Grandma Moses with
Pompadour and

<Douglas Cruickshank

Part II
After we go through the mansion, the guide leads us out a back door and across an aluminum portico covered walkway to a small, poorly lit building. Inside could be the office of a plumbing supply company or a muffler shop. The walls are covered with walnut colored paneling, grooved to simulate boards. Sitting on a couple of the desks are late model IBM Selectric typewriters, avocado green push button phones, an antiquated Hermes adding machine. In a corner are three-four drawer file cabinets, and next to them an old A.B. Dick photocopier. The cheap, low, drop ceiling is made of white acoustic panels. The drapes are the same bright orange as Tang. The guide turns on a large video monitor. And suddenly there's a young, darkly dressed Elvis, walking across the aluminum covered portico through which we just walked, entering the building in which we're now standing.

The film clip is a portion of a press conference Elvis gave in this room -- Vernon Presley's office -- on March 8, 1960, shortly after he was discharged from the Army. It's unspectacular, except for the King's hands -- which look like they carved each other out of white pine and lightening -- and a few telling words regarding his military experience: "...You can't fight 'em," he laughs. "...if you're gonna try to be an individual or try to be different, you're gonna go through two years of misery." Indeed, just by watching him you can see he's been irrevocably changed by his years in the military, a change compounded by his mother's death in 1957 while he was enlisted (at her funeral an overwrought Elvis tried to climb into the grave). Every now and then during the press conference he moves his hands almost spasmodically, as if he's just received a quick jolt of electricity, but otherwise he seems to have lost much of his original charge.

After being led past scores of platinum and gold records, trophies and awards in the 80 foot corridor known as The Hall of Gold, we return to eerieness in the Big Room where most of the Elvis memorabilia is displayed. There are guitars, paintings, more awards, letters, guns and badges, but it' s the clothing that's haunting. The stage costumes look vaguely religious and innocently absurd when viewed close up in a glass case. The big belts look like the same ones Hulk Hogan and Rowdy Roddy Piper used to swing over their heads on TV wrestling. Everything appears extremely old and drained of its vitality; the paisley black on black wedding coat has faded to brown. And the black leather suit he wore on his 1968 "Comeback Special", which at the time symbolized a revitalized Elvis, once again in touch with his rock 'n' roll roots, is deflated and lifeless without its inhabitant.

I neither liked nor disliked Elvis, he was not of my generation. By the time I had slouched into sullen psychedelic adolescence, and the worship of nowness, the Beatles had succeeded in obliterating the past, making their hero an anachronism before he was 30. And he had not yet been established as the bridge that allowed white teenagers to cross into the vital territory of African-American music. So I find it especially bizarre how touched I am walking through his house, around the gardens of Graceland under a canopy of oaks and elms. Despite its flamboyance there's something quite unaffected about the place. And the old videos and films that are part of the tour serve as reminder of how fresh, lively and funny Presley was before he got sucked into the vortex of show business banality -- bad movies, over produced recordings and performances -- and burned out by the unrelenting glare of the limelight, the merciless crush of fame.

In the Racquetball Building, constructed in 1975 at a cost of $100,000, we' re told that Elvis sat at the piano and played "Unchained Melody" and "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" before going to bed in the early morning hours of August 16, 1977, the day he died. Then, before continuing to the Meditation Garden, we sip water at the same wall mounted drinking fountain where the King once refreshed himself.

After pausing at the graves of Elvis, his father, his mother, grandmother and identical twin brother, Jesse, who died at birth, we take the shuttle back across Elvis Presley Boulevard to tour his two jet aircraft -- the Lisa Marie and the Hound Dog II -- another museum of personal effects, a theater where a short documentary film is shown, and the automobile museum. Cars, which became one of the great American vernacular art forms during the 1950s and '60s, also attracted Presley's creative attention, perhaps he even influenced their design. As others have noted, the automobiles of the period actually began to resemble the two main human pop icons of the '50s. It takes little imagination to see that the voluptuous body stylings, bullet bumpers and upward sweeping fenders of Cadillacs, Buicks and other luxurious highway cruisers of the time seem to draw their inspiration from Elvis's flamboyant hairdo and the physique of his female counterpart, Marilyn Monroe.

The museum has several of his motorcycles, and the peaked caps he liked to wear when he rode them. There are snowmobiles and a pink jeep with a striped top, and a rare 1956 Continental that Priscilla used to drive to high school. The legendary pink Cadillac Fleetwood is there and, the finest of all, a 1956 shrieking purple Eldorado. The story is that Elvis specified the color he wanted the once white car painted by crushing a handful of grapes on its fender. And it's said that "...the customizers had sprinkled grape Kool-Aid on the purple carpet so it would even smell purple when they delivered it to him," which sounds sticky and apocryphal. Another vehicle on display is a 1973 Stutz Blackhawk III. It was purchased by Elvis in 1974 -- his red period -- the same year he and Linda Thompson turned the house's main rooms to crimson. The interior of the black car is bright red leather, with gold plated trim. It's nothing special when compared to the grape purple Eldorado, but it is the very same car Elvis drove through the gates adorned with iron musical notes late on the night of August 15, 1977, and up the curl of asphalt that leads to the front porch of Graceland.

--- ©1994, Douglas Cruickshank
All Rights Reserved

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