Monday, October 19, 2015

The Mississippi Cradle of American Music III

Here I stand at the gates of Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion—the Taj Mahal of tacky—architectural proof that the unexamined life can be worth living, if you’ve got the cash. Elvis was as unrefined as he was charismatic. Like the Great Gatsby, he remade himself into a squire but really only convinced his “po’ white trash” brethren. He found rising from dirt-poor son of a bootlegger to filthy-rich king of rock ‘n’ roll much easier than rising above class snobbery.

When bought by Presley in 1957, Graceland stood on Bellevue Boulevard a couple miles north of the Mississippi line, at the border between the impoverished rural South of his upbringing and the bustling redneck metropolis of Memphis, where the first drive-in movie, motel chain, and supermarket were born. The roadway was renamed Elvis Presley Boulevard over the loud protests of the nonrockin’ Bellevue Baptist Church, whose thousands of mostly-white members have since fled to suburbia, leaving Graceland an outpost in drugland.

The location as a hilltop showcase on a busy thoroughfare was intentional. Elvis wanted adoration but not invasion. His see-over stone wall and see-through wrought-iron, music-note gates were designed to remind the simplest fan, “Me: Elvis, you: tourist, look but don’t enter.” The King’s relatives formed a homey but firm security force. The physical site and retention of the old “Graceland” name reflected the heavenward hymn, “I’ve got a mansion, just over the hilltop,” which Elvis tearily quavered out on his 1961 gospel album.

The overdone white columns, pediment, and façade echo the then current fetish for the umpteenth re-release of Gone with the Wind. The film saga became a national epic, transforming the American Dream from “a chicken in every pot” to “a column on every portico.” Depression era need was replaced by modern consumer greed. The manse itself was constructed of stone from Elvis’ birthplace Tupelo, bricks from Mississippi mud, and timber from Delta swamps. Home is where the heart is and when Elvis’ heart wasn’t in some Vegas showgirl’s pants, it was here.

The mega-columns may also have offered a retort to northeastern elitists who ridiculed him as a country bumpkin. A year before the property purchase, NBC’s Steve Allen Show made Elvis sing Big Mama Thornton’s classic, “Hound Dog,” to a slouching basset hound in front of classical columns. The intent was to reveal his “uncultured” Negro music for what it was. In contrast, “classy” non-hillbilly guest Milton Berle joked about being Presley’s long-lost twin (who was tragically stillborn) and performed his lame transvestite shtick to “enlightened” approval. Elvis was humiliated. The next morning, after a gander at the ratings, former critic Ed Sullivan offered him the highest fee ever paid for a TV gig. The language of black music was foreign to the establishment, but money was their mother tongue.

I step into the foyer. Inside, Graceland is like a Hollywood set with disposable (albeit expensive) rotating furnishings and theme rooms. The front half of the house presents ceremonial, image-projecting space; the back half features functional, chaotic sprawl.

On my left is the dining area. White carpet surrounds a glass table and black upholstered chairs resting on marble floor. To my right is the living room. Plump damask chairs and a fifteen-foot white couch face a stone fireplace to rival Citizen Kane. The music room extension displays a genuine gold piano. Above me, a chandelier illuminates a gilded staircase with golden balusters. The top landing leads into the royal playboy pad, then the infamous throne room/death potty.

I descend to the basement. A pool table fills a chamber where walls and ceiling are made from mass quantities of pleated Indian-paisley fabric forming a tent. The mood is warm, organic and hippy. Adjacent is a blue and yellow cubical with mirrored ceiling, lightening-bolt wall-mural, and NASA-mission-control bank of TVs for simultaneous viewing. The ambience is cool, angular and art deco.

An oh-so-private deluxe home bar equipped for serious drinking contrasts starkly with the oh-so-religious younger Elvis who wouldn’t be seen in a Nashville pub to check out a band with his agent. Of course this wasn’t the only time that fundamentalist rules produced more hypocrisy than moderation. However, it may have been the first case to go out in a milkshaked, cheeseburgered, prescription-drugged, liquored-up blaze of glory.

I proceed to the den—a legendary eyesore. After Presley’s death, the monstrosity was nicknamed “the jungle room” for tours, to make the décor seem meaningful rather than embarrassing, a little gag not a big gaffe, like a brief rainforest intermission from Priscilla’s palatable palace. Yet, no bullshit can explain this dogshit! Here Elvis repeatedly shot out the TV set when Robert Goulet or Mel Tormé came on. Here also a friend installed the waterfall (with plastic hoses still visible) that shorted out and flamed up during a 1971 Christmas party, until the family sledgehammered the wall wiring.

During Elvis’ funeral, Carolyn Kennedy (another booze smuggler’s progeny) visited Graceland for a “condolence call.” The family thought it was a sort of state visit and ushered her into this room, where they were grieving privately and inconsolably. Ms. Kennedy noted the decorating instead.

She rushed Rolling Stone a stunned story about the tasteless Polynesian Primitive décor, which included mahogany paneling, floor and ceiling green shag carpet, Wookie-fur lampshades, plastic hanging vines, and chainsaw-sculpted pine thrones. In short, Elvis’ lack of sophistication had once again been pointed out by a Yankee elitist as lacking in scruples as he was in class. Jungle motif meets savage tactics.

Perhaps the raunchy room was a defiant joke on the world, a man’s primal rebel yell against fashion magazine interviews, Priscilla’s syrupy domestications, and clergymen who dubbed rock ‘n’ roll as faddish jungle music. The 1970s Vegas show included the lyric, “I’m the king of the jungle.” While Elvis’ pelvis no longer shocks the world’s sensibilities, his polyurethane-coated myrtle wood coffee table still does. Rock on Elvis!

Today, when songs like Don't Be Cruel sound like the Fonz singing with a barbershop quartet, it’s hard to grasp how they were once the vinyl incarnation of multi-ethnic hipness and teenage rebellion. Yet it’s so. Defying religiously buttressed prejudice, Elvis united black and white teens into a single musical tradition—a pretty spiritual accomplishment for a not-so-spiritual guy.

I pass through the trophy hall, full of gold records and jeweled jumpsuits, to the meditation garden. The spot harbors a mishmash of angels, goddesses, and fauxclassical columns with some upside down. Elvis constructed the shrine during a brief period of spiritual searching. His friends laughed. Religiousness is expected in the Bible belt; spirituality is not. The King’s grave is also here. He lies between a Jesus statue and a flickering flame, betwixt heaven and hell, just as he lived in turmoil between religion and hedonism. For future generations who must tread the same sacred ground between heaven and hell, the cradle and the grave, Elvis bridged the gap between low down Delta Blues and the Rock of Ages.


  1. very interesting articl. I like the rock and roll music.

  2. Eileen: It´s fantastic, the history is very interesting.
    The article is good, because you can see the evolution that suffered the Rock over the years.

  3. The place sounds pretty much like I'd imagine.

  4. I like the detailed description of the Elvis house, I imagine that i walk en these places. I Like the rock n roll, for me the best is Elvis Presley.