Graceland in Memphis 2006
Paris and I went to Memphis in May of 2006. I wanted to go to Graceland, and Paris wanted to go to Beale Street. After knowing each other for 20 years and being married for nine, this was our first plane trip together, and my first trip post 9/11. The following essay will not be a blow-by-blow description, but rather a recap of highlights and lowlights of our vacation in Memphis. Any "sexy" photos seen below were either taken in the Burning Love Suite, the Peabody Hotel, or were a commercialized illusion.
I decided we would stay at Heartbreak Hotel, which is practically across the street from Graceland, and really is only minutes from the airport. I had booked a "regular" room for two nights, and had also booked The Burning Love Suite for Friday night. There were four choices of suites to choose from, but only the one with the most embarrassing name was available, so I took that as a sign from God and said okay and reserved the Burning Love Suite.
The hotel, at first, second and third sight was pretty heartbreaking. Our first bad feeling hit as we pulled into the parking lot via the shuttle and passed a parking lot with a bunch of RV's. The exterior of the hotel was also disappointing -- it looked like one of those 70's buildings that was meant for one thing and turned into something else. The interior was pretty bleak as well. The walls were gold and drab plum and looked neglected.
This is us in front of a picture of the gates, which sort of had a Six Flags quality to it. The irony is that Graceland is much prettier in real life, and the grass was emerald-green.
Our worst fear materialized instantly when we took our place in line to check in. In front of us was a family with a "special" person who turned around to gape at me. It made me think of John Lennon and how he felt about "special" people being lined up backstage so that he and the other Beatles could give their blessings to unfortunate souls who also happened to see famous artists as miracles who presumably had the power to bestow health and happiness unto others. Given this was my first encounter with a fellow Elvis fan, I was pretty nervous about what to expect for the next few days. Thankfully, that encounter was brief and did not repeat itself the entire time we were in Memphis.
I had hoped that with a name like Heartbreak Hotel (which offers individualized rooms all decorated with an Elvis motif) the place would be just decadent enough that some fairly hip people must stay there, but if that's true, it's only on weekends. (We checked in on Wednesday, which seems to be an AARP Special.) Looking back on it now, Paris and I both realized we had sort of been expecting Elvis wallpaper and lamps with bobbing Elvis heads. For an exploitation hotel, Heartbreak Hotel was fairly conservative and almost tasteful. However, that's giving the Heartbreak too much credit, because the taste factor is currently controlled by the Elvis Presley Estate. If the Heartbreak Hotel can be said to be tasteful, it is by accident rather than intention.
The payphone didn't work, and neither did the vending machines. There was no room service, and the bar closed at 10 p.m. Eventually Paris scoped out the local KFC and liquor store, so we spent the last couple of days comfortably. We never did figure out how the in-house telephones worked. There was one elevator to service the entire building, and we took the stairs rather often. We did wonder (but didn't ask) if the hotel had hosted any Katrina evacuees, as so many in Memphis did.
The entrance to the Burning Love Suite. We actually had adjoining suites, which means we had a combo of Burning Love and Deco. Burning Love was what you would expect; the Deco Suite was a vampire Goth's dream come true. There were lots of mirrors, and a red, silver and black motif.
Our first full day in Memphis started by walking across a parking lot to go to the Graceland Visitor Center. This is where one purchases tickets to go to Graceland and to board a shuttle to cross the street. Before embarking, every passenger is handed a self-guided tour device that is very reminiscent of The Who's Tommy. I asked Paris, "Where's the cork?" Before we got on the bus, we were told to pose in front of a fake backdrop of the Graceland gates, which is too baroque for words, since the real gates were in full view less than 50 yards from us.
We got on the bus and crossed the street to enter Graceland proper. I immediately appreciated the emerald green grass and sloping lawns, and the full trees. I wondered what Elvis would have thought of seeing the trees that were planted in 1957 turned into real trees that looked permanent and inevitable almost 50 years later. From the outside, Graceland looks incredibly elegant, actually old-fashioned, and surprisingly small, which is an illusion and probably goes with the illusion that Elvis was a BIG guy because he had such a BIG personality.
I won't go into too many details about the interior of the house except to say I was surprised by how comfortable I felt, and how elegant and beautiful it really was. The home as a whole is extremely colorful, but I think it would surprise people to know how how beautiful it really is, or how much meticulous attention was paid to even the smallest details. Every room is a theme room in the sense that it's decorated individually and distinctively, and yet is harmonious with whatever rooms are adjacent to it. In other words, if the front foyer and primary stairwell are classic Victorian, then the primary living room is best described as classic modern with predominate colors of yellow and white with peacock stained-glass motifs and white baby grand piano accent. Yet, they don't clash; it's more like one leads to another. It's my understanding, as well, that Elvis never employed a decorator -- Graceland is all his.
This is the divan in the Burning Love Suite. All the wall photographs in that particular suite were Elvis photographs in staged love scenes, whether romance was actually part of the movie plot or not. The picture above my head in this photo was from Harum Scarum with Elvis in the role of Sultan (which was not part of the plot of the movie, though it probably should have been.)
The next major room at Graceland is the dining room, which is best described as deco with black wood and smoked-mirrors. After that is the kitchen which was stocked with state-of-the-art appliances at the time. We got to peek at Gladys' and Vernon's bedroom, which was classically Victorian but with plum-colored curtains and bedspread. We did not go upstairs at all, for which a part of me was grateful, as I could not see that having any purpose outside ghoulishness. (Besides, we already got to see Elvis' fabulous bed and red velvet bedspread last year on display at the Texas State Fair.)
We then detoured down a very narrow stairwell mirrored on walls and ceiling (Elvis was partial to mirrors) leading to the basement and general public entertaining area. The first room we saw was the TV Room, which was so totally 70's in Batman yellow and blue sectionals, stripes, and mirrors again. The second room was the pool room with a pool table, and textured fabric fold wallpaper in what can best be described as Oriental bazaar. What kind of struck me about both rooms in the basement was how low the ceilings were; men much over six feet tall would not have been comfortable down there.
Heartbreak Hotel did not exaggerate the king-sized beds. There were two television armoires in my suite, and one in Paris' suite for a total of three. Principal colors were burgundy and gold all the way through. The six-seater dining table was nice, too.
At Graceland, we went back upstairs via another staircase and went through what is called the Jungle Room, which had mohair-covered furniture and was rather spacious. There's a waterfall at one end, and a fireplace at the other. The Jungle Room had more windows than any room we'd seen other than the front living room. This room was the one that probably was the one that was out-and-out "male" in the sense that it did have an animal theme and the implication of hunting and conquering. If I remember correctly, that was the room that was used when Elvis tried doing a recording session at home; that's the only room that would have been big enough. I also gather that when Elvis had such guests as the Beatles or Led Zeppelin, the Jungle Room would have been the only room that really would have accommodated both the number of people and the hyperactivity level of people who paced when they weren't on stage -- including Elvis.
The next room didn't interest us much -- it looked like a forgotten garage, and had a collection of a bunch of random articles like Lisa Marie's childhood bed and Elvis' workout clothes that one could gaze at and program our self-guided tour tapes to give us more information about the articles, but Paris and I were getting a little claustrophobic (we're very sensitive to crowds) and we decided to move on.
We bypassed the Trophy Room on our way to the Meditation Garden. I felt bad about this because I knew in addition to Elvis' zillion gold records, the one thing he always used to show to any guest was his high school diploma, and that the diploma had always been a key component of the Trophy Room, at least as far as Elvis was concerned.
Paris standing under the Sun Records sign. Such a tiny building, and so much history!
We went ahead to the Meditation Garden. From left to right are the graves and markers of Minnie Mae Presley (Elvis' paternal grandmother), Elvis, Vernon, and Gladys. Minnie Mae was the last to cross over, but Vernon was the last to have executive authority, and his last wishes included a desire to rest between Elvis and Gladys.
Paris and I had been particular anxious about the Meditation Garden, fearing that a bunch of zealots would be out there bawling, wailing, and crying their eyes out. I understand that is not far-fetched, but everyone was pretty sedate while we were there. It was really a nice area, with a circular wall and stained-glass windows of various imagery. There is a a rather large Jesus statue at the entrance, but it has a good or at least neutral aura. I thought two things were particularly interesting: Elvis envisioned and implemented the Meditation Garden after he took up esoteric studies in a big way, and the Garden faces his bedroom.
That pretty much wrapped up the Graceland tour for us in less than an hour. (We declined to attend the Automobile or Jet Plane Tours which are part of the Platinum Package, though we did attend other seasonal tours.) We boarded the shuttle and crossed the street to return to the Visitor Center. I decided at that point that we simply must purchase the fake Graceland gates picture, because that really just "said it all". Graceland was absolutely beautiful, far more than we would have imagined; yet, the very idea of being herded into photos and onto buses and given programmed tours seemed so worthy of Colonel Parker that we couldn't help but admire the man's pluck to find a buck.
We've since taken into consideration that Priscilla and Lisa Marie have done the best they can as trustees to Elvis' estate, and that they do maintain standards and reasonable practices taking into consideration the fact that millions of people will trek or make the pilgrimage to Graceland year after year no matter what. Under the circumstances, it seems Priscilla and Lisa Marie have taken a fact of life and integrated it into business consciousness, but at least they exercise a certain amount of taste, which the Colonel never felt obliged to do.
Standing under the Sun Records sign.
We spent the next hour or so pillaging the Elvis touristy shops, of which there is no shortage in Memphis. We're kind of surprised Elvis never received some kind of award for supporting the economy, as the Beatles did when they received their MBE's for what John Lennon said was their accomplishment of producing export goods that revitalized the British economy. From what we can tell about Memphis, Elvis is the only thing holding it up, economically speaking, and he's been dead for 30 years. Maybe when he's been dead for 50 years, Memphis might recover. People set such a store by anniversaries.
I had decided early on that if I found one of those wooden cutouts of Elvis wearing a jumpsuit standing next to Any Shmuck, USA I would put my head over and get the cartoon, but modern technology was ahead of me there. I found a booth where I could "get my picture taken with Elvis" and chose from a sample of about eight photos. The dilemma was that Elvis tended to favor his left side in photographs, and I do, too, so I was limited in my choices in not presenting my bad side to the camera. The Panda shot was really my only option, but it's probably just as well. Since taking the photo and showing it to my friends, I am amused by how many of my men friends have pointed out that Elvis' belly button is showing, and the fingers on his left hand don't look right. Such are the perils of fame. My girlfriends have offered no such criticisms. The wonders of Photoshop -- an illusion created in front of my eyes in just minutes.
I think it was the next day that Paris said Sun Records was the thing to do. Our hotel was on the link of hourly pick-ups, which meant we didn't need to make reservations. In retrospect, I don't understand why I didn't think of this myself, knowing what I do about the importance of Sun Records to American Rock n' Roll, but who can think of everything? Anyway, it was Paris' idea to go to Sun Records, so that's what we did.
How many people get to go back in the past and feel what other people felt? What I felt was, "If I don't make it, I'm gonna go hungry!"
I got a lot more out of the Sun Studios Tour than I could possibly have expected. There was just something about stepping out of the shuttle onto this sidewalk that looked like the pie-slice streets nobody engineers anymore. I never expected the "whap!" of energy that slapped me as I opened the door, the tiny little glass door of this tiny little building at 710 Union in Memphis. I didn't felt any real strong sense of deja vu at Graceland, but I definitely felt it at Sun Records.
I stood outside Sun Records, and it was like I could feel myself being Elvis Presley walking back and forth in front of that door, being afraid to go in. I could feel his fear at going into the building and coming out a failure or a success, but either way his life would be changed. I could feel the courage of Elvis having made up his mind to confront the future, and to live with whatever choice he made. I understand that was Elvis' approach for the rest of his life; to do what felt right and be prepared to face the consequences later.
We took the Sun Records tour, which started upstairs in a window-museum format. I let my mind wander as usual, because I was pretty sure the guide wasn't going to tell me much I didn't already know. For once, my mind-wandering paid off, because I walked up to a window display and saw Elvis' high school diploma; this was the same article I had declined to see by not going through the Trophy Room at Graceland, but here it was at Sun Records as part of a partnership agreement between Graceland and Sun Records.
This never would have happened in real life, because I'm too elitist to admit my tastes are as mainstream as anyone else's, but Elvis really was special. He hated his commercialism, but he also understood people needed it for whatever reason. With that in mind, I wasn't too big to step into a green frame and get my picture taken with the King.
Downstairs we got to see THE ROOM where it all happened, only it wasn't just Elvis. Elvis was the one who kicked the door down that allowed many other artists, both black and white, to march through. A lot of "po white boys" went through that tiny little door, but it's amazing to think what kind of sheer star-power walked out. At the risk of sounding crude, Sun Records was truly a womb, an incubator, for what we call Rock n' Roll.
Just a note about Elvis' high school diploma and why I keep harping on it: I always understood it was important to Elvis but I never understood why until I went to Memphis. It was after Memphis that I came to understand that Elvis was the very first person in his family to ever graduate from high school, and that is why every relative Elvis ever knew showed up; he wasn't just graduating for himself -- he was graduating for them. I think Elvis knew he was smarter than a high school diploma, but to him the symbolism went much further; he had a paper universally recognized by society. His mother was the one who encouraged him to finish high school no matter what.
Memphis was a special town; people there are really nice, and it's easy to see why Elvis was so partial to it. In Memphis, you can really be yourself. If we were ever to go back, I would want to see Graceland again, but also would want to spend plenty of time at Beale Street.
Since we were staying at the Heartbreak Hotel, an old-lady establishment on the other side of the town, we did not indulge as much in late-night frolicking as we might have liked, for fear of not being able to catch a free ride back to our hotel.
We were surprised that Beale Street is really only a block or two long, but we ate and drank well while we were there. What was astonishing to us was how friendly people were to us, and how aggressive people were in trying to solicit our patronage.
We understand that Beale Street is probably as dressed up today as Greenville Avenue, and The West End in Dallas, in an attempt to grab touristy dollars, but we still liked it more than we like our haunts in Dallas simply because Beale Street did seem so much more sincere. Beale Street also seemed to have a much less inflated sense of self-importance, so it was much more relaxed.
I enjoyed B.B.'s place. I ordered a couple of interesting drinks, one of which I think was a Voodoo Child which involved copious amounts of chocolate liqueurs and whipped cream in a charming commemorative shooter glass at $7 a pop. This served as a lovely opportunity for me to get bombed out of my skull in a socially-acceptable way but also bring back a souvenir for my mother.
I don't remember the first place we ate at except it had the word "Palace" in it. I had a delectable entree which was something like grilled shrimp with bacon wrapped around it. Before we left Memphis we did have some local fried catfish in a nice "hoe-down joint" which meant there was nothing fancy about it except you got what you asked for.
I got pleasantly loaded at B.B. King's place and enjoyed my ominously-named drinks. The souvenir quotient was almost as rich as that of Graceland, and I took several souvenirs home to my mother.
We also went to the Peabody Hotel up the street by about two blocks to see the ducks. We'd heard the Peabody Hotel did something about ducks and we wanted to see what the mystery was about. The mystery is that around 11 a.m. every day some ducks come down in the elevator and are escorted to the lobby water fountain. At 5 p.m. they are escorted back up. Apparently it started, not as a prank, but as a stop-gap solution to some other issue, and it turned out the ducks were such a hit that the proprietors decided to maintain a tradition of bringing real ducks down to the lobby every day.
We didn't get any really decent pictures of the Peabody; we didn't think of it the first night we went, and when we did take photos the second night, the photos were too dark and didn't really capture the essence, even with Photoshop enhancements. The Peabody Hotel lobby did lend views of the ceiling, which were very heavy on the stained-glass windows and wood arch-beams. I order some fancy drinks, one of which included a duck-head mixer straw which I saved for my mother as another souvenir.
Paris really loved the Peabody and felt very at home there. It really was a very elegant establishment, and is certainly one of the finest hotels I've ever seen.
We had a lot of fun in Memphis, and were surprised just how nice people were. The city is as economically-challenged as it was when Elvis lived there, but hopefully the economy will continue to be benefited by Elvis tourism without having to resort to Elvis Dollars.
The Colonel would have liked that.