I think Paul Simon said it best. "I’m going to Graceland for reasons I can’t quite explain." Yes, the trek to Elvis’ home in Memphis has become somewhat of a pilgrimage for us Baby Boomers, and the reason why has never been adequately explained. Some say it’s for the kitsch factor. Some say it’s for rock ‘n’ roll. Some say, alas, it’s for the gambling casinos down the river in Tunica, Mississippi.
Take me, for example. I appreciate Elvis, certainly, but I am not what you would call a fan. I don’t own an Elvis record. I’ve never seen an Elvis movie-or at least, not all the way through. Yet all my life I knew I would go to Graceland. One part of me was going to giggle at the fat tourists and revel in the tackiness of it all. But another part knew there was a genuine mystery there and it had something to do with the dreams one dreams while in junior high. Could it be that Graceland is one of those places where you go to resolve your life?
Well, I finally went. And Graceland really does deliver the goods, pilgrimage-wise. It is the second-most-visited home in the United States, after the White House, and with good reason. Not only does it function as a shrine to Elvis and his astonishing life, but it has a spiritual quality that invites the visitor to reflect on the Big Themes. Genius. Love. Prescription drugs.
Let’s start with the actual Graceland visiting experience. You first must get yourself to Memphis, Tennessee, a rather sad and shabby city that could use a little tree-trimming. There is very little of the New South here; Memphis is stuck all by itself in the middle of nowhere (i.e., the Mississippi- Tennessee border; there’s no other big city within 200 miles) and it is, as they say-although not in Memphis-a schlepp. To make matters worse, the countryside is quite ugly and the schlepp is not much fun. But in a strange kind of way that adds to the experience. A pilgrimage should be a little difficult.
I had been told not to stay near Graceland, as it is in a bad neighborhood where tourists are robbed and killed, so I got a motel room out by the airport, where I soon discovered that Memphis, in its one New South claim to fame, is also the home of Federal Express. A Fed Ex plane takes off every 40 seconds and flies right over the motel so low that if you are out in the parking lot, you instinctively duck. The local paper was full of gruesome murders and political corruption. I was beginning to wonder if perhaps this pilgrimage was a little too difficult.
I arrived at Graceland early the next morning in order to beat the crowds. It is located on Elvis Presley Boulevard, which apparently was way out in the country when Elvis moved there in 1958 but is now very urban, rather like Beirut. There are potholes the size of bomb craters; I lost a hubcap and would have gotten out of the car to look for it but I was much too scared.
Fortunately, Graceland has a well-secured parking lot bordered with crepe myrtle and something called the Heartbreak Hotel, set behind a chain link fence. You pay your $16 and board a little tram, which takes you across the street to the mansion itself. The tour itself is conducted via audio phones rather than tour guides, although there’s plenty of staff standing around to make sure you keep things moving.
Graceland itself is a very pretty house. It was built in 1938 for a wealthy local family (Grace was their beloved aunt) and is in the Georgian colonial style. The façade is partly covered with stone and the shutters are painted a Lambert green. One disconcerting note-the windows are covered with decorative grilles, like they have in Miami to keep the burglars out.
Inside, Graceland is smaller in scale that you would expect. It feels like a large suburban house, not a mansion. The first room on view is the living room, done in white and blue. It was last decorated in the 1970s and shows it. There is a stained glass room divider with peacocks at one end, leading to a sun porch/ TV room. The key relic in the living room is the 15-foot couch, which has been in Graceland since Elvis moved.
Elvis, it turns out, was quite the decorator. He loved lamps; while touring he would shop for flamboyant, ’50s-style lamps and bring them home to Mom. (She once told him that if this rock ‘n’ roll thing didn’t work out he could always open a lamp store.) He had quite definite ideas of what he wanted in his home, and what he wanted was good-quality furniture that made a statement. He believed in strong colors, lots of mirrors, and carpeting everywhere. It is not really a hillbilly’s house; it is more a hillbilly’s idea of a movie star’s house. This is to be expected, for it has been documented that Elvis was using as his model Red Skelton’s home in Beverly Hills (the first thing Elvis did in Los Angeles was drive around with his folks and look at the stars’ homes). Skelton’s home was also a Georgian colonial but he added many questionable touches which Elvis embraced, including blue lights set along the driveway, which give the impression of an airport runway, and lots of whimsy-Skelton had a giant gorilla out by the pool.
After the living room, one passes through the hall and all eyes go to the staircase. It is explained that Elvis’ own bedroom and bath-where he died-is off limits out of respect, and one accepts this. Still, the symbolism of that staircase, going upward to the most holy of holies, is powerful indeed; and one is a little too overwhelmed to take in much of the dining room, which is all smoked mirrors and hutches filled with knick-knacks. It is only when you enter the kitchen that you get your bearings back.
And speaking of kitchens, the most important thing you’re going to need on your pilgrimage is a suitcase full of Rolaids, as Memphis is one of the few places left in the country that has its own indigenous cuisine. No, I’m not talking about barbecue, although that is everywhere, too. I refer to Country Cooking, or Home Cooking, as it is sometimes called. It is what Elvis ate and one of the things that killed him. Be sure and eat at a country buffet. The sight of all that Southern food laid out is startling. First of all, it is extraordinarily ugly. Everything is limp and fried and has had all the color cooked out of it. Specialties include catfish, country ham, and candied sweet potatoes. Though the food was lethal and I was in pain the whole time, I must say it was delicious. By the way, Elvis had carpeting in his kitchen, which I’ve always found to be the mark of a true hillbilly.
Toward the back of the house are several rooms devoted to leisure and amusement. The most famous of these is the Jungle Room with its Trader Vic’s decor, green shag carpeting (on the floor and ceiling) and an indoor fountain that gurgles slightly as it drips down a stone wall. It is here that Elvis’ spirit is the strongest. People tend to linger and stare, causing bottlenecks, until they are finally pushed forward by the tide of humanity into the carport, which has been converted to a reliquary. On display are various sofas and TVs, a round bed covered with white faux fur, and Elvis’ old desk, which is covered with several of his favorite books, including "The Prophet," "Siddhartha," and many volumes about the life of Jesus, with whom Elvis identified.
The tour then goes outdoors and visits several outbuildings, also filled with memorabilia, before leading to the Meditation Garden where Elvis is buried. This was a shock. It’s very nice and everything, but it’s right next to the pool. I thought it would be off at a respectful distance -after all, they have 13 acres-but it’s right there, just feet from a kidney-shaped pool. This means you pay your respects while gazing not only at the tombstone but also a Creepy Crawler chugging around making sucking sounds. I couldn’t decide if this was the one discordant note or the perfect touch.
My pilgrimage didn’t resolve my life, at least as far as I can tell. It did not excite, me, it did not delight me, it did not teach me anything I didn’t already know. But it did move me, again in ways I-like Paul Simon-can’t explain. The best way to sum it up is to say that something special happens there. In all the detritus of a hillbilly from Tupelo, one actually does see humanity, in all its glories and in all its tragedies. Everyone gets something different out of it. But everyone, as Simon tells us, will be received at Graceland. Everyone with $16, anyway.