Visiting Graceland in Memphis
Every day flowers and tributes arrive at Graceland, in the small city of Memphis. Sent from fans all over the world, they are placed around the gravesite of the man known by many simply as ‘The King’ and remain there until they wilt or are too weather-damaged to be on display. The strange thing is not how much is sent to his final resting place, but that the tributes are still coming more than thirty years after his death.
At his gravesite, in the meditation garden of his former home, visitors still stop and spend a moment in quiet thought as they look down at the bronzed tombstone. “He became a living legend in his own time; earning the respect and love of millions”, says one of the lines of the epitaph. That, in some ways, captures the spirit of his enduring status.
In our recent memory is the death of another man they also once called a king amongst men. A man who also had his distinctive dance moves, adoring fans across the continents and, most importantly, influenced the way we came to see music. I’m not sure if people will still be sending flowers and handwritten notes to Michael Jackson’s estate in three decades’ time, though.
What was it about Elvis?
In some ways, Elvis was the first musician to become a celebrity for more than just his art – he transcended his media and was lifted by the fans above the mortality of an ordinary performer. They say that more people watched his TV special than saw man land on the moon.
True, you can’t get to that point without a certain amount of manufacturing. In the early days, his manager used to construct public appearances so that the hordes of screaming girls would be the story (Justin Bieber, anyone?). Ultimately, though, Elvis had a natural ability to hypnotise the public, meld musical styles to create new sounds, and push the limits of decency only far enough that he was adored by the youth but still respected by their parents.
When President Jimmy Carter spoke upon the death of The King, he captured the mood of the nation when he said Elvis “permanently changed the face of American popular culture… and he was a symbol to people the world over of the vitality, rebelliousness and good humour of this country.”
The Graceland Mansion
To tour his famous Graceland mansion in today’s world is to be transported back into the heart of his life as the world’s biggest celebrity (although having anything to do with Elvis’s heart for too long is at your own peril!). The interior designs of the rooms are something special to behold and could only be justified by someone of his stature, who was always conscious of style.
There’s the lounge room with the jungle theme… the games room with a ceiling entirely of folded fabric… and the television room with more mirrors than any narcissist should need. The photos are below, because no attempt at description could do it justice.
I stand there and peek into the rooms and imagine all night parties with friends and fellow musicians filled with music and the smell of alcohol, cigarettes and excess. Elvis, though, didn’t really like the taste of alcohol so the image blurs a bit in my mind and I find it hard to get a fix on life in Graceland. Who knows how the addiction to prescription medicine played out?
Besides the actual house and grounds, the rest of the Graceland experience feels like the museum that it is. Some of the outside buildings on the estate have been converted into showcases and large buildings on the opposite side of the road hold even more memorabilia. There are the gold records he was presented, the Grammys, the costumes, posters, letters and, in one very large building, his car collection. Oh yeah, and there’s the customised plane called ‘Lisa Marie’ with the gold seatbelt buckles and private bedroom in the rear.
We went to Graceland, not as fans, but as interested tourists (and so we could sing the Paul Simon song on the way… which we did). Around us were definitely some fans – people who seemed more moved at the grave than the others, more interested in the obscure memorabilia, more likely to mime the words to the classic hits playing around us, and less likely to read the historical facts that true fans could recite from heart.
I came away with a much greater respect for Elvis than I’d had previously. What really struck me, though, was not how great a man he was but how great he could make a country feel. His legacy is not in his music alone, and he won’t be remembered for a mansion where green shag pile carpet belongs on both the floor and the ceiling. The legend of Elvis is about the man and the myth, the mood of a nation and what can be achieved with talent and determination.
* You can check out the official website for Graceland here.
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