Like any other average Paul Simon fan, I naturally spent a good number of years obsessed with the idea of going to Graceland.
Now, I shall endeavor to spend as little time as possible dwelling on my affection for Graceland (the album), suffice it to say that it is probably the best album of all time. The titular song on the album is a quest for solace after the loss of love; a father and his son travel together to Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley, in Memphis, Tennessee. The song and the album become also an allegory for reconciliation in apartheid-era South Africa. Graceland, in a word, is about healing. And, at the risk of sounding a little melodramatic, I saw myself (at least this past year) as a candidate for healing; I was convinced that a pilgrimage to Graceland would be emblematic, a penultimate conclusion to my year of emotional and physical suffering.
I’m going to Graceland, Paul Simon sings. I’m going to Graceland, I announce to anyone who will listen. It becomes my affirmation.
When I finally arrive in Memphis, I find out that lots of people are going to Graceland.
“Aw man, you missed Death Week by only a coupl’a days,” my taxi driver observes.
“Death week?” I question, vaguely aware that I somehow already know the answer to the question. It’s the last week of July.
“Every type of Elvis you can think of comes down here for Death Week in August! White Elvises, black Elvises, fat Elvises, young Elvises, Asian Elvises, heck even tranny Elvises! Last year I gave a ride to a dude with the realest tits I ever seen!” He laughs at the memory, and while I let a vague sense of disappointment wash over me that I undershot Death Week, I’m thankful that I will get to tour Graceland in some kind of relative peace. This is my pilgrimage, after all! (And, in fact, it is called “Elvis Week,” not Death Week.)
I don’t have to wait long to get a taste of this rabid, enduring fandom, after I mistake a fellow tourist for my shuttle’s driver. His sideburns were real. And then, on the free shuttle bus to Graceland, I realize I’m in the middle of a really special travel moment when everyone on board starts singing along with the television screen looping old Elvis performances. Return to sender, address unknown! They all collectively croon, and I’m thinking to myself, hey this tune isn’t half bad.
I must stop here and confess that I have only base-level Elvis knowledge. Like Sunday meatloaf dinners and kissing in cars, Elvis belongs to the generation and a half that came before me. I can sing all of the lyrics to Hound Dog, that much has been seared into my brain by what- just by living?, but I don’t have the track in my iTunes library. I can’t say that prior to my trip to Memphis, I really thought about Elvis, or his lasting impact on American pop culture. For modern day Elvis fans, I can only imagine he represents a happier, uncomplicated time and the way he sings about love does suggest a kind of innocence. I can’t shake the irony of that. This is Memphis. This is the South.
Graceland is, in a word, an operation. It is methodical in the truest sense of the word. You arrive at a compound across the street. You pick up your timed tickets. You are pushed into the line to the shuttle to the home. You stop for a picture that they will try to sell to you at the end of the tour. You are handed a headset. You get on the bus. You drive across the street. You get off the bus. “YOU CAN TAKE PICTURES AT THE END. PLEASE STEP INTO THE HOUSE.” You step into the house.
House tours are among my favorite travel activities. They combine my love of voyeurism and HGTV with the idea that looking at how people privately lived can tell you everything about a culture, or a time, or in this case, an American King. And Elvis lived as normally as I imagine he could, despite having been perhaps the biggest, most famous celebrity superstar of all time.
The house itself is modest in size, not too opulent (again, considering!). (Graceland, which is still owned by the Presley estate, does not allow visitors upstairs, ostensibly to prevent gawkers of a morbid sort.) The audio guide directs my feelings to certain rooms and tries to elicit some kind of response from them when it says “And this is where Elvis chilled with some friends on the last day of his life.” Mainly I keep thinking that Elvis lived like a normal guy, a normal guy who decorated with green shag from top to bottom. It isn’t until I get to the various stables and garages dedicated to Elvis’s career that my jaw drops to the floor and never returns to my face. 150 records have been certified gold, platinum, or multi-platinum. Another room is dedicated to his feature films (31 of them in all!) and yet another devoted to his charitable work. It is astounding, mesmerizing, and almost unfathomable. I struggle to think of who, in the time since Elvis’s death, rose to such mega-levels of celebrity. Maybe Michael Jackson. No one alive today.
And yet, he ate dinner here:
Television screens throughout Graceland, playing clips and performances, show that Elvis was a pretty charismatic, definitely handsome guy. I smile when I read about how crews were instructed to only film the top half of his body in his early career, and wonder for how many of our grandmothers Elvis served as a kind of awakening. I may have been experiencing one myself.
I leave Graceland and am shuttled back to the ticket compound. I tour two more exhibits: one devoted to his cars and the other devoted to his airplanes (I highly recommend paying the extra price of admission to see these, because this is where you will experience the look-at-this-ungodly-wealth-awe-face that you were maybe expecting to wear when you walked into Graceland) and then head back to the gift shop where I begin to uncharacteristically buy all the souvenirs (including an “I’ve been to Graceland!” magnet, because, duh). Elvis may or may not have invented rock ‘n’ roll, but he definitely pioneered nostalgia culture and I am $100 poorer for it.
Still, a nagging feeling. What about the music?
Spend two seconds in Memphis and you’ll notice that Elvis is for that city what the cheesesteak is for Philadelphia.
I decide to make a second stop at Sun Studio, which is easy enough because the shuttle from Graceland drops me off exactly there. Sun Studio is, of course, where Elvis was discovered at the tender age of 19. I hesitate to write too much, because this is one of the few places I’ve been in my lifetime that holds a story so compelling inside its walls that it would be nothing short of a complete shame to betray it on a scarcely-read travel blog.
What do you get when you visit Sun Studio? You get a history of the blues, and the story of a man named Sam Phillips who decided to record those (mostly black) voices for the first time, and sell them. You will see what it means to actually cut a record. You will appreciate the racial politics of the South as it pertains to pop culture. Perhaps best of all, you will be told these stories by a guide so passionate about her subject that it just bleeds onto you.
After all this, you will hear about a teenager named Elvis Presley, who, on his second visit to Sun Studio in 1955 cut a record on the spot. Then you will stand in the room where he sung that first record. You will look at the black taped cross on the ground that marks the exact point he stood, singing Mystery Train, and then your enthusiastic guide, with the reverence of a pilgrim on holy land, tells you to be silent while she plays the record for you.
And in a moment I can only describe as magical, I feel it. I feel it all. I feel these ghosts of music’s past fall out of the speakers and come alive. You cannot convince me now that Elvis does not live, he just may not live in the expected places. You must go to the tiny two-room, still-operating recording studio on Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee.
Three years after that first record in Sun Studio, Elvis bought Graceland. He was already an icon, and would continue to be one for another twenty years until his death in 1977.
It may very well be the case that Paul Simon and Graceland would not be even possible without Elvis Presley and Graceland. That Paul Simon chose to write a song called Graceland and name his album after it seems at first perplexing when we consider what the legacy of the album and its music really is, of the violation of the UN’s cultural boycott and the ensuing controversy of breaking South African sanctions.
I found myself standing at Graceland, located in the heart of the American South – just a few miles from where our Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, thinking: Why do the father and son travel to Graceland? What is the connection? What is it about here? Graceland acknowledges our country’s painful past (and the repercussions that resonate in the present) and set it to the music of South African artists, who at the time of the album’s 1986 release were largely if not completely silenced by systemic segregation. In this, Graceland found a connection in history and politics.
But I think it exploits another connection. To seek comfort from pain is another human universal. The father and son were trying to fill those holes in their hearts by pursuing a place that oozes with the eternal nostalgic promise of a more innocent time, but by doing so they can’t escape the other complications that must be untangled in order to be understood. In other words, we may never be able to escape the context of our painful experiences. The traveling pair from the song go to the cradle of the Civil War to find Graceland, but I’m hopeful for them, because they left home, they went looking for something. They didn’t sit around waiting for things to sort out. And, after all, that is the particular beauty of Graceland…
I have a reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.
How to visit Graceland
- Buy timed tickets in advance, especially if you plan to visit during Death…er… Elvis Week. If you buy a ticket for a window of time, and you miss that window of time, your ticket is still good for future windows of time on that day.
- If you are staying in downtown Memphis and have no access to a car, the best and easiest way to get there is on the free (!) shuttle. This isn’t all the way explained in the most clear or direct fashion on the Graceland website. The shuttle leaves from the Rock ‘N’ Soul Museum (which is closest to Beale Street and other downtown attractions) and also makes a stop at Sun Studio. Note that order of the stops is: Sun Studio –> Rock ‘N’ Soul –> Graceland. From Graceland the first stop back in town is at Sun Studio
- Sun Studio is walkable from downtown Memphis, but you have to walk alongside a stretch of weirdly empty-feeling busy road.
- The Platinum tour is only $3 more than the Mansion tour and you get to see the cars and airplanes, which is well worth it.
- You can walk up to the graves of the Presley family on the Graceland estate for free every morning from 7:30-8:30.
- More information: www.graceland.com