June 1, 2007 — This is how it happened (complete with character direction):


ME (Earnestly, as if failing yet again at a Unified Theory of Everything):  “I don’t get Elvis.”

HER (Uninterestedly, without even glancing up from the open book on her lap):  “He was attractive, charismatic, and had a unique singing style.  This made him rich, famous, and adored, which in turn made him bored and self-destructive.  In addition, his personal style was both distinct and silly enough to be readily caricatured.  Not really that complicated.”

ME (Frustratedly, like when a stranger in a car waves you a polite hello after you blow your horn angrily at them for cutting you off):  “No, I mean I don’t get the modern Elvis phenomenon.”

HER (Shrugging):  “Me either.  Let’s go to Graceland.”

So we went to Graceland.  In the rare times I actually envisioned it in my head over the course of my life, I pictured Graceland as a low-rent Disneyland, maybe something like Dollywood, I guess.  Basically, as an Elvis-themed amusement park.  You know, rides like the Heartbreak Hotel tunnel of love and the All Shook Up scrambler.  Funhouse mirrors that alternated you between fat and skinny Elvis.  Elvis impersonators hawking lemon-flavored Elvis-headed lollipops while giant fuzzy hound dog mascots in blue suede shoes mugged and karate-chopped for pictures with fans in plastic silver-framed sunglasses.  I didn’t realize it was just a house.

Well, technically, it’s more than a house.  It’s a mansion, a pair of jets, a car museum, and a cemetery; but honestly, it’s still basically just a house.  But this is not your beautiful house.  This is Elvis’ Memphis house, where he lived gigantically and died ignobly.

The whole Graceland attraction complex resides on both sides of Elvis Presley Blvd., just on the outskirts of Memphis, TN.  On one side of the boulevard is the actual mansion, which can be seen through a pair of lovingly graffiti-scrawled music-sheet-themed gates.  On the other side are the ticket windows, a museum of Elvis’ personal automobiles, and his private jets that you can walk though before or after the mansion tour, all at extra cost, of course, and, of course, souvenir shops...with stuffed hound dogs in blue suede shoes. 

You pull into this side of the boulevard first, where you park, buy your tickets, are asked to pose in front of a cheesy mural depicting the gates of Graceland for them to attempt to sell to you later, and are then bussed in groups the meager 100 feet across the street and through the actual gates of Graceland onto the mansion grounds.

The mansion façade is actually not all that ostentatious, but I might be using too modern of a standard.  I actually spent the last hour painstakingly choosing the appropriate words to fully describe the outside of the mansion, but then I discovered the live GracelandCam

Before you board the bus, you are handed a set of headphones for the self-guided audio tour, which basically allows you to walk the mansion at your own pace. Besides explanations of the rooms and personal objects, the audio tour contained stories and reminiscences from his daughter Lisa Maria and audio clips of Elvis himself.  As is my tendency with audio tours, I soon I got bored with it and made up my own stories for everything I saw.

The rooms in Elvis’ house are all apparently maintained “exactly” as they were when he died.  Meaning full of old-fashioned furniture and horribly outdated color schemes.  I remember in particular descending a claustrophobia-inducing, mirror-walled stairwell that made me think of Graceland in my original funhouse way again. 

Once more, the interior of the mansion wasn’t so ostentatious that I could have guessed that a major American icon lived there.  Just some random well-off person.  The top floor, which contains his and his family’s bedrooms, as well as the bathroom where he died, is off-limits, as in blocked by a velvet rope and guarded by someone with a “how the heck did you get this gig” kind of job.  Technically, I guess it was out of respect for Elvis’ personal space, but I wonder if it has a little bit more to do with an inability to reconcile the opportunity to make more money and the tactical problem of crowd control around what would be this most ogled area on the grounds.

Then you go outside to some back buildings that house artifacts, awards, images, and video from his life and career, including the handball court.  Overall, the place was interesting, but the chilly “Elvis actually lived here” ghost never really caressed my bones at any point.  Once again, because Elvis has always been a caricature to me instead of a real person.  It’s not my fault.  He died before I was born. More importantly, though, he was also, after all, just a pop star.

Last, however, was the ultimate highlight of Graceland:  Elvis’ grave.  Yup, he’s there.  So’s his mom.  So’s his dad.  So’s his grandmother.  His stillborn twin brother is also memorialized there.  And, yes, people were crying.  He’s buried in what the estate calls the Meditation Garden, and it might be an apt appellation for the area when there’s not a constant line of people shouldering through, snapping pictures, and saying “Elvis had a twin?”

All in all, though, I definitely enjoyed Graceland, but the thrill was almost 100% that all around me were people that apparently cared deeply about this man, his music, his movies, his life in a way that was incomprehensible to me.  But I still visited his grave.  Heck, I’ve never even visited my own grandfather’s grave before.