Note: this has been a long time coming. Much has happened since WKU over MTSU. The only thing you need to know: I am, at long last, in the South.
First, some etcetera regarding Middle Tennessee State:
The Blue Raiders have been the Blue Raiders since 1934, when a contest was held to determine a suitable nickname for the school. The current mascot is a winged horse. It looks like a pegasus. It’s kinda cool the way newly minted mascots are cool: clear beneficiaries of at least two generations of draftsmen who were raised on design theory and attention grabbing iconography. The mascot before that was a blue tick hound named Ol’ Blue. The Tennessee Volunteers’ mascot is also a blue tick hound, which might be why MTSU changed their totem to a winged horse: when you are the largest university in the state of Tennessee but perhaps the third most recognized university in the state of Tennessee, there is no room for even remote emulation. Before Ol’ Blue, there was the Blue Raider: a student dressed up as Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general who went on to found the Ku Klux Klan and a Tom Hanks movie. Understandably, there were protests in the 1970s (and likely before).
I found this out at the MTSU coach’s show at the Bluesboro Cafe, on Tuesday.
Me and Coach Stockstill, at Bluesboro Cafe.
Let me declare this forthrightly and without equivocation: in no way did I harbor any thoughts of Forrest, the KKK or anything similar during my time in Murfreesboro. The people were just too nice. But that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t perhaps a bit wide eyed and curious on Wednesday night, when I pulled into Mark’s Campus Pub for a bit o’ pre-game drinking and karaoke singin’ and a wee bit o’ pukin’ and drunk pick up linin’.
Mark’s Campus Pub is quite possibly the single worst bar I’ve ever been to, if I were judging solely on the criterion of physical facility quality. There is no such contest, however. As Samuel L. Jackson said, “But, this bar’s got personality. And personality goes a long way.”
Example: first song of the night was Primus’ “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” as performed by a twenty something gentleman straight out of England’s catalog of thin jeaned, shaggy haired, tiny shirt wearing soldiers of shambolic glory. What he lacked in vocal talent he made up in pure, very apparent enthusiasm. At this point there were maybe thirty people in the bar – so standing room only.
After Indie Rock Avatar there was a shuffling from the back, near the foosball table. Out of a crowd of baseball cap wearing frat boys, a slowly rotating galaxy of tattooed leather enthusiasts and a sprinkling of seemingly out of place southern belles wearing – yes – sundresses, out stepped a girl who couldn’t have, soaking wet and holding a largish loaf of country wheat with a cummerbund of homemade sausages, weighed more than 98 lbs. You may think I am simply adhering to the time honored figure of 98 lbs., but I physically weighed her. Even after making a sandwich out of her regalia, she did not move an ounce past that number.
Which is why it was totally unsurprising that she belted out Rob Zombie’s “Dragula”, the chorus punctuated by the baring of fangs, the flashing of devil horns and the occasional (but emphatic) conjuration of the following example of metathesis: “Tuck Kenfucky!”
Neither of the first two singers were any good. The guy who got up to sing “Walking in Memphis” was tall, vaguely east of the Caucus-looking, effeminate and possessed of the beginnings of a beer belly. In no way did I expect him to transform the night into pure Tennessee, simply by singing a song I’d never heard before. He did. And holy shit, could he sing.
Put on my blue suede shoes
And I boarded the plane
Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues
In the middle of the pouring rain
W.C. Handy — won’t you look down over me
Yeah I got a first class ticket
But I’m as blue as a boy can be
Then I’m walking in Memphis
Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
But do I really feel the way I feel
I hadn’t been to Memphis. Still haven’t. But with one song, with everyone else singing in the bar – frat boys, goths, leatherkids, dresses, old men who should know better, the bouncer in the blue tank top and the ZZ top beard, the two aged and dispirited bartenders who were so bored with college kids they can’t even bother to smirk anymore, even they’re singing – I got a sense of what it must be like to be from here.
Bret, 23, explained: “Fifty percent of the time I’m embarrassed by the people around here. You get the guys who wave the Confederate flag, the idiots and the bigots. Some of them are just so ignorant it makes me want to scream. But the other half, more than half the time, man, it’s more than half by far, I think… I’m so proud of my southern heritage. There’s no place I’d rather be. No better place to grow up. I’ve been here [at MTSU] for five years now and I’m so disillusioned. We suck, y’know? We’re awful. But I still watch the games. I still love being here.”
Me: “Yeah, but when you finally pull off that ten win season it’s gonna be that much sweeter. Fans of bad teams get shit all their lives, but when it happens, it happens.”
Bret: “Yeah, well, that line stopped working after about year three….”
By then a group of six men, many of them with collared shirts tucked into jeans and boots, get up for their song. Their previous number was Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice”. I figure another homage to white boys lip syncing to gangsta rap is in order, but instead the familiar twangs of the opening chords to Lynard Skynard’s “Sweet Home Alabama” come on. The entire bar starts rawking. It’s a strange sight to see so many Tennesseans singing “Sweet Home Alabama” so happily, so much so that when the chorus comes around and the traditional (in Tuscaloosa) “Roll, Tide, Roll!” is normally sung, confusion is remedied with a very loud, very joyous
Now, I’ve seen Bama stuff all over Nashville, Lynchburg and Murfreesboro – almost as much as I’ve seen Tennessee Volunteer stuff. Plus: this is an MTSU bar. What gives?
Bret: “Hating Alabama is universal, man. I hate UT, too. But fuck Alabama.”
By now the entire bar is singing: Indie Rock Avatar, 98 lbs. girl, large effeminate Memphis walker, they are all of them screaming out
and then we tear through a rendition of “Dixieland Delight” (ironically, by the band Alabama), and I’m actually singing lines like
Spend my dollar, parked in a holler,
‘Neath the mountain moonlight.
Hold her up tight,
Make a little lovin’,
A little turtle dovin’.
On a Mason-Dixon night.
Fits my life, oh so right,
My Dixieland Delight.
when Marc Cohn’s lyric finally hits me.
They’ve got catfish on the table
They’ve got gospel in the air
And Reverend Green be glad to see you
When you haven’t got a prayer
But boy you’ve got a prayer in Memphis
Now Muriel plays piano
Every Friday at the Hollywood
And they brought me down to see her
And they asked me if I would —
Do a little number
And I sang with all my might
And she said —
“Tell me are you a Christian child?”
And I said “Ma’am I am tonight”
Better to ask, “Tell me are you a southern child?” Who knew, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, of all places? From that day until I passed from Clemson into Washington, D.C., I said it to everyone I could talk to: “I love the South.”
The game itself was a disappointment. The MTSU that hung 42 on Louisville at Papa John’s Stadium was nowhere to be found. To Western Kentucky’s credit, an excellent defense helped limit the first start of talented freshman QB Dwight Dasher. The QB who almost led the Blue Raiders to an upset over Louisville was injured. He has since relinquished his job to Dasher.
This is as prosaic as can be. Don’t be fooled: there was considerable pain and anguish and wailing from the MTSU faithful. This was, after all, their first home game. It was their first game against rival WKU since 1991. It was their first game with the new JumboTron.
(Side note: this was pretty much all anyone could talk about. The JumboTron was the circus, the county fair, a presidential debate and the Summer Olympics all alighting at town hall long enough for each resident to get a peek. It was a big deal. I paid particular attention to it during the game. The camera operators and booth editors were all jacked up like squirrels on meth. There were dangerously epileptic montages, quicksilver camera cuts and a barrage of fades and dissolves found only in student films based on elaborate Jerry Bruckheimer-as-modern-Fellini theses, i.e., pure chaos out of a well meaning intent to impress and, perhaps, enlighten.)
I stayed with Chris and John, both of MTSU message board fame, in their box for a while. Their friend, whose name I have forgotten to my eternal dismay, spent most of the time chatting me up and asking me what I thought and generally shaking his head because, after all, what a shameful performance for me to see, but here’s a commemorative football for you and good luck to you. This kind of kindness was, again, protocol. Our discussion was routinely interrupted by the deck above, where a sorority had established a beachhead, set up kill zones and deployed armor. We all wanted very much to storm that beach. Every time we looked up above us all we could see was glorious, wonderful, undulating female. It was exactly like that scene in Saving Private Ryan where the camera pulls back to reveal Normandy covered in troops, trucks, tanks, tankers, battleships, airplanes, dirigibles, matériel, etc., except with breasts. I went upstairs at halftime.
I had a pretty good time. There was a fellow there dressed in a salmon and mint seersucker ensemble, which was impressive but not that much more than all the other frat boys wearing coats and ties and somehow not dying of glandular meta-sweatification. The women all wore sundresses, or dresses. (What’s the difference, anyway?) Everyone had two things on the brain: football, and sex, and not in that order.
One guy who was so drunk he was outraged they wouldn’t stop play whenever he called timeout: “You know what the point of football games is? Getting laid.”
(Time travel: I am coasting through the panhandle of Florida towards Tampa almost a week later, lazily driving along HWY 98, when I spot a CVS Pharmacy in the town of Navarre. It makes me think of penicillin, and whether I need penicillin, and perhaps I should make a stop at a local doctor’s office because it’s about time I do this, the South’s been kind so far so let’s not put anyone in harm’s way, and it’s really for everyone’s peace of mind but especially my own, plus maybe I’ll get a lollipop. So I pull into the Holley Navarre Medical Clinic where a Mr. Joel Rudman, M.D. has his practice. It’s the first time I’ve ever bothered using my PPO, and I feel happy that my $10 co-pay is making that $90 monthly worthwhile. The exterior of the office is like any other: vaguely white, vaguely beige, lots of Good Housekeeping back issues. Once I get inside I find 1) a Tim Tebow poster autographed by Tebow 2) a national championship poster/schedule/future schedule 3) Gator stickers 3a) a sticker proclaiming “This is… the Swamp” and not, in fact, the Holley Navarre Medical Clinic of Navarre, FL 4) an actual media guide to the Florida Gators’ 2007 season, sitting in waiting room one 5) Joel Rudman, who is a big goofy guy who acts like he’s a teenager but is clearly a competent medical authority because, hey, he’s got a coat on and his handwriting looks sloppy, and boy does he like the Gators. I like him immediately. We chat about general STD detection methods, my fear of needles, Gator football, the LSU juggernaut, gonorrhea, AIDS tests, SEC football, the book Dixieland Delight, etc. I drop the drawers. I ask him whether he thinks Florida will beat LSU. He asks me where it’s at. He takes a Q-tip like device and, rather painfully, takes a swab from you-know-where-but-just-in-case-it’s-the-pee-hole. I tell him it’s at Death Valley. He puts the Q-tip thing in a little canister, and I pull up my board shorts. He notes that Death Valley is a tough place to play, but especially under the lights. Naturally, he says, it’ll be a night game. Tough, tough place to play. Those Cajuns are crazy. Yup. So, Jon, where’s your next game? Oh, Florida-Auburn. I’m really looking forward to it. Really?, I’m going there too. And suddenly I can’t remember the information he’s been doling out between these sentences, vital stuff like how long the tests will take and when I should call, because I’m wondering if I can find him and his tailgate. We shake hands, I pantomime a Gator chomp, he laughs and says “Maybe I’ll see you in New Orleans!” and that’s how my STD check went. So as much as the MTSU kid was right in that live college football games are fantastic ways to get laid, there’s also this: college football is a fantastic way to pass the time during otherwise awkward/uncomfortable moments related to the realm of sex, its repercussions, its lack thereof, or simply the general theory/practice of. I am not going to lie to you: I have found myself, mid-coitus, wondering whether USC’s game was going to get picked up by the local affiliates. This is my world.)
The ladies of Alpha Omicron Pi made signs and cheer, but they weren’t exactly into it. I asked one of them what she gets out of football games.
“Oh, I watch the cheerleaders most of the time. They’re pretty amazing.”
Fair enough. College football can’t captivate everyone the way it does me, and here’s the proof: MTSU, a traditionally mediocre football school that’s only recently been tabbed as a possible Sun Belt power, has football games. Those football games are entertaining by themselves, sure, but more than that they serve as a gigantic mixer for anyone who wants to be excused from the kind of liabilities and stigmas we impose on those who scream, paint themselves, get drunk, shout obscenities, flirt openly and dangerously, curse men much larger than ourselves, wave towels, belch, do the wave, question play calling, invest vast amounts of concern into a game, get arrested, etc. It is an Event that happens only once a week, twelve times a year, in the localized region of the brain known as The Eternal Autumn. Not everyone can be hideously obsessed with the actual game, so there are such things as alcohol, sundresses, cheerleaders and getting laid.
This is the MTSU Moving Man. I thought he was the Dancing Man, but he kept calling himself the Moving Man and so, I feel, should I. He rocked the crowd. Here we are doing a chorus kick, even though you can’t see it.
After the game he showed up to one of the tailgates I ended up at. He came right on over, talking and jabbering like he knew every single one of us. He was soaked with sweat. He conversed one sidedly about his 40th high school reunion in Chattanooga, MTSU women’s basketball games, parking lots, free form jazz, exercise instruction, and hot dogs. He was particularly interested in hot dogs, specifically the ones cooking on the nearby grill. In the peculiar and thoroughly old people way that old people do, he assumed the hot dogs/general resources of the community/everything were his for the taking because he was both old and the MTSU Moving Man, which doesn’t trump oldness so much as it augments it. He ate our BBQ chips. He drank our soda. And, after he left because we clearly had become a bit uncomfortable with him (not that he knew, cared, etc.), all one girl could say to me was, “The dancing man stole your hot dog.”
Which is a pretty good way to end this post.
NEXT: Bama. And I mean it this time.