THERE is no home more famous in rock ‘n’ roll than the Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee, in the United States.
This is the estate purchased at the age of 22 by Elvis Presley, a freshly minted rock star with money to burn. As Presley’s fame continued to grow, Graceland became his hometown hangout as well as a symbol of his success.
Graceland also would be the location of his final studio recordings, the place where he died in 1977 and the site of his grave. As such, for Elvis’s most devoted fans, Graceland is something of a holy place.
I should make it clear now that Graceland doesn’t quite hold exactly the same appeal for me. Sure, I love a great deal of Elvis’s music, but I have no reason to worship at the singer’s self-made altar.
Yet “the King of rock ‘n’ roll” remains a mythic figure, and both true believers and the merely curious are drawn to his former homestead. As Paul Simon once sang, “For reasons I cannot explain, there’s some part of me wants to see Graceland.”
A few years ago, like Simon and millions of tourists before us, my wife and I travelled south from downtown Memphis on Elvis Presley Boulevard (what are the chances?) to arrive at the famous Graceland gates.
The tour begins at the visitors center across the street, which is surrounded by all manner of Elvis-themed souvenir shops, hotels, restaurants and camp grounds. We passed on a chance to stay at the Heartbreak Hotel, although we did order a peanut butter, bacon and banana sandwich (a Presley favourite) at the Rock & Roll Café.
Curiosity doesn’t come cheap, as we found at the Graceland tour ticket counter, where we were charged about three times the amount of admission into any other Memphis music site (there’s a reason Elvis became much richer in death than life). Then we boarded a small bus that drove us all the way across the street and up to the Graceland Mansion.
My first impression of the colonial revival home was ... is this it? Decades after his death, Elvis has become larger than life and I guess I expected a palace suited to a “king” famous for his love of everything big and gaudy.
Instead, before me stood a large-ish house that didn’t match the term “mansion”. I had to be reminded that in the late 1950s, when Elvis bought the property, Graceland was about as good as it got. At least in Memphis, anyway.
Graceland’s interior more than made up for the lack of gaudiness outside. White carpet and furniture, gold fixtures, strange paintings, stained glass peacocks – and that was just Elvis’s living room. An audio tour mostly delivered by Presley’s daughter, Lisa Marie, and ex-wife, Priscilla, added some personal details, but most have faded from my memory – outshone by the sheer tackiness of Graceland’s décor. Elvis died in the bathroom directly above where we stood in the living room, although only family members are allowed on the second floor. Given what goes on at his grave, that’s probably for the best.
As we continued the tour, we saw Elvis’s basement, where he’d set up three TVs in a row for simultaneous access to the three US broadcast networks. Then came the infamous jungle room. With its mossy decorations, strange layout and indoor waterfall, it’s no wonder that this tribute to tacky taste is the most talked-about portion of the tour. It also served as the location for Presley’s final studio recordings, including his last big hit, 1977’s Way Down.
There were more buildings to tour outside of the main house, including Graceland’s still-maintained stable of horses, a trophy room that Elvis had built where a driveway once stood and a racquetball court that has been turned into a museum for the many bejewelled jumpsuits that Presley wore during his Las Vegas years.
On big-screen TVs above these glitzy costumes, 1970s Elvis is still karate-chopping his way through double-time renditions of his hits. There’s also the piano, on which Presley played his last song (either Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain or Unchained Melody, depending on the story).
And then, of course, is Graceland’s meditation garden and cemetery, where the remains of Presley, along with his mother, father and grandmother, are buried. It is this place that separates Elvis’s fans from his most devotional followers. While many people quietly pay their respects and read some of the markers, others break down into a wail of tears, overcome by the final resting place of their beloved hero.
I can’t relate to getting all shook up for someone I didn’t know personally, but I was struck that Elvis was still moving people to tears more than 30 years after his death. The only time that I felt like crying was when I saw the admission price.