The Church of Elvis
November 26, 2001
I decided to counterbalance the naked emotion of the National Civil
Rights Museum by going to Graceland, where the only things naked
are the wallets of the tourists and the ghosts of the groupies in
the Jungle Room.
The lasting question inspired by Graceland is
with the monkeys? Graceland is lousy with carved monkeys, some wood,
some ivory, some marble, some obsidian but all monkeys
a particular kind of monkey. Dont ask me which kind, neither
I nor anyone else there knew
which was kind of cool since everyone
who works at or visits Graceland seems to be a fountain of Elvis
The approach to Graceland, on State Highway 51 (The RocknRoll
Highway according to several different T-shirts available for only
$25 in stores near Graceland) is the same commercial strip as that
which surrounds any amusement park. Cheap hotels, cheaper restaurants,
stores selling crap
all organized around the theme of the amusement
park nearby. Among those that can be found in the greater Graceland
metropolitan area are the requisite Heartbreak Hotel, the Hound
Dog Diner, the Love Me Tenders (a chicken place), and the Love Me
I pulled into the parking lot, paid my two bucks, and walked through
the rain under gaudy awnings to the ticket office. There are speakers
everywhere pumping out Elvis tunes. Since this was the Monday after
Thanksgiving, thus marking the Official beginning of the Holiday
Buying Season, Graceland featured Elvis singing Christmas Carols.
Silent Night with a little pelvis thrown in. Thats the joy
of Christmas, baby.
You have numerous options at the ticket window. The one constant
is that the person on the other side of the window will be sullen
and uninterested and about as helpful as a hernia. This may be a
result of the recent layoffs at Graceland, which seem to have taken
a toll on the morale of the employees. Graceland recently, for the
first time in its history, had to layoff workers. Sixty of them
went down in flames two weeks prior to my visit. For the life of
me I couldnt figure out what half the staff did. For example,
after paying for whichever manifestation of the Graceland Tour is
to your liking, you walk out front to wait for the bus that ferries
you across the street to the Mansion. In the waiting area are four
employees. The first two are there to take your picture in front
of the cheesy Graceland painting. It has a very Las Vegas Wedding
Chapel feel to it. One employee takes your picture. The other one
stands there watching the first one take the picture. Then they
engage each other in conversation until the next lemming arrives.
Graceland must be the most humane employer in the world, not wanting
the girl snapping blurry photos that you can buy for $25 a pop to
be lonely in between victims. The $25 is a recurring theme
certainly makes the math at a checkout stand very easy and holds
down costs considerably, as you only need a computer that has a
button for $25 and can calculate sales tax on multiples of $25.
Then you go through the zig-zag cattle pen setup typical of tourist
attractions. There, an employee talks to another employee while
handing you an MP3 player that you will wear throughout your tour
of the mansion. The other employee will eventually pull back the
chain on the pen allowing you to board the bus. These two functions
do not require two employees. Again, it appears to be a humanitarian
approach to the social needs of the labor force.
I opted to take the tour of the Mansion Only. This carried a price
tag of $16 and an exasperated nod of disapproval from the teller
at the ticket window, the photo girl, and both of the employees
at the end of the cattle pen. However, if I had opted for the Mansion,
the Lisa Marie (Elvis plane), and the tour of The Cars of
Elvis, it would have cost me $25.
On my tour bus were three women in their early 30s who talked
loudly of how horny just being here makes me, a posse
of 50-60 year old Aussies who were true Elvis aficionados, myself,
and a young German couple completely baffled by the whole experience.
I dont think the young couple ever quite figured out the MP3
players. They appeared to be frightened by the fervor of the Aussies.
The Aussie group had come to the States specifically to go to Graceland.
They were also going to stop in Vegas to see some Elvis impersonator
who was, they assured me, the best in the business. I dont
remember his name. Frankly, if it isnt El Vez, the cross-dressing
Latino Elvis impersonator, its all the same to me. El Vez
thats a bold variation on a limited theme. The Aussies found
no humor in the existence of El Vez. They thought it disrespectful
of a great man. They were in the US at this particular time because
of the slashed airfares and hotel rates available in the post-Sept.
11th travel industry. They had been anxiously eyeing travel costs
and exchange rates for years to figure out just the right time to
go. A pilgrimage to the Church of Elvis is not a trivial thing.
One must prepare oneself to go at the drop of a hat when a sign
is received from on high. I told them that I had to come to Graceland
because Elvis is a John Wayne sized American icon and that he perfectly
encapsulates the American dream
claw your way out of poverty
with unique gifts and then become a slave to the abundance those
gifts bring you. I topped that off by mentioning that Elvis was
a poor country boy who brought RocknRoll into the mainstream
with his raw sexuality and riveting performances and then died a
wealthy, obese junkie.
The disgust they radiated toward me could not have been greater
had I thrown a cow pie at the Pope. The Aussies regarded me with
open hostility for the rest of our journey together.
The three women on the tour responded immediately to the word sexuality
and were off and running on the power of the Elvis magnetism. Two
were married, one was recently divorced, and any guy with a drawl,
a good set of sideburns, and a black leather jacket could have fulfilled
any number of fantasies with all three right there on the tour bus.
The pheromones kept fogging my glasses.
We drove past the God Bless America sign and an eruption of flags
at the front gate to Graceland and were now on hallowed ground.
The Aussies fell silent. The front lawn was dominated by poorly
painted larger than life figurines re-enacting the manger scene.
Though a staffer informed me that they were carved from mahogany
they looked like the cheap plastic pieces you can pick up at Wal-Mart
for the whole set. The backdrop was, I was told,
created by a Master Artist on special wood just for the occasion.
It looked like cheap ply board with a couple of coats of Tru-Value
slapped on it. Then the bus swung to the left to climb the drive
up to the front door and I got my first unobstructed view of the
It wasnt really all that impressive.
Its a sizeable, but not overwhelming, brick colonial looking
thing. I guess I expected more. Then I went inside.
That was more like it. A monument to kitsch.
The front foyer is dominated by the stairway that runs up to the
second floor. At this time of year it is adorned with the garlands
along the rails and the poinsettias at the end of each step. These
combine with the searing white plush carpet and the screaming red
velvet curtain at the top of the stairs to give the entry into Graceland
the feel of a high class trailer park wedding factory. All the rooms
in the front half of the house are decorated in the same fashion.
You feel like you got lost somewhere inside Santas wardrobe.
You cant go up to the second floor. It was always the living
quarters and is now closed out of respect for the King.
I thought that it odd that turning his life into a sideshow was
somehow okay but we draw the line at the second floor. One of the
Aussie women scowled at me.
We plodded through the various rooms and up and down several narrow
staircases. All the Aussies were quite pleased with the décor.
The kitchen made everyone feel terribly close to Elvis. I dont
know why. It just did. Emotions were running high.
We cruised along the edge of the Jungle Room. The three women were
undulating and cooing. I dropped well back behind them. I didnt
want to be in the kill zone if something triggered a frenzy.
You are supposed to listen to the MP3 player and it has all the
answers for you. It does not provide all that much information and
it causes the people traveling together to shout at each other over
the narration boring into their brains via the headset. I found
the voice-over to be sleep inducing so I took off my headphones
and listened instead to the Aussies screeching at each other and
the three women sharing intimate details of their sex lives at roughly
the same volume as a DC-10 revving its engines.
Outside you meander around the grounds and get to see the Trophy
Room, the Garage (where you would be able to see Elvis cars
except theyve been moved somewhere else that requires and
additional admission fee), the rolling grounds extending out beyond
the rolling hills, and the swimming pool.
True Conversation shouted by an Aussie Couple
Woman: Do you think he swam here?
Man: Dont know. Might could.
There must be mercury in the shellfish down under.
Eventually you come to the Meditation Garden. This is where Elvis
is buried, along with various Elvis kin. The scene there was fascinating.
Some people apparently hang out for hours by the gravesite. You
can tell which ones they are, they look a bit wilted, they slap
at the tears on their cheeks, and they replay the Meditation Garden
sequence of the narration incessantly. One of the three women said
cant you just feel him here. The Aussies
took a few thousand pictures and were rather aggressive about guarding
their spots as close to the gravesite as possible. Each member of
the group leaned precariously over the barricade, tilted his or
her head to the side, and gazed at the marker with a mixture of
puzzlement and resignation.
Waiting for the shuttle to take us away, I struck up a conversation
with one of the Aussies. He had come to the Mansion on an earlier
shuttle and didnt know I was an object of scorn among his
countrymen. We boarded the bus and road back to the main Elvis offices
and retail center across the street. He told me he had to stop in
one of the stores and pick up a thing or two.
As I followed him around the store he told me what was wrong with
Americans. The cliff notes version of his critique is
Everything about us is wrong. We, and he clearly meant white people,
had enslaved one race and completely overran the Native Americans.
Which is accurate, but the condescension in his voice rubbed me
the wrong way, seeing how Australia was once solely populated by
an aboriginal people who now are exiled to a capacious but deadly
wasteland known as the Outback that makes the Mojave look like a
The biggest thing wrong with Americans, and here he seemed to include
each component of the racial spectrum, is that we are completely
enamored with conspicuous consumerism. We buy indiscriminately.
We are whores for a good marketing campaign. We spend frivolously
on an endless array of useless goods or spend valuable resources
inventing silly things that have no utilitarian value. Yeah, and
outside of the boomerang and Fosters Lager what exactly have
you guys done?
He bought a number of Elvis T-shirts, each with a different slogan,
a pair of Elvis earrings, an Elvis jewelry box, two 30 page books
on Elvis, three pairs of Elvis dress socks, a button down Elvis
shirt, six Elvis bookmarks (for the cultured Elvis aficionado),
a set of Elvis coffee mugs, Elvis placemats, and an Elvis broach
that featured blinking lights and, with the touch of a button, swiveling
hips. It cost him over $300. Then he had to go back and drop and
extra $50 on an Elvis carry-on bag so he could haul it all around
as he traversed the country.
Later, after I had finished eating my absolutely ghastly Turkey
Melt at the Kentucky Rain Café, the Aussies came buzzing
into its lobby like a swarm of locusts. One in their party, loaded
down like a pack horse with Elvis goodies, glanced over the menu
and commented that it was a bit pricey. One of them recognized me
and asked me how the food was. I smiled disarmingly and assured
them it was as fine a lunch as they would have in America.
The best revenge has always been to take their money.