Our first destination out of the airport: Graceland, the house of the famous dead Elvis Presley. Actually, it is currently the house of Elvis’ daughter, Lisa Marie, who still owns it. It takes us ten minutes to get here from the airport, where they have a lot of full-size airplanes.
After this trip, I told my friend Hawk that we went to Graceland. She asked me, with the hint of a sneer that reminded me a little of Elvis, “You don’t like that stuff, do you?”
Full disclosure: I have never been a fan of Elvis. I welcome this opportunity to see if, with a better light shining on this star, I might feel any differently. I don’t.
Anyway, at the ticket window in the entry building across the street from the mansion, we are greeted by a very friendly Ashley. “How y’all doin’?”
“Why, we’re doin’ jest fine.”
“Where you folks from?”
“Pittsburgh,” we tell her proudly.
Ashley says, “My mom is a big Pittsburgh Steelers fan.”
Yeah, big surprise. “Imagine that,” I say, as I am dabbing my forehead with my Steelers bandana.
But something about the way I say it prompts Ashley to ask, “Are you makin’ fun of my accent?”
“No, ma’am, I am not,” I tell her. “Around these parts, it’s me who has the accent.”
To get from the parking lot to the mansion, we walk on a blue canopy-covered walkway. A random visiting kid is doing what kids do, darting haphazardly, almost bumping into me. Its parent says, “Tallulah, watch where you’re going.” Tallulah? This is one way we know we are in the South.
The Greek revival-style mansion on the hill is surrounded by tall trees on an oasis of land along the boulevard.
Graceland is the second, or third or fifth most visited house in America, depending on who you ask. Everyone agrees that the White House is #1 with anywhere from 900 000 to over two million visitors a year. Reports are mixed. Ask the NSA. The other houses that are popular? The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, Monticello in Virginia and fittingly, Neverland Ranch in California. Why is Neverland fitting? Elvis’ daughter Lisa Marie married the owner of Neverland. More on that later. Graceland made the American National Register of Historic Places list in 1991. It was also designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006.
When some people spend time thinking about this, they think that Elvis built Graceland. Nope, he didn’t.
In 1957, Vernon and Gladys Presley were living on Audubon Drive with their 22-year-old son Elvis. (I moved out of my parents’ home when I was 17.) They were looking for something larger and more private — the fans who crowded the house and yards were becoming a nuisance to the neighbors.
In 1894, Grace Toof Ward purchased 323 acres of land right here on Highway 51, South Bellevue Road, on the edge of town. The acreage stayed in the possession of various members of the family until 1957 when Elvis bought it from Ruth Brown Moore, great niece of Grace Toof. She and her husband Thomas built Graceland Mansion and named it in honor of her great aunt Grace.
Ms Moore tells us that when she put the property up for sale, there were three potential buyers: Sears Roebuck Company was one, a private entity that wanted to build an exclusive restaurant was another. The Presleys were the third interested party. At the same time, the Graceland Christian Church wanted to buy five acres on the northwest corner of the property. Neither Sears nor the restaurant people were willing to slice five acres off the property but Elvis was just hunky dory with the idea of having a church next door. And that’s what swayed Moore to sell to the Presleys.
The sale complete, the “improvements” began. A big wall was put up surrounding the grounds, with a wrought-iron music-themed entry gate. A swimming pool and racquetball court were built, an indoor waterfall was installed and the famous Jungle Room was put in. Added to these was the Meditation Garden where all these fine folks were eventually buried: Elvis, his parents and his grandmother.
You may have heard that Elvis was half of twins. It’s true. His brother was stillborn. A small stone in the Garden memorializes the other twin, Jesse Garon.
The gate that permits access to the driveway that leads to the front door of Graceland reminds me of the gate that opens up to the Black Mesa Hiking Trail that gets you to the high point of Oklahoma (Black Mesa, 4973 feet.) The difference is that Elvis’ gates have musical notation and Black Mesa’s gates have animal footprints. Also what’s behind the gates is different. like two different worlds, which they are. The gates at Black Mesa are in the middle of desert land. The gates to Graceland are just a driveway up from Elvis Presley Boulevard, called “Highway 51 South” until January 1972 when the name was officially changed.
Lisa and I head in for the mansion tour. Folks ask me what the house is like. I’m no expert, but I remind them that Elvis was 22 when he bought the place, so it’s decorated like a 22-year-old would decorate. Author Albert Goldman, in his 1981 book titled Elvis, is more graphic. He says Graceland looks like a brothel. “…nothing in the house is worth a dime” and “it appears to have been lifted from some turn-of-the-century bordello. It’s gaudy, garish and phony.”
Journalist and critic Greil Marcus also does not hold back. “[It’s] tacky, garish and tasteless.”
Some say that Linda Thompson, Elvis’ girlfriend of four years, is responsible for most of the decorating choices, especially the extensive use of a red fur and leopard skin motif.
Behold rooms full of memorabilia include hundreds of framed vinyl records as well as all those of gold and platinum. Photographs, newspaper clippings, bauble costumes, videos, busts and statues and “artwork.”
Ahh, here’s the famous Jungle Room. Floor to ceiling shag carpet, some of the stranger African pieces, exotic plants. There is a story that Elvis selected the particular furniture for the Jungle Room just to piss off his dad. Did it work? Vernon said the furniture was “the ugliest I have ever laid eyes on.”
Elvis earned 90 gold, 52 platinum and 25 multi-platinum album awards.
Here’s a thing. Gold and platinum records are not gold and platinum. They are vinyl discs that have been coated with a thin layer of some kind of metal — not gold, not platinum — and then tinted to give them the right look. This layer of tint is anywhere from .0000004 to .000008 inch thick. How do you even pronounce these numbers? Anywhere from “four ten-millionths to eight millionths of an inch.” A dollar bill is more than 10 000 times thicker.
In all the hundreds of photographs of Elvis at Graceland, the newspaper clippings, the life-size cutouts and newsreels and films and videos and paintings and other descriptions and accounts, none are of Elvis older than his mid-30s. At Graceland, you will find no evidence whatsoever that he grew his asshat sideburns to a length worthy of a groundhog, donned shades, grew a cow-like body or imbibed too many adult beverages and medications. Also no mention of his various extramarital affairs, or the paranoia, or the drug usage, the inability to perform on stage and the blackouts. Only the young, charming, slim, handsome Elvis. I’m not being mean, I’m just reporting here.
Journalist Tony Scherman writes that by early 1977, “Elvis Presley had become a grotesque caricature of his sleek, energetic former self. Hugely overweight, his mind dulled by the pharmacopoeia he daily ingested, he was barely able to pull himself through his abbreviated concerts…. He also had a number of diseases.”
Jill Sobule sings in her song Karen by Night…
Looking like young Marlon Brando
Not like the old fat Marlon Brando
in Apocalypse Now
Let me also give the King his due. Behold these successes and let us celebrate.
. 149 songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 Pop Chart
. 18 #1 recordings
. over one billion records sold, more than anyone else ever in the history of the known Universe (except possibly for the Beatles)
. 33 films
. 14 Grammy nominations
. countless charitable donations
So yeah, the boy had a gift.
Y’now, Elvis would be 85 years old now.
He said, “In high school, I failed music. It’s the only thing I ever failed.”
In 1958, Elvis was inducted into the Army. It happens that his inducting officer had three daughters.
Three years later, in 1961, Elvis left the armed services. Elvis’ uncle knew the inducting officer, the father of the three girls. They were all present at the concluding ceremony so Elvis had the opportunity to meet the daughters: one would grow up to be crowned “Miss Tennessee, 1976,” one he patted on the head, and then there was the third one.
Skip ahead fifteen years to 1976. Elvis arranged for Terry, the Miss Tennessee sister, to come to Graceland so they could meet. Terry was very excited, but nervous too, so she invited her two sisters to accompany her. They all had a lovely evening. Terry was the queen, Ginger is the one he patted on the head fifteen years earlier and there was the third sister, Rosemary. Of the three, Ginger is the one who sparked Elvis.
Some point out that Ginger had an uncanny resemblance to Priscilla Presley, Elvis’ first, and only, wife.
The day before my birthday a year later, Elvis proposed to Ginger, the sister he patted on the head, and gave her an 11.5 carat diamond ring. It was made from his TCB ring, the one he always wore on stage. Eleven point five carats is approximately the same weight as four feathers or 1 1/3 drops of blood. 11.5 carats is roughly the size of a small hotel room. At the time, the ring was worth $40 000. Today, it would come in at more than four times that price.
They never married.
Seven months later, on Lisa’s birthday, (my Lisa,) Ginger found Elvis Presley dead on his bathroom floor. That kind of sucks. The medical examiner reported that Elvis died of cardiac arrhythmia which was classified as a natural cause. He also said that, “there was no indication of any drug abuse of any kind.”
What great news for fans and enthusiasts. Contrary to that report however, a pathologist who was involved in the autopsy says that there were at least 14 drugs in the body, some at an outrageous level of overdose.
When describing the scene, Ginger said, “I didn’t want to think he was dead. God wouldn’t want to take him so soon.” Also, “I think God chose Elvis as a very special person.”
Three days later, Ginger claims, is when Elvis began to speak to her and appear in visions. He sat on a chair beside the bed, he floated through the air in the living room — cool! — and sang their special song to her, <Since I Met You Baby> while dressed in a white jump suit. “He leaned forward and put his hand on my tear-stained cheek… and said, ‘Don’t worry, Gingerbread. Everything is going to be all right. You can make it. You’ve got what it takes.’”
The third sister claims to have “seen Elvis’ outline two times in the living room. Each time he was wearing one of his jump suits.” No mention if Elvis pet the dog.
We all know that there are those — and this is not a small number — who claim that Elvis never died, that the bathroom collapse story is a sham, or that he was resuscitated in the hospital, or he…came back to life. Lots of reasons for these beliefs, some of them economic, some of them desperate.
Linda Thompson, Elvis’ four-year girlfriend, said “It’s a little disturbing to see him viewed just totally as a commodity.” A little.
As I have been doing my research, I have come to think of Elvis as part legend, part demigod, part business — not businessman, but a business.
I had sex once. Well, I read about it once. I think it was in Reader’s Digest. Anyway, what Elvis did with his pelvis on stage didn’t look anything like sex to me. But the way he shimmied and rocked on stage looked significantly lewd and sensual enough that when Ed Sullivan, who aired a television variety show from 1948 until 1971, hosted Elvis on his show, he directed the cameraman to shoot only above Elvis’ waist.
Mr Presley was given the nickname “Elvis the Pelvis” for these provocative hip gyrations. In fact, Elvis was given no fewer than 14 nicknames, including “The King,” “Tiger Man” and “The Memphis Flash.”
“The Pelvis,” Elvis said, “was the dumbest nickname I have ever heard.” Maybe there was something to that boy after all.
There’s one more story here. Neverland Valley Ranch is a famous house located in Santa Barbara County in California. It is well known because, from 1988 to 2005, it was the home of the dead American entertainer Michael Jackson.
The property was named after Neverland, the fantasy island inhabited by Peter Pan, Tinker Bell and the Lost Boys. On Neverland, everyone simply refused to grow up; they remained eternally in their childhood.
I’ve never been rich-and-famous; I don’t really know, but I don’t think that some of these people live such good lives. I’m sorry to hear that Elvis, such a lovable, charming, magnetic entertainer ended up such a wretch. It doesn’t stop there.
Elvis had one child, a daughter named Lisa Marie. This is not Lisa my main squeeze. Lisa Marie was married to some rock ‘n’ roller or another but that didn’t work out. She divorced him and got married again 20 days later. The man she married 20 days later was Michael Jackson. LM and MJ first met in 1975, they started up an “adult relationship” in 1992 and got married in 1994.
But dang it, look what allegations of child molestation and general full-goose-bozo wackiness will do to a marriage. Also bad health and drug abuse. Somehow, Lisa Marie thought she would be the positive force in MJ’s life that he needed — “I wanted to save him. I felt that I could do it.” — but 19 months after getting hitched, they unhitched.
I’m curious. She knew Michael for 17 years. How could she not know he was bizarro, other-worldly? I mean, moonwalk and white glove and all — a singularly extraordinary talent — but still he was a total freak. She didn’t catch on? She missed a cue or two? I guess 17 years of being friends wasn’t enough intimacy for her to know the real Michael Jackson.
It was after this daughter that Elvis named his airplane “Lisa Marie.”
C’mon. Is this any way to live!?