Only Human

By  |  June 11, 2019
“Sieve of the Universe”(2017), by Meg Griffiths, from the series Somewhere within and without “Sieve of the Universe”(2017), by Meg Griffiths, from the series Somewhere within and without

 

It was probably 1992. Johnnie Frierson’s daughter, Keesha, is not sure of the precise year when her father went back to the garage behind his mother’s house in Memphis to create the song “Miracles.” Keesha guarantees his setup was “no studio,” just “his guitar and a tape recorder.” At the time, no one paid much attention to Frierson. “You know, he had been doing it so long,” Keesha told me. She was surprised I was interested and even more so when I told her that the recording is one of my favorite songs. “Um, honestly, that was a nice song. But, I guess, there’s so many other songs from my dad that I like.” 

For me, “Miracles” isn’t only Frierson’s best, it is an obsession. I’ve cried to the song, I’ve pumped my fist to the song, I’ve sung along to its chorus at the top of my lungs—“You can do miracles / things that seem impossible . . . You are human, only human / And human beings, they do miracles.” It is rare in its earnest encouragement, and it affirms me to my spine. 

Frierson had been a minor figure in the 1960s Memphis soul scene. His musical education came as a youth in the Church of God in Christ. Later, he’d hung around Stax. He was a guitarist in the gospel band the Sunset Travelers with O. V. Wright and then formed the Drapels with his sister Mary Cross (who’d come to be semi-famous as Wendy Rene, often backing Otis Redding). “We were there,” a former bandmate told Andria Lisle, who has chronicled the Memphis scene and researched Frierson. But by the 1980s, the local soul boom had gone bust and Stax Records was only doing reissues. A decade later, Frierson was here: a shell-shocked Vietnam vet, reeling from the death of his son, working odd jobs around Memphis and making cassettes in his free time to hand out to folks he met around town. In the early nineties, Frierson would’ve been a has-been of sorts—a middle-aged man still making music in a shed. He died in obscurity in 2010 at sixty-four. 

Two years later, a cratedigger named Jameson Sweiger found one of Frierson’s homemade cassettes in an overflowing junk shop on Summer Avenue in Memphis. The photo on the sleeve intrigued him: a grainy black-and-white portrait of a man with a wide smile and receding hairline, the orientation of his body and face like that of a school yearbook photo. “We had a cult following just among my friends,” he remembered. They began calling the record the “holy grail.” Sweiger told me it was the most “emotionally rewarding” find of his life. He showed it to Matt Sullivan, owner of Light in the Attic Records. “I was floored by it,” said Sullivan. “It’s one of those records that people who hear it really freak out.” In 2016, the label released Frierson’s tape as a proper reissue, including liner notes by Lisle placing Frierson within the Memphis scene. 

Across seven songs, Frierson sounds like a Southern gospel singer severed from the choir: his voice holds the hopeful bounce of community and the melancholy mechanics of isolation. One song lists the things one must do to feel normal—eat well, exercise, avoid drugs—and has Frierson yelp, “Have you been sleeping at least eight hours? Have you been staying away from adultery?” Keesha’s favorite is “Heavenly Father, You’ve Been Good,” a wistful gospel in three-quarter time with displays of Frierson’s aching falsetto. But each time I listen, “Miracles” stands out as the zenith of Frierson’s pureness and his peculiar optimism. 

As an evangelist, I have showed “Miracles” to many people by lying about what it’s actually about. Generally, I describe it as a sort of joke, a curiosity. I don’t tell folks that when I first heard Frierson sing about being “only human” I was lonely and confused, and I listened to it so much that the music morphed into a personal manifesto about redemption, as if he had boiled down the obsessive and impossible task of purity into a formula. On first listen, how I feel about “Miracles” would seem ridiculous. 

The recording’s constituent parts are simple: an oddly poignant guitar riff, almost Hawaiian; a spare foot-tapping noting time in the background; and Frierson’s silky, confident voice blaring over the lo-fi recording like a soul singer put through the filter of early Liz Phair. The song is about a mechanic who, Frierson sings, builds custom cars in Memphis without money or help—only a plan and his faith. A down-and-out mechanic, the embodiment of Frierson’s ideal. A flawed human who creates miracles. “You might know him,” Frierson sings. “They call him Spaceman.” 

 

In the spring of 2018, I waited at a gas station near Palestine, Arkansas, off I-40, about fifty miles west of Memphis. According to historians, the name Palestine was chosen as either a biblical reference or for a man named Palestine who died working at the sawmill. Today, there are a few shops downtown and railroad tracks bisect the municipality. Palestine has never housed more than one thousand people. 

I was drawn here because a few weeks earlier local Memphis news station WMC had filed its latest in a series of pieces on the life of a man named Bryan Winford. The first segment was from the 1980s and can be viewed on YouTube: reporter Kym Clark stands in an empty airplane hangar parking lot beside a highway ramp. “No, you’re not hearing things,” she says over footage of a crude vehicle that looks like a cross between an early Model T and a Jeep with no hood. “The car is talking.” Clark is filing a human-interest piece about a self-driving, voice-activated car and its inventor, Winford. She describes him as a “self-made car genius.” We learn that this genius created the vehicle out of parts taken from, among other things, a forklift, a radar detector, and a Cabbage Patch doll. “I got an old saying: we all airplanes in this big airport we call the world,” he says, by way of explanation for his invention. “Because of his many talents,” Clark tells us, “Winford’s friends call him ‘Spaceman.’”

Clark, when I spoke to her recently, said the piece was one of her first assignments at her new post in Memphis. “I guess somebody, one of his friends, contacted the station,” she remembered. “I’m not really sure why we did the story.” She never expected to think about it again. Nearly thirty years later, in March 2017, Clark received a message on Twitter from a celebrity. Actor Erika Christensen, of the TV show Parenthood, had seen the video of Spaceman and was trying to locate Winford. In April, Clark—by now an Emmy Award–winning news anchor, still with WMC—produced a follow-up newscast featuring Christensen titled “Search for Spaceman.” Like me, Christensen was a fan of “Miracles” and intrigued by its central subject. “It was amazing the response,” Clark told me. “We started getting emails and phone calls and tweets back. And we finally found him.”

The station broadcast an interview with Spaceman in Palestine, where he lived in a trailer surrounded by his (now rusted-out) voice-controlled cars. In this new segment, Spaceman is an even odder figure. He talks about how “the spirit” had informed him he was “in the world” but “not of the world.” Dogs run around his trailer, he tells the station, to “alert” him of inventions (“Dog is God spelled backwards,” he notes). Now a septuagenarian, he says that despite not being able to read or write he had continued inventing. “He’s a kind of genius,” the journalist says. Later that year, the station gave Winford an award at its annual gala; he rode out onstage on one of his creations, a “powerwheel” made from a hoverboard and outfitted with a seat to be used as a scooter for “the elderly and disabled.” The most recent update in Spaceman’s story, from January, delivered sad news: his trailer had burned down and he had lost all his belongings in the fire; he’d been selling powerwheels to try to make the money back. To help, the article said, contact “Amy.” It listed her phone number.

Soon after my arrival, a distinct silver Nissan sedan pulled up to the Love’s truck stop near a pump. Bolts and screws clung to the hood by magnets, the hubcaps were missing, and on the back bumper a powerwheel was attached via a wooden rack. Spaceman exited. He wore all black and sunglasses. I noticed he had a leather strap around his neck with dozens of keys attached. We briefly greeted one another, and then he said he wanted to show me how to take “the energy out of the air.”

“Let’s see if I have a flashlight or something in my pockets,” he said. He pulled out a three-inch camping light. He opened the device and showed me the homemade battery inside: aluminum foil wrapped around graphite and dirt. “The spirit told me these things so I can tell you and you can understand it better,” he said. “He sent me here to teach.” Then he turned on the flashlight. It glowed bright in the overcast day. 

A few minutes later, Spaceman’s latest customers, Hal and Carol Carden, arrived in an RV with Texas plates. Hal sprung down the steps and said Carol would be out in a moment. Soon, she was lowered down. Carol suffered from MS, and a reaction to a drug, she said, had left her short of breath and using a wheelchair. The Cardens had run into Spaceman at a Walmart, zooming around on a powerwheel. They were sold on buying one for Carol. All that was left was a test-drive.

Hal and Spaceman helped Carol onto the contraption. Without the benefit of armrests, Carol was unsteady. Spaceman asked, “You sure?” Carol said she was. Then, in a spurt, the powerwheel zoomed forward, approaching the gas pumps at rapid speed, and Carol nearly fell off. Hal ran to her. 

“I’m okay,” Carol said.

The couple decided to stay in the area for a bit while Spaceman worked to fix the powerwheel for them. Of their chance meeting with Spaceman at Walmart, Hal had said, “Well, it’s a miracle.” 

 

Bryan Winford was born in 1943 and grew up mostly in Collierville, a suburb of Memphis. By the age of twenty-three, according to a local paper, he was already creating self-driving cars. But Spaceman eschews the straightforward details of his biography. He was born in space, he told me as we talked at a plastic table inside the Love’s. “My mother didn’t understand me,” he said. “She thought she was my mother.” Spaceman mixed facts and legend into a story with broad contours of science-fiction and American myth: “They think Tesla dead. His spirit is alive. They think Einstein just a vapor—where did this stuff come from then?”

On the table between us was a surge protector with another self-made battery attached to a row of bulbs. “It might not light up but one of them,” Spaceman teased. One by one, the lights came on and glowed with increasing intensity. Spaceman narrated in a half-chant: “Power plant. Plant. Like a tomato plant. These are plants. Anything God hands in the deep places of Earth: soil, foil, paper, and pencil lead.” The light reflected in his sunglasses and bounced off his clothing, making him appear farther away. “They think Jesus is somewhere irretrievable in a Palestinian tomb. Here’s a man sitting in a town called Palestine at a truck stop with Jesus in his heart,” he said. “How cool is that?”

I had been warned of this kind of evasive conversation by Amy Standridge, Spaceman’s caretaker and friend. Amy first met Spaceman at a soup kitchen in Forrest City, Arkansas, while volunteering with her church. She had judged him based on his appearance, she told me, despite telling herself to never let first impressions leave a mark. But then he impressed her. “He approached me and he said, ‘I want to show you something,’” she remembered. From one pocket Spaceman pulled “a small string of Christmas lights” and from another something that “looked like a marijuana blunt wrapped in aluminum foil.” Spaceman stuck the lights into the aluminum foil “and the stupid lights lit up,” Amy explained with a laugh. “And I was like: ‘I’m being punk’d!’” 

Amy found the interaction amusing and interesting, but figured she’d never see the man again. Months later, the Standridges bought property in Palestine to expand their heating and electric business. In the process, they inherited Spaceman as a tenant. The previous owner had allowed him to live rent-free in his trailer on the tract of land, which they continued. 

At first, everything was fine, but over time, frustrations mounted: Spaceman’s yard was messy; his dogs roamed; his poetic license with the word “Jesus” didn’t match what they heard at Beck Spur Baptist Church; he accepted their help paying bills and then “poormouthed” them in town. Amy began to notice that Spaceman’s gift for invention often involved as much destruction as creation. During one hot summer, the Standridges gave him an air conditioner. Amy remembered getting a call from her exasperated husband during the installation. “He keeps trying to reinvent the air conditioner,” he told her. “He wants to put it in differently than how it’s designed to work. I cannot help him!” Now, with the fire, they saw a natural end to the arrangement.

I could imagine that it would be frustrating to share property and resources with Spaceman. But I also imagined the joy of it. During my visit to Palestine, Spaceman took me to his burned trailer. He showed me the old self-driving cars, including the red one from the video in the 1980s. The car was now broken, but Spaceman said he’d soon fix it. I couldn’t help but admire his optimism. Nor could I forget that Amy mentioned Spaceman had been planning to repair the car for years. 

After I left Palestine, Spaceman called a few times. Sometimes, I think, just to chat. Once, he left me a brief message: “Give me a call if you get a chance—I just witnessed another miracle.”

When I called back, he said he couldn’t remember what happened. 

 

After my visit to Palestine, I left Arkansas and moved to New York. I began to do more research into Frierson’s story, which had been, after all, my original point of fascination.

I learned that during the time when those surviving recordings were made, the early nineties, Frierson was interested in redemption, both spiritual and physical. He was going by the name Khafele Ajanaku: Khafele meant “Worth Dying For” in Malawi; Ajanaku was a spiritual name from Yoruba poetry for an elephant—but more literally translating to “Killer of Ajanu” to honor the elephant’s role in trampling a Noah-like figure. He hosted a gospel show on local radio station WEVL that featured his own preaching as much as the gospel tunes. He was running a summer program where neighborhood kids came by his house and he talked to them about growing plants. During the late 1960s, he’d dipped into utopian politics too, joining a radical black nationalist group in Memphis called The Invaders (you can find Frierson’s name in the FBI files of Ernest Withers, the famous Memphis photographer and informant). All of this squared with the yearning I heard on “Miracles” but did not fully explain it.

I asked Keesha about growing up with Frierson during this time. She remembered the delight of him handing out tapes—how he’d be ebullient and talk to shop owners about love and power—but also the burdens of his erratic personality. “Well, there was something else about my dad,” Keesha said. “My dad was schizophrenic. He was paranoid schizophrenic. Yeah, he used to do some odd things.”

I felt my stomach drop. I told Keesha about my own family’s history of mental illness, and how, up close, mental illness is not artistically interesting, but painful; how I still loved the people who had hurt me. I felt I’d contributed to a myth I knew to be untrue: the damaged genius. Was that what I had connected with in Frierson’s spare music and Spaceman’s curious inventions? Music historian Peter Guralnick spoke of soul, which he centered in Memphis, as a great coming together—he wrote of a “spiritual association” among musicians and their listeners, and the way it felt as if they were all “on the edge of a Movement.” Having chased down the roots of this song and its weird inspiration, I felt I’d come to a great spiritual break: Frierson in his garage, Spaceman in Palestine. Everybody was alone in this story. “Miracles” now sounds to me less like a celebration than a consolation: like a man trying to convince himself he’s worthy of love despite his flaws.

Last October, a woman named Kat King called Amy. She was looking for her father, Bryan Winford. Kat is fifty-four and lives in Topeka, Kansas, where she manages security for Frito-Lay. She grew up in Memphis and lived with her mother; as a child, she remembered going to Winford’s house, where he kept car motors and various appliance parts strewn about. “It was fun,” she told me, and laughed. Her father took her to the skating rink, out to eat, for drives. But at fifteen, she got pregnant and fled to Little Rock without contacting either of her parents. Her life advanced. She had four kids. Her kids had kids.

One day she heard her son talking about cars and she remembered her inventor father. She began looking for him by name on the internet, in vain, until, eventually, relatives told her to look up “Spaceman.” She found the WMC story and called Amy, just as I had.

At the time of this writing, Spaceman and his daughter have been talking almost every day on the phone and she plans to visit him in Arkansas; he now lives on a friend’s farm not far from Palestine. “I wish I had understood,” Kat said, thinking back to her youth. She almost cried recalling how special a father she had.

Keesha had told me something similar. She didn’t mind that her father wasn’t perfect. When he was fully present, it was beautiful. She loved when he sang “Heavenly Father.” The recording doesn’t do his song justice, she told me, remembering how he’d perform it. “A lot of us may not realize it,” Frierson would sing, “but Father, you made a way out of no way, a way out of no way.”  


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Jacob Rosenberg is a reporter from Greensboro, North Carolina. He has written for the Guardian, Mother Jones, and the Arkansas Times, among other publications.

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