As a teenager, one of my favorite things to do on a weekend night was to stay up late and watch old Elvis movies. I loved him and all those campy films. I saw Elvis master the art of race-car driving; surf and sing to beautiful women on Hawaiian sands; fall in love with a nun as he aided the poor of the inner city. There was nothing he couldn’t do successfully and with genuine panache. The cameras drank him up, and even though those were B movies with horrid plotlines, I loved them. I’d sit in my dark basement room with the 12-inch black and white TV and watch adoringly as Elvis solved problems, broke into spontaneous song with those around him and always, always got his girl. Unlike James Bond, Elvis was accessible, a fresh-faced “boy-next-door” with just the right mix of looks, personality, charm, rebellousness and grace. And somehow watching his movies made feel less alone, be less aware that I was by myself on a Saturday night.
Last weekend I finally went to Graceland to pay tribute to my friend Elvis. Like everyone, I had heard all kinds of things about Elvis and his Tennessee home. “It’s really small.” “It’s quite tacky.” “You know, he died there in the bathroom…drugs.” But I was not prepared for the real Graceland, a place that is a tribute to a very poor boy who became America’s first real pop-culture icon, a boy who had so much natural talent for music, who simply wanted to make his mom and pop proud and to do what he loved best: sing. That little boy from Tupelo grew into a phenomenon of sound and style that defined the latter 1950s and set the stage for almost all musicians who came after him. He blazed a trail on the stage with his white shoes, pomaded hair and deliciously swinging hips. Numerous contemporary artists, from The Clash to Bruce Springsteen, credit Elvis for their artistic success.
At Graceland, there are hundreds of photos of Elvis in all stages of his career but my favorites are those early ones, the ones where he is still just a teenager on a stage letting himself be overtaken by the power of rhythm. Most of the times, whether on stage with his guitar or singing to a hound dog on Ed Sullivan, Elvis looks to be having fun, loving the reply of the crowds and the way he feels the music. Even though I know how much success Elvis had in his lifetime, I was not prepared to see all the walls of gold and platinum records. The cases of awards and accolades seemed to run on for miles. Pretty impressive stuff for little kid from Mississippi who died at the far too early age of 42.
Graceland was his home in Memphis, a place he shared with his mother, father and eventually his wife and child. It sits quietly on 13 acres surrounded by pastures and horses. Of course, the interior rooms are decorated in typical 60s style: wall-to-wall carpet just about everywhere (even the ceilings), lots of burnt orange and brown tones, mirrors, funky-shaped furniture and over-the-top art. The jungle room, made infamous in songs and Elvis lore, is a long room filled with heavy, carved furniture that references animals. Green shag carpet covers floors and ceiling. I am sure that at the time Elvis decorated his beloved Graceland, everything was at the height of fashion and state-of-the-art, even the tiny modern oven in the kitchen and the bank of television sets in the man cave (a place that still looks hip even though its done in shades of dirty yellow and sports a wet-bar). As I walked through, gawking at the past life of Elvis and snapping pictures ravenously – like everyone else on the tour – I tried to picture him hanging out in these rooms, eating at the ornate dining table, making a PB & banana sandwich in the kitchen. Dead more than 35 years, the power of the King lives on. He had that kind of presence, that kind of effect.
Of course, Graceland is commercial with lots of additional tours to be bought (the plane, the car museum, a documentary that followed Elvis on tour) and it’s a bit tacky with all the Elvis junk to consume. But none of that can dampen the spirit of the place or the feelings I got when I walked through his house. I loved seeing all the old photo and TV footage, many of which referenced some of those movies I watched back in school. Hearing him sing and being quite candid in some rare personal interviews (as we know, Elvis was heavily guarded by the Colonel) reminded me of why he is so special. Even at the height of his stardom, he was a gentleman. He gave to numerous charities, loved and cared for his family and never seemed to lose his humility. It’s said he still got nervous before live performances and in his “come-back” tour in 1968, after a seven-year hiatus in Hollywood he worried if he’d be good enough. He was. I remember watching him in 1973 as he performed via the first globally broadcast television show in Hawaii. He was older, heavier, and a tinge of sadness clung to him as he sang. But he was amazing, too, and commanded the stage with his voice and presence, moving about in his jumpsuit and cape. Even in costume, the real Elvis could be seen.
Elvis – the one and only – brought us rock, taught us to loosen up and dance with our hearts (and hips) engaged, and showed us true stardom through his art and philanthropy. Graceland is an homage to the man and helps us recapture a tiny bit of the magic that was Elvis as we walk through its rooms and remember the King as he once lived. Elvis fans live on as will his memory and music.