I clearly remember when Elvis died 32 years ago tomorrow. It was actually during one of my cross-country roadtrips. I was traveling from New York City to Los Angeles on a Greyhound Bus — a three day marathon that Jack Kerouac would have recognized.
Around two and a half days into the trip, somewhere in the middle of Nowhere Oklahoma, the bus driver abruptly pulled off to the side of the road. He opened the bus door, letting a blast of 100 degree air blow through the stale air-conditioning that had been recirculating in the bus for the past few days.
The bus driver was white-faced and could barely stand as he clutched the back of his seat, hat in hand, and said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, wake up and pay attention please. I have some tragic, tragic news to announce.”
Two of my earliest memories are of the kinds of things that do cause society to come to a screeching halt. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, I remember a jeep pulling up in front of the house and my father, a career Army officer, riding away. Then my mother started stockpiling food. On the afternoon of Kennedy’s assassination, a teacher ran out onto the playground and told us the President was dead and we should all run home. When someone stops a vehicle and says there is tragic news, I’m prepared for the worst: a dead President, a series of massive hurricanes, a nuclear war.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” said the driver, “Bow your heads and pray with me. I’ve just received word: Elvis Presley is dead.”
I couldn’t resist a loud hoot of laughter. Then I looked around me. The bus was full of sobbing people, strangers hugging and crying on each others’ shoulders and praying for Elvis’s soul.
Too young to have remembered Elvis in his heyday, to me, he was a fat, bloated, washed up singer who I vaguely remembered from silly musicals that I used to watch on TV with my babysitter. But at least to this crowd on the bus (most of whom were much older than me), he was something special. All the way from that lonely spot in Oklahoma to Los Angeles, I remember passing houses with flags at half mast and hand-lettered signs in windows saying “Elvis, we love you”, “The King: RIP.” and “God Bless Elvis”. I didn’t get it then and I don’t get it now.
So it was with mixed feelings, two years ago, when I added Graceland to the itinerary of a cross-country trip I was taking with my 22-year-old niece. She insisted that we include Graceland for the simple reason that she likes Elvis’s music. That left me pondering should I book the Platinum Graceland Tour or the VIP Elvis Entourage Tour where you get a free backstage pass and in and out, head-of-the line privileges all day long (in case you want to tour Graceland in the morning, take a lunch break, then tour again before dinner, after which you can stop back in for the “Elvis After Dark” tour.) Speaking of the Elvis After Dark tour, my friend Rob insisted that’s the one to take as it’s billed as “showing you the nighttime world of Elvis.” Rob was convinced that tour would include taking massive quantities of pharmaceuticals, playing at being a policeman and shooting out TVs with handguns. For myself, my first thought was that I’d want to check out the Graceland gift shop and the Graceland themed restaurants. I was disheartened to see, at least on the Graceland website, that you can’t buy an Elvis on black velvet or get Elvis’s favorite snack, a peanut butter and banana sandwich fried in Crisco. I did find this neat site where you can buy Elvises on black velvet including young,
old, fat and Hawaiian Elvises. But they have none of the pseudo-religious scenes I have seen in black velvet Elvis paintings such as Elvis playing guitar to the Virgin Mary and Jesus, or John the Baptist raising his hand in benediction to Elvis, who is gyrating in front of what looks like the grotto at Lourdes. (I swear to you, I have seen such paintings at Mexican border towns with my own eyes. And I kick myself to think that I never bought one because, at the time, $2 seemed like a ridiculous price for such tat.)
As I said, at the time we were planning the trip, I still didn’t get the Elvis thing. I envied Aleana for her Elvis Attitude as she’s oblivious to the adoration of people 15 years older than me and doesn’t feel the need for the post-modern scorn of people of my generation toward Elvis. She just likes him because she enjoys his singing.
Graceland is the place that changes your mind forever. Every room has a video monitor playing live Elvis performances. As we passed through the Graceland tour, I quickly stopped looking at the shag carpet and the weird decor. I just watched the monitors and experienced — as much as you can outside of a live performance — just the raw talent and charisma of Elvis. I didn’t find myself converted to the Church of Elvis. But I finally saw what a multi-talented, charismatic and unique performer he was.
Thank you, Elvis, thank you very much.