13 August 2008

Going to Graceland

Staying with Memphis in the meantime, where it's Death Week in more ways than one. On August 17, 1977 I was on a bus going through Wellington when I noticed the Evening Post's billboard:

THE KING IS DEAD - Elvis Presley 1935-1977

The circumstances of his death meant that Elvis became a punchline for those with limited imagination, or fodder for semioticians who can't dance. Growing up in Wellington, the closest I got to an Elvis film were the trailers at the local fleapit. Just old enough to remember 'In the Ghetto' as a hit, in the early 1970s when NZBC-TV had a run of daytime movies -
Loving You, King Creole and Jailhouse Rock - I suddenly got it. Later, even the post-army years.

In 1988, I made a 24-hour visit to Memphis, my first, driving up from New Orleans with Mike Howie at the wheel of a car that died in Elvis's carpark. After the article below was published, a woman from Taranaki wrote to say that she thought I was mocking Elvis, which wasn't the intention. To the visitor, Graceland is presented as an irony-free zone, and is a fascinating insight into the man. Surreal and sad at the same time.

A House On Lonely Street

In the early 1970s the city of Memphis finally found something adequate to name after their most famous son: a highway. So the six‑lane Highway 51 South became Elvis Presley Boulevard, and at 3764 stands Graceland, the palace/mausoleum that ranks with the White House and Taj Mahal as an icon. The enigma that is Elvis comes clear when one visits his home.

The first surprise is how close Graceland is to the highway – only about 50 metres. The famous wrought-iron gates, showing Elvis as a young rocker surrounded by musical notes, still stand at the roadside. They’ve been open since daughter Lisa Marie made Graceland a tourist attraction in 1982, to cover the costs of maintenance, she said: the Presley estate remains in trust till she turns 25 in 1993.

The gates were one of the first things Elvis installed after he bought the mansion in 1957. Aspirant Elvises struggled to pass through. Early in his career, Bruce Springsteen could only rattle them, crying to the guards in his frustration, “But I was on the cover of Time!” Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter snuck through, like a glam rocker in Colditz, making it as far as the kitchen. Jerry Lee Lewis didn’t wait for an invitation: he just turned up in a limo late one night, drunkenly waving a derringer. Raised from his slumber, the King told his guards to ignore him.

It’s easier these days. Leave your car in Elvis’s parking lot across the road (US$1.00) and buy a ticket for the mansion tour ($7.50). Stroll around his two private planes, the Lisa Marie 707, and small jet Hound Dog II (these “airborne luxury apartments” can be inspected for $3.95), and within two‑and‑a­-half minutes a shuttle bus arrives to take a group of 16 pilgrims across the road and through the hallowed gates.

The driveway winds past mature trees – cypresses and elms – to deposit the party beneath the portico of the Southern mansion. But despite the imposing columns, the antebellum architecture, the trimmed hedges, the Romanesque statues and vases, the effect is not so much Gone With the Wind as built­-without‑a‑permit.

While hardly humble, Graceland would be overshadowed by many homes in the more exclusive areas of Remuera or Fendleton, though the plans would never get past the residents’ protection group.

The front door is carved oak, its size as unremarkable as the attached metal fly screen. Before anyone enters, however, the “Graceland Guest Rules” are explained: no touching, no smoking, no exploring, no noisy children, no pets. Most important, no cameras with flashes: “Your respect of this rule will help preserve Graceland mansion and artefacts from the deteriorating effects of flash photography.’’

Is the decor as delicate as treasures from King Tut’s tomb? No. Even Presley’s interior decorator was aghast at his taste: “I would see it, and swallow hard,” he said. “There was really no way I could say, ‘Oh Elvis, you have made an abortion!’“ Or as one of Presley’s hangers-on said, “That house is filled with everything you’d walk into a furniture stare and not buy.’’

The crass splendour that is Graceland explains all about its owner. Elvis simply had no idea – of how to handle his fame or his money, let alone his talent. The feeling evoked is one of loneliness. It’s a house but not a home; the image is not one of roaring parties, or Lisa Marie toddling about in naps, but of Elvis, padding about alone, looking for his next banana split.

There are no books, no pictures other than motel room art – and nothing old. Elvis hated antiques. They reminded him of being poor. No, everything inside Graceland is new. I was prepared for tackiness – indeed that word quickly becomes inadequate – but what is surprising about the interior is that it’s all cheap tack.

The internal tour is limited to the ground floor. To visit the bedroom would be bad manners, to visit the upstairs bathroom where Elvis died (reading a book on the Shroud of Turin), bad taste. The visitors, mainly couples in their late 30s, are subdued and serious, as are the guides. With the vacant enthusiasm of doorstep evangelists, the guides shunt the visitors through the rooms with a rapid-fire patter. Their clean-cut demeanour barely hides their boredom, though they’re still buzzing that the heavy metal band Poison has just been through. “They all come here to pay homage,” said one guide.

The guides keep the myth intact. Presley’s divorce from Priscilla is conveniently forgotten; the TV cameras in every room were installed because “Elvis liked to look after his guests, to see what they were up to and what they needed.”

To the left of the foyer, carpeted in white shag-pile, is the dining room. A large smoked mirror glass table is surrounded by gold leaf baroque chairs, with velour upholstery. The drapes are turquoise, the walls white with gold scalloped trim. Glass cabinets are crammed with cheap knick‑knacks, statuettes, porcelain, vases.

On the right are two living rooms, smaller than one would expect, with low ceilings. Dividing them is an archway, flanked by peacocks in stained glass windows. One room is for a grand piano, dipped in gold.

Down a steep, narrow staircase, with walls and ceiling covered in mirrors. To one side is the TV room, with mirrored ceiling and bright-yellow vinyl furniture. Opposite is the pool room, so over-upholstered it’s like a womb. Heavy brown drapes cover all the walls and the ceiling, the fabric fanning out from the chandelier in widening pleats. The pool table is electric blue.

But the piece de resistance is at the back of the house: the Jungle Room. Elvis furnished his favourite room himself after seeing an ad on television for a local furniture store. He went straight down there, and in 30 minutes had what he wanted: a den with a Hawaiian theme. The intention may be Hollywood voodoo out of Blue Hawaii, but the result is more like a Dr­ Caligari nightmare. Bright green shagpile carpet, chairs with leopard-skin covers and dark wooden arms, roughly carved into gargoyles. A coffee table hewn from a tree trunk, voluminous curtains in M*A*S*H camouflage fabric, porcelain figurines of tigers, tikis and watermelons. Elvis liked it so much he recorded his last two albums right here, say the guides.

Out the back door, and viewed from behind, Graceland’s grandeur seems as superficial as a Hollywood film set, propping up the plantation-mansion facade. Across a lawn is a squash court, rapidly jerry-built in 1975 when Elvis wanted a game. He only used it twice, though the lounge room’s brown vinyl couches and upright piano are worn, one imagines from singalongs.

Into the trophy room, a concrete‑block museum that holds countless gold records and much more besides. Costumes from the Vegas period, with monumental belt buckles and high collars and smothered in rhinestones. On a mannequin, they seem small: Elvis, a quarter-inch over six feet, wore lifted heels. In frames are dozens of certificates proclaiming Elvis a sheriff in countless small towns, plus a blue police badge with accompanying letter from Richard Nixon appointing the King an undercover detective for the Bureau of Narcotics. Glass cases display Elvis’s guns: magnums, .38s, rifles, revolvers, derringers. “Elvis liked guns,” says the guide.

Outside is a kidney-shaped swimming pool (“Please Do Not Throw Coins in the Pool”) and beside it is the “Meditation Garden”. Less than 20 paces from the house, Elvis lies buried beneath a full-length bronze plaque alongside his mother, father and aunt. A small plaque remembers Jesse Garon Presley, Elvis’s twin brother who died at birth. An eternal flame has an inscription listing Elvis’s friends, including Dr Nichopolous, who prescribed the pills that Presley consumed in his final years.

Overlooking the scene is a full-sized statue of Jesus, arms outstretched, and two kneeling angels. Dotted about are wreaths and mementos from fans (“Always On Our Minds – Elvis followers of Malta”). Elvis’s epitaph is written by his father: “He had a God‑given talent that he shared with the world ... God saw that he needed some rest and called him home to be with Him.”

One is given a few moments of contemplation before the shuttle bus arrives to whisk the tour party back across the road. Another museum houses Elvis’s cars and motorbikes, including a Harley Davidson Electra Glide and a pink jeep, battered from Elvis playing dodgems. Pride of place is given to the fabled 1955 pink Cadillac that Elvis bought with his first flush of success, the ostentatious symbol that said he’d arrived.

Behind glass cases is more Elvis memorabilia: his first pay cheque ($54), some books (Kahil Gibran, Esoteric Psychology, The Legend of Bruce Lee, The Omen), LPs (Tom Jones Live in Las Vegas, Ray Charles The Man and His Soul) and videos (The Pink Panther, Monty Python episodes). In a mock drive‑in cinema plays a compilation of clips from Elvis films, called Follow That Dream. Six gift shops offer take-home memories of Elvis. The souvenirs – teddy bears, miniature juke boxes, ashtrays, snowies – follow the Graceland theme, tawdry workmanship at premium prices. In the heart of the South’s cotton growing district, the T‑shirts – Elvis in pink glitter – are made of polyester.

© Chris Bourke 1988

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