The King and I: A Visit to Graceland

KREATURE COMFORTS – “the Lowlife Guide to Memphis” – claims that Memphis can offer visitors “the best or worst of vacations: you could hit a jamming Keith Richards show on Beale Street or end up in line with 8,000 Elvis Zombies waiting to smell Elvis’s bicycle seat at Graceland. The choice is yours.”

I’ll take Graceland, thanks. Only inverted snobs contest the notion that the biggest musical phenomenon in Memphis – “Home of the Blues, Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll” – was Elvis Presley. For the last 20 years of his life, he lived at Graceland. When he died, in 1977, its gates, with their wrought-iron musical notes, were the focus for mass weeping such as the world has seen only twice since: for Ayatollah Khomeini and Diana, Princess of Wales (neither of whom made any decent records). Presley’s death transformed the scale of Memphis tourism. A hundred new hotels have opened since. Graceland, the goal of this swollen pilgrimage, is almost as famous as he is.

Everyone thinks they know about Graceland. How tacky it is, how redneck vulgar and gross. As a true Elvis fan – one who therefore finds it hard to recommend anything he recorded after 1961 – I, too, came to scoff. I expected it to emanate a lethal mix of Colonel Parker’s Las Vegas Elvis and the stultifying buddy-buddyism of his “Memphis Mafia”, and that my fellow visitors would be obese women in Babar-sized trousers tottering on white high heels under nose cones of sticky hair.

Driving out from downtown along bleak Elvis Presley Boulevard, the first thing you see is Heartbreak Hotel: “A new place to dwell. Heart-shaped swimming-pool. Affordable rates”. Then the car parks and an airport terminal’s worth of “facilities”: a vast reception area with Elvis soundtrack, Elvis video screens and long queues for tickets. The $25 Platinum Tour includes the Mansion, car museum, Sincerely Elvis Museum and the aeroplanes. You file past the Post Office (closed) and Burger & Soda Bar (open) to the shuttle buses. Many of the punters are well dressed and articulate; all races and ages are there.

The 42-seater buses arrive incessantly. Headsets guide you on your journey. You can repeat bits and pause at will (though few senior pilgrims manage more than clamping them to their ears). Snippets of hits chime in resourcefully as a voice intones: “Just across the street, beyond the stone wall” – it’s brick – “is Graceland Mansion. The shuttle will take you through the famous gates and up to the house.” Here Elvis breaks into “Welcome to my world – won’t you come on in?”, retreating before the narrator’s “You’re about to hear the story of Elvis’s life and phenomenal career. He’ll tell you some of the story himself.” As comically ghoulish as you could wish.

Through the gates and up the hill, you “de-bus”, thrilled to stare up at those antebellum pillars. The house is so small! It’s a delight. Far from being enormous, enormously vulgar, and 1970s, it proves modest and demure – and so strongly redolent of the 1950s that the Elvis whose presence you feel inside is not the bloated figure in the rhinestone jumpsuit but the lithe 22-year-old who first moved in.

The house was built by a doctor in 1939 and, except for those pillars, is perfectly restrained. The entrance hall is 10ft across and a few steps in is the 5ft-wide plain staircase. You are not allowed upstairs, “because Elvis never invited visitors up there himself”. It’s a sensible rule – best not to think how people might behave in that death-scene bathroom.

Turn right and you stand in the roped-off entrance to the sitting room: a modest room with a pale cream carpet. There’s a 15ft-long sofa, but it’s neither florid nor overstuffed. Closed blue curtains guard the windows. Cream armchairs flank a large fireplace with mirrored panels above. The middle of the room is uncluttered space.

There’s a long coffee table, a table lamp, a tall glass-fronted cabinet. Okay, the open double-doorway through to the music room is framed by lurid stained-glass panels depicting peacocks, but the music room itself is small, almost diffident, accommodating an elderly TV set, small sofa, side table and a Story & Clark baby grand.

Off the hall in the other direction is the dining room, 22ft by 16ft. “Around this table,” proclaims the headset, “Elvis shared many evenings of warmth, laughter and storytelling. Everyone at Graceland liked the same downhome Southern cooking they grew up with.”

Impossible not to contemplate Elvis’s notorious obesity – and that of so many Americans. Yet the room holds no frisson of underclass gross-out. We are at the humble end of Dynasty culture here: gold and purple chairs – but only eight – around an oval metal-edged table sitting on streaked black marble, the mirrored table-top matching the walls. A chandelier holds 18 electric candles.

Down the hall is the bedroom of Elvis’s parents, Vernon and Grace: purple upholstered headboard and coverlet, bad landscape paintings, old chests of drawers, pink-and-mauve-tiled bathroom, small, sad stains on the pale carpet. How little time most visitors spend peering into each room. “Beautiful bedroom!” “Beautiful chandeliers!” “Beautiful!”

It’s not, but it isn’t as bad as millions of American interiors. Unpleasantness from the 1970s hovers, of course: it was the last decade available to him. But the recurrent surprise is how much the Presleys kept faith with 1950s suburbia: their aspiration when Elvis first made it and could rescue them all from their public-housing tenement downtown (itself a climb up from the shotgun shack in Tupelo, Mississippi where Elvis was born in 1935).

It’s an unassuming dream and I’m moved by his lifetime loyalty to it.

The kitchen (cue Elvis singing “Get into that kitchen make some noise with the pots ‘n’ pans”) is a long, slender room with wood cabinets and undesigner toaster, coffeepot and egg timer. It has 1950s simple solidity, and little touches such as a small, cheery wall clock, its green face showing limes and lemons.

Down a narrow staircase with mirrored walls and ceiling, we reach the basement TV room, “professionally decorated in 1974 in bright yellow and navy blue”. Again, 1970s ghastliness is undercut by 1950s naivety.

The huge, white porcelain monkey with black toenails squatting on the coffee table barely registers as one’s eye falls on Elvis’s inexpensive record player on a shelf alongside about 30 LPs (the front one by the gospel group The Stamps) and lovely old racks of singles not in their sleeves. Three television screens sit side by side, apparently because Elvis read that President Johnson watched all three network news programmes at once.

The basement also holds the den, where 350 yards of multi-coloured fabric cover the walls and ceiling, reminding me of a vastly extravagant and sumptuous hippie tent. Dark blue carpet, red leather chairs, smoky blue snooker table, ostrich feathers, a Toulouse-Lautrec poster, Tiffany lighting – all combine to suggest that Elvis was touched by the 1960s, too. “Wow!”, people exclaim here, “This is wild!” and “Boy, this is a cosy place!”

There’s a bad patch after this: back to ground level via green shagpile-covered stairs with shagpile walls and ceiling. These were once the back steps to the yard; but Presley added a family room. In 1974, it got the Indonesian jungle treatment. That monkey belongs here. Dark fur-covered Far Eastern sofas. An ugly teddy on an enormous round chair. Floor and ceiling in, er, green shagpile. Exaggeratedly high-backed chairs are carved to make it seem as if you’re on drugs when you see them. Ruched curtains. A bare brick wall with dribbling waterfall under red spotlights.

This room holds all the later Elvis’s dark, paranoid misery. This is what he sank to, fat and isolated in a vortex of self-loathing boredom. Unable to face the world but obliged to record, this room became a makeshift studio. Here in this hellhole in 1976, he made his last LP.

It’s a relief to get outside, via an annexe converted from the four-car garage for a special display: a 1960 stereo console; a gold sofa once in the music room; the slightly famous, round, white, fake-fur bed; a model of the Tupelo shack (in the headset, too briefly, Vernon sings “Jimmie Rodgers was born in Dixie” – an eerily authentic hillbilly prefiguring of very early Elvis). Here, too, is the 1950s desk and furniture from Elvis’s office, touching as well as risible, with its bible, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet and a consoling Roosevelt quotation about how “it is not the critic that counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled”.

The TV shows home-movie footage of Elvis diving incompetently into the pool, and Priscilla doing it perfectly.

Across the homely little yard, past Lisa Marie’s swings, the garden-shed office where Vernon dealt with fan mail is another time warp, with ancient filing-cabinets, a small fridge covered in brown leather-like the sofa, and the oldest photocopier I’ve ever seen. This room should be in a proper museum.

Another TV runs Elvis’s post-army press conference. He says proudly: “No, sir, I have no plans for leaving Memphis.”

The back of the house is white and well proportioned, standing peaceably in its several acres of pasture with well-judged trees and horses. The swimming pool is small and pretty; it isn’t shaped like a guitar or a heart and doesn’t shout money or ego. You move on to the chic Italianate Meditation Garden with its circle of graves where the family now lies oblivious to the constant earthly turmoil.

A shuttle bus returns you to where you began. You head into the black hangar of the car museum. A screen plays the car bits from all his worst films. The cars are excellent, and so is the detailed printed information. Here is his 1962 Lincoln Continental with gold alligator-hide roof; a black 1975 Dino Ferrari he bought secondhand; the red 1960 MG 1600 used in Blue Hawaii; the batmobile that was his 1971 black Stutz Blackhawk. How nice, if true, that Sinatra had ordered it and Elvis charmed them into reassigning it. Then also a 1973 model, for which he paid $20,000 up front, leaving, bizarrely, $10,000 owing in instalments. Best of all is the legendary 1955 pink Cadillac Fleetwood, a wondrous colour and a gigantic motorcar.

You leave through one of the gift shops. Get your Elvis lunch box here. Don’t forget your boarding pass for the Lisa Marie, Elvis’s aeroplane. It was being readied for another concert-date on August 16, 1977, when he died. What sort of plane is it? Not an executive Lear Jet, nothing state-of-the-art: rather an ex-Delta Airlines Convair 880 passenger plane. It won’t surprise you that it was manufactured in 1958.

© Michael Gray, 2001

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