It’s Christmas in Graceland. With little more than a month until Elvis Presley’s favourite holiday, those left in charge of his legacy have decked the halls, put blue lights on most of the trees and placed his seasonal ballads on heavy rotation.
They’ve got visitors covered on the commercial side too. The first thing you can do in the visitor centre is apply for an Elvis-themed credit card. You can use it to buy things in any of the 11 gift shops.
Elvis was all about excess, and Graceland proudly carries the tradition. The house itself is a relatively modest structure compared with the massive visitor centre (at least from the outside). To wander its halls is to take a tour through the mind of a conflicted soul – a traditional dining room looks ready for a family visit, the basement media room features crazy-eyed monkey statues, three televisions and a mirrored ceiling.
And the less said about the Jungle Room, the better.
In an era of instant celebrity, it’s difficult for someone who was born in 1975 to grasp the immensity of Elvis’s fame and to understand how a guy who never wrote his own songs became the most important archetype in rock ’n’ roll. But the hushed tones of the majority of the visitors – most whispered, when they spoke at all – put me in the minority.
But as those in their 50s and 60s paused reverentially before gold lamé outfits and gasped in wonder at the leather pantsuit Elvis wore during a 1968 TV special, I spent most of my time wondering whether the excesses of Graceland could be best explained by the era or the King’s mental state.
My in-laws have a wood-panelled basement, so let’s chalk Elvis’s walls up to the era. But shag walls, mirrored ceilings and chairs carved into vaguely menacing animal shapes hint at a deeper malaise. The old shed where he would target shoot isn’t particularly reassuring, either.
The excess – an entire building full of expensive cars, two jets parked outside, a field for horses – helps visitors round out Elvis in their head. The automated tour presents a happy version of his life, only spending a few sentences on his divorce and a few more on his unfortunate death at 42.
Times were mostly good, until they weren’t. The end.
All of the photos show Elvis in peak physical form, and not in his final, deteriorated state that many remember. As you leave the tour, you’re thinking of gold records and screaming girls – not medicine cabinets and toilets.
But even the most optimistic Elvis lovers can’t escape the sad reality that awaits them on the tour’s final stop. The graveyard is only a few steps from the house, and Elvis and his closest family members will rest on the grounds for eternity. It wasn’t always thus – Elvis’s daddy had his corpse moved to the site from Forest Hill Cemetery in 1977 (along with Elvis’s mother, Gladys) after body thieves tried to steal the King.
Graceland is an economic powerhouse, adding about $1.5-billion annually to the Memphis economy. But it’s more than that; it’s an amazing monument to another era – much like Tennessee itself. The state has a lot to offer when one looks beyond the neon lights of Nashville’s main strip or Memphis’s grittier Beale Street, where you can buy alligator heads in the gift shops sprinkled between dirty blues clubs.
The state is rich in Civil War history, with battlefields dotting the countryside. The sites are often marked, and while it takes an awful lot of imagination to picture the Confederate Army doing fierce battle with their Union rivals in the back lot behind Big Bob’s Truck Stop, most of the sites have interpretive plaques and there are visitor centres along the highway to help you along (and sell you gifts – my favourite was a Civil War colouring book for children that features images of soldiers bayoneting each other in the face).
A certain impulsiveness is helpful. One of the more amusing stops along the interstate is the Casey Jones Museum and Home, halfway between Memphis and Nashville. Jones conducted the Cannonball Express, and gained international fame when his engineering prowess helped him save all aboard as he crashed head-first into another train (although he died).
His story has been refined and mythologized through the years, and the museum is a charming tribute not only to him but the early culture of the nation’s railways. Hoboes hold a special place in the curator’s heart, with a series of displays explaining how the hardscrabble migrant workers lived their lives and communicated with each other through the use of written codes. A scrawl resembling a shovel meant, “Angry man lives here,” for example. A triangle with arms? That angry man had a gun.
“The post-Civil War era created a new man in America. The hobo,” a plaque reads. “The hobos proved to be of value to the building of our country by working on farms and railroads.”
Anyway, all the well-meaning hoboes in the world wouldn’t have been able to save Jones on that fateful day in 1900 aboard the Cannonball Express. He was either scalded, crushed or impaled. But fair warning – that’s something you won’t find out at his museum.
“What wrong with you, man?” the big guy next to me says when I ask which version the locals prefer. “Dead is dead. The man is a hero.”
Same goes for Elvis.
And this is a state that knows how to honour its dead.