Friday, February 16, 2007

The King is Dead

Land Rover Expedition Time: April 1998

Words can come back to haunt you. When F1 and F2 decided they needed to split from us, we compared notes with them on possible driving routes before we met up with them again in Washington DC. They asked us about "Graceland" (Elvis Presley’s house) in Memphis. I remember responding that I wouldn’t visit Graceland, even if I camped across the road from it.

Some weeks later we crossed the bridge over "The Big Muddy", the wide, brown Mississippi River, and cruised into Memphis, Tennessee. We found a campsite on Elvis Presley Boulevard. Two hundred yards down and across the road from guess where? Yup, you betcha, Graceland.

The campsite owners were two geriatrics. Both were a bit deaf. I wondered if they had attended too many Elvis concerts in their younger days. With my accent and their southern state dialect, we had a bit of trouble communicating. Well that, and the female proprietor not believing we wanted to camp in such cold weather, especially following on the heels of a tornado. She finally suggested we look at the campsite area and make sure we were happy with it, before we paid our deposit.

We followed her directions and found what is almost unheard of in USA - a sunny, flat sheltered grassy tenting area with some picnic tables. The tables looked like they had been there a long time and were quite dilapidated. But, the site looked nice and quiet and near to what looked like an unused back road to the camp. I returned to the camp office to confirm we were happy with our spot by the picnic tables. She then asked, "what picnic tables?" I described where our campsite was and she confirmed we were in the right area. However, she added that she and her husband had been managing the campsite for 20 years and she didn’t know they had picnic tables.

We set up camp, cooked our tucker and were happily scoffing it, when a series of cars drove past, only about a metre from our tent. Their occupants peered at us curiously. We discovered that many local workers had made their homes in the RV/caravans on site and used this back road as their private access. Some went out again that night on shopping expeditions. We sighed. So much for a quiet spot. There would certainly be another procession in the morning as they set off for work.

The campsite was in the middle of an industrial area and, as we finished dinner, the company next door fired up three refrigerated containers. These droned throughout the night, punctuated by several sirens, burglar alarms and also aircraft overhead. Just before dawn, the local birds squawked into life, followed shortly by the parade of workers leaving the site to go to work.

On the up side, at least it didn’t rain, so we had a dry tent. I had also found success that night with a new way of sleeping. To avoid the feeling of being cramped inside my sleeping bag, I had opened it up like a quilt and slept under it. This also helped when I became too hot, as I could just thrust my arms and legs out into the air to cool off. From then on, I always used my sleeping bag like that. If in a rash moment I foolishly agree to another expedition in the future, I’ll make sure I take earplugs as well.

We packed up everything while it was still dry, before heading off to Graceland. I am not a fan of Elvis, but I had decided that I couldn’t really camp across the road and not see his house.

I was not disappointed in any way. We arrived at the Elvis Presley Tour Centre, directly across the road from Graceland. It was just after opening time. This meant that we were allocated one of the early tour spots. Later in the day, people have to wait hours for a tour. However, the Tour Centre had several shops, cafes and exhibitions, which would amuse even the most bored tourist for ages.

The scale of Elvis trinkets and paraphernalia was endless. I just didn’t know how I was going to live without a Jail House Rock singing bottle opener or an Elvis black leather rubber duck for my bath tub. Almost anything that could be stamped with his name or image was available for sale. Valentine’s Day or those special wedding anniversaries would never be the same without a deluxe bouquet of a dozen roses with an Elvis face stamped on each the six white roses and "Love Me Tender" stamped on each of the six red roses. The roses come adorned with ferns and baby's breath. They apparently don’t capture some poor little nipper’s breath for this. It is a plant that New Zealanders might be more familiar with as gypsophile. The bouquet was a cool $US99, not including delivery. But, hey, how much is your loved one worth?

All this is not just for ageing Elvis fans. A new generation is hooked in with the chance to "Make your own Elvis Friend at Graceland" – at a price, of course. Kids can make their own stuffed toy Elvis and dress it in Elvis-themed clothes to take home. Interesting word that – stuffed. However, the templates available for stuffing, resulted in more svelte versions of Elvis than the over-blown carcass that was reality in Elvis’ later life.
It was marketing on a grand scale and over-the-top, like the man himself.

At the appointed time, we were lined up with around 16 others, for our shuttle bus. We were each handed a personal cassette player and tape and, once seated, instructed in its use. The little bus scooted across the road, where the famous music score gates swept open and we were driven up to the front door. Graceland is quite a small house, when compared with the mansions that some wealthy people live in today.

Our tour guide gave us some instructions outside the front door. She also advised that we could tour through the house at our own speed and using the cassette tape as commentary. We could stay in rooms as long as we wanted to, rewind our cassette tapes as much as we liked to re-hear the commentary, and we didn’t have to stay with our group. She said that groups came through in 10-minute intervals, so at times, there was a chance to be alone in a room if we wanted to. Gosh, I could hardly wait. However, she warned we’d all be on closed-circuit camera.

I was probably far more impressed by the ergonomics of how they handled so many people at once to ensure the best possible tour experience, than by Graceland itself. Once we’d stepped inside, the lounge and dining room were quite normal rooms you’d expect to see in the 1960’s/70’s of the comfortable middle classes. The colours of those decades – oranges, turquoises and peacock greens were predominant. Various voices were heard on the cassettes tape as well as the main commentator – band members, staff, Colonel Parker, Elvis himself. Priscilla cooed her words in a most sickly sweet tone, usually prefaced by the words, "Elvis and I ..."

Some rooms were more garish than the main dining and lounge, but not overly so if you remember the fashion trends from those days. The upstairs area of bathrooms and bedrooms was not open to the public and may have been more spectacular. Colonel Parker’s office in the barn was functional 1950’s with grey filing cabinets and drab desks. Nothing mahogany or flash was in there. We were allowed to visit the recreation area where Elvis spent his last evening on earth with friends, which included the upright piano he played on. Out of the windows I could see a couple of palomino horses in the nearby field. Elvis always rode a palomino and at least two were kept ready to be saddled at all times for him, just like they were now.

A new building had been built to house all the Elvis memorabilia, costumes, film props and bric-a-brac from his glory years. Biographical notes were pinned up next to each glass case, tying in whatever was enclosed with his life. As a red belt in karate, I snorted in disbelief at the exhibit enclosing Elvis’ karate gi (uniform) and black belt. This was attained in his last few years. For those who can remember the fat, sweating Elvis waddling about at this time, a black belt would have been an impossibility, let alone the time he would have had to invest to achieve such a grading.

The biographical notes glossed over the appalling drug abuse with weak little statements like: "With the on-going pressures of performing, Elvis developed an over-dependence on the prescription drugs his doctor had prescribed to help him."

And, this was my prime reason for not wanting to visit Graceland – the propaganda. I was too young to be a fan of Elvis. Apart from looking at old film clips, I had never seen or heard him in his better days.
As a teenager in the 1970’s, all I remembered was someone who killed himself with drugs - a sad, podgy has-been, who’s music held no interest and was too old-fashioned for my generation. So, I hadn't respected him at all.

But, then I came to the room where all his gold, platinum, double platinum records were displayed. Even I was humbled. Here was a poor boy from Tupelo who, without all the modern marketing trickery, managed to rise to the top of the music world and outsell anyone, before or since.

Not The Beatles, not Tina Turner, not Johnny Cash, not Michael Jackson, not - every reader to just insert the name of stupid modern singer/band in this space - and not even those with access to the internet, podcasting, MP3, free downloads, has enabled anyone or any band to surpass him.
I remembered reading one of Elvis’ attributed sayings - "Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes." Well, even I had to admit he was right. I had judged him without understanding all that he had achieved. While I still didn’t agree with his lifestyle and drug taking, how would I have fared under the same circumstances, as a young, poor girl with a good voice and sudden fame, adulation and wealth? I couldn’t even cope with a head cold, while driving across the States in a Land Rover, without falling completely to pieces.

I came out of the record display room and, with the other tourists, filed past the graveyard and headstone for Elvis. Everyone, including myself, was very subdued.

Who would have thought that Elvis could have taught me something? I still didn’t like his music much, but I did have a grudging respect for what he achieved, and against the odds.

It had started to rain by the time we got back to the campsite, where we had left the Land Rover. As we drove out of the site, the rain began to really belt down. Thank goodness we had pulled down the tent before we toured Graceland.

We chose the Interstate to get as quickly as possible out of the sprawl that is Memphis and into the countryside. The rain bucketed down on our windscreen and the old Land Rover's poor little wipers had trouble coping. Traffic roared past and huge trucks thundered along, leaving us peering frantically through the great sprays of water in their wake. As soon as we had left the city behind we ducked off onto one of the quieter highways.

The rain never stopped all day and we decided on a motel for the night in Jackson. By 5pm it certainly felt great have a roof over our heads and a comfortable, quiet bed to collapse into. We caught up on the lost sleep from the night before.

With no tent to dry out in the morning, we were up and away at a good time.

Nashville Tennessee The Parthenon We were headed for Nashville, as I wanted to see the Parthenon replica and art gallery. This is supposed to be the only full-size replica in the world and is the home of Nashville’s permanent art collection.

On the road we could see the devastation the recent tornado had left in its path. Signs ripped in half, roofs blown off and trees uprooted with their branches scattered everywhere. When we arrived in Nashville the tornado had torn up most of the trees in the Pathenon’s surrounding Centennial Park and had hurled them against the building, completing blocking it off. I was really disappointed we weren’t able to gain access.

We went to the Visitor Centre to ask about other attractions. We decided to skip the concert at the "Grand Ole Oprey". Two-and-a-half hours of country "music" would have probably killed us.

The "E. Howard Brandon’s Car Collectors Hall of Fame" sounded more like our scene. This had around 50 cars, mainly Chevrolets and around 10 vehicles, which had belonged to country music "stars" – Barbara Mandrell, Marty Robbins, Wynonna Judd, Tammy Winette, Elvis and Billy Ray Cyrus. Near each of these cars was a promotional cardboard cut-out figure of the "star", or a mannequin dressed up to look like them. The one of Tammy Winette was dressed like Barbara Bush. I am certain that this "Tammy Bimbo", with all her blond hair piled on top, would never have looked as dowdy as that in real life.

It was a well laid out, but small museum. TH likes to take his time in car museums. I usually roar on ahead in an initial burst, maybe go back to revisit something of particular interest, and then sit down for a good period of people watching. This is my favourite pastime. TH knows he will always find me somewhere in the place, quietly checking out the locals.

Today I struck the jackpot. Three overweight women in their thirties, were gathered around Billy Ray Cyrus’ somewhat tatty 1951 Chevrolet. They showed no real interest in the car, only in the cardboard cut-out of the "achy, breaky" crooner himself. They were taking photos of themselves with the cut-out. At each shot they got more bold, placing their hands in strategic points on the cut-out, pressing themselves against it and making grunting noises.

The security in the museum was quite lax, and soon they were manhandling the cut-out into the back seat, where they could all indulge in their fantasies. Their camera worked over time. Only the sheer size of the women prevented them all getting in, and having some sort of group orgy. It was like watching some obscene act with the board game "Mystery Date".

The lack of action from Billy Ray (well, he was only a cardboard cut-out) eventually bored them and they started combing the seats for a real live souvenir of their hearts’ desire. Soon there was a shriek of delight. One of them had found a strand of hair. The fact that it could have come from one of them, or some other ghastly fan, never occurred to them. I secretly hoped that Cyrus had owned a dog and these pathetic women would spend the rest of their lives treasuring the hair of some mutt.

TH finished looking around and we decided to find a campsite for the night, ending up at the Cedars of Lebanon State Park. After a couple of days on the edges of music and glamour we were back to the real world of tenting in America – shady, sloping tent sites and hard, rocky ground. No wonder they referred to this as "primitive camping".

© Eventful Woman, 2006
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