Standing in the Jungle Room of Graceland. I feel the mastery and extravagance of Elvis exude from the walls. I imagine he and his entourage lounging about. Drinks and drugs are aplenty. Pioneering the rock and roll lifestyle. My audio tour headset advises me to move on, yet I want to stay and time travel to the ‘60s. Sip a drink with Elvis by the bar. Taste the bitterness of a gin and tonic in my mouth as I understand the person who defined a new music genre and endeared himself to millions.
A road trip through the southern United States has brought an unintentional ‘60s theme. From JFK’s assassination in Dallas, to Martin Luther King’s last days at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. As a child of parents who grew up in the ‘60s, the Graceland and Sun Studio tours were obligatory stops in this Mississippi meander.
I turned 40 last year. I had lived for as long as Elvis has been dead. The longevity of his legacy is impressive. I pondered how much longer Elvis and Graceland would remain relevant. As the baby boomers join Elvis in his pink Cadillac in the sky will “The King” still resonate with the social crazed millennials? Can someone who once loomed so large fit in a 140-character world? In between securing Pokémon Pikachu and busting out to Bieber will they consider the King of rock and roll? This was on my mind as I navigated the outskirts of Memphis towards Graceland.
It was late afternoon on a weekday in late fall when I arrived. The crowds had been through for the day and I had the place practically to myself. Graceland’s impressive Corinthian columned entrance greeted me. Not normally a fan of audio tours, which force a scripted exploration, I felt my Elvis knowledge needed some brushing up. So I donned the headset and prepared to be schooled. It was apparent that audio tours have come a long way. Beacons placed in each room prompted the iPad-powered headsets into action at the appropriate narrative.
“Elvis initially acquired Graceland for his mother Gladys whom he loved dearly…” piped the audio track from the front living room.
“…sadly, she died only a year after moving into Graceland,” it continued.
Moving downstairs it felt like I was entering a three-roomed man cave. Firstly, the Yellow TV room felt like the nerve centre for Elvis’ inspiration and business-minded creativity. Three TVs piped in news and events from around the world. A large ‘U’-shaped lounge lined with cushions was wrapped around a mirrored coffee table. Sitting on top was a white porcelain monkey whose eyes seemed to follow me across the room.
Secondly, any self-respecting man cave must have a pool table. A stained glass light fitting hung above. This was outdone by a dark-patterned fabric which fanned out from the centre of the ceiling and continued down the walls. The walls camouflaged the sofas occupying the perimeter of the room.
Thirdly, and completing this trifecta of eclectically extravagant rooms was the Jungle Room. A stone-walled waterfall, brown shag pile carpet, wood panelling and ornamental wood carvings truly gave an outdoors jungle feel to the setting.
“The Jungle room was designed with acoustics in mind…” cued the audio as I stepped foot in the doorway.
“…the last two albums Elvis released were recorded in this very room.”
Graceland is made up of 23 rooms. This includes eight bedrooms and bathrooms. One of those bathrooms, off limits to guests, was where Elvis was found dead in August of 1977. Elvis fans have been able to walk the halls of Graceland in the footsteps of Elvis since 1982. Over half a million visitors come to Graceland annually. As far as visits to homes in the USA go, this is only second to a certain white house in Washington, D.C.
Elvis used a lightning bolt as an insignia for branding everything he did. This was coupled with the slogan of TCB standing for ‘Taking Care of Business.” You imagine in this day and age #tcb would have proceeded any social sentiments or wisdom Elvis shared.
Now, I’ll be honest, I would be lucky if I could name five Elvis songs walking into Graceland. And, I doubt I could name one movie title. So, walking in to the trophy room was quite overwhelming. An entire hall of music awards matched with a corresponding hall of movie credits and memorabilia. With 36 number one singles, 22 number one albums and 34 movies under his belt. I had respect for the amount of work Elvis produced. I couldn’t help think that I was nearly the same age as Elvis when he died. I am lucky to have a few medals to my name from participating in the odd fun run!
Elvis got his big break at Sun Studios located in downtown Memphis. Studio Manager Sam Phillips was unique. Phillips sought out amateurs to record new types of music and welcomed anyone. This connected artists black and white, rich and poor, known and unknown, allowing a melting pot of musical influences to simmer. Thus, giving birth to Rock n’ Roll. Phillips had in essence created a modern day start up culture among music artists. Sun Studios would be known in modern parlance as an incubator. Selling the popular artists to larger recording studios, see venture capitalists, when they showed promise of scale and financial return.
The expansive grounds of Graceland seemed out of place in this now suburban part of town. The scent of freshly cut grass whisked my imagination back to this once rural ranch amid rolling hills. Elvis is leaning on the white paling fence instructing a young Lisa Marie to ride a pony. His close-knit entourage is taking turns firing a rifle on a makeshift shooting range.
“Police were often called out to Graceland due to neighbourhood complaints…” the now familiar voice in my ear explained.
“…Elvis typically invited them in and used his charm to ease the Officers concerns.”
The exit from Graceland was via a very ‘60s-styled swimming pool equipped with a diving board. I continued past this to the meditation garden. One that Elvis himself commissioned. Here Elvis, together with his beloved mother Gladys, and father Vernon were entombed around a decadent fountain. The sun was low in the sky and soft rays of light filtered through the leaf depleted branches of the autumnal trees. It was a serene and sombre resting place for someone who had such an action packed life.
JFK, Martin Luther King and now Elvis allowed me to connect events often used when defining the ‘60s. What would the world be like had these key figures in history lived? Or, was it because of their tragic deaths they each had a more lasting impact on the world? I was obviously lost deep in thought as I sucked on a straw buried in a peanut butter milkshake from Gladys’ Diner located outside the gift shop. Cynically, perhaps in the end, fame is perpetuated by those that stand to simply make a dollar out of it.
Is the popularity of Elvis and Graceland likely to fade? Looking past the sideburns and sequins of Elvis. Graceland exposed a man who embraced life, loved and cared for his family and friends and pursued his dreams with a relentless passion. He also had his finger on the pulse and was not scared to try something new to stay relevant. Future generations will all benefit from these qualities. But I doubt it will be Elvis and an iPad-powered headset that tells that story for them. Graceland alone serves as a time capsule into the excess of the wild 60s. And, gives some inspiration for designing one awesome man cave!