Grey Rain at Graceland


illustration by A.J. Garces
Driving west on a Tennessee two-lane, listening to Shelby Foote speak of Gettysburg. His Old South accent gives the bloodiest battle fought on this continent a daguerreotype, sepia-toned look in my mind's eye: I see a battleground where the living seem not quite living, the dead not quite dead. An odd suspension of disbelief grips me -- for hours of tapes I've forgotten who won, it seems the battle (and all of history) could go either way. Until Pickett's charge. 1863. Not for 50 years would my people come to this country, yet Gettysburg feels like my fight too. Which is as vivid a proof as I've ever had that I am an American -- that the history not of my genes, but of my consciousness, goes back to this land's earliest days. The blood, not of my ancestors but of what's shaped my heart, is in this ground.

In this frame of mind -- after driving hours through a grey rain, past farms and tiny towns and countless skeletal winter trees -- I enter Memphis. Take the freeway south. Exit at Elvis Presley Boulevard.

You'd think Paul Simon's "Graceland" would be singing in my head, but no. It's too bouncy for this street. Elvis' boulevard is bleak, run-down. Still, a vague melody seems to be playing in the rain. A guitar, an untutored voice. Not Elvis, yet not far from him. Some Civil War kid, scared of dying. The faces on the street, mostly black, seem grim with fatigue -- change has been too little, taken too long, and cost too much. There are cheap-looking projects on all sides of Graceland. It's as though a kind of curse is rising like a mist out of the ground.

So I'm surprised at my thrill as I pull into the Graceland complex. Even in this chilly rain, with just a smattering of tourists; even in this shameless atmosphere of commercial necrophilia; even so, there really is that odd elation Paul Simon captured: "I've reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland... There's some part of me wants to see Graceland." Driving into the lot, you pass a four-engine Convair, Presley's private plane. His daughter's name, "Lisa Marie," is painted beside the cockpit. I recall tabloid headlines, Lisa Marie saying Michael Jackson is a dud in bed (big surprise, right?). But such thoughts can't bring me down to earth. A surreality has taken over.

You buy your tickets in a building that feels like an airport. A typical sign: "Elvis Presley Mastercard -- Apply Here." I have an active imagination, but sometimes it hits a brick wall. I can't imagine how any human being can physically torture another; and I can't imagine what difference it could possibly make to have Elvis' face on your credit card. Yet the 20th century is held tensely, excruciatingly, between those two poles of behavior -- and both are beyond me.

So much for my credentials as a commentator.

You rent a Walkman so that Priscilla Presley can give you a disembodied but nevertheless guided tour of the mansion and grounds. Her voice is tinny and cheerful, stripped of any emotion more difficult to deal with than wistfulness. Except for a solemnity about his mother's death, Priscilla presents us with an Elvis who was never in pain. So why are we tourists so somber, so reverent, so unlike Priscilla? I suspect why: Graceland admits no pain, so it is all left for us to remember, feel, and bear. Under the pretense of commemorating Elvis, the place is actually trying to erase him. But it can't. Most of us look bewildered and sad, but not bored. Enthralled. Elvis has not left the building.

We board a little bus to take us through Graceland's gate. Elvis' voice surprises me on the Walkman: "Won't you come in." The words pass too quickly to be sure whether it's really Elvis or an imitator. The bus deposits us at the mansion's door. A terribly acned, fleshy, young woman greets us, all smiles. Her acne is obviously chronic -- she must have 30 pimples on her face. I admire her, wondering what inner somersaults she had to accomplish in order to take the unavoidably public job of a greeter. That's a kind of courage not many have. Thus far, she alone at Graceland seems worthy of Elvis.

She tells us, "The upstairs still remains private." Of course it does. Elvis died in a bathroom upstairs, and he didn't die well. A heart attack while you're trying to shit is not a pretty death. We already know the image. Let its setting remain private.

What we see is naked enough. Glaring color schemes... chintzy decorative "art"... a television in every room (sometimes as many as three). I imagine all his TVs on at once, on different channels, and Elvis walking from room to room not looking at any of them, needing their cacophony to drown out what's happening in his head. (Many on this tour must play their TVs constantly too, during chores or eating or even talking; this may be what they have most in common with Elvis.) The phrase "bad taste" is not adequate. It is impossible to imagine anyone inhabiting the all-white living room, white sofa, white chairs, white rug, white grand piano, white TV chassis -- a sense of suffocation and of something purposeful and sinister, as though it's all been fashioned from the hide and bone of Melville's white whale.

That is the worst room, but the others are hardly better. Only the kitchen is actually homey, though very large. You can believe Priscilla when she says this was "where everybody congregated during the day." Of course. It's the only human area in the house. Elvis (unintentionally) reveals himself in this mansion: reveals he didn't feel he was a human being. The artificiality of the decor has to reflect how artificial he felt, a freak only comfortable (by all accounts) on the stage and in this kitchen. A man who can't sleep, usually too drugged to fuck, whose bed is such a torture for him that he installed a huge TV in the ceiling above his pillows. This is the house of a man who has given up on the possibility of intimacy.

The place is a monument to his abdication of intimacy, except for the kitchen -- which is to say, except for his mouth, the organ of his voice and of eating. His mouth was apparently the only part of his body that still felt alive, toward the end. That's what the house says, and it jibes with his progression from the fluid movements of his youth to the mechanical, self-parodying motions of what, for Elvis, was his old age. Look at footage of his last concerts: his body is sluggish, his gestures are forced, his eyes are vacant; only his supple lips still register the subtle swift energies that once radiated with such force from his whole being.

Then finally out the mansion's back door, past a yard and (if memory serves) a stable, to his father Aaron's office. A TV plays over and over, a brief interview with Elvis when he got out of the army in 1960. After the schlock of the mansion, the stark beauty of the 25-year-old Elvis is a shock. Has our century offered a more beautiful face as a public icon? Here is that captivating mix of an arrogance that is absolute and innate, filtered through a shyness so unavoidable it makes him laugh at himself. The low, insinuating voice. His evident disbelief that anyone would be really interested in what he has to say.

He's speaking of the army, but he could be talking about everything he surrendered to: "Play it straight and do your best. 'Cause you can't fight 'em. If you're gonna try to be an individual or try to be different, you're gonna go through two years [his army hitch] of -- misery."

He paused before he chose the last word. He meant it.

So much for the great rebel, who, more than any other single figure, was responsible for initiating the cultural tidal wave that we call rock & roll. Is it so surprising, with such a Founding Father, that the music would end in the corporate-controlled repetition that blares from radios now?

I walk down a path to the "Meditation Garden." A sign asks me not to speak and not to smoke.

I wasn't prepared for a graveyard. I guess I knew Elvis and his family are buried here; still, I wasn't prepared. A small stone for Jessie, his twin, who died at birth. Then four enormous slabs: his mother Grace, his father Vernon, his grandmother Minnie, and Elvis. These slabs are covered top to bottom with what can charitably be called inscriptions -- line after line of inflated treacle.

It doesn't matter. Especially in the rain.

The beauty of his voice and face. (It isn't fair we recall the bloated Elvis so vividly; that was true only in his last year.) The fantastic dancing of his youth, the robotic movements of his last years. The reels of lousy movies, and the few good ones. His spiritual progression from Tupelo to Vegas. His ability to sing a gritty blues or a pop confection with equal conviction, originality, artistry. His sense, from beginning to end, of being baffled by the very reaction he sought so relentlessly. His generosity, his garishness, his shyness, his shallowness, his profound impact. His inability to bear his own company. His growing status as a secular saint, constantly returning from the dead. (He would be 62 now. Do you really want to see Elvis at 62?) A shining slab in the rain, rambling earnest inscriptions, as though he needed justifying.

His true epitaphs are the graffiti on the walls that surround Graceland. "Without Elvis You're Nothing! He Owes Nobody!" "Your Hard-Headed Woman Is Here." "Graceland Is Our Field of Dreams." Look down on them all you want, but leave it to the fans to know.

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