I have never spent more than 24 hours at any one stretch in Memphis, either for business in the area or as a rest stop on my way to somewhere else in the country. It escapes me, therefore, to recall why I was in Memphis on the occasion that included my first visit to Graceland, the former home of one Elvis Presley.
Right from the start, Elvis Presley Boulevard which leads to the mansion is a multilane thoroughfare that holds all the charm and subtlety of the main entrance to Disneyworld. For miles it is strung and festooned with roadside motels, fast food restaurants, licensed and barely legal souvenir shops right up to the most incongruous sight of all, the tail of the "Lisa Marie," Elvis' private jet towering above the traffic and tourists. Signaling to one and all that the heart of Elvis country has been reached, it doesn't take long to find the ticket kiosk for tours of the estate.
Now is a good time to confess that I can count on one hand the number of original Elvis recordings that I don't mind sitting all the way through. "Return to Sender" tops that short list but after "Don't Be Cruel," less than five minutes of historic music between the two ditties and I'm pretty well Elvised out. Still, how many times do I find myself in the area so I begin the process of selecting which tour would give me a decent overview in a reasonable amount of time.
The most popular tour, of course, the "General" which offers a tour of the mansion, the grounds, the trophy room and the Meditation Garden by the pool where Elvis is buried alongside his parents and grandmother. Other tours included his car collection across the street, the private planes and more extensive tours of the main house but none ever included the private quarters upstairs.
Graceland today is a living time capsule of a style, era and outsized personality the likes of which won't be seen again. In this age of jumbo-tron flat panel televisions for the private home it is amusingly quaint to see the "TV Wall" that contains several vacuum tube TVs aligned in such a way to allow Elvis to watch several shows and events at the same time, no remote controls and no more than five or six channels to choose from. Louis XIV the furnishings are not and it will be quite some time before 1970s Sears Catalog comes anywhere close to that level of classic collectability.
The furnishings, of course, are not the point so much as the aura of being in spaces where the King of Rock himself stood, sat, ate and socialized "in this very room" and "in that very chair," however tacky the decor may seem today. It was the trophy room that drew the first unanimous oohs and ahhs of wonderment from one and all in my tour group. Every accolade assigned to the man was manifested in the gold and bling stacked up to 20 feet high on the walls surrounding us. Here again, my personal tastes aren't the point: this man earned his mark in the world of music and the golden trail of breadcrumbs were assembled in this room to prove it.
The Wardrobe Display was where things started to head back to the garish and tacky. Yes, enthused the tour guide, he 1st wore that very same signature, high collar outfit for such and such a show at so and so location in this and that year. Why, some of the wrinkled noses wondered, and who told him it looked good? The faithful drooled and cried, touching the glass to try and feel his presence through the costume while the rest of us couldn't wait to move on from the rhinestones, diamonds and Size 12 white patent leather boots. Stage costumes are not meant to be seen up close. At six feet tall we at least learned that he was a good sized man and we all agreed that "Young Elvis" was far more appealing than the sadly deteriorated man at the time of his death.
The grounds at the back were well kept and peaceful, belying the noise and crassness of the main road. From here we ambled to the Meditation Garden on the south side of the house. It is hard to think of the place as having been simply a private swimming pool area but here lies the King, rarely if ever without flowers or offerings from grieving fans.
In the United States today only the White House receives more visitors than Graceland. Maybe for that reason the good people of Los Olivos, California, after taking one look at what happened in Memphis went home and "no way" to anything similar happening at Neverland.