I've been thinking about Elvis this week - this week that is in Memphis - Elvis Week. I was lucky enough to be in Memphis for Elvis week 9 years ago. I would like to say it was organised that way, but to be honest it was a pure and utter fluke. I was touring from New York to New Orleans and we spent the night in Memphis on the 16th of August!!!
We had arrived in Memphis early, checked out the Mississippi delta and Memphis tourist centre. I had Paul Simon's Graceland going in my head all morning, mainly the lyrics..."The Mississippi Delta was shining like a national guitar", hmm not sure when Paul was there, but it looked more like a murky cesspool of dirt and garbage. We then headed to Mulberry Street and visited the Lorraine Motel, a sombre experience to see where hopes and dreams were assassinated. I felt physically sick, looking up at this very basic motel and thinking about King. But we were not there long, there were other kings to think about and we arrived at the Graceland complex late morning, before lunch.
The tour of Graceland was optional, you could do other things, I was tossing up what to do, right until we arrived. It's not that I did not like Elvis, I thought it was a bit cliched to visit, but once you arrive via Elvis Presley Blvd, well, you just HAVE to visit! The fact that this very day was the anniversary of his death did not click with me to much later during the day.
So, I am purchasing my ticket at the counter of the operation, and I was thinking, well this is going to be a laugh. I had to wait almost an hour, there were a lot of people there, but not that many that I thought it warranted an hour wait. There was plenty to do, I grabbed a burger (what else?) at one of the three 50s/60s styled diners around the complex and then hit the shops. I was keen to purchase the tackiest Elvis souvenirs I could lay my hands on - these simply did not exist in the complex. As I was to realise as the day proceded, this was the slickest show I would ever attend. Priscilla and Lisa Marie have done The King proud.
I took in the atmosphere, there were buskers, of all ages and race, doing the Elvis thang, some were good, and some not so, but it added to the building anticipation. Ever the cynic, I was surprised to find myself becoming quietly excited. The shops had some cool stuff to purchase and I made a mental note of what I might purchase after the tour. Soon my time was up and I joined the short queue for my group. I was given headphones which would have an audio guide leading me through the tour, and I was soon taken to the small buses that took us from the complex side to the actual compound. All of this was timed impeccably.
We entered the gates at Graceland, and I had goosebumps, the cynic was gone, I was really impressed and excited at what lay ahead. I had been born again Elvis and I loved every bloody minute of it. The gates were beautiful and the gardens and grounds tastefully done. The buses parked near the house, but under the shade of some trees, you had to step out a bit to see the house.
It was so small! I could not believe it, well large for a house, but much smaller than you would imagine. I guess in its day (especially when you see homes in that area even now) it was a mansion, but by todays standards most definitey not. Nonetheless, it was impressive, I mean it was Graceland. I had seen some amazing pieces of architecture during my trip, but this gave me shivers (ok the Chryslar building made me cry, but I was just off the plane, a very long plane journey, and driving from JFK to Manhattan, and seeing that stunning work of art deco in the night sky did me in!).
We had a short wait and were guided to the stairs, another short wait and in we went. Each group is timed (I forget how much) so as not to have too many people in the house at once and to also give them enough time to sufficiently look at everything. You never felt crowded, they were not trying to get more people through and make more money - trust me, you could have easily doubled the people and it would not have been even remotely squishy. But, doing it this way, enhanced the experience, you felt - at times - like you were the only person there.
Inside the home you were not allowed upstairs - people still live there, and when home family, eg Lisa Marie, stay there and I suppose, no one really needs to see the bathroom. Plus, when Elvis was alive, certain rooms upstairs were off limits even to family and friends. Everything is perfectly preserved, you really expect Elvis to pop out - not because you wished he was not dead, but because you felt transported back in time.
Most of the rooms were not so tacky, a little over the top in their oppulance for sure, but not tacky. The living room had a fair bit of glass, very large white lounge suites, peacocks in stain glass going into the music room where you saw a TV and grand piano, also a lot of gold accessories and deep blue curtains. The dining room was more of the same with a large Chandelier, cabinets of silverware and Noritake china and the large dining table set with silverware and floral arrangements.
The kitchen was very brown, lots of wood, very 70s, brown wood walls, brown wood cabinets, brown carpet, even the tooster had brown wood panelling. It kinda hurt your eyes, I imagine it was very advanced for its time. Then down some stairs (mirrored I think) to what was the basement. It had been turned into a Pool room and TV room. The Pool room had fabric on the walls and gathered on the ceiling and the same on the lounges which had an odd effect. There were cushions, other chairs and nick nacks in other patterns and colours, but because of so much material they blended in. Many a game of pool played by Elvis and friends I imagine. The TV room had three TVs, and a black, navy blue, yellow and white decor. Along with a very eerie white ceramic monkey and a glass ceiling. It also had a jukebox in the wall and a white leather bar.
And then there is the Jungle Room, nothing quiet prepares you for the Jungle Room. Complete with fake stone waterfall wall, green shag carpet (looking like grass) on the floor, walls and ceiling, fake fur chairs and lounges, coffee tables made from tree stumps, and various other wooden carvings. Apparantly Elvis felt comfortable there and it reminded him of Hawaii, it looked very uncomfortable to me! It was also great for jamming and recording, due to the carpeted walls and ceilings which made it absord sound well.
Then, there were a few small rooms with memorabillia, some suits, jewels, hobbys, books (I noticed a copy of Gibran's The Prophet and a whole pile of spiritual readings. We then moved outside to Vernon's office, which looked like people may still be working there, certainly very brown and 70s but files and documents open and so forth. As you leave the house and are in the grounds you see peacocks, horses and a small playground with swings etc in it.
We were taken to a very large garage - the cars are housed elsewhere on the complex side of the road - this has turned into a showroom of music memorabilia. You first go down the hall of gold - this has to be seen to believed, it is a hall of gold and platinum records, with cabinets towards the end holding other awards, including his three Grammy awards. This was truly spectacular, and if the house was not enough, this was surely worth the ticket alone. The hall moves into small rooms divided by subject - movies, 60s, 70s, priscilla, his charity work. I saw costumes, guitars, jewellery, photos, posters, books, sheet music, magazine covers, authentic merchandise, dolls and so forth. There was a wall of cheques he had written for people he knew and some people he did not know who needed help. There was a cabinet of guns and badges and certificates and keys to the city from many places.
And then there was the racquetball building, a 2 storey structure on the grounds. You enter into a lounge area with brown leather lounges, upright piano, stereo and so forth, there is a small gym and then the racquetball court. But, the court has now been turned into a home for his Vegas costumes - oh my!!! My favourite period, his concerts playing live as you arrived, Viva Las Vegas indeed.
You leave via the meditation garden - actually very beautiful, the pool and of course the graves. The graves were crowded, once you hit here the tour stops and the structure breaks down a little, as you are allowed to spend as much time as you like here. People mingle and on a day that was the anniversary of his death, an emotional mingling it was. I felt sad and touched and thrilled and overwhelmed and stunned at the afternoon I had spent. But I when I finally made my way to the grave the sight of two very tough looking dudes, huge with tats, crying like babies over his grave, I got the giggles and had to move on for fear of being tossed out!
I moved out to the front of the house, waited for the shuttle bus and made my way back over to the complex. I felt like something had shifted, I was connected to Elvis in a way you only can be having walked a mile in his shoes...so to speak. From that day on I knew Elvis would hold a special place in my heart and he does. I bought myself a hound dog wearing a cape with blue suede shoes and some other bits and pieces and decided against seeking out the tacky souvenirs you could apparantly purchase back in town.
Before leaving the complex, I toured the plane museum and even walked through the Lisa Marie - again, very 70s, a lot of vinyl and velvet inside and pretty compfy looking for an old small jet.
The evening took me to Beale Street, it was a buzz and we went to an Elvis Impersonator contest before dinner - pretty funny, but also some great singers. Beale street itself was entertainment without going into any club, street musicians, all the stores open, plenty of restaurants and cafes, street vendors selling food and drinks - I had the best frozen strawberry daiquiris there. Found a cool restaurant with jazz playing, had Voodoo Chicken for entree and Cajun Chicken for main - yummo, wandered the street some more, then checked out BB King's Blues Club - it was a happening place, but it was getting late and I had had a big day.
I headed back to the motel with a few others, we were all tired and overwhelmed, Memphis was amazing, you felt the blues beat the entire day, it sung to you in a way that cannot be described, but visiting Graceland was indeed a highlight, one I will never forget. If you are ever in Memphis, do not hesitate, you will love Graceland and be as impressed as I was. I went to sleep that night feeling tired, and a little bit sad that the King had left the building for good, but pleased in the knowledge that his legacy can continue with this mighty attraction.