The Church of Elvis
Memphis, Tennessee
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…what’s with the monkeys? Graceland is lousy with carved monkeys, some wood, some ivory, some marble, some obsidian but all monkeys…and a particular kind of monkey. Don’t 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 minutiae.

The approach to Graceland, on State Highway 51 (The Rock’n’Roll 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 Tender Boutique.

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. That’s 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 couldn’t 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…it 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 30’s 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 don’t think the young couple ever quite figured out the MP3 players. They appeared to be frightened by the fervor of the Aussies.

Me, too.

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 don’t remember his name. Frankly, if it isn’t El Vez, the cross-dressing Latino Elvis impersonator, it’s all the same to me. El Vez…well, that’s 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 Rock’n’Roll 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 $4.95…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 Mansion.

It wasn’t really all that impressive.

It’s 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.

And monkeys.

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 Santa’s wardrobe.

You can’t 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 don’t 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 didn’t 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 they’ve 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: Don’t know. Might could.
Woman: Yeah.
Man: Yeah.

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 “God…can’t 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 didn’t 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. 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 rainforest.

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 Foster’s 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.

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