By the time we reached Tennessee the peach blossoms were already blowing in the breeze at Shiloh. At St. Louis we picked up 55 and drove south through Missouri and Arkansas, making a half-moon loop down to Memphis by following the Mississippi River. We made the long trip across the Illinois prairie to St. Louis under a dark April sky sprinkled with stars. At sunup the prairie emerged from the wall of night and dust hung over the farm fields like platoons of ghosts marching off to war. The rolling hills of east Missouri were a relief after that stretch of Illinois flatland. A few farmers were plowing their fields and further south, in Arkansas, the rice fields glimmered with water.
Nashville is thought of by many as a cultural center not unlike Athens was during the Roman Empire, and if we keep with that analogy then Memphis is like Babylon after the fall. Memphis is a city that hints at civilization’s past grandeur. Poised on the banks of the Mississippi River, Memphis, which means “haven for the good,” was a natural embarkation point for the river commerce that once thrived here in the mid-south. In Memphis we are always longing for the past. You can feel this sense of longing while riding on the old trolley downtown in the late afternoon. The empty storefronts and long shadows splayed across the alleys and creeping toward the shafts of sunlight that tease the concrete and steel all hint at the idea of something wonderful that is long past.
Nine hours to Graceland from Crystal Lake, Illinois, some 626 miles as the crow flies. We made it Graceland in time for the lunch crowd. Busloads of tourists, including many Europeans and Asians, had come to pay homage to the King of Rock and Roll. And make no mistake about this – Elvis is still the king. The life of Elvis is another Horatio Alger story, rags to riches, but ending in a sense of longing for the past. Elvis was just too cool to be true, and then he was gone.
Elvis made his first recordings in Memphis at Sun Records, a nondescript studio that would have been bulldozed decades ago if not for its connection to music history. Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis all recorded here. Those early 1950s rock and roll songs forever changed music. Their raw energy and blatant sexuality mingled with blues harmonies and electric guitars set a standard for everyone that followed, including the Beatles who readily admitted that Elvis made it all possible.
Graceland is the main attraction for the traveling rock historian. Elvis purchased the mansion in the late 50s and retreated here when he wasn’t making films in Hollywood. The rooms and hallways are smaller than one would imagine, but Graceland was meant to be a sanctuary in the south, not a palace. Graceland is a comfortable place to visit and so it was plainly comfortable for Elvis who spent so much time traveling. It’s easy to imaging Elvis sighing with relief every time he passed the stone lions on the portico and entered Graceland.
Graceland is mesmerizing. The rooms are almost quaint in their simplicity, but some rooms, such as the famous “Jungle Room” where Elvis made some of his final recordings, might be seen as a reflection of Elvis’ eclectic tastes. Contrary to so many caricatures that have permeated the press, Elvis was more than just a country bumpkin that could sing. He managed to nurture that southern gentility while fostering a keen intellect fueled by his musical sensibilities. This is the side of Elvis few care to comment on. Elvis knew music, and he knew instinctively what worked not only for his audience, but for the betterment of his own soul. He was a vocal stylist cut from the same cloth as Sinatra. He could wrap a lyric to fit the music and lean into a croon or shout out his passion.
Elvis had already mastered the art of image transformation long before Madonna learned to change her image every few years. Today such transformations are nearly requisite curriculum in the school of rock. But Elvis gets credit for this, too. Those early recordings were presented with animal magnetism, hips shaking and legs gyrating to a new beat. The lip curled and Elvis pouted and growled and crooned his way through an astonishing series of classic songs: Heartbreak Hotel, Don’t Be Cruel, Hound Dog, Love Me Tender (all from 1956), All Shook Up, Jailhouse Rock (both in 1957), and dozens more. Dubbed the King of Western Bop and the Hillbilly Cat music, Presley fused sounds of country music with black rhythm-and-blues influences and helped define rock and roll. After a stint in the Army Elvis became a 1960s matinee idol in three dozen feature films. Swept along on the Hollywood breeze he consolidated his fortune and divided his time between Graceland and Hollywood.
It’s during his matinee idol period that we find a famous rock and roll story worth repeating. When the Beatles met Elvis in Bel Air, California on August 27, 1965, John Lennon reportedly asked Elvis “What happened to the old Rock and roll Elvis?” Lennon’s question was a reference to the endless stream of movie soundtracks Elvis had been recording, many of which often lacked that early spark. Elvis apparently laughed off the question with his characteristic good nature. In fact, the meeting between Elvis and the Beatles took place when Elvis was filming Paradise, Hawaiian Style. By all accounts Elvis and the Beatles got along well, with the Beatles clearly in awe of the King. When the party was breaking up Lennon put on a German accent and quipped “Long live ze King!”
The rock and roll Elvis that had such an influence on Lennon and the Beatles would return just a few short years later. In 1968 Elvis staged his comeback in a now famous television special where he dressed in black leather and proved before a live audience that he still had the magic. It was a watershed moment, not just for Elvis, but for his fans as well. This included a stunning rendition of a song called If I Can Dream which he delivered with such power and conviction that the song still sends a chill down my spine all these decades later. If I Can Dream reflected immediately on the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy while ushering in yet another remarkable period for Elvis. His late 1960s recordings are among the best of their kind: In the Ghetto, Suspicious Minds, Don’t Cry Daddy, and Kentucky Rain (all from 1969).
He was the King, and that fact would never change. Whatever competition he may have feared from the Beatles was dissolved by their break-up in 1970. Elvis even recorded three of their songs: Yesterday, Something and Hey Jude. He took to the Las Vegas stage for his final transformation – from greaser hillbilly rocker and movie star to the ultimate showman wearing sequined suits and capes. And the performances were spectacular. One of his concert highlights was a song compilation by writer Mickey Newbury titled American Trilogy which used sections from Dixie, The Battle Hymn of the Republic and a spiritual standard called All My Trials. Again, Elvis made history by setting a new standard in concert performances.
Elvis is buried here with mother and his father, his aunt and grandmother. There is also a memorial marker for his twin brother who died in childbirth. Presley’s biographers have unfairly criticized Graceland as kitsch which by definition means shoddy or inexpensive. What they have failed to grasp is that kitsch is the American Dream; it’s what every boy in every 1800s Horatio Alger story dreamed of owning. The trinkets and ephemera added something to the daydreams of the poor. Elvis came out of Tupelo, Mississippi in bare feet and raggedy trousers. He filled Graceland with everything a poor boy could want – record albums and televisions and a beautiful dining room set for his family to sit around at dinner-time. A grand piano where he sang and a pool table and several wet bars. Graceland is a bachelor pad and a toy house turned into a museum. With Graceland Elvis was doing what Errol Flynn had done twenty years earlier with his famous Mulholland Farm overlooking Los Angeles. He created a sanctum sanctorum, a haven from the world, a place to reflect and a starting point for new adventures. Throughout his career he apparently saved everything which makes sense when you remember that Elvis was born into poverty. Costumes, records, movie posters, awards and trophies are all on display for the fan, the scholar and the wanderers who make the pilgrimage to Graceland by the thousands each month. Graceland joins the White House as the most popular private residence tourist attraction in the world.
When Elvis moved into Graceland the property was still fairly isolated. He installed a fieldstone fence and wrought iron gate with a musical motif. His presence in Memphis was no secret. Almost immediately that fieldstone wall became the object of scrawled love notes or clandestine attempts to scale it by fans intent on meeting the King. Today it is a tradition to pull up and write something on that stone wall. Decades of love and hope and heartbreak have overlapped each other and been washed away by the elements only to be reborn with each busload of tourists. The neighborhood surrounding Graceland is still rough just as it was by the mid-60s when the urban sprawl began encroaching on Graceland’s coveted tranquility. Gang graffiti adorns the corrugated fences and abandoned houses just a few blocks away are a stark reminder that Memphis is but a shadow of its gloried past.
What we see in Graceland is what raw talent and a little luck can accomplish in a relatively short period of time. Elvis began his career in 1955 and he died in 1977 at the age of forty-two. His accomplishments are legendary. What we learn from Memphis are the hard facts of life, the reality of a dream deferred, the long cold, stares of the impoverished and disaffected. Not that everything in Memphis is deteriorating, for surely the people of this ancient city have made strides in civic improvement and have every reason to hold their heads high. The Golden Age may be past but they nurture the idea that it can rise again. Maybe it will.
The life of Elvis Presley is a Dickensian tale of epic proportions. It is a story that begins with music and ends in the tragedy of silence. He had climbed that creative mountain and conquered it as no one had before or since, and then without realizing it he found himself perhaps longing for something more, but he faltered then and the music stopped. And so all civilizations eventually crumble, and the dead poets of the past are remembered with a nostalgia for what was once bright and good in life. Down on Beale Street they are still playing the blues and they are playing rock and roll and the glass skulls in the voodoo shops grin as you pass them by. Late in the afternoon the Mississippi River reaches up and pulls down a part of the sky to carry it downstream all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Just before twilight the shadows lengthen and the sky deepens to a rich but fragile blue. And down on Beale Street the bronze statue of Elvis stands silhouetted against the sky, guitar in hand, waiting forever for the audience he can no longer see.
Long live the King.
Text and photographs copyright © 2012 by Thomas McNulty.