June 05, 2007

Elvis Has Left the Building

MEMPHIS, Tenn., May 28 -- As Loyal Rant Readers know, The Last of the Petty Cash Tour ran through a good portion of the Southland, an area of the country which I had never before visited. As I had already made it to the Midwest on my trip, it only made sense the first stop of my southern leg would be Memphis -- home to blues music and Beale Street and most impressive of all, Graceland Mansion -- the one-time home of none other than Elvis! Presley. Well, Memphis also has this giant weird pyramid building down near the riverfront, and that was damned impressive too. But I wanted to visit Graceland for a few key reasons.

For one thing, I wanted to see who all these people were who made pilgrimages to Memphis, and thus made Graceland a huge tourist attraction. For another, I knew that Graceland had been largely preserved as it was in the mid-Seventies, when the King died on his Throne. As such, I knew Graceland could be a key link in my Grand Theory of Modern American Power, in which I argue the Seventies were a low point in modern American history, with the low point coming on July 12, 1979, the day of the Disco Sucks Riot at Comiskey Park in Chicago.

Plus, to be honest, I didn't know all that much about Elvis!

You see, in my family, the life and music of Elvis! was entirely skipped over due to generational factors. I never heard my grandparents mention Elvis!, and my parents were fans of the Beatles and the Stones. As a result, Elvis! basically got no play in the Kepple household growing up. As a result, I've never understood the rapt fascination people have with the King -- even decades after his demise.

After visiting Graceland, I still don't get it.

Oh, sure, he was a great musician and entertainer, and he made an alarming number of really bad movies. But he was just a man after all. Not that I mentioned this to the German tourist in front of me in line, who was sporting a giant Elvis! tattoo on her arm and carrying a rose to lay on Elvis!'s grave. Nor did I say anything to any of the other Elvis! fans present, who flocked to Graceland in the hundreds on this cloudless, hot day. Many of these fans -- who, in the aggregate, made New Hampshire's demography seem like the United Nations in comparison -- seemed really quite into the King and undoubtedly better appreciated the whole Elvis! experience better than me.

Graceland, you see, is all about the Elvis! experience. Not only can one tour the mansion itself, one can also experience tours of Elvis!'s classic car collection, private airplanes, and myriad other exhibits. One can also experience the myriad gift stores and souveneir shops located in the Grand Graceland Tourist Bottling Complex. In this complex, one can also experience getting nickled and dimed at every turn.

But wait, you say. Surely, Kepple, you must have expected something like that would be de rigeur at Graceland, which is after all a tourist trap of epic proportions. And indeed I did. What really got my inner cynic going, though, was the fact that at the pseudo-Fifties eatery in the Grand Graceland Waiting Area/Tourist-Dollar-Harvesting Scheme, there was a sign proclaiming NO FREE REFILLS on the soda fountain. After paying $6 to park and $9.49 for a bacon cheeseburger meal that would have appalled even the most well-dispositioned elementary schooler, this just rubbed me the wrong way.

Thus, I resolved not to buy any of the overpriced souveneirs -- did $7.99 get a visitor one or two Elvis!-themed salt-and-pepper shakers? -- available at the Graceland plaza's gift stores. After all, I had already spent $45.49 -- the ticket itself was $30 -- and I hadn't even made it into the shuttle line for the Graceland tour.

Oh, the tour. Dear. God. In. Heaven.

I should preface my remarks by saying that words cannot do justice to a tour of Graceland and its grounds. Trust me on this. There are some things that must be seen to be believed. Nevertheless, I shall endeavor to do so as best I can.

First off, Graceland is a small mansion by modern standards, or even those of the late 19th century. It was originally built as a home for a well-to-do professional and it still has that feel even now. The entryway into the home might even be considered stately and elegant in this day and age, and had a well-designed feel about it. Once one steps inside, one can see the main living room and dining room of Graceland. These rooms were actually pretty nice. The decor was certainly dated, with a late-Fifties/early-Sixties feel to it, but if one scrapped some of the awful light fixtures and the more gaudy drapes, the rooms would arguably still work well today. That says something about the power of nice neutral tones, I think.

Then, there's the rest of the house.

One of the amazing things about the Graceland tour was that, generally speaking, each room in the house got progressively more hideous as one went on. Behold the horrible kitchen, with its awful dark paneling and grim above-the-waist oven. Behold the awful Seventies-era light fixtures and wretched carpeting. Behold Elvis!'s TV room, which was reportedly done up by a professional decorator in 1974. Bedecked in yellow and blue, the TV room had an atmosphere which reminded me of the multi-purpose rooms at the YMCA when I was growing up. The dated equipment also showed that no matter how cool technology may seem at the time, something far better will supplant it a matter of years.

Then, there was the pool room.

Good God.

At least that was my reaction upon entering this foul, campy, wretched testament to Seventies-era excess. Even the other tourists remarked on how gaudy the room was. It was -- well, let's describe it like this. Let's say you took seven or eight of those Wagner power painter things, filled them up with different colors of paint, set them into the middle of the room, and then contrived things so they exploded simultaneously. The result might approximate the appalling riot of color in the decorations. But it would only be a pale imitation of the King's pool room. For just as true genius inspires great works of art, staggering badness also has the hand of man behind it.

How I wish I could explain the impact that room had on me. After that, I kind of stumbled around in a daze, mumbling, through the rest of the tour. I mean, in the room itself, the decorating overpowered everything else in it -- including the pool table. The audio recording I had with me -- recorded in a cheerfully sedate Southern voice -- told me to focus on a corner of the pool table, where a trick shot gone bad had gouged a chunk out of the felt. "Pool table?" I thought to myself. "Where the hell's a pool table in this whole mess? Oh, there it is!"

As for the famed Jungle Room -- well, as it turns out, it's not an Animal House-style love den but rather a sort of especially hideous living room. Complete with shag carpeting on the floors. And on the ceilings. Pea green shag carpeting. Plus, there's a whole bunch of godawful animal-themed furniture that Elvis! apparently picked out himself. I'd have suggested the King use a professional decorator, but look how the TV Room turned out. My God.

Generally speaking, that's about all there is to the tour of the house. Oh, there's an office room and several other rooms one tours, but for the most part, the rest of the manse is given over to Elvis! hagiography. Look, kids! Here's Elvis!'s army uniform! Here's his gold records! Here's all the checks he wrote to charity! Here's a half-eaten BLT the King ate when he played at Saugatuck in 1963! OK, well, so I made that last one up. But you get the idea.

Sadly, one does not get to see any of the upstairs on the tour. Supposedly, this is out of respect for the King's family, although I have my suspicions about this stated reason. After all, they're fine with people charging at least $25 per head to see the rest of the house. After touring Graceland, I think they can't show the upstairs because the public health authorities warned the decorations would cause blindness and insanity among the general public.

For in another exhibit at Graceland, the grand bed which Elvis! slept in during the mid-Seventies is shown off for display. It's covered in some sort of awful beige fur, while inside its Clockwork Orange-type canopy are mirrors and a dated stereo system. While staring at this, it hit me where I thought I had seen something like this before -- inside the pages of James Lileks' Interior Descecrations.

There are some sleeping hound dogs, I suspect, which are better left to lie.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at June 5, 2007 07:29 PM | TrackBack
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