I used to think Elvis was a pathetic joke: bad movies and cheesy songs like “Do the Clam”; fat and sweaty in a ridiculous jumpsuit, dying on the toilet. Oh sure, the Sun stuff was pretty cool, but everything after was a sell-out. Yadda. Yadda. Yadda. Yep. I was such a fool.
It wasn’t until 1995, when we first went to Graceland that I learned to love Elvis. We went on a lark, while on our way back from a road trip to see my parents who had retired to Arkansas of all places. I wanted to come back through Tennessee, since I had never been there before. I wanted to see Beale Street and Graceland in Memphis, and head north to Nashville before making our way back to Boston. I wanted to visit the birthplace of rock’n’roll and country music. Lizzy thought I was crazy, but she is a great traveling companion and always game for new adventures. Memphis was just as I expected: the Mississippi River River is indeed black and muddy; there is drinking in the streets, blues in the parks and bars, and tasty gumbo and barbeque in the restaurants. Graceland was, however, not at all what I expected. I expected to snicker at the hopeless fans, smirk at the relentless kitsch, and sneer condescendingly at mainstream Middle-American culture. I did not expect it to be so expensive – we’re talking Disneyland-level pricing here! But, what the heck, we splurged for the Platinum Tour of the whole shebang, including Elvis’s two (2) airplanes. Moreover, I did not expect that it would wind up being worth every penny.
Tourists arrive across the street from the mansion itself where there are acres of parking next to the cavernous ticketing area which is attached to the many, many gift shops. A shuttle ferries ticketholders across Elvis Presley Boulevard to the front door of Graceland, where a friendly but no-nonsense tourguide escorts you through the residence. From the outside, the house seemed surprisingly small and downright tasteful, certainly not the imposing edifice I expected. As we made our way through the entryway and modestly-sized dining room, I was struck by how normal it all seemed – normal circa. 1976, that is. As we entered the kitchen, I noticed a set of “Apple Pottery” dishes proudly displayed in a cherrywood cabinet – just like the dishes of my own, 1970s suburban childhood. I was touched somehow, finding this humble dishware displayed like fine china in Elvis Presley’s house. I could feel my unfair caricature of Elvis quickly dissolving. Yes, the basement playroom with its bar and three TV sets conjured up visions of the “Memphis Mafia” and drugged-out gunplay and the “Jungle Room” was every bit as tacky as I expected. But these were the tastes of an ordinary man, from a dirt poor background, who happened to be Elvis Presley. Instead of seeming larger than life, he seemed simpler, guileless, more like a real human being. But what was truly impressive was an outbuilding containing a long corridor packed with hundreds of gold and platinum records, exiting into another room with a three-story wall of yet more gold and platinum records belatedly awarded after his death. It was… stunning. There is simply no arguing with the fact that Elvis sold (and continues to sell) A LOT of records. From there we were led out to the small courtyard where Elvis is buried. The gravesite was festooned with fan-made homages, oddly, deeply moving in their innocent earnestness. I could feel myself getting teary. What was going on with me? I was becoming a fan…
In Nashville, we visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and saw Elvis’s gold-plated Cadillac, complete with fold-down backseat turntable. We also toured RCA’s Studio B over on Music Row, which is still preserved, complete with Elvis’s footprint in a wall where he kicked in it anger at a frustrating recording session. By now we were utterly smitten…After returning to Boston, we started collecting Elvis CDs and we love it all, from the fifties through the seventies – yes, we even love the movies and fat Elvis in a jumpsuit (bless his heart). The guy could sing!
A couple of years later, we picked up and moved from Boston to Nashville on nothing but a wing and a prayer. We had no jobs waiting for us, only a fondness for the city, some meager savings, and a hope for a better life. When things seemed the most precarious, only Elvis could raise our spirits and he was a permanent fixture of our personal soundtrack in those first couple years. We made it through, in part thanks to the eternal optimism of Elvis’s music. It is impossible to feel sad when Elvis is on the stereo. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that we would not be here in Tennessee if it weren’t for our first sojourn to Graceland in 1995.