The House Of The Century - Going To Graceland
I first went inside 17 years ago when they opened the house on the hill in Memphis. It was 1982. What had once been just a man and his talent had long before been elevated to legend, and legend had become full-blown industry. I never met him, but there we were, my family and I, going to his house, not as guests, but as visitors. This was no ordinary house. This was Graceland.
Seventeen years later, August 1999, I was headed back, alone, to pay my respects and be part of a phenomenon. I wanted to see, too, what had become of the legacy here in this tiny part of the world where man and reality had met myth and set their foundation in the folklore of immortality. "Why" is what you try to explain, but you can't in any concise way. If you're a fan, you'll understand. And you sure can't touch on all the different layers of it. You just know that you're one of many who are drawn to the same place. This is no ordinary journey. This is going to Graceland.
I remember exactly where I was almost to the square inch of driveway at our Barrington home 22 years ago when I first heard the news that Elvis Presley died. I was 15. I had just started getting into the music of the day a couple of years back with Elton John and other 70's big shots. Elvis was part of the past; a comfortable, familiar, and integral part of American culture. You knew his voice and face and tunes by the age of 5 like you knew nursery rhymes and fairy tales. He was like George Washington, Abe Lincoln, and Santa Claus. My friend Linda from the neighborhood, whose family had moved to Fox Point from Memphis, was coming over as us kids on the block began gathering out in the street as we always did on those Summer days. She was 15, like me, and it was about 4:30 on just a regular August afternoon in the neighborhood. She came walking up and greeted me with "Elvis Presley just died."
Now, what goes through a 15 year old mind with something like that can be just about anything or nothing at all. All I know is that for an inexplicable reason that remains a mystery to me to this day, it was mind-blowing, as if someone had just broken the news that Santa Clause was gone. With those words of hers a whole new era began and with it a new understanding. I still remember the kind of day it was. Overcast and warm and humid. It had rained. "It must be weird back home," she said. How ironic, I think now, that it was from a Memphis girl in Barrington that I'd first heard the news. Memphis was back home for her. Memphis suddenly got real close to home for me. The news programs got going, fumbling their way through unexpected -- and overwhelming -- news. News that no one knew quite how to report. This was someone, I guess, who everyone just assumed would live forever. But, the images were enough. This 15 year old kid was mesmerized, and the feeling would never go away.
Elvis Presley was only 42 when he died, August 16, 1977, and to a 15 year old, 42 is old. Now at 37, "old" takes on new meaning. With the wisdom of "age," comes a new appreciation for just how young 42 was and just how short a lifetime it was in which to accomplish so much.
The bus ride from Chicago to Memphis was 9 hours long. It was August 13th, and another warm, overcast day, just like 22 years ago. The day changed into evening with a silver-lining twilight that broke through the clouds. I got to Memphis about midnight, and it seemed like just another ordinary town. That would begin to change the next day.
Saturday would be spent going to Sun Studio on Union Street where it had all begun. I was first struck how ordinary it all looked, how small in relation to how big a thing had happened there. Just a small town feel on a cross road street. Stepping into the recording studio was like stepping into a time machine, and that's where the magic began. No fancy sound systems, no star wars technology, just solid, decades old equipment in one high-ceilinged room. Our young tour guide gave us visitors a musical lesson in history, telling the story and playing the music that was over half a century old but echoed as if it had just been made. What these walls saw and heard they will hold for as long as they remain standing.
There was the silver, old time microphone standing sturdy in the corner. We took pictures with that microphone, touching a piece of legend and smiling self-consciously as we posed as amateurs, just as he might have done those many years ago when the voice first began its recorded journey through time.
Then it was on to Beale Street. Memphis was coming alive, and how alive it came there on that small stretch of Technicolor and sound. This was the street where the unknown teenage boy had hung out and now thousands were coming to congregate. This was the Bourbon Street of the Blues. The blues clubs in Chicago are good, but here, boy, here is where the soul was. It wasn't long before the street was overflowing with people and the sights and sounds injected an energy into the air that one can only experience by being there.
The next day was Homage day, Sunday, August 15th, the last day of "Elvis Week" in Memphis, culminating in the anniversary candlelight vigil. Along with the many others who had come, I spent hours just hanging outside of Graceland, reading the countless messages that had been handwritten on the stone wall along the sidewalk and browsing the shops that had, over the years, been transformed from cheesy purveyors of "Made in Taiwan" memorabilia to classy, clean joints that reflected a deserving respect for the man whose image they were selling. I missed the cheesy, almost tacky shops of years ago, but there, on the edge of the strip, I found them, familiar and oddly reverential in all their five and dime shamelessness.
There on the strip, too, was the Elvis car museum, an absolute must see for anyone who appreciates really cool cars and motorcycles, and a nice museum of real life mementos behind glass windows that draw you into an unreal life with the simplicity of their reality. There, also, were the two personal planes you could walk through. Another must see, if for nothing more than to see a plane furnished with a full-length dining table and full-sized double bed!
One could go on the house tour at one's leisure and as twilight approached I joined others on the drive up the circle driveway, and through the front door we went. Pretty to be sure, and impressive. Grand enough with enough 70's cheesecake and down home country comfort to be something for everybody. But I was struck again at how almost ordinary and small it seemed, considering what it had housed. It's the record of achievement on display in the huge trophy room and the racquetball building that blows your mind with the impact of just how extraordinary the life was of the man who had made his home here. Here at Graceland was all the irony and enigma of Elvis, in all it's glory and simplicity. That unfathomable combination and contradiction of the humble and the grand. The down-to-earth, and the
over-the-top. The mansion standing alone among tall oak trees on an ordinary street in a southern American city and the castle whose upstairs inner sanctum where he dropped and died remains mysterious and unseen by the millions of visitors who have walked between these walls over the years. All American success and excess. Home and shrine. This was Graceland. And we visitors were paying homage to a man we'd never known.
How quiet we all were as we walked from room to room, envisioning whatever it was in our minds that he was when he was here away from the lights and glory. One man's home that had become open house to the world. Did we know that we were merely temporary guests of a host unseen? He is buried there, in the Meditation Garden on the grounds; along with his beloved mother, father and grandmother. We are quiet again as we walk p