Tuesday, 10 January 2006

Tryin' To Get To You

Note: I started this on Sunday afternoon when the date-specificity still applied, but it took longer to write than I thought it would. Complain if you wish.)

January 8, 2006: it's Elvis Presley's birthday today. If he were still alive, he'd be 70.

I'm thinking about the two books at opposite ends of the spectrum charted by my small & erratic Elvis library. Peter Eicher's teh schlocky pulp nonsense The Elvis Sightings and Gilbert Rodman's comparatively sober cultstud tome Elvis after Elvis: the posthumous career of a living legend, despite big stylistic & methodological differences, in fact tell surprisingly similar stories. The Elvis Sightings is a supposedly factual collection of testimonies from ordinary people who have had chance encounters with a charismatic, familiar-looking dark-haired and mysterious stranger, usually at moments of crisis, and after a heart-to-heart on the travails of life, the wise stranger moves on, leaving his interlocutor strangely refreshed and revitalised, almost as if born again. Elvis After Elvis charts manifestations and appariations of Elvis in the mass media and popular culture inside and outside the Elvis industry. It too implies that Elvis Presley did not "die" in 1977, but instead crossed over to a different mode of existence, becoming Pentecostally omnipresent and transcendent.

Both books pretend to ask (but really answer, in the affirmative) the same familiar question: is Elvis supernatural? Is he the cult messiah of a new religion? I'm a serious Elvis appreciator, and I really dislike this line: it's hard to say exactly why, but it's something along the lines of that it underestimates great but human talent and effort and achievement in favour of conceptually easy magic and myth. The much feted ubiquity of Elvis is better not thought of as something mystical, but rather understood as what happens when the marketers and the market first simultaneously discover the joys of mass exploitation. Elvis was great, no question, and he achieved a truly epoch-making cultural synthesis, but his vast aura also owes something to Colonel Tom Parker's flair for branding and "taking care of business". As such it's desirable I think to try to recognise Elvis's greatness but avoid romanticising the Elvis phenomenon.

That being my attitude I guess it's at least of interest that when we visited the USA two years ago one of the highlights of the trip was our cross-country Elvis Presley mini-pilgrimage in three stations.

The Birthplace

Elvis was born in Tupelo, Mississippi; the two-roomed cottage the dirt-poor Presleys lived in (& Elvis was born in) is still standing although it's been moved to another location in the town. (As the lady who sold us our tickets said, every part of the structure is original except the walls, floor, roof and ceiling.) We drove to Tupelo from Tallahassee, Florida (via Birmingham, Alabama) and underestimated how long it would take to get there, so precious little time was left for looking around the town itself. What we saw looked sleepy, quiet - ordinary enough. I expected bells and whistles. I remember none, not even so much as a nail salon or bowling alley named after EP. The house is similar: you go in and a simple rope cordon separates you from the brass bed and the scrubbed and knife-scored table ("replicas", not originals.) Nobody is there to supervise and make sure you don't desecrate. Of course we were not tempted. We wandered through, sat on the porch swing, and waited for the Spirit to make itself felt. Slightly disappointingly, it did not.

The house is set in a small sloping garden amongst oddly normal residential houses. Next to it is a bronze statue of Elvis aged thirteen, a skinny boy with a cowlick and bare feet, in overalls and long sleeves, holding a spanish guitar. Further up the hill is an Elvis chapel where you can sit and meditate or look at the Presley family Bible displayed in a glass case. Beyond that is a Visitor's Centre comprising vast draughty gift shop and museum of Elvis memorabilia, that being the usual badges and posters and dolls and so forth, plus lots of personal relics - great outfits, books about spiritual matters with extensive marginalia in Elvis's handwriting, letters and photographs, and marvellous fan art. No cameras were allowed in here, nor in the chapel, nor inside the house itself. The museum really was very absorbing: like the whole place, it had the air of having been assembled by non-professionals - people whose first and strongest sense of Elvis Presley was of him as a real living man and a Southerner like themselves - dedicated and expert amateurs. There was no hint of interference or cooptation by a tourism body or regional chamber of commerce as would almost certainly be the case with a similar property in this country. I mostly liked this, but wondered also if it perhaps reflected a lack of interest in the Presley connection on the part of local authorities.

I think my favourite thing at The Birthplace was the garden wall decorated with quotations from members of the extended Presley clan. One that puzzled me for ages said:

Elvis never forgot his raisin

The whole place was practically empty. Apart from the two bouffanted women working the Visitor's Centre the only other people we saw were a pair of middle-aged couples from Minnesota. They seemed very surprised to meet us in such a place. "You're too young," said one of the men. My first inkling that for some people, Elvis is an historical figure, someone who belonged exclusively to a generation whose time is running out, whose legacy is fading into oblivion.

And then it was back in the car and on the road to Memphis.

Graceland Too

Lonely Planet & similar cribs are problematic things in my experience, but on this afternoon we made a solid gold detour on the strength of the guidebook recommendation, and I'm so glad of it. About an hour's drive from Memphis is a small town called Holly Springs which does a nice line in classic antebellum architecture. One of the less flash and more dilapidated of these houses has been turned into a private shrine to Presley and christened "Graceland Too" by its owner.

We had camera problems for much of this trip and I don't have good clear pictures of most of the interiors to show you. There is a very worthwhile photoset of Graceland Too on Flickr which shows that beyond a coat of candy pink housepaint not a thing has changed since we dropped in.

Paul McLeod has devoted himself to the task of documenting Elvis's ongoing importance to the culture which he helped to invent. His home, which bears a passing resemblance to Graceland itself, is like a parody of the Presley mansion, with similar floorplan (tv room, jungle room, games room etc), similar central sweeping staircase, and similar mysterious personal apartments on the first floor. Everything on the ground floor is turned over to Elvis. I know this because if you ring the doorbell and Paul is home, no matter what the hour of the day or night, he will invite you in and take you through his collection, all the while talking nineteen to the dozen in a manner that causes his dentures to wiggle and the nerve under your left eye to commence sympathetic nervous twitching. One of the first thing he told us was that his wife had asked him to choose between her and Elvis. "Bye-bye, honey," is what he said.

By his own account, which there's no reason to doubt, Paul McLeod owns a lot of genuinely interesting and significant Elvis stuff - rare records, items of EP's clothing, photographs et cetera, things worth actual real money. He also has an enviable hoard of curios and memorabilia - I remember in particular a gold lame suit in a glass case which he told us he intends to be buried in. He also had some things that were not explained to us but their connection to his general project seemed more or less apparent.

The real bulk of what Mr. McLeod has (and the house is dangerously, chaotically, frighteningly full of stuff) is a kind of homespun archive of Elvis citations, trivial and profound, culled from wherever in the world Paul can gather his information. The walls and ceilings in some rooms are lined with plastic-sleeved sheets of colourful A4 printed with quotations of Elvis mentions; we were shown stacks of trunks full of binders full of more sheets of paper, all about Elvis. Another room had a full wall of TVs connected to VCRs, all recording different channels in case someone somewhere said something about Elvis; I didn't exactly understand how it worked, but somehow, we were told, Paul watches all the playbacks and sifts out the specks of alluvial Elvis gold from the flood of information. Still another room was papered with photographs of visitors to Graceland Too: after wall space ran out, photos were pinned to sheets of plywood and piled up twelve deep. This seemed to be about documenting the existence of millions of "true" Elvis fans. Our pictures were taken to be added to the rest. A quick look at the accessible photos showed that most visitors came to make fun of our admittedly eccentric host rather than as Elvis appreciators. Many of them were striking poses that seemed to me to be thoroughly insulting. Had it been me running that place, I'd have been demoralised by the busloads of frat boys waking me at four a.m. in order to laugh at my life. But Paul McLeod is bigger than that. He follows his calling, and that nourishes him.

The very last room on the tour (which took more than an hour - I wonder how many visitors last the duration) was given over to memorialising Elvis's death. It might surprise some that a person so singleminded doesn't for a moment imagine that the death was faked. On the contrary, he became quite emotional as he told us about being part of the crowd that gathered outside Graceland when the news broke.

If you're ever in the vicinity, go. Don't hesitate.


It was a bad omen when we arrived in Memphis, Tennessee close to midnight and couldn't find our way to the part of town where the hotel was supposed to be, instead getting caught on a feed road to a bridge across the river and into the neighboring state - then turning around and going back, then making exactly the same mistake and doing it all again. Memphis was extremely disappointing - I was so depressed by Beale Street and associated tourist traps that I couldn't bring myself to visit Sun Studios, though we passed by it several times. I also ate without a doubt the very worst meal I've ever had in my life - Dorian would perhaps say the same, though he once ate cold chillied pond snails from a rusted tin cup in central Vietnam. Anyway, the jinx extended to our almost missing out on visiting Graceland, as we hadn't realised it was closed on Mondays and only found out by chance. Fortunately we managed to change our flight in time.

Graceland exceeded all my expectations. Have you been there? I understand many people have; it's said to be the second most visited dwelling in the entire United States, after the White House. The house is charming and elegant, not outrageously large or excessive (far bigger houses are built in Australian cities every day, for much smaller families) and I thought it was decorated very nicely. The jungle room is my idea of a perfect compromise between homely and exotic - if you could afford it of course you'd have a waterfall wall installed in your lounge. There are only three tellys in the TV room and they are all quite small. Yellow lightning bolts and mirrors on the ceiling? Admit it, those things are the coolness.

One of the buildings behind the house used to be a racquetball court and karate studio: now it's given over to another museum containing similar stuff to the museum at Tupelo, all of it very nice (especially the Fan Art section.) The last room, deep and high like a ball court, has been painted gloss black and, in an echo of Graceland Too, every inch of wall space is covered with framed gold and platinum records. In the corner, rising triumphantly, is a sight that made my heart unexpectedly leap for joy: a throng of mannequins dressed in Elvis's rhinestone-studded white jumpsuits, capes spread like eagle's wings. Who'd think something like that could bring on a rush of happy feelings?

Beside the house, as you probably know, is a small memorial garden where Elvis Presley is buried, along with his mother, father, and aunt. I had a little White Noise moment there ("most photographed barn"-like) but as I have those quite often in much less hallowed places, it's not a big deal.

Across the street where the ticket-selling place is, there are seven gift shops. We delightedly purchased:

- Official Graceland Guidebook
- Elvis beach towel
- Elvis Week tank top
- "TCB" lightning bolt sterling silver necklace
- about ten thousand postcards
- Teatowel
- "Recipes from Elvis's Kitchen" oven mitt
- two sets of Viewmaster slides of Graceland
- six Elvis bookmarks
- Elvis fridge magnet
- Elvis keyring

Plus some stuff that has already been given away so I don't remember what it was. Best souvenir shops ever.

That's the whole story.

If you haven't had enough Presleyana yet, pay a visit to Dorian's newly laid web page and listen to his mashup Creole Pour Moi - Elvis vs Plastic Bertrand, and the Banana Splits theme tune....

go to main page


Cozalcoatl said...

We went to Graceland on our road trip across the US in '99. Not even a Elvis fan but it was there. It was pretty cool.
Lots of orange and green lino, wallpaper and counter tops i seem to remember, and a furry room?.It was a while ago. Bought a postcard with the heart stopping recipe of fried butter and banana sandwiches. Never game enough to make them.

elsewhere said...

Just a minor technicality -- in typepad, you can set the date for publication -- i.e. you can publish retrospectively or prospectively. Maybe blogger is the same.

Are you sure those people didn't meet Jesus?

Ben.H said...

Yeah, Blogger does let you change the date and time of your posts.

I don't care too much about Elvis, but I would go to the USA just to see Paul McLeod's house, and you'd better believe I would pay him due respect. It sounds like a work of similar magnitude to Watts Towers.


Brownie said...

The birthday of Elvis was reason enough for a guy in WA to put Burnin' Love on continuous loop and his wife stabbed him. See articulate post about this at Armaniac

There is a 'Graceland Too' apparently, and it has a website ...
Elvis was fabulous and its a damn good thing he is dead. If still with us he could be wearing an evil toupe, or a Sciuntologist, or married to Jackie Stallone.

R H said...

Burnin' love is one of my favourites.
And I agree with ben h, I'd like to see that old bloke's house.
Because I'd be more interested in him than his funny collection.

R H said...

That last sentence shouldn't be a separate paragraph. It was accidental. I wasn't looking for drama.

cfsmtb said...

My dad was born on the 9th Jan, 1928. Actually he looks like a combination of Elvis and Fred Flintstone. Dad used to do a crackin' rendition of "It's now or never". He probably still does when doing the gardening.

Ray Davis said...

Don't feel bad. My last Elvis tribute didn't even get started till the twelfth. It's OK. He understood tardiness.