I don’t remember where I met Mike McCarthy, but it has to be at least a decade ago. Over the years I’ve always been fascinated with his myriad of projects, from films to comic books, even acting as a sort of guinea pig at times for a few of his ideas, like the time I took his Haunted Memphis tour where we rode around town in the back of a hearse piled high with pillows and blankets while Suzy Hendrix played saxophone. It was as weird as it sounds.
I remember watching him jump head first into the Save Libertyland campaign along with local musician Misty White. As you probably know, Libertyland is now just a memory but they were semi-successful when they at least saved the Zippin Pippin (one of the oldest existing wooden roller coasters in the United States and well-known around these parts as Elvis’ favorite) from destruction. It was purchased by the city of Green Bay, Wisconsin in 2010 and installed at the Bay Beach Amusement Park.
That project was the first that made me realize that along with rock and roll historian and pop culture junkie (if you ever get an invitation to one of his parties, don’t forget to visit his attic, it’s a veritable museum of nostalgia), he’s also a dedicated, passionate preservationist. I remember getting a frantic call from him in the winter of 2013. “Rachel, they’re tearing down the Chisca and we have to save WHBQ.”
Full disclosure: I had no idea what the Hotel Chisca was at the time. A long shuttered hotel on Main Street, it housed the first radio station to play and interview Elvis Presley. Mike had gotten in touch with me because I had managed to raise over $50,000 with online funding campaigns for various Memphis entities including projects for Ardent Studios, The Big Star documentary and several album fundraisers for local musicians.
I really wanted to help him, so I agreed, but it wasn’t a good time for me to take on anything else. I had recently returned to school, had been hired to book The Poplar Lounge, was selected to go to Seed Hatchery’s 90-Day entrepreneur program, and my dad had been diagnosed with cancer in January. My plate was pretty full. But Mike was so passionate, and so adamant that something needed to be done that I couldn’t say no, so I got in touch with my contacts at Pledge Music and asked if we could do their first fundraiser that had nothing to do with making an album. They said yes.
We went on to not make our goal and the money raising portion of the campaign was a complete disaster. I tried to consult as much as possible and we worked on a video together, but my heart wasn’t in it. Luckily, like a force of nature that could not be stopped, Mike moved forward and got the job done on his own. With sheer will and a little help from some friends, the salvageable elements from studios A, B, and C were removed from the building with parts ending up at Sun Studios, in Scott Bomar’s studio and Mike’s garage.
Anyway, since that endeavor Mike has continued to be militant about safeguarding the history of Memphis, most recently forming a coalition to save the Mid-South Coliseum and working towards the installation of a Johnny Cash statue at the corner of Walker and Cooper Streets in Cooper-Young to celebrate his first live performance in the basement of Galloway Church back in 1968. He’s also been involved with Time Warp Drive-In, now coming up on it’s third year, a celebration of classic films put together in conjunction with Black Lodge Video and shown one Saturday a month at Malco’s Summer Twin Drive-In from March until October. So, I wanted to sit down with Mike and get an update on all these projects and try to learn more about Mike McCarthy: The Man, The Myth…
I asked him to have coffee at Otherlands – he said he’d prefer to do it over breakfast at Barksdale’s. As two people extensively involved in sound recordings for the past decade, we both should have known this would not be an ideal place to record an interview, but I think it ended up sounding the way I imagine it does inside Mike’s head at any given moment – and so I present to you our conversation, with minimal editing. Enjoy!