Where were we? Ah, yes. I was fleeing Nashville in defeat after my mystery car ate its water pump on Mile 417 of a 1,210-mile journey. But what was that mystery car? I couldn’t reveal it at the time, for reasons which will become apparent shortly, but now it can be told: I was driving a 1976 Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special “Talisman”. For the bargain price of about $14,000 (think $54K today, about the same as a loaded 335i or middling Audi A6) the most discerning among us could purchase the ultimate in full-sized luxury.
In the week after my return to sunny Powell, Ohio, the Firestone shop in Franklin, Tennessee swapped the water pump, thermostat, a few hoses, and the blown-out valve cover gaskets. All was in readiness for me to fly in Saturday, July 2, and pick up where I’d left off. Drama McHourglass promised she would pick me up at the airport:
I will be there. with bells on!
Honestly, dear readers, I had my doubts, particularly given my arrival time of 8:45am, but as I rolled my SKB Strat case through the big glass doors and out into BNA’s Arrivals area, I saw her ’96 Taurus in the lane ahead. She was radiant in a nearly sheer peasant dress and as I took my seat next to her, she said, “You see? Bells.” She wiggled — no, she shimmered — and I heard the strings of bells draped over her wrists, and I felt the solid ground drop away beneath me, the way it does when you hit the coping and tumble all the way down the halfpipe, or hear the jury read your verdict, or fall desperately in love.
TTAC commenter doctorv8, also known as Dr. Sanjay Mehta, owns a dream garage of automobiles, ranging from an SL65 Black Series to a Lincoln Versailles (oops: I meant a Fox Continental Valentino – JB) with a few Lambos, Ford GTs, and AMG Benzes in-between. When he saw a triple-black ’76 Talisman with only 47,000 original miles for sale near my home, he bought it immediately and we quickly cooked up a scheme for me to drive it all the way to Houston and surprise his brother, TTAC staffer Sajeev Mehta. I’ll be reviewing the car itself separately later on this week, and if you’ve ever cared about Cadillacs, American luxury, or just keeping my click-count up so Ed doesn’t fire me, it will be worth your time to read that review.
Yes, things had looked bad for the big Caddy last week, but it’s almost impossible to kill a 500-cubic-inch-capacity block of iron with a little heat and I had relatively little doubt that the repairs would last me for the eight-hundred-mile drive to Houston. I’d also sworn to Sanjay that I would preserve his investment by taking the most direct freeway route from Nashville to Houston, and it’s possible that I believed that oath when I made it, but once Drama and I had bid farewell I didn’t hesitate before setting a course for Beale Street in Memphis, TN.
The old Vogue yellow-lines fitted to the Talisman weren’t rotted, but they weren’t round either. Nor was the rear air suspension as leak-proof as we’d hoped back in Columbus. Down the freeway, the big Cadillac stuck its nose in the air and displayed a sensitivity to road condition that wouldn’t shame a Porsche 911SC. Speeds above seventy miles per hour were uncomfortably wobbly, and at eighty-five the entire Medici-velour interior resonated with a commuter jet’s worth of turbulent vibration. Best to roll down the road at sixty or sixty-five, stay out of everyone’s way, and run the air conditioner as little as possible in the hundred-degree heat.
I reached Memphis in just three hours and got stuck in downtown traffic on the way to Beale. The Fleetwood had been invisible up north but here it had celebrity status among Southeners both black and white. They came off the sidewalks to point, talk, touch. A pair of unimaginably voluptuous Memphis girls in shiny gold and silver dresses asked me if I was “hustling”.
“No, I’m going to the crossroads in Clarksdale,” I replied. “I got up in the morning, dusted my broom, left a kind-hearted woman, and I have a hellhound on my trail.”
“That don’t sound like no fun, baby,” the tall one replied.
I’d taken a Town Car to Memphis last year, but a Panther feels like an insubstantial toy next to the 234-inch majesty of the Fleetwood Talisman. I crawled slow around the center of town, parking just long enough to visit the Gibson shop and take a lonely, sentimental seat in a cafe where I’d shared breakfast with a friend during my last trip. Those nights in April had been something to remember forever, but in the July heat, in the daytime, in the empty shops and searing sun, Beale seemed actively hostile. I felt sick to my stomach. It was time to leave.
Although the Fleetwood hadn’t been parked a whole hour, it was scorching inside and my SKB case, which I had believe would be safe in the trunk, was too hot to touch. The parking-lot attendant, a black man in his sixties, wandered over. “You leave your guitar in there?”
“Yeah. Bad idea.”
“I never brought my trumpet to Beale Street if I wasn’t gonna play. You gonna open that case and look, or just stand there?”
“Neither. I’m going to trust fate and head down the road.” As I filled up at the gas station south of town, I saw a Camry full-throttle across six lanes of moving traffic in a manner strongly reminiscent of the advanced stages in “Frogger”. It pulled up behind me. A big guy in a black-and-white street-camo outfit jumped out.
“TALISMAN!” he shouted. “That’s a Talisman! The fools on these streets don’t know what’s rolling by! I had to see!” His knowledge of the car was comprehensive; he knew what options it had and what it didn’t have. There was an element of nervousness beneath his polite veneer; he was clearly a little unsettled that some bearded hippie was driving the car. I reassured him that Sanjay was a true believer who owned a Mark IV, a Seventies Continental, and other proper hardware. Once he realized that I was just taking it to its real owner, he seemed to relax.
A few turns and I was on Highway 61, heading to Clarksdale. My plan was to see the Delta Blues Museum and then find the legendary “crossroads” of 61 and 49. The Talisman struggled under the load of the air conditioner so I rolled down the windows, turned off the radio, and simply existed in the Mississippi heat. I imagined that I was Muddy Waters, driving his Cadillac south back to Stovall’s Plantation. Lines of salt formed in my T-shirt as the sweat dried. At a crowded, nondescript intersection in Clarksdale, there was a stutter from the engine and I looked around for a place to pull off if the stutter continued. To the right, I had a Church’s chicken… to the left, two enormous guitars were mounted on a metal pole. This was it. This was the crossroads. And they served chicken.
Feeling more than a little self-conscious, I took my G&L out of the trunk, slipped it over my shoulder, and waited for Old Scratch to appear. A large black man walked up, as in the legend, but instead of holding a guitar of his own, he had a box of chicken. His face had a look of genuine concern, the kind typically saved for small children and big idiots.
“Are you… okay?” he asked.
“Oh, I’m fine. Totally fine. Just waiting for the devil,” I reassured him.
“Won’t have to wait long,” was his laconic response. It occurred to me that, although the machinations of Satan are mysterious, the operating hours of the Delta Blues Museum are known to all and I had just thirty minutes of those hours left, so I packed up and drove down the broken-down back streets of Clarksdale in a solid hurry.
I can’t recommend the Delta Blues Museum enough; in a world full of disappointments this wonderful facility is not one of them. And yet there’s something sad about it; this large, expensive, gorgeous building celebrating “the blues” is surrounded by the same miserable conditions which produced those blues a hundred years ago. Clarksdale is in bad shape and the outskirt towns through which I traveled afterwards are even worse. There are empty fire stations, boarded-up main streets, and children in old clothing sitting listlessly on collapsing porches. I thought about what Albert King sang,
Been down so long,
That down don’t bother me.
I don’t think I really know much about the blues. Maybe I don’t know anything at all about it. Of course, King also sang,
They call me the hunter,
That’s my name.
A pretty woman like you
Is my only game.
Two different traditions, and I know that only one of them has room for the Talisman, or for me. It was six in the afternoon and I had five hundred and eighty-seven miles of two-lane roads between me and Houston. They passed with the sure, unreal nature of dreams, and even after I was asleep in my hotel room nine hours later, I still felt the long-wavelength rock of the Talisman’s soft springs and believed I was on the long road to nowhere in particular.
The next morning, Sanjay and I drove separately to his brother’s house. The plan was for Sanjay to drag Sajeev outside on some flimsy pretext, perhaps to inspect the supercharger that they’d installed on Sanjay’s Navigator. As they stood talking, I slowly turned the corner onto their street.
“Is that… a ’76 Fleetwood?” Sajeev said, pointing in my direction. And then, in the uncertain voice that people use when they aren’t sure there’s any sanity in their universe at the moment, “Wait… is that Jack Baruth driving it?” Mission accomplished. What did Lightnin’ Hopkins say?