappreciated characteristics: It's as funny as it is harrowing.
Two mornings later I was granted a generous two-hour interview with Burroughs in his room on the 12th floor of the Chase Park Plaza Hotel. We talked about time travel, lemurs, biological mutations, weaponry, underwear and outer space. A bountiful room-service breakfast was wheeled in: fruit juices, bacon and eggs, pastries, endless coffee. Burroughs meandered around the room in his gray three-piece suit, and the cane he carried seemed like an easy extension of the man; nothing about him was strictly for show. He answered questions graciously. He appeared to enjoy the talking -- a far cry from any image of a taciturn hombre invisible, as he was called in Tangier. All the while an enormous color television flashed images on the screen; the only soundtrack was our own conversation, unconnected to those pictures. Burroughs thrived on such juxtaposition: local coffee hustler Dana Brown and his Safari Flakes/the alleged abduction, by flying saucer, of two fishermen in Mississippi. Eventually Grauerholz persuaded Burroughs to sit at the table, but even there he was content with just his cigarettes. His most pressing question for me: "Have you been to the zoo lately to look at those lemurs?" (And on one of his subsequent trips to town, we went together ... but that's another story.)
From that room, Burroughs claimed he could see the roof of his old childhood home on Pershing ("It used to be Berlin, but they changed it to Pershing during the war"). Eventually his family moved to Price Road in St. Louis County. Burroughs attended Community School and John Burroughs (positively no relation). Those were the days of his immersion in the pulp fiction of the time: detective stories, Westerns, early science fiction -- seminal influences on his own fiction throughout his later writing life. His earliest known surviving piece is a short essay published in the John Burroughs Review in 1929, when he was 15. "Personal Magnetism" demonstrates his interest in sensational powers and the element of control -- one of Burroughs' lifelong magnificent obsessions. After receiving by mail a copy of a book promising ways "to control others at a glance," the 15-year-old Burroughs wrote: "Did I find out how ...? I certainly did, but never had the nerve to try. Here is how it is done: I must look my victim squarely in the eye, say in a low, severe voice, 'I am talking and you must listen,' then, intensify my gaze and say, 'You cannot escape me.'"
After Burroughs left St. Louis in the 1930s, he did a lot of traveling and relocating -- both geographically and psychically. He lived in Cambridge, where he attended Harvard; Vienna, where he briefly studied medicine; NYC, where as a young man he first met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac; Mexico City ("beautiful, clean air is what I remember ... of course, now it's one of the most polluted cities in the world"); Paris (the infamous Beat Hotel on Rue Git-le-Coeur); Tangier; London. Then back to NYC, this time the Lower East Side, his nearly windowless ex-locker-room digs with concrete floor, walls and ceiling affectionately known as the Bunker. And then, last, to Lawrence -- his least likely and yet most fortuitous relocation: the 1929 two-bedroom cottage built from a Sears & Roebuck kit.
1996 saw the deaths of Burroughs' old writer-friends Terry Southern, Herbert Huncke and Timothy Leary. In April 1997, the death of his close friend Ginsberg hit especially hard. And four months later, the unthinkable occurred. Burroughs' last journal entry, three days before he died:
"Love? What is It?
Most natural painkiller what there is.
Burroughs once wrote to Kerouac: "I'm apparently some kind of agent from another planet, but I haven't got my orders decoded yet." He spent a lifetime of writing trying to elucidate the things that made the rest of us only human.
The story has it that actor Johnny Depp paid something like $15,000 to the Kerouac estate for one of Jack's coats. Me? I was given the sweater that wouldn't fit into William Burroughs' travel bag. "Do you have any use for this?" he asked at the end of our interview. What, exactly, was I supposed to say? Nearly 20 years later, I have no idea where that sweater is ("Hey, step right up an getcher Beat collectibles! Who'll start the bidding?" eBay, oh boy, oy vey ...). But I do know precisely where to find each of my three dozen Burroughs books -- novels, essays, those outrageous riffs and routines. Yes, Burroughs has been dead for more than three years, but I've got the body of his work at my place ... and it's alive! (And, FYI: There's more Burroughs back in print than ever, so go.)
In "Remembering Jack Kerouac," Burroughs wrote: "Many people who call themselves writers and have their names in books are not writers and they can't write, like a bullfighter who makes passes with no bull there. The writer has been there, or he can't write about it. And going there, he risks being gored."
One of Burroughs' heartfelt claims: We are here to go. For him it was always worth the risk, and he lived -- for a good long while, at least -- to tell about it. Want to honor this edgy teller of tales -- sometimes cautionary, sometimes visionary -- who spent a lifetime mapping out the territory of the quintessential Survivor? Instead of wearing his face on a T-shirt, read the work.
-- David Clewell
"Love? What is It?
Most natural painkiller what there is.
-- David Clewell
At the close of the 20th century, the silence that was Peter Hudlin's greatest ally is his great-great-grandson's biggest enemy.
Richard Hudlin wanted to see the spot where Peter Hudlin and his wife, Nancy, became heroes, if only to their descendants, but their secrecy and the passage of time had covered their tracks. Hudlin spent hours at City Hall, the public library and the state historical society poring over documents, sometimes finding nothing after an entire day's work. He eventually found antebellum city directories and two deeds of trust -- one dated 1857, the other dated 1865 -- showing the couple owned property on 13th Street between O'Fallon and Cass avenues. But there was no address-numbering system that could pinpoint the location. The most pregnant clue lay in the deeds of trust, both of which mentioned a survey. Hudlin started calling title companies. Eventually he found one with the survey and a detailed map of St. Louis City Block 589, circa the Civil War, that had been Peter Hudlin's neighborhood. Hudlin drove straight from the title-company office to the site and paced off the measurements.
"It's in the parking lot for some Domino's Pizza," he says. But that didn't lessen Hudlin's feelings that day some four years ago. "It was such a rush of emotions," he recalls. "It's like what the pilgrims feel when they go to Lourdes or how an artist feels going to the Louvre. It was really something."
It's also an all-too-typical experience. "It's so sad," says Diane Miller. "We have lost so many of these things. What we have particularly lost are the homes of the African-American conductors. A lot of them were in areas that got decimated by urban renewal. I think we're still losing them."
Tales of the Underground Railroad abound in and around St. Louis. Caves along the Mississippi River once hid slaves bound for Illinois, according to local lore. Across the river, six sites in Alton are contained in a 1995 National Park Service survey that marked the beginning of a coordinated nationwide effort to commemorate the Underground Railroad and preserve what's left. The survey lists just two places in Missouri: a cave near Hannibal and the Old Court House in St. Louis, where Dred Scott unsuccessfully sued for his freedom.
Missouri isn't alone. Maps of suspected Underground Railroad routes spiderweb the north but stop abruptly at the Mason-Dixon line. Historians say states where slavery was allowed have typically been slow to research and preserve Underground Railroad sites, reflecting uneasiness with a past marked by bloodshed and legalized cruelty -- folks just don't want to talk about it. But that doesn't mean Northern abolitionists who harbored runaway slaves didn't have counterparts in the South. "They (escaped slaves) had to come from some place," notes Miller, national coordinator for the National Park Service's Underground Railroad project. "They didn't just catapult over there."
Historians working independently have found and preserved sites, but there has been little coordination, especially between states. Just as the grassroots established and ran the Underground Railroad, grassroots historians, many without academic credentials, have uncovered it. After two years of planning, the Park Service in October will launch a program aimed at finding sites, authenticating them and linking them in a national network. It's brand-new business for the Park Service, which is more accustomed to landmarks like the Arch than a sociopolitical movement based as much on tales as on bricks and mortar. "We're trying to bridge the gap a little bit," Miller explains. "Most of us who are working on it for the Park Service, we all have the academic degrees. But we also respect the work that's been happening at the community level because it's so involved with oral tradition and family stories. You can't really get to this history if you dismiss that. I don't know if I want to call it a failing, but that's one of the things that's happened in the past. A lot of that has been dismissed, and people haven't looked further."
The void between officialdom and grassroots closed a bit last month in St. Louis, where Gateway High School teacher Chip Clatto in late August won a one-year extension of a permit allowing his team of students to continue an archeological dig at a home at 3314 Lemp Ave. The dilapidated home once quartered slaves, according to neighborhood legend. Officials were slow to accept the potential importance of the site, and minds didn't change until the city had already demolished the house, filling the basement with debris that has complicated the task of investigating whether there is any truth to the stories. But Clatto and his students are pressing on.
The demolition last year came after the state Department of Natural Resources and the city concluded the home was likely built around 1864, after the demise of the Underground Railroad, and likely housed brewery workers. Last summer, Clatto's students found a cowrie shell similar to the type used as currency in Africa and a carved piece of bone resembling an elephant's tusk. A few yards away was the opening to a filled-in passageway that Clatto suspects is linked to caves that once led to the Mississippi and hid slaves en route to freedom. Then again, the passageways and caves may have been nothing more than a place for the Lemp Brewery to store kegs. No one knows for sure, but the state now says the possibility of Underground Railroad activity can't be ruled out. After hearing from state officials and Ald. Craig Schmid (D-10th Ward), who assured commissioners demolition debris would be cleaned up and the students' work overseen by historians and archeologists with Ph.D.'s, the city Land Reutilization Authority on Aug. 30 extended for one year the excavation permit.
Although thankful for the chance to continue digging, Clatto remains critical of the city. "St. Louis has done a terrible job of preserving history," he says. "These people screwed up. The building didn't need to be demolished." The lack of official recognition doesn't mean there aren't churches and homes in Webster Groves, Des Peres and other communities where fugitive slaves found refuge, he says. He notes that Missouri was once home to more than 100,000 slaves. "There were runaways, and they had to go someplace," he says. "It pisses me off when people say there's never been a documented site."
Barbara Woods, director emeritus of the African-American studies department at St. Louis University, who has helped the Park Service develop its plan, is betting St. Louis will have a site on the national network within the next two years, but she won't name a leading candidate. "When you do that, the public takes one little piece and reinterprets it their way," she explains. "There's a lot of work to be done. What we do know through some research is, Underground Railroad activity certainly was taking place in Missouri. We know there was activity here in St. Louis just because of our neighbor Illinois. In terms of getting the documentation, it's not there. The leads are very interesting and very exciting."
-- Bruce Rushton
-- Bruce Rushton
Located directly underneath the Lemp Brewery complex at the corner of South Broadway and Lemp Street, the Lemp cave system was once part of the larger Cherokee Caves, a natural complex that stretched throughout South City. In the mid-19th century, beer baron Adam Lemp, needing a way to naturally refrigerate his lager beer, harnessed the coolness of the caves and transformed them into a series of wild and wonderful semi-Gothic tunnels and dungeons, most of which still retain a striking similarity to how they appeared a century-and-a-half ago.
"The buildings have vaults," says Shashi Palamand -- who, along with his father, Rao Palamand, owns the Lemp Brewery complex -- "which were part of the underground system, but (Lemp) changed them for his own purposes and made beautiful-looking vaults. From the brewhouse, you could come down through the elevator. There was a little mining trolley that he used to have going around. There's another entrance from the bottling plant, and he would store all the beer in there and then throughout the whole area and in the vaults. They're deep underneath the buildings. Almost every building is connected by either the caves, or tunnels which he built, or caves that he turned into tunnels by widening them.
"Back in the 19th century, refrigeration was at a real premium, and that's why he wanted the caves, for their natural coolness. These caves are 55 degrees year-round. That's not cold enough, so he built an icehouse. They used to cut ice off the Mississippi, bring it up through his railroad; he'd lift it up to an upper floor (of the icehouse), process the ice and then take it down to the caves to bring the temperature down to anywhere from 35 to 40 degrees."
There are 29 buildings in the Lemp Brewery complex, most built between the mid-19th century and the early 20th. Adam Lemp moved his brewing enterprise here because of these caves, and above them he constructed what seems to be a little township: Alleyways and streets connect the buildings, buildings that, although constructed for various functions, were created with an artisan's eye for detail. The complex is still totally intact and in use, and the compound's Gothic presence, especially on a gray, drizzled day, suggests Transylvania. It makes sense, even from above, that there are caves beneath.
Though some of the Cherokee Cave system was destroyed when Interstate 55 was built, the tunnels underneath the Lemp branch are in relatively pristine condition. After cavegoers step off the wide freight elevator and into the darkness, a flashlight reveals an outlet, and maintenance manager Jerry Hunter plugs in an extension cord that lights up a long tunnel, one that seems partially manmade, partially natural. A curved stone ceiling has been constructed as extra support; remnants of the trolley tracks lead deep into the darkness. Every turn reveals another corridor, and huge rooms branch off, each a storage room that once held beer barrels. Dozens of these storage spaces fill the system, says Palamand, pointing with his flashlight into the black. "These are some of the vaults -- the lagering cellars -- and there are three levels of these. These are some of the smaller ones, but there are some that are 15 feet tall. They all kind of have a Quonset-hut shape."
Turning a corner, he continues: "That leads down to something ... whoa. I've never seen that before." His flashlight is aimed at a large pulley system, ragged with rust, all gears and levers, that appears to be some sort of heavy-duty dumbwaiter. "We're still trying to figure out what some of this stuff was used for. It all had a purpose, but ..." He trails off while rounding another corner. Another set of lights is illuminated, and there, close to the ground, a weird little window is framed into the stone wall. Inside the window, a natural spring flows. "Hey! Cool! Look!" Palamand says. "I've never seen that before!" It's a sort of Harry Potter moment, as he delights in the sight with the wonder of an adolescent. Regaining his authority, he explains that the Palamands hope to bottle and market this spring water some day.
Adam Lemp seemed to relish the underground in a similar fashion. In addition to constructing all that cold-storage space, he tended to indulge himself. He transformed huge caverns into dungeonesque rooms with domed ceilings, all of which are easily accessed as sub-basements beneath the buildings. Continues Shashi Palamand, "Being a beer baron at that time, he had so much money that he didn't know what to do with it all. So he took part of the cave and turned it into a theater, where he had plays and whatever. He took another part of it and created a spa, like a pool. And they used to go down there to relax." The theater still exists, sitting at the tail end of one of the caves. It, like much of the other fanciness, has been ignored for the past century and is in a state of disrepair.
Other areas, though, are pristine and still being used on occasion. Until about a year ago, the Lemp was one of the prime spots in the city for all-night raves, and some of these sub-basements were used. And, visiting the massive cave system through the eyes of a rave promoter, it's no wonder; way down in the ground, nothing can touch you: no one to lodge noise complaints; little threat of intervention. The sound is literally buried, and the heavy darkness is perfect for massive light shows. One particular area was a remarkable space for a party; its 30-foot domed ceilings, painted white, reflected the strobes and colored lasers; the bass boom was huge; and the overall feeling of the party was accentuated by the freaky, ghostly atmosphere of the space. Palamand surveys the space and offers this understatement: "This is a very fascinating room -- that they cared about the architecture down here, when they didn't have to."
-- Randall Roberts
-- Randall Roberts
A lush, nostalgic, rather sad yearning for something outside your daily experience, that's what. The snow globe encapsulates your triumph over the Empire State Building (admit it; you thought about dropping a penny over the rail). Encoded in the polyester fibers and acrylic brushstrokes of the velvet Elvis is your complicity in the tragicomic iconization of the King. Your cheesy souvenirs are collective memories in effigy, stamps on the passport to 20th-century human consciousness. This is the essence of kitsch: memories for sale. Today I'm buying a memory at that most consummate of local roadside attractions, Meramec Caverns.
The interstate is an embarrassingly fecund breeding ground for kitsch. This is because motorists in search of adventure will stop at everything to get it. Enter the roadside attraction, a living version of the Lucite scorpion paperweight, a commodified experience of which every molecule is mass-produced, shellacked and sold for more than it's worth. Barely an hour west on I-44 lies my date with the rarefied culture of the road, the "largest commercial cave in Missouri." The brochure promises not only fantastic spectacle (which I may consume, rain or shine, in constant 60-degree comfort) but a gift shop where I can lavish some cash on a sentimental bibelot that will permanently affix this sliver of collective memory to my mantel.
Well, the gift shop is a bust. Its worthless baubles are all steeped -- without irony -- in a generic, Walgreenish, 21st-century idiom; I yearn for the sort of junk they must have hawked in decades past, stuff that looks more like their goofy billboards -- i.e., bad taste, not no taste. But, fortunately, the cave tour turns out to be alternately cool and hilarious.
Lots of the actual cave stuff -- vaulted ceilings swathed in shadow and dripping with mineral icicles, pools of water that look 1,000 feet deep, a zillion lugubrious limestone pilasters, each more sublime than the most poignant Greek caryatid -- is genuinely awe-inspiring. The cave is hilarious only when slapped by the predatory hand that dips those scorpions in Lucite. Apparently the majesty of ancient, insanely weird cave formations fails to sufficiently engage the modern tourist's imagination. It has to be augmented with concrete sidewalks, campy red and purple fluorescent lights, a disco ball, a motel, a restaurant featuring "home style cooking," a trough of water where $4 buys you a bag of dirt with which you "pan for gold," a giant inflated dinosaur-shaped trampoline. Our "well-trained ranger," a perky teenager named Ricky who is part tour guide/part comedian, ups the ante with glossy dollops of cultified lore, decoupaged over the cave's Paleozoic hauteur with premeditated corniness.
Spotlighted in Ricky's quasi-history lecture is famed 19th-century desperado Jesse James. James is the golden boy of Meramec Caverns. Unless you've been living in your own cave, you know that a significant percentage of MC's quaint billboards, of which billboards no small quantity infests the surrounding hundred square miles, touts the cave as James' hideout. I encounter not one but two clumsy life-size statues of the Confederate guerrilla-turned-diabolical villain. One of these works festoons the front entrance in a manner usually reserved for enshrined saints. Nobody seems to find it the least bit disturbing that such high tribute is paid to a sociopath whose personal zeitgeist makes Charlie Manson look like John Lennon. The Meramec Caverns attitude toward him -- proprietary, reverent and indulgent -- might be expressed as: "Jesse James, that wacky purveyor of murder and mayhem, he may have been a tool, but he's our tool."
Everyone seems to have brought with them at least one mewling kid; anticipating this prerequisite, I have similarly equipped myself. Of course, my kid, young Ashley Loth, age 10 and on loan from her mother for the afternoon, stands alone at the zenith of model behavior. While the other tykes more or less constantly fidget and squall and commit acts of sociopathic hijinks, Ashley coolly maintains the poise of a 12-year-old at least.
She actually turns out to be instrumental in the success of the mission. Intrigued by her indifference to even the most bizarre cave formations ("They look like plastic"), I begin to amass fascinating evidence suggesting that the average age at which stalactites (the ones that drip down) actually become interesting is 55; for everyone else they are merely a mineral backdrop for a subterranean childrearing ordeal.
Be that as it may, in some circles a childhood trip to Meramec Caverns appears to be more or less compulsory. As we queue up for the tour, I overhear one mother bloodlessly explain the situation to her whining son: "I came here when I was a kid, and you're not getting out of it, either, buddy." Moved by this tender display, I suggest brightly to Ashley that this is a cherished rite of passage she'll be able to share with her own kids someday. Ashley, who has been dubiously eyeballing the creepy subumbral recesses beyond the gate, and from whom I have rather cruelly concealed the horrible truth that our tour will last nearly an hour-and-a-half, sizes me up as a "nut job" and replies without hesitation, "I'm not bringing my kids here!" Later, I abandon all hope of putting an educational spin on the outing when her only response on viewing the World's Largest Chunk of Onyx is "Eew, that guy farted!" Clearly, in the realm of the 10-year-old, flatulence is, hands down, more riveting than any dumb old rock.
By the way, when I say "World's Largest Chunk of Onyx," you should pretend you are last in line in a game of "telephone." It may or may not have been the world's largest, and it may or may not have been onyx. Throughout the tour I am never quite sure what we are looking at, because although Ricky's oratorical enthusiasm is unwaning, at each stop Ash and I always get jostled to the rear of our group, out of earshot. Ricky's lilting monologue -- unremittingly amusing, judging from the titters of the lucky spelunkers up front -- echoes incomprehensibly off the walls of what ought to be called the World's Largest Distortion Box. It's like watching Japanese TV with the sound turned up to 11. The only thing I hear clearly is that if I get separated from the herd, I am to stay put and "scream my head off."
So I never manage to get the scoop on certain of the more anomalous attractions on the tour route. Ricky stops to swing a 20-foot pendulum, but other than a crackled allusion to perpetual motion, I have no idea what this bizarre object is doing here. There's stuff about saltpeter mining during the Civil War (a real snoozer), more garbled Jesse James esoterica and something about, possibly, Art Linkletter. My favorite unexplained phenomenon, sacramentally illuminated and set deep within a recess so as to be barely visible from our safe and convenient concrete walkway, is a framed 4-foot color portrait of Lassie.
Ricky's great genius is his dramatic flair with the lights. Because, he says, they would overheat the cave if left burning all the time, he flips off the lights when herding us (we number at least 75) on to the next stop. As a result, we languish for extended periods in total darkness, waiting for stragglers to catch up and shove us to the rear again. Then, when he has kept us fidgeting in the dark just a little too long, the clever Ricky suddenly hits the switch, and behold! A room encrusted in petrified spaghetti! Every time he does this, the crowd makes an involuntary "oooo" sound. Ash and I do not make the "oooo" sound, because we can never see anything until the tourists in front get bored and wander away.
So we are determined, when we get to the Theater Room, to barge to the fore. The last stop, it is three stories high and completely upholstered in stone drapery so fantastic it should be on the cover of a '70s metal album. Completing the theater theme are rows of benches. I've heard that the grand finale is a real spine-tingler, so we snag seats in the front row and wait. And wait. Ah, Ricky, thou master of suspense, Hitchcock's got nothing on you.
When the "show" finally starts, an eternity later, I realize we're screwed again; Ricky's delivering his speech from the back of the group this time. I catch an alarming reference to Kate Smith, but escape is impossible. A slide-projected American flag appears on the limestone curtain, Kate Smith belts out "God Bless America," and Ricky artistically flashes colored lights on and off. Our fellow cavers are beside themselves; they don't know whether to applaud or swoon or feverishly snap flash photos of the light show (so they do all three). Significantly, it is at this juncture that Ashley finally loses her composure and doubles over in squealing hysterics. She has caved in to the kitsch. And I feel like a scorpion trapped in a Lucite paperweight.
-- Jill Posey-Smith