Caught in a (time) trap, it's Elvis' graced land

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Hold me close, hold me tight,

Make me thrill with delight,

Let me know where I stand from the start,

I want you, I need you, I love you

With all my haar-haar-heart."

Everlasting passion. Burning love. The rich, melodious voice shimmies down your spine and massages your weary soul.

My brain is flaming, I don't know which way to go.

--Elvis

Here at Graceland on Elvis Presley Boulevard in hot Memphis, Tenn., the voice envelops you. The still likeness, in the visitor center museums and souvenir shops across from the mansion and in the mansion itself -- Elvis as a young rockabilly cat, Elvis as a slick movie star, Elvis as a smiling newlywed, Elvis in cool, red '50s threads, in black leather, in a Las Vegas jumpsuit -- reminds you of his past glory and of his Aug. 16, 1977, death at age 42. But the music still pulsates; the voice still thrills.

I can feel it -- feel it -- feel it -- feel it --

Way down where the music plays,

Way down like a tidal wave,

Way down where the fire flames,

Way down . . . oh, way on down.

The Elvis blues exploded with an erotic tension and a youthful exuberance that no one has captured since. Raw, pleading, urgent, sexy and hard-driving, yet romantic and tender -- too much for an 18-year-old with long sideburns who paid $4 to cut his first tracks, "My Happi- ness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin," a gift for his mother Gladys, at Memphis' legendary Sun Studio in 1953.

A year later, Elvis would give Sun producer Sam Phillips an exciting new sound with "That's All Right (Mama)" and forever change popular culture. The polite, religious country boy from Tupelo, Miss., couldn't even read music. But, Lord almighty, could he feel it.

Elvis paid $100,000 in 1957 for the 13.8-acre country estate known as Graceland, built in 1939 and named for an aunt of the previous owner. He and his parents had lived in Memphis, in public and low-rent housing, since he was 13. He bought the mansion for his mother.

Looking at the thick commercial blight of car dealerships and fast-food joints now lining Elvis Presley Boulevard, a stretch of Highway 51 South dedicated to the performer in June 1971, it is hard to believe that Elvis ever found refuge here. Yet, somehow, Graceland transcends, even as it succumbs to, its trashy surroundings: a gaudy, but triumphant symbol of Elvis' pink Cadillac dream, as contradictory as the man himself.

Fame and fortune,

How empty they can be.

But when I hold you in my arms,

That's a heaven to me.

Who cares for fame and fortune?

They're only passing things.

But the touch of your lips on mine

Makes me feel like a king.

If you're lucky, when you check into Memory Lane Inn [(800) 874-7084, $34.95 and up], a block south of Graceland, the 24-hour Elvis movie channel on the TV in your tacky, rather worn room will be showing Elvis' best film, "King Creole" (1958). No matter, that's the legend up there, his hair dyed jet-black to look like Tony Curtis', his lip curled in a playful sneer, his eyes taking you in.

The movies -- Elvis made 33 in all, two of them concert films -- just like the motel's guitar-shaped swimming pool and the lobby photo gallery of Elvis impersonators, are as much a part of the Elvis experience as the music. The nearby Wilson World Hotel [(800) 333-WILSON, also $34.95 and up], supplying a refrigerator and microwave in each room,provides more conventional comfort, but if you've come to find Elvis, you have to reach beyond . . .

To tattooed bikers in cowboy boots, cellulite in shorts, and all of desperate America waiting for one of the every-five-minute shuttle buses to carry them past the custom-made musical-note gates at the driveway and behind the graffiti-obscured ("He touched me and now I am no longer the same"; "Elvis, if I follow you home, will you keep me?") stone wall, to Elvis' graced land.

Full of attractions

You have your choice of attractions -- the mansion, the Elvis Presley Automobile Museum, the Lisa Marie jet and Hound Dog II Jetstar and the "Sincerely Elvis" museum of personal "artifacts" -- and you must see them all. Call ahead for reservations, (800) 238-2000, especially if you want to go at Christmastime, or around Elvis' Jan. 8 birthday, or during Elvis Week in August (ending today); and when the honeyed voice puts you on hold, "Shake, Rattle and Roll" with the King.

The all-attractions "platinum" tour ($15.95 for adults, $10.95 for children 4-12) is your most economical buy. But if you're a real Elvis fan, the highlight of your four hours at Graceland will be a free 22-minute film, "Walk a Mile in My Shoes," playing continuously in the visitor center. Dangerously good-looking and sexually intense, but self-mocking and good-natured, the screen Elvis magnetizes.

"That ain't tactics, honey," he tells a beautiful co-star after roughly kissing her, "that's just the beast in me." Even today, women in the audience squirm in their seats.

Frozen in the '70s

Elvis' aunt, Delta Presley Biggs, has lived at Graceland since 1967 and still makes her home here. That will be your first surprise on the hour-long mansion tour. The second will be that of the 23 rooms at Graceland, you won't see even half of them -- none of the seven bedrooms, for example. But the biggest jolt will be the interior design, frozen in a trendy art deco look, circa 1974, an ironic contrast to the timeless exterior of stone and stately white columns.

The rooms blend together in a colorful blur: the dining room with the opulent chandelier; the living room with the stained-glass blue peacocks, a nightmare in red -- drapes, shag carpet, velvet furniture -- at the time of Elvis' death, toned down for Graceland tourists; the stairway of mirrors; the yellow and blue entertainment room, where Elvis watched three televisions (football games) simultaneously; the pool room, adorned from ceiling to floor with hand-pleated, printed cotton fabric ("a fashion trend in the '70s," the guide says); the hallway with the carpeted walls and ceiling; and the dark, exotic, but sublimely tasteless jungle room, decorated with hand-carved pine furniture and monkey statues.

This is Elvis in the mid-'70s, years removed from his stunning 1954-'55 debut or even his no-holds-barred 1968 comeback.

The Hall of Gold

Then it's outside and on to the late Vernon Presley's office, where Elvis held his 1960 post-Army conference and self-consciously downplayed his romance with future wife Priscilla Beaulieu. On the verge of a movie career, the man who wanted to be a national sex symbol couldn't be involved with just one "little girl."

Next, you'll pass through a smokehouse used by Elvis and his buddies as a firing range, stop to admire the horses (four of the six were alive 15 years ago) grazing in a pasture, and enter the "time line" room of biographical plaques and photographs. The Hall of Gold showcases the more than 200 gold singles (1 million copies sold) and albums (a half-million sold) and platinum LPs (1 million) -- his songs are still going gold -- that Elvis had, and leads into exhibits of memorabilia, including guns, police badges, karate belts and flashy jumpsuits.

Back outside again, you'll pass a small swimming pool en route to the racquetball court, where Elvis played a vigorous game of doubles with his 20-year-old fiance and another couple on the morning of his death. Later, in a souvenir shop, you can purchase a $5 special local newspaper edition published on Aug. 17, 1977, but reading it will not help you to understand what happened the day of Elvis' death. Heart failure? After playing racquetball and making love? It will seem all the more unreal and inconceivable.

We're caught in a trap,

I can't walk out,

Because I love you too much, baby.

Why can't you see

What you're doing to me

When you don't believe a word I say?"

The tour ends, and really begins, in the "meditation garden," the site of Elvis' grave. It's a somber, yet soothing place that neither the music nor the street noise can penetrate. An eternal flame commemorates the fiery life of Elvis Aaron Presley, and flowers from fans garnish his grave. On either side are the tombstones of his father Vernon, who died in 1979, and his mother Gladys, who had a fatal heart attack at age 46 in 1958. His paternal grandmother Minnie is also buried here. This is where Elvis would retreat, finding solitude and the gospel within him.

Lisa inherits mansion Feb. 1

A guide tells you that Lisa Marie Presley, 24, who will inherit her father's estate on her Feb. 1 birthday next year, intends to keep Graceland open for at least another five years. He also confirms that the mansion is now "in a bad part of town," far removed from Memphis wealth. The area is a poor advertisement for this great blues city on the Mississippi. Chances are, though, that Elvis, creator and destroyer of his larger-than-life image, would have fit right in, just another member of the family.

Elvis' toys, a must-see

After you return to the visitor center, you might try a blue plate special ($4.75) at the Heartbreak Hotel Restaurant or a grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich ($1.50) at Rockabilly's Cafe. Then you must see Elvis' motorized toys -- Cadillacs, Stutz Blackhawks, Harley Davidsons, go-carts, dune buggies, you name it -- in the auto museum and his books ("Selected Works of Kahlil Gibran," "The Kennedy Curse") and record albums (from Dean Martin to Sam Cooke to the Allman Brothers), among other possessions, in the new and rather shabby "Sincerely Elvis" shrine.

By now Elvis' piped-in voice has returned, so it won't matter that much that the four-cabin Lisa Marie jet, bought used in 1975 for $250,000, customized for another $800,000 and brought to Graceland in 1984, seems small and lackluster in its 1970s leather, suede, velvet and tweed.

What was Elvis' favorite movie to watch in flight? Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles." His favorite soft drink? Diet Dr. Pepper.

You'll want to take more than the music home with you, of course, and the souvenirs abound. The best shopping is in a plaza adjacent to the Graceland parking lot ($2 charge) called Graceland Crossing. Mixed in with the usual assortment of T-shirts, coffee mugs, cassette tapes, posters and bumper stickers are novelty items like "Love Me Tender" garter belts ($1.99) and heart-shaped dream pillows ($11.95) and copies of Elvis' last will and testament ($1.99).

An Elvis bookmark relates that the King "generated over $4.3 billion" from 1955-'77 and was a night owl who enjoyed staying up until dawn watching television. There are 13 TVs in the mansion. Earlier, a Graceland guide had confided that Elvis had glaucoma and wore a 12D shoe.

Pieces of Elvis.

Since Graceland opened to the public in 1982, 6 million people have come seeking their piece and their peace. In January, on what would have been Presley's 58th birthday, the U.S. Postal Service will issue an Elvis stamp, selected by nationwide balloting. Elvis Presley is more popular than ever. Even the cynics can't leave him alone.

Why?

There must be peace and understanding sometime,

Strong winds of promise that will blow away the doubt and fear,

If I can dream of a warmer sun where hope keeps shining on everyone,

Tell me why, oh why, oh why won't that sun appear?"

It's the music, the voice, the spirit. It's redemption. It's grace land.

If you go . . .

* Graceland (ticket office is open 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Memorial Day through Labor Day; 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year).

L Graceland mansion tour: Adults, $7.95; children 4-12, $4.75.

Elvis Presley Automobile Museum: Adults, $4.50; children 4-12, $2.75.

Lisa Marie jet and Hound Dog II Jetstar planes tour: Adults, $4.25; children 4-12, $2.75.

"Sincerely Elvis" museum: Ages 4 and older, $2.75.

"Walk a Mile In My Shoes" film: Free.

Platinum tour, including all attractions: Adults, $15.95; children 4-12, $10.95.

* Sun Studio, 706 Union Ave., Memphis (901) 521-0664. Half-hour tours conducted seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. September through May, and 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. June through August.

Cost: Adults, $4.50; children 4-12, $3; children under 4, free.

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