13 SEP 2019: For reasons I cannot explain, some part of me wants to see Graceland – Paul Simon. I like Elvis Presley as much as the next guy/gal – well, not our friend Darlene, who’s simply cuckoo about the King – but I must admit to having grown up in a world in which the rock and roll trailblazer and 1950s sex symbol had sadly devolved into a peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwich-scarfing Vegas sideshow act whose cultural relevance had become comedic rather than quintessential. Elvis always seemed to be leaving the building, thanking people very much in trademark baritone or inspiring a legion of impersonators from grooms to sky divers. Looking back, I’m not surprised that unlike John Lennon, I don’t know where I was when Elvis died (Aug. 16, 1977).

Nevertheless, the entire world knew the Tupelo, Mississippi-born sharecropper’s son – there was only one Elvis; and one Graceland – his universally recognized home in Memphis, Tennessee. Even a decade after his death, Elvis was everywhere, as singer Mojo Nixon chanted in his 1987 cult classic, “Elvis is Everywhere,” which was a year after Paul Simon more prominently warbled, “I have reason to be believe… we will be received in Graceland” in “Graceland.”

When I look out into your eyes out there/ When I look out into your faces/ You know what I see? I see a little bit of Elvis/ In each and every one of you out there – Mojo Nixon

I loved his early hits, like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog” and “All Shook Up,” but the Blues Brothers were my go-to for “Jailhouse Rock,” Lick the Tins thankfully put a Celtic spin on “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” in the film Some Kind of Wonderful, and Cheap Trick crushed “Don’t Be Cruel.” Ex-Beatles Lennon and Paul McCartney were crooning “Hound Dog,” and “That’s All Right,” respectively, and even punk rockers The Dead Kennedys punched up “Viva Las Vegas.” Elvis was still everywhere, and though it was sacrilege to some, it was sincere homage to others.

Man, there's a lot of unexplained phenomenon out there in the world/ Let me tell ya! Who built the pyramids? ELVIS!/ Who built Stonehenge? ELVIS!/ You know what's going on in that Bermuda Triangle?/ Down in the Bermuda Triangle, Elvis needs boats… – Mojo

Of course, there are some who believe that Elvis didn’t actually die in 1977 and various supposed sightings and conspiracy theories abound, from the notion that he was an FBI informant and is in witness protection to he was a member of the mob, or just simply sick of his all-encompassing fame. In 1997, a Gallup poll suggested that fully 4 percent of Americans believed the King was still alive, and many more simply wished he was: by some accounts, Elvis’s grave at Graceland is the most visited in America today.

Of course, Elvis did die of a heart attack at the untimely age of 42 (only two years older than John Lennon, albeit under vastly different circumstances – Elvis effectively by his own hand, Lennon at the hands of a fan), but that seemed old to me then; for Elvis it was an old 42 – after all, he had been around long enough to culturally conquer the world as both a rock and movie star, help birth rock and roll, realize the rags to riches American dream, endure a somewhat surprising stint in the army, make a comeback and forge a persona so distinct from his younger self that when the US National Postal Service asked Americans in 1992 to choose “young Elvis or old Elvis” as the image to be used on a memorial stamp issue – a matter deemed “of vital national importance” – it prompted a vociferous debate amongst Americans and ultimately more than 1.2 million votes (with “Young Elvis” winning by a 3:1 margin).

Today, 42 doesn’t seem old at all, of course, and if Mick can still move like Jagger at age 76, I wonder now what might have been in store for the Big E.

A clue might be found these days in Las Vegas, Elvis’s later-life home, where bumping into a facsimile of the side-burned one is hardly out of the ordinary, in or out of sequins.

A couple of years ago I had lunch with an Elvis impersonator there who moonlighted (literally) as a marriage officiate, responding to calls 24/7 to perform ceremonies – though rarely as Elvis, I was intrigued to learn. “People want to be Elvis, not be married by Elvis,” he told me.

Elvis is a perfect being/ We are all moving in perfect peace and harmony towards Elvisness/ Soon all will become Elvis – Mojo

Having lived most of my live with the legacy of Elvis, I, like Paul Simon (or at least the character in his song), recently came to realize that part of me wanted to see Graceland, or more precisely, make peace with Elvis. I had never really had anything against him, always kinda liked him in fact, but I never entirely got all the fuss: not born yet when his gyrations caused America to be all shook up, and too young to appreciate how far he had fallen before his triumphant 1968 comeback TV special; and how far he would fall again.

So it was that in August, a week shy of the 42nd anniversary of Elvis’s death and also almost 25 years to the day that I first visited Memphis, only pausing at the side of the road for a quick look at Graceland on my way out of town, that I returned, determined to right a past wrong and pay my respects to the King.

Logistically, my timing was right: Graceland had grown significantly over the years – not the mansion, but with a modern visitor centre, large entertainment complex opened in 2017, and this past May inauguration of the Graceland Exhibition Centre, which hosts varied non-Elvis related travelling exhibits, like “Muhammad Ali: Greatest of All Time.” Thus there is a lot more to see now than in 1994, or even a few years ago. (There’s also an affiliated hotel, The Guest House at Graceland, that has recently sprung up next door).

But naturally the attractions are mostly about Elvis, including his two planes, car collection, army memorabilia, and much more.

Across the street (accessible only by shuttle), the mansion is smaller than one might expect (albeit set on a 5.2-hectare estate that includes horse stables, racketball court and swimming pool) and is a veritable time capsule of 1970s, including shag rugs, garish décor, wood panelling, and Elvis’s gaudy (even for the times) tastes – from the outlandish billiards den to the famous “jungle room.” Devoted fans can linger over his first box of crayons and follow his seemingly normal and devoted family life through video and display, while the simply culturally curious can trace the career of arguably America’s biggest ever star through a series of tasteful exhibits.

Perhaps most significant is Elvis’s memorial and grave (moved from Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis) and despite my visit at the start of the annual Elvis week I was surprised there was not a costumed fan in site, only reflective visitors mulling a man who, in the words of his father on the tombstone, was “admired not only as a great entertainer, but as the great humanitarian that he was; for his generosity, and his kind feelings for his fellow man.”

To be sure, Elvis had lost the plot in the latter years of his life, leading a long and continually growing list of icons with asterisks as he descended into drug use and paranoia.

And while it would have been easy for Graceland to become Disgraceland, the monument – and the people who visit – choose to reflect the spirit of “Young Elvis” – an entertainer whom Leonard Bernstein in the late 1960s called “the greatest cultural force in the 20th Century… (who) changed everything: music, language, clothes,” and, at the same time, Ed Sullivan declared: “This is a real decent fine boy.”

Or, as John Lennon perhaps most famously observed: “Before Elvis, there was nothing!”

Clearly, after Elvis there is something, and I think maybe that’s the Elvis I had been missing all along.

Elvis is everywhere/ Elvis is everything/ Elvis is everybody/ Elvis is still the king/ Man o man, what I want you to see/ Is that the big E's inside of you and me – Mojo

The column has been corrected to show that Elvis Presley died 42 years ago.


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Michael Baginski

Editor, Mike Baginski is well known and well respected within the industry across Canada, the US, in the Caribbean, Mexico and numerous other destinations outside North America.

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