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The King Is Dead. Long Live the King.

August 13, 2012

I should start by saying that the Hamster and I are not big Elvis fans. We both like a fair amount of his music, and I certainly appreciate his musical innovations and his vast influence generations of musicians of all genres. Neither of us, however, worships Elvis as a god or thinks he was superhuman in any way, and that is what differentiates us from most of the people who were at Graceland today.

Part of this is my fault: I unwittingly timed our visit rather poorly, as the 35th anniversary of Elvis’s death is this week and that event tends to bring far more lunatics than usual to what they clearly view (without exaggeration) as their Mecca.

Approximately one-third of the people at Graceland today were ordinary tourists like us. The rest were clearly trying to out-ugly each other by dressing head to toe in Elvis paraphernalia: Elvis T-shirts covered with Elvis vests, topped with Elvis hats that bore Elvis pins, accessorized with Elvis earrings and Elvis handbags, backpacks, and tote bags. Some eschewed the memorabilia and just went right ahead and dressed like ’70s Elvis:

By comparison, the mohawk kid in Chattanooga looks like he works on Wall Street. Graceland is like the Olympics of people-watching. I cannot say enough about how constantly amusing it was just to look around me. Sam had a similar reaction, and was clearly struggling with balancing his impulse to call my attention to particularly ridiculous freaks with his understanding that basic rules of public behavior prevented him from doing so. Occasionally he was so amazed by someone that he had to grab me and whisper despite the danger in doing so.

Meanwhile, none of these tacky wackos could even come close to touching the unbridled gaudiness that is Elvis himself. Thanks to the worshippers we had to wait an hour and a half just for the privilege of getting on the half-hour-long line to board a shuttle that would drive us all the way … across the street to the Graceland mansion, so we spent that time examining his private planes and his car collection. The gold sinks and faucets in the airplane bathrooms, the yellow leather seats on the smaller plane, and the purple Cadillac convertible gave us only a hint of the garish tackiness that was waiting for us inside the mansion. Yes, you read that correctly, I said yellow leather seats.

…the image is one thing and the human being is another…it’s very hard to live up to an image.

–Elvis Presley, 1972

This quote would make a whole lot of sense if it were said by just about any other celebrity. But I’ve been in Elvis’s house now. I’ve been in his private planes. I’ve seen the yellow leather furniture, I’ve seen the purple cars, I’ve seen the Bedazzled jumpsuits and the capes. I’ve seen the stained glass peacocks, the shag-carpeted walls, the bathroom sinks covered in gold leaf, and the mirrors on every conceivable surface. And I can say that the image and the human being were one and the same. It says a lot about a person when the room in his house known worldwide as the Jungle Room is only the third or fourth most ostentatiously decorated room in the house. It’s not that I don’t have the words to describe the never-ending spectacle, it’s just that my mouth is still so agape that I can’t physically form those words. I think the best thing for me to do at this point is to show you some of the most glaring examples.

I’m not sure what owning all these things says about a man, but I never want it said about me.

Still half-blinded from the Graceland decor, we traded Elvis Presley for Mark Twain and took a steamboat ride down the Mississippi River. We crossed the Mississippi on last year’s trip but it’s infinitely cooler to float down the Mississippi on the same kind of boat that was popular in Twain’s day.

It was a little touristy, sure, but short of finding work in the shipping industry it’s the best way to get on the country’s most storied river (and the fourth longest in the world). Plus it gave us an interesting perspective on the city.

On the left side of that photo is a huge stainless steel pyramid that was the Memphis Grizzlies’ home arena for a couple of years until they decided to move out. The Pyramid then spent some time hosting concerts and other big events, but it has been given new life recently when it was leased to … Bass Pro Shops. Yes, a former NBA arena and the most noticeable building in the Memphis skyline will soon be reopening as a sporting goods store.

Incidentally, the boat ride featured the mohawk kid’s newest rival: a kid with the logo of Elvis’s backup band freshly shaved into the back of his head:

See, there’s beauty all around you if you just know where to look.

By the time we were back on dry land it was after 4pm, but Elvis had not yet left the building. We took a brief tour of Sun Studio, where Elvis recorded his first song and the first record label of eventual music giants Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. The recording studio hasn’t been touched since, and we got to stand where Elvis did–and sing into the same microphone he did–when he recorded his first single.

After Sun, our plan was to visit the five-block-long scale model of the Mississippi River on Mud Island, a long skinny island just a few yards from the Memphis riverfront. However, when we arrived at 5:20 pm we were told that the park was closed. I’m not sure what kind of public park closes two and a half hours before sunset but to make matters worse we were told that the park is closed on Mondays, so we won’t be able to see it tomorrow before we leave town, either.

Sam was pissed, but as long as we were right near the river I distracted him by suggesting that we hop on one of the nearby bridges and cross into Arkansas, just to say we did. We stopped for gas while we were there, because simply driving through part of a state doesn’t really count as having been there, but certainly purchasing something in that state counts. So now we’ve been to Arkansas. Sam counted up and has now been to 37 states. By the time I was his age I had been to maybe 5.

Sam’s happiness was short lived, though, because I told him we were going to the National Civil Rights Museum next. After Montgomery and Birmingham the Hamster is understandably suffering from a bit of civil rights fatigue. But the museum is housed in the same Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was killed, with the room he stayed in preserved as it was that evening, and I didn’t want to miss it. We came to a compromise: we’d go to the museum but we wouldn’t go inside–we’d just look at it from the street for a minute or two. I know this seems like a dumb activity but it was totally worthwhile.

Our original plan was to leave Memphis at about this time and spend the next two days in Nashville, but after doing a bit of research Saturday night I realized there’s much more to do in Memphis, so I flipped things and decided to spend another day in Memphis and less time in Nashville. The best part is that we didn’t have to pack up all our stuff and check out of our hotel early Sunday morning. Sleeping in the same place two nights in a row becomes very attractive when you go a whole week without doing it. So for dinner, instead of having to scour the state for a place to grill, we picked up takeout, brought it back to our hotel room, and ate as we watched the Closing Ceremonies and joked about redecorating our house with the wallpaper in Graceland’s billiard room.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Amy R. permalink
    August 14, 2012 12:15 am

    Wow. Wish you posted more photos of the Elvis freaks… but you can’t say I didn’t warn ya!

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