Haunted By The King
By Paul Gerald
AUGUST 11, 1997: Elvis did not die 20 years ago. He exploded. He is now everywhere.
The King of Rock-and-Roll is the constant companion of all traveling Memphians, the one and only thing that anybody on this Earth knows about our hometown. I happen to be a fan of his, which is a good thing, since everywhere I have ever been I have had to stop and talk about him.
Without question the strangest such occurrence was on a rainy night in Lugano, Switzerland, about eight years back, when I was shown the way to my hotel by a French-speaking Lebanese man who was in the Italian-speaking Swiss city to attend a German-language school. I said it was weird. I told him I was from Memphis, and he stopped in his tracks, held up his hand to ask for a moment of reverent silence, got out his wallet, and produced a picture of The King in his eagle suit.
In Skagway, Alaska, up in the gold-rush country, one of the people who greets tourists at the ferry dock and gives them a tour of downtown is, in fact, The King in his eagle suit. It's not clear how "official" this man is, but he is a tradition.
When my car broke down in Glendo, Wyoming, last fall, I drank in (no foolin') the Old Western Saloon, where a large collection of ceramic bottles in the shapes of various states, cars, and celebrities was topped off by The King striking that one-arm-in-the-air, one-leg-bent pose in front of a pink Cadillac.
Down in Holly Springs, Paul MacLeod and his son (Elvis Aaron Presley MacLeod) have turned their entire home into a shrine to The King, with everything from an original Elvis report card (he failed music) and every TV Guide since the '50s, each one with all Elvis references paper-clipped, to nine TV sets with six VCRs running constantly, just in case somebody, somewhere, mentions Elvis. Go down there to "Graceland Too" sometime -- anytime, night or day -- and spend the greatest $5 of your life.
Heck, Elvis is even on the Internet. There's an "official" Elvis site at elvis-presley.com, but it's lame. The one you want is http://sunsite.unc.edu/elvis/elvishom.html, which has Elvis software, a couple hundred Elvis links, Elvis' will, and the world-famous Virtual Tour of Graceland. The MacLeods' Graceland Too is online as well, at http://home.teclink.net/~elvisgto. If it's Sunday you should drop by the First Presleyterian Church of Elvis The Divine at http://chelsea.ios.com/~hkarlin1/welcome2.html and read the 31 Commandments of Elvis.
There was a period in my life, I must confess, when I became weak and shunned Memphis, pulled a Judas Iscariot on The King. I told people in other states and countries I was from Dallas, which is where I went to college, because I was tired of the whole Elvis thing. But I paid the price: Everybody wanted to talk about J.R. Ewing. So I went back to Elvis.
One time, when alcohol got the better of me, I told somebody Elvis had bought me a hamburger at Wendy's. Yep, I said The King himself, dressed incognito and with thick sunglasses, was right there behind me in line, laid his hand on my shoulder, and said, "Ah'll get that for ya, man." And my audience believed me! That dumb story is probably still making the rounds somewhere. I didn't have the heart to squash it.
In my current hometown of Portland, Oregon, there's a place that claims to be the World Headquarters of the 24-Hour Church of Elvis (www.churchofelvis.com), where a frantic woman with sparkling sunglasses performs weddings and gives a tour-slash-"Let's Make a Deal" program which includes the entire tour group barking like dogs at any latecomers. I went down there today to try to capture her on film, but she wasn't there. Yet while I was taking pictures of her place, a man approached me and introduced himself as John. In his little plastic bag John had an Elvis Tribute Magazine ("dedicated to the greatest legend who ever lived"). John told me he sings at the city's outdoor market and that on the 16th he will "be doing nothing but Elvis songs. Nothing but Elvis."
It might be unfortunate, but the reality is that for just about everybody who lives more than 200 miles from Memphis, Elvis is the only reason our city matters. Build whatever you want on Beale Street, stir thoughts and emotions with the National Civil Rights Museum, even borrow somebody's NFL team for a couple of years, and we're still Elvis' Hometown. The people who run the youth hostel in Memphis once told me that the only thing visitors there have in common is that they all -- every one of them in 10-plus years -- went to Graceland. It's one of the few genuine pilgrimages in America.
One thing that gets me is people's reaction to Graceland. Just about all of them -- well, the ones who aren't laughing too hard to talk about it -- say things like "It's so small" and "Gosh, it sure is tacky." I ask them two things: (A) What do you expect from a Mississippi country boy who goes from being a truck driver to the Biggest Thing on Earth in about a week and then can't leave his home after the age of 20? and (B) What do you have against having one room all yellow, another with floor-to-wall-to-ceiling carpeting, and another that looks like the safari ride at Disneyworld?
I'd like to know one thing for myself, since I was only 10 when Elvis checked out: Was all this going on when Elvis was alive? My hunch is that nobody's reputation ever benefitted so greatly from death. (Wait ... there was Richard Nixon ...) Sure, Elvis was popular, but I can't imagine there would have been a radio station in Japan that played all Elvis, all the time, if the real Elvis was still walking the earth. Most people's reputations suffer from the realities of being alive.
In truth, I have stuck up for The King on numerous occasions. I don't get into the tough issues like his house or his wife or his diet. But I do object to the whole freak-show element to the post-Elvis Elvis thing. It seems like every bar has to have a picture of a young, unsmiling Elvis on the wall, but very few have his tunes on the jukebox. Every tourist wants the little ball you shake up and make it snow on Graceland, or the Elvis clock with his legs swinging back and forth, but how many of them buy any of his albums? The people who believed Elvis had bought me a bacon cheeseburger (and got a triple with everything for himself) thought I was real cool, but when I started singing "Burnin' Love," they wouldn't serve me anymore.
What I mean to say is this: To me, Elvis was a rocker. I don't care if he liked to lie in bed eating fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches and watching his own house on closed-circuit television. When it was time to, the man got up and moved, and made other people want to do the same thing. Rock-and-roll never was meant to be pretty, and it doesn't exist to sell T-shirts or posters, either. It's music, and The King was all about music. So the next time you're abroad and people start throwing around abuse about gold-plated sinks or the eagle suit or women fighting over a sweaty scarf, you just tell 'em not to mess with The King. Memphis won't stand for it. He's all we've got, and we should rally around him.
Well, that's enough out of me. I have to get down to the 24-Hour Church of Elvis. There's a wedding this afternoon, and John might be singing "How Great Thou Art." There are some things in life we simply cannot miss, and I do love weddings.
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