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Home » Stories, True and Otherwise

Big Country Little Car Tour, Day 6

Submitted by on March 29, 2010 – 7:14 AM30 Comments

Maybe it's not always like that at Graceland. Maybe it was the chilly weather, maybe it was everyone buried in the audio tour and not talking much — I've never visited before, so I can't say, but there was a sadness there that I did not expect. After standing in the endless shuttle line and shuffling obediently onto a short bus to go maybe 400 feet and getting herded from walkway to walkway, I assumed I'd feel let down, but the down beat wasn't disappointment. It was gloom.

vernonI've always considered the pathos of Elvis quite striking. I frankly don't care about his music much one way or the other (although thanks to today's bombardment with it I could happily go a few months without hearing a note), but the pitiable waste of his talent, and the fact that it now seems like it was inevitable from the start, is fascinating — as is the estate's determination to avert its eyes from an unraveling that lasted years, and came to define him. Graceland as a destination wants to give the impression that Elvis just went away, was rightly lifted into heaven in the manner of the Virgin Mary; the only mention of the notorious bathroom even in passing is a stern note on the audio tour that the upstairs is off-limits, out of respect for the family's privacy.

But then, the tour didn't always go through the downstairs kitchen, either, because Elvis's aunt still lived in the house and still used it. And said family is buried in the back yard — 15 feet from the swimming pool. "Private" is not a word that fits here.

Evidently, Lisa Marie sold most of the merchandising and development rights to an entertainment conglomerate that aims to build up the area for miles in every direction and pull more money into Graceland as a tourist destination. At first, this doesn't present as a bad thing — the defunct Graceland Inn property is, literally, a sinkhole — but the very thing that attracts people to Graceland, that the family hasn't touched anything since Elvis's death, that you can touch the carpeted ceiling in the hall beside the Jungle Room, that Elvis's bathos and kitsch made him both a gigantic brand and a manageably-sized member of our family as Americans, that feeling that we go to the place because we already knew the man, that will vanish. It's already nearly out of sight; guests aren't permitted just to walk up and down the driveway, for insurance reasons. They have to take the shuttle to get there, and seriously, it is right there, right across the street. Civilian traffic goes right past.

Isn't this why Elvis is still beloved, still ours? He's the most famous guy in the world, the talent, the icon, but then, with his unfortunate attire and his kooky snacks, he's just folks, fallible, flabby. He liked Match Game. He's right there. When the expansion is complete and they reroute the traffic and it gets its own Starbucks, I don't know if we'll be able to get to him anymore.

All of that said, plus a pro forma objection to the ten-dollar parking, it's totally worth a visit. Walking past the clothes displays, you remember how tall Elvis was, how many bad movies he starred in (I'd forgotten all about this "gem"), how young he still was when he died. Billboards around Memphis are making much of the fact that it's his 75th birthday this year — he would still only have been 75, and he's been dead most of my life. The long slow fall that ended at this necropolis is all most of us know of him.

And what better way to celebrate the man than to eat a giant fried-catfish lunch and take a very long nap? TCB, indeed.

Next stop: Greenville, MS.

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  • Morgi says:

    I'm going to be in Memphis on the way home from Arkansas this weekend, and despite not being much of a fan of Elvis, I plan to stop in to see Graceland just because–he was Elvis.

  • kategm says:

    My family's first trip to Disney World was August 1997 and we decided to drive from Philadelphia. Graceland-or-bust traffic plus "oh, it's the 20th anniversary of Elvis' death this weekend" equals major traffic back-up as we got further South. So now I can't think of Graceland (or Disney World) without also remembering that long line of cars in the hot August sun.

  • J+1 says:

    I remember touring Graceland and feeling a similar sense of gloom. And sadness, really; however much the estate wants to pretend, we all know this was a talented, doomed man, and that permeates everything.

    A friend once said she wondered if they'd open up the (in)famous upstairs bathroom when the tourist (revenue) levels dropped below a certain level. We'll see, I guess.

  • Amie says:

    I took a detour to go to Graceland on a drive I made up between New Orleans and Connecticut several years ago. It was around when Britney Spears was in melt-down mode, and I'd been giving a lot of thought to celebrity obsession (both the obsession the public displays and the ones the celebrities themselves seem to have).

    Graceland is a great study in that particular level of celebrity, and I agree, there are a lot of mixed feelings that it elicits, but the trip is totally worth it.

  • dr. e says:

    When I was there (maybe 10 years ago) there were people sobbing at the gravesite. That was unexpected.

  • Sandy says:

    Somehow, in the last 3 years, I have been to Graceland 3 times. This is more a function of chance than anything else, as I am not what I would call any particular Elvis fan. More than anything else, the thing that left the biggest impression on me is that there are people who go so often the employees know them by first name. That strikes me as profoundly sad.

  • Kizz says:

    I think the quietude is part audio tour and part a really odd somber feeling around the place. I went once over 10 years ago with friends and it was unexpected for us, too. We wound up getting a case of the giggles in the cemetery because we couldn't keep it in any more.

  • I went when I was 12, and even THEN I felt sad going there. It is so surreal to be in a dead person's house, and it's pretty much how they left it. My favorite was his plane, though. I would totally live in it.

  • Shonda says:

    I've become a fulltime RVer and Graceland is my next stop. (I actually got to see Elvis in concert when I was, like, 9 or something.)

  • Lynne says:

    Graceland is maybe the creepiest place I've ever been. Not an Elvis fan but my family wanted to go when we visited Memphis about 15 years ago. I guess if you're in Memphis, you sort of have to go there. The whole "don't go upstairs!!!' hype and the religious fanaticism from the Elvis pilgrims was beyond freaky.

  • Liz in Minneapolis says:

    My college concert band toured to Atlanta and back again in 1990, and the buses dropped us off at Graceland for a few hours. Granted, it was February, but I can't see there being a way for the place to be cheery and lively even in summer.

    We didn't have time to go into the house, so we wandered the shops and crossed the street to look over the wall at the house. The wall was covered with graffiti, and while some of it was snarky, most of it was along the lines of "We love you and miss you" and "10 years later and we still love you," etc. The melancholy is not just about Elvis himself – it's about the people who idolized and still idolize him, and their pilgrimages.

  • Lisa says:

    The first time I ever went to Graceland, it was his birthday weekend, and the entire driveway area around the grave site was COVERED in floral tributes. I'm as sappy as the next gal, but not really an Elvis fan, so I was surprised it moved me as much as it did.

  • Barb says:

    I went to Graceland back in 2001 and the house itself was still very sad. The museums across the street were less so, but I remember standing in the raquetball court looking at the stage costumes thinking about what a waste the whole thing was.

    I hope you made it to Beale Street. Pretty amazing place.

    In the "it's a small world" category, I was on a business trip to tour the Viking range facility in Greenville MS. If you ever get a chance to experience their hospitality, you should do it in heartbeat. Their theory was that guests should be fed every three hours.

  • Jen S says:

    Dave Barry wrote a long, semiserious peice on Elvis and Graceland a few years ago–I think it's included in Dave Barry Is Not Making This Up. He talked about how amazing it was that the fans "were there last year, and they'll be there next year. This doesn't happen for Sinatra, it doesn't happen for the Beatles, it doesn't happen for Franklin D. Roosevelt. It doesn't happen to ANYBODY, that I can think of, that is not the focal point of a major religion."

    Elvis really did have some kind of plug in to the gods that no other public figure had. He managed that blend of divinity, "just us folks", and intimacy in a way that I think was truly one of a kind.

  • Jaybird says:

    I feel sort of bad that I have always had such antipathy toward The Man, The Myth, The Jif-Smeared Legend. I mean, as a fellow Southerner, there ought to be some affinity there, but I just tend to regard him as a straight-camp, dolled-up embarrassment. Who liked very young girls in white panties. And how I WISH I could un-know that.

  • Scairney says:

    I visited years ago and it is an amazing time capsule of a very wealthy man in the 70's and what was popular in the fashions of the day, but what impressed me most was the whole wall of awards and keys to the city and how generous he was to just regular people. The fact that Graceland is still so popular so long after he left the building is probably a little bit fan obsession but also how real and approachable and human he was.

  • Belinda Gomez says:

    If you haven't read Elvis and Gladys by Elaine Dundy (author of The Dud Avocado) and Peter Guralnick's books, I suggest you do. Both give great insights as to why Elvis touched so many people.

  • Cait says:

    My dad lived in Memphis for years, and I remember one summer, my best friend and I decided to do all of the "touristy" stops around Memphis, first on the list being Graceland.

    Apart from the fact that we ended up lost in the ghetto for an hour, then ended up at the airport before finally getting to Graceland, it was definitely something I would recommend–I remember thinking that even though he's been dead all of my life, it was amazing what an impact he had on the music industry (and film industry, for that matter), and that the tour was more like a weird quasi-funeral/southern visitation at the dearly departed's home than an audio tour of a celeb's home.

    Eat at Huey's!

  • Jen says:

    I just read today that Elvis was into Scientology. Is that true?

    Incidentally, I didn't care a lick about Elvis when I visited Graceland but I ended up loving it and him.

  • DuchessKitty says:

    I've been to Graceland a couple of times, the last being some 13 years ago. They definitely didn't have the shuttle service back then; in fact that was one of the cool things about the place – for essentially a museum, it felt very open and accessible.

    Hee hee re: "Change of Habit"
    A few months ago, maybe around Elvis's birthday, TCM ran a marathon of all of his movies. I was home sick with the stomach flu and was sacked out on the couch with the tv on, too weak to change the channel. It was bizarre going in and out of consciousness to the various scenes of these films. In "Habit" Elvis played a DOCTOR. Hee hee hee

  • Jen S says:

    Who cured an autistic girl by hugging her a lot, Dutchesskitty!

    I think that one was the final straw for him–wasn't that his last film?

  • Heather C. says:

    I went to Graceland around the 20th anniversary of his death (my 22nd birthday), and it was a strange experience. On one side of the road there was the Shoney's and the stores where you could buy a copy of Elvis's will for $2, and then there's the house on the other side of the road, which was quiet and solemn, but also so full of excess. It was like the brash and sad sides of the same garish coin. But then I saw the racquetball court with all his gold records, and I was in awe. It was like I was finally reminded why all this existed in the first place.

    My traveling companion and I had great experiences in the stores across the street from the house. I was looking for an Elvis hairbrush for my sister, but I couldn't find one. My friend asked the lady at the counter, and her reply was "No, we don't have any hairbrushes, but that's a great idea!" Also, my friend bought a funny fake driver's license with Elvis's picture and an expiration date of 8/16/1977. He would use it to get into bars as a joke, and the bouncer would usually be all "Ha ha, where's your real ID?" However, when we went out in Boston the night before he got married, he gave that Elvis license to the ID-checker, who proceeded to look at it, barely look at my friend, and then return the card to my friend, letting him in. We called him the King the rest of the night.

  • Jaybird says:

    Oh, y'all. "Change of Habit" is a guilty snorting pleasure for my sister and me. "Autistic? Nah, she don' even lift up a CRAYON." That and the "la la la LAAAA" twiddly vocals. Comedy gold, right there.

  • Cyntada says:

    I don't remember the somber mood, but then I toured Graceland in 1980, in my pre-teen years, and mostly remember going crazy taking snapshots of the horses. The Graceland stop on that trip was mostly a pilgrimage for my Mom (who is a HUGE Elvis fan) but thankfully her attitude is that she's been there once and that is enough.

    What was more surreal for me was watching a televised tour of Graceland with Mom a few years later. I was (anachronistically) a huge Beatles fan by then so I understood obsession, but never really considered that Mom was a teenager once herself. We watched a close-up of a huge stack of letters to the president begging for Elvis to be let off the draft, and she said, "I bet mine is in there!"

    Blew me away to think she had once felt as giddy about a musician as I did myself. To this day I like Elvis just that much more, for that reason.

  • Grainger says:

    Sars pretty much gets it; the appeal of Elvis is that everyone, deep down, believes that they are either Elvis (or Priscilla.) Heck, just look at how much fun we all have playing Guitar Hero.

    Elvis is the American Dream. He's the Dumb Ol' Reg-ler who somehow makes it big by dint of gumption, a little hard work (but not too much), and just a hint of Something Special. (gives a quick grin and glances upwards.)

  • lizgwiz says:

    I love "Change of Habit." Where else could you hear a gem like "autistic?–she never even picks up a crayon"?

  • Kathleen says:

    @ Jen, NO Elvis was not into scientology. He was pretty hard core Four Square Christian. ( aside from the whole adultery thing…) he didn't drink, Most of his Grammys are for Gospel Albums.

    That sign on the office (Sars pic) was put up by Vernon, (Elvis's dad ) because he though Priscilla was hanging out around the office too much, to visit with the cousins that worked there. Because she didn't have anything else to do…

    Why yes, I do know way too much about Elvis. I love his old music. Pre army, the 70s stuff not so much…

  • Kathleen says:

    @ Jen again, Priscilla is a big scientologist, that's where you got that from. That happened after Elvis . Lisa Maries first husband was a big scientologist, too. No idea if she's still into that.

    Must be so wierd that Dad's old house is a museum…

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    I believe Big E was into a lot of new-age stuff, too, that his friend Larry used to bring him books about.

    All his Grammys ("Grammies"? looks weird) came from gospel/spiritual singing. /Elvis trivia

  • sara says:

    next time you're in memphis, visit the stax museum. so much less crowded and so much more interesting than graceland. and they have a dance floor!!

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