Elvis Presley was only 42 when he died in 1977. I was 31 then, so I didn't have the sense that Elvis had been denied a big hunk of life. Now that I'm 50, I feel differently, of course.
At the time of his death, the musical era he represented hadn't yet lived long enough to get old -- though Elvis had aged significantly, it seemed, even at 42. Many of us thought he had outlived his piece of an era, along with his youth, transforming into a Las Vegas lounge act in a preposterous jumpsuit: the Liberace of rock.
So when I visited Elvisland earlier this summer, I went expecting to yuck it up at the expense of the King. I found all the vulgarity I might have expected, especially at the Graceland Mansion. But the experience was oddly sentimental and almost achingly sweet, like turning the pages in a family album and realizing that youth and innocence slipped away while you were too busy to notice.
Graceland is the biggest Elvis attraction in the Memphis region, but I started my tour by driving 100 miles southeast of the city to see his birthplace at Tupelo, Miss. In 1956 and again in 1957, Presley gave fund-raising concerts there to pay for a community park on land that included the tiny, two-room cabin that his father, Vernon, built in the early 1930s.
Elvis was born at 4: 35 a.m. Jan. 8, 1935, arriving with a stillborn twin brother who was given the name Jesse. Had he lived, the King would be 61 today. Imagine that.
His family moved a number of times to various homes in Tupelo, then left for Memphis when Elvis was in the eighth grade. The baseball field, picnic shelter and kiddie playland that Elvis helped finance are now relegated to the back of the hilly park.
The area nearest the street has been turned into a birthplace shrine, containing a private museum and gift shop, a small chapel and, most importantly, the white, clapboard cabin where Elvis lived until he was 2 years old. It costs $1 to walk through the cabin's two rooms, though you usually have to wait out front while other tourists sit in the porch swing and pose for pictures. Inside, it's a humble, antique farm cabin with no plumbing and rough, utilitarian furniture -- a testament to the unlovely, hardscrabble life that Elvis escaped through music.
Garage sale stuff
The nearby museum, by contrast, provides a big opportunity for cynical snickering. Owned and operated by Janelle McComb, who knew Elvis from childhood, it's mostly a collection of things that should have been sent to a garage sale or put away in an attic: old posters, castoff clothes, lots of autographed photographs and fading yearbook pictures, even a collection of microphones that Elvis allegedly used early in his career. Bored high-school girls collect the $4 admission charge and give a brief explanation of the display.
Back in Memphis and Graceland, the admissions are higher and the presentations are streamlined. Like most other tourists, I paid $17 for the Platinum Tour, which includes a visit to the mansion plus admission to the attractions that line a mall-like complex on the opposite side of Elvis Presley Boulevard.
By luck, I rode the shuttle bus to the mansion with a dozen members of the Loving You Fan Club from Rolling Fork, Miss., all women wearing matching light-blue T-shirts. "We've been here several times," one of them told me.
Their gushing days were gone. These were women who remembered the music and the past, who visited Graceland to recapture a piece of themselves by seeing the frozen world of an idol who died in their prime.
The mansion is really just a big house, built in 1939 by a doctor who took a typical Colonial home design and dressed it up with a Greek temple entrance and four Corinthian columns. Inside are large but rather ordinary rooms. Elvis remodeled much of it, turning a back porch into what has become the famous "jungle room," with its inside fountain, carpeted ceiling and silly massive furniture that could best be described as Hawaiian baroque.
"Every time I come here, I remember that I once thought this kind of decorating was stylish," one of the Loving You members told me as we stood in the living room and grimaced at the mirror tiling on the walls, the heavy royal-blue drapes with gold-embroidered trim, the oversized chandeliers, the ridiculous peacock glass partitions, the "classic '60s" furniture.
Graceland may not be a mansion, but it is an estate -- 14 acres of land, surrounded by fence. Horses graze at a nearby paddock, and a driveway winds through a grove of water oaks. An add-on trophy room has been turned into a museum, and a Meditation Garden that Elvis built in the 1960s has become the resting place for the King, his parents and his grandmother. They lie in bronze-covered vaults piled with fresh flowers that arrive almost daily. Except for the crowds, it is serene.
The recorded audio tour, which includes occasional homey comments by Priscilla Presley, dwells on the 110 platinum and gold records, the honors he received, the down-home, hang-with-the-guys, play-with-the-toys lifestyle he led. His pathetic decline and death are summarized in a single phrase, blamed on "health problems and a dependence on medications."
Away from the mansion and across the street, the visit becomes distinctly more commercial. Nearly every attraction leads the visitor into a gift shop. The '50s Rockabilly Diner serves high-priced hamburgers from a counter, along with souvenir food such as fried banana-and-peanut- butter sandwiches ($2).
The best example of major excess is the larger of two jets, a four-engine Convair 880 that looks like a smaller version of the old Boeing 707. Elvis had the plane remodeled to include gold-plated seat-belt buckles and bathroom fixtures, and a large central lounge with television sets at both ends. The smaller, more conventionally decorated plane is "Hound Dog II," a Lockheed JetStar; it usually gets little more than a glance, since you can only stand at the front door and peek inside.
For car buffs, the must-see attraction in the Elvis mall is his automobile museum. Contrary to expectations, it is not filled with pink Cadillacs, though it does have the 1955 Fleetwood that his mother loved. Other vehicles include Priscilla's 280 Mercedes roadster, a white Rolls, a pair of Stutz Blackhawks from the early 1970s and a 1956 purple Cadillac convertible. Also displayed are smaller motorized toys: golf carts, go-karts, super trikes, motorcycles and a Jeep with a pink fringe on top. A running film loop shows motorized scenes from his 29 movies -- a compilation of race cars, boats, motorcycles, the scenes decorated with shots of babes in bikinis and miniskirts.
For me, the Sincerely Elvis Museum packs the biggest impact. It is an attempt to fix Elvis in history, with results that are sometimes laughable, sometimes moving. As with most of Elvisland, the museum shows us the young Elvis, stopping about the time he donned his first lavish Las Vegas jumpsuit in the late 1960s. He remains the boy we remember, a product of the post-war '50s and the prosperous '60s, a society that somehow existed outside the less pleasing aspects of those decades -- the cold-war hysteria, the racial violence, the anti-war riots.
You smile at some of the quotes framed on the museum walls: "Do what's right for you as long as you don't hurt no one," or "You let your head get too big, it'll break your neck."
And some of the assessments are a bit too sweeping. Some, for instance, would argue with the claim that Elvis alone should be credited for synthesizing rockabilly, blues, gospel and soul.
Do, as one essay claims, the flamboyant costumes Elvis wore at the end of his career still influence the look of popular performers today? Well, maybe Prince and Madonna.
And there's even an attempt to connect his military service with the anti-war, flower-power movement of the late 1960s. Because Elvis was drafted, young men resisted the draft a decade later. That's a stretch.
But one statement hits home, explaining, perhaps, our enduring fascination with the King:
"Everyone shares a common element with Elvis. He encompasses the daring, the familiar, the spiritual, the sexual, // the masculine, the androgynous, the eccentric, the traditional, the god-like, the God-fearing, the liberal and the conservative in all of us."
You read that and you nod. Maybe that's the connection you feel at Graceland and Tupelo.
If you go...
Elvis Presley Museum and Birthplace: In Tupelo, Miss., about 100 miles southeast of Memphis, it is open 9 a.m. to 5: 30 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $4 ($2 for children) for the museum and $1 (50 cents for children) for the house. Call (601) 841-1245.
Graceland: Open daily, with off-street parking available for $2 per vehicle. Early-morning visitors can walk to the Meditation Gardens without paying admission before the start of regular tours. The Platinum Tour Package takes in all of the sites of the Graceland complex. Tickets are $17 for adults, $15.30 for seniors and $11 for children. Tickets for the Mansion Tour only are $9 for adults, $8.10 for seniors and $4.75 for children. Individual tickets to the auto museum, airplanes and Sincerely Elvis Museum range from $3.50 to $5 for adults and $2.25 to $2.75 for children. Call (800) 238-2000 or (901) 332-3322 for information.
Elvis Week '96: Events honoring Presley in and around Memphis this week include a reunion concert, candlelight vigil at the gravesite and sale of Elvis memorabilia. If you want to start planning for 1997, call (800) 238-2000.
Pub Date: 8/11/96