Outside London – Going to Graceland, Graceland, Memphis Tennessee
People make pilgrimages all the time. Some people make religious pilgrimages, but I am not particularly religious (I go to church sometimes, and have done since I was 9. My Grandpa was a Reverend, and my mother is one too. And I’ve been to Jerusalem, and stood at the Wailing Wall, and written a prayer on a scrap of paper, and poked it between the bricks. It failed to move me). And some people make pilgrimages to places that mean a lot to them, for whatever reason. Places that mean a lot to them that maybe they have never visited before. Somewhere on the other side of the world perhaps. I’m not sure what sort of place that I had never been before would mean a lot to me before I got there, but I guess that when I went to Graceland to visit Elvis in April 2012, which just happened to be the 35th anniversary year of his death, I knew it would mean something.
I’m not really sure why. I remember driving in the car with my Dad when I was maybe 13, or 15, or some such age. And we were in Suffolk, driving through lush greenery, because it was summer and it had been raining a lot, and it was the countryside. And Dad was playing a tape (it was the late 90’s and his car had no CD player) of Paul Simon songs that I had never heard before. One of the songs was about a road trip that Paul Simon took with his son, a road trip that it seemed to me from the lyrics he didn’t really know why he was making. He was going to Graceland in Memphis Tennessee and his only explanation seemed to be that he was heartbroken, and that somehow he knew he would find answers when he got to Graceland to see Elvis. Or he would feel calmer. Or something would happen that would make everything okay, or at least more clear in his head. This is what I got from the song anyway (several years later Graceland is one of my favourite songs and favourite albums, and I this is what I still take from the song. I don’t want to Google the true story behind the song, if indeed the story is to be found Online at all – because I don’t want to know. I like the conclusion I already came to on my own). He didn’t know anything except that he was going to pass through the gates at Graceland and he would see Elvis, this great big musical legend who’s life was kind of a tragedy and ended too soon – and everything would work out in the end.
And I was going through a hard time at the end of 2011 and I was miserable, and one evening I was lying on the floor of my sitting room and I had nothing to do except stare at the ceiling and be sad, so I flipped through a magazine – I won’t tell you which one it was but it was girly and extremely non-intellectual – and on the back page was a single page holiday guide, the sort that tells you where to go and why you should go there and what outfit you should wear when you get there and where you can buy it from and what brand of sun cream you should use, and then it turns out the whole thing is an advert for that brand of sun cream, or the article was thrown in there at the last minute to take up space and minimal effort has been made. And usually it’s for somewhere like the Maldives, but this time it was for Nashville, home of country music. And it detailed what the best cowboy boots store was and what designer checked shirt would best go with cowboy boots and it had a couple of pictures of sun drenched country music stores with giant guitar statues outside them. And I thought ‘well, I don’t know much about country music, but I like cowboy boots. I should go there’. And so an idea was born, and already I was less miserable.
My friend Erica, who is integral to this story purely because it was HER IDEA to go to Graceland, agreed to come with me to Nashville on the condition that we could hire a car and drive to Memphis, which was some 300 miles away to the south. And that’s when the Paul Simon song started playing in my head and I remembered road tripping through damp Suffolk woodland with my Dad and I equated Suffolk with Memphis, so in my head Graceland was surrounded by the deep greens of trees and grass and it would be overcast, and perhaps there was a light rain falling. And I was feeling quite heartbroken back then (although in truth, I’m always feeling quite heartbroken. I’m one of those people. My heart breaks every time there’s a change in the weather) so I thought Well! Graceland will answer all my questions about life and solve all my problems. And I will find clarity and peace somewhere between the Jungle Room and his gravestone, and my heart will be mended. And so it was arranged. We would make a pilgrimage to visit with Elvis.
The feet of my travelling companion and I. Waiting for the bus to take us to Graceland.
We went to Graceland on a Friday, and it wasn’t the romantic experience of driving through the Tennessee countryside in a 1950’s convertible and cruising straight through the gates and up to the mansion that I had played out in my mind. Although earlier that week, we had driven down to Memphis from Nashville, and I don’t know if it’s the Mississippi Delta that makes everything so vibrant and green, but it HAD sort of looked like the Suffolk countryside just after a rainstorm. Except it was about 90 degrees and I could NOT get used to driving on the wrong side of the road. I kept thinking I was going to crash into trucks going the opposite way. In truth, Erica did most of the driving on that trip.
Road tripping in Tennessee at sunset
But I digress. It wasn’t romantic. Actually, it was tacky. Because it was the 35th anniversary year, there was this huge publicity thing, and the place was even more of a tourist attraction than usual. For $75 you could buy this Access All Areas style ticket which would let you see not only the house itself, but all sixty three of the various museums and attractions that were housed across the road from the house in a glorified parking lot, including Elvis’s private jet, the Lisa Marie, which had been brought in specially for the occasion. It’s strange, but it never occurred to me that it would be tacky. I guess it’s kind of the first thing you think of when you think of Elvis, with all the sequinned outfits in Vegas and whatnot, but Paul Simon didn’t sing about that stuff. There was no mention in the song at all about the private jet or the museum where you can go in and look at all Elvis’s Cadillacs, or the exhibit where you can watch a 25 minute documentary in which Lisa Marie talks about how her latest music project that noone’s really heard of on a loop, or Rockabilly’s Diner, where you can order a peanut butter and banana sandwich that was apparently Elvis’s favourite (I wonder if he would have ate there, if he was still alive) or the Heartbreak Hotel gift shop which boasts a wide array of glassware and collectibles all with Elvis’s face on or – well, you get the idea. So it never occurred to me. I just thought it would be nice, and quiet, and kind of introspective. A bit like when we went on the Highgate West tour. Except without the Victorians.
The thing is, I did enjoy all the tacky stuff too. Even though it was tacky. It was sort of hard not to get into the spirit of where you were and why you were there. And I learned a LOT about Elvis and his life and his music. I realised when I got there that I hadn’t known an awful lot to begin with. Except that my Mum had kept a CD of his greatest hits all through my childhood and she used to play it when she was doing the ironing. So I knew a lot of the songs and I knew a lot of the words and I knew that he had died far too young, of being obese or a drug overdose or something, and that his daughter had briefly been married to Michael Jackson, who was a musical legend who was actually alive in my lifetime. Elvis and I never shared space and time. There was no overlap. I was born 7 years after he died. I was born 4 years after John Lennon died. I wonder if it makes my parents sad that I never was alive in the same lifetime as either of those legends, the same way I am sad at the thought of my unborn child not being alive in the same era as Michael Jackson or George Harrison. Anyway. But I knew that Elvis was a musical legend from a very young age and in that sense I grew up with him, or at least the idea of him. And music played a big part in my life from a young age and I used to pay a lot of attention to the music my parents played. Which in my Mum’s case was very hit and miss because she owned 3 albums by Jimmy Nail, for example, but my Dad had an extensive record collection comprised of artists like The Beatles and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Simon and Garfunkel. So when he played me Graceland in the car that time, it seemed almost inevitable that I would go searching for Elvis one day. For me, musical education never stops, just like for Sheldon there can never be an end to the things you can learn about history and geography, and where we came from and why. So Graceland was a pilgrimage. I went there to learn about Elvis and to seek all the things I thought I would find. Peace. Or something like it. And a sense about where I had come from and where I was going.
Peace and quiet, and columns.
And I found it too. Because when you get past the tackiness that lines Elvis Presley Boulevard, the 6 lane highway that presumably never existed when Elvis bought Graceland in 1957, the house itself, and more particularly, the grounds of the house, are tranquil and kind of beautiful. And guess what! It was an overcast day when we went, and it WAS surrounded by lush greenery that made me think of the Suffolk countryside. There was no light rain though. You can’t have everything.
Here’s the bit where I guess I should talk about the history of Graceland and the land that it’s built on. But I’m not good at that sort of thing, and anyway, what sort of Blogger would I be if I didn’t leave you with a burning desire to go away and find all this stuff out for yourself. I will say though, that Elvis was looking for a farmhouse type of property and when he bought Graceland, it was located in a quieter suburban area of southern Tennessee that was quite far outside Memphis proper. So the highway wouldn’t have been there, or the traffic or the people or the diners. It would have been surrounded by other farmland. And when you go through the famous gates and up the driveway and into the grounds of Graceland today, once you get away from the main road and the noise, and undercover of the trees, you can sort of shut your eyes and have an easier time picturing what it would have been like back then. Not at all unlike the feeling you have when you venture into the centre of one of the large London cemeteries like Brompton or Norwood, and the noise and sights of the city fade away. You could be anywhere then. You could be somewhere completely different. You could be in a different time altogether.
Being inside the mansion made me feel a little weird. Like I was trespassing on someone’s property. Although you gotta hand it to the guy, he knew how to furnish. His TV room in particular, which had three screens set into the wall side by side so that Elvis could watch everything he wanted all at once and was painted lurid yellow and blue, with clouds and lightnings on the other walls was something I wish I had dreamed up for my own imaginary mansion. It was something else entirely. In fact, let me tell you now – even if this entire blog post has bored your pants off, what you must take away from this is that the interior design of Elvis’s house was AWESOME. An incredibly good example of the style of the period, not to mention what you can do when you have endless amounts of money and a clear creative vision that includes green shag pile carpeting on the walls and curtains on the ceiling. I urge you to go right now, and see it for yourself.
One of the things that I think I took away from the experience, from a Cemetery Club point of view, is that the level to which Elvis had been turned into an idea, a selling point, and made into an empire, a tourist experience, a haven for Rockabilly lovers of all things tacky, is something that’s perhaps not seen over here in the UK, or in Europe in general. It’s all very macabre over here. Look at the Victorians – building giant mausoleums to honour their dead and flaunt their great wealth and social standing at the same time. Come to think of it – that isn’t so different from making Graceland into a theme park after all.
On leaving Graceland and going back to the real world and the modern day, you can express your reverence for the King of rock n roll in one of two ways.
You can take out your Tip Ex pen or bit of chalk, or your Sharpie, and scrawl your name on the brickwork at the gates of Graceland themselves, thereby joining thousands of others who have made the long journey down south and left their own mark behind there.
Or you can go to the gift shop and spend $70 on as much merchandise as you think you can cram into your suitcase, which is what I did. I’m not sure about the ethics of paying a visit to a long-gone musical legend, standing at his graveside looking sombre and then making off with 7 Graceland chocolate bars, a Bic lighter that says I Heart Elvis across it, a Mr Potato Head that sports a leather jacket and a quiff and a bottle of Burning Love hot sauce but hey, I think it would have made him happy to know that he was bringing joy to the taste-buds of pasty British people everywhere.
We went back to real life after that, and our Graceland pilgrimage was over. Would I go again? Probably not. It’s one of the once-in-a-lifetime trips that you make…well, once in a lifetime. And no, I didn’t return from my trip with a greater sense of clarity about the world, and I didn’t magically stop being heartbroken either. But I felt like the end of Paul Simon’s song, which is a good enough reason to do anything, I think.
For reasons I cannot explain There’s some part of me wants to see Graceland And I may be obliged to defend Every love, every ending Or maybe there’s no obligations now Maybe I’ve a reason to believe We all will be received In Graceland
All photographs taken by Christina Owen in April 2012.