Full disclosure: I couldn’t care less about Elvis Presley. But as a dutiful American tourist, I went to Memphis to pay my respects to the King.
Staying at the Graceland RV Park in the shadow of Heartbreak Hotel (down at the end of Lonely Street, where it belongs) is convenient by design, and everyone seems to be having fun. Graceland is a happy place—like Pisa in Italy, clogged with souvenirs—where everything is all Elvis all the time.
You never have to (read: aren’t especially encouraged to) leave their custody; a shuttle bus takes you to Sun Studios, and pink limos ferry you to dinner at sanctioned Marlowe’s rib joint. Graceland has a professional, Disney vibe.
Lots of distractions keep you occupied before your turn to board the shuttle to tour the mansion, and all offer ample opportunities to exit through the gift shops. In the archives room, Elvis’ personal things (his Brut cologne, his binoculars, his sunglasses) are displayed like holy relics. His shirts are called “textiles”. One of the goals of the Archives Department is to “document the life of Elvis Presley through the use of oral histories.” Elvis was a prominent performer and a charismatic guy, but get a grip. His significance seems to grow with each passing year. This leads me to my pet theory: what if <insert name of important historic religious leader that will most offend you here> was just the Elvis of his time?
When you finally see the house, be prepared. It’s not Hearst Castle. The Graceland mansion is a big, normal home that belonged to a big, normal celebrity, purchased when Elvis was just a superstar kid, aged 22. He moved his beloved parents in with him, and later his young family and boisterous entourage. Much of the 70s decor is a little over-the-top, but I’d still love to live there. I’m considering adding a jungle room to our house in Bend.
I’ve never taken an iPad tour before, and it’s slick. (My “host” was John Stamos.) The swipe technology with imbedded popup bonus media is not for everyone, though. “This stinks,” griped an old man, exactly the way my father would have.
You won’t see the private rooms upstairs, but Elvis memorabilia and costumes and gold records that illustrate his life history are on display to extend the tour. The deification intensifies after a sanitized account of his gnarly early death (in a bathroom just above the racketball court), and builds as you process to his grave and meditation garden. There’s an ETERNAL FLAME. I confess to choking up a little near the conclusion of the recorded tour, when Elvis says "good night—you’ve been a great audience."
I have two takeaway revelations.
1. Elvis was a generous humanitarian—one of his benefit concerts raised the money for the USS Arizona memorial—and he also gave in a million humble ways that didn’t show. He supported families and paid people’s debts. Anyone with a hard luck story that came to Elvis with their hand out walked away with a check. (Hmm. “WWED”?)
2. Most astonishing to me: Elvis music is broadcast continuously throughout the compound, and I never, not once in three days, heard the same song twice. Now that’s a body of work.