My relationship with Elvis Presley was forged during my fifth year of college. Yes, I was one of those. After quarter beer night at CJ’s bar, I came home, buzzed on Natty Light and jukebox Fugazi, to a house empty of roommates. I sprawled across the living room sofa, eyes on our velvet Elvis picture – a Fat Elvis, with a tear running down his chubby cheek and too many rhinestones on his jumpsuit. The picture seemed designed for my derision. I had heard Elvis’s songs in restaurants and on elevators, but I was no fan, and this fat Elvis image ricocheted off my carefully curated music snobbery.
Nevertheless, when I spent a week in Tennessee last April visiting family, sucking on barbequed ribs, and imbibing the musical history of Memphis (BB King) and the musical present of Nashville (Punch Brothers), visiting Graceland topped my to-do list – not because I was a huge Elvis fan or because it was the 35th anniversary of The King’s death, but because I wanted an Elvis drivers license. As anyone who’s visited my Brooklyn apartment knows, I have a soft spot for useless kitsch.
Before visiting Graceland, I braved the potholed streets of downtown Memphis to reach Sun Studio, founded by Sam Phillips, who not only discovered Elvis but also was apparently the first white man to record black people singing their delta blues, at least on a commercial scale. My passion for those blues, not Elvis, steered me to Sun.
After paying $12, I latched on to the tail end of a tour, and was ushered up a flight of stairs into a small, carpeted room lined with glass cases sheltering memorabilia. Our guide launched into a history lesson – which I sucked down faster than sweet tea – unfolding stories about Muddy Water’s first recording session there, how Ike Turner’s band crashed their car in Mississippi en route to the studio, and other tidbits. What blew my ignorant mind, though, was the racial politics of music at the time the blues was breaking loose. Like restrooms and drinking fountains at the time, music was segregated. White and black artists were played on separate radio stations. If a white person wanted an evening of delta blues in one of Beale Street’s bars, he dropped by and listened to the African American performers on whites-only nights.
Phillips was not only a blues fan, but a businessman. He had been waiting for his savior: a white man to bring the black blues to a white audience. In this way, Phillips started a trend that continues to today with white people digging hip hop and rap. (When he discovered Eminem, Dr. Dre probably felt like he hit the jackpot.)
Enter Elvis. As the story goes, Elvis, a hillbilly boy with a guitar and a voice, came to the studio to show his stuff. Backed by two guitarists, Elvis strummed and warbled for hours, but fell flat as a harvested field. Improvising, he started messing around on his guitar like a schoolboy, changing his rhythms and speeding up. He knocked their socks off. Turns out, Elvis spent solid time inhaling blues music on Beale St. Turns out, Elvis, like me, appreciated a good downbeat.
When the single, an updated version of black blues legend’s Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right”, debuted on an all-white radio station, people called in, asking about the new black singer, wanting to hear more. By evening, the station played the song on repeat. Elvis was rising, and white people ate up his blues infused country style, soon-to-be-called rockabilly, soon-to-morph into rock-and-roll.
At this stage in the tour guide’s fairytale, my crush began. I have always had a soft spot for people who ignore the rules and aim like a dart for what they feel is right on an emotional, rather than an intellectual, level. I idolize Mildred and Richard Loving, but not just because a 1967 Supreme Court decision on the legality of their marriage (she was black, he was white) legalized interracial marriages in the United States, but because they fell in love and got hitched in the first place. Or when Molly Katchpole took on the big US banks last year, pressuring them to drop their $5 per month debit card fee. The fee was legal, but she fought it anyway. Which brings me to Syria – hey Assad? Stop killing your people.
But back to Elvis, who sucked up those African American rhythms and spit them back in the faces of White America. Later on, I read that some called this racist – Elvis stole the blues from black people. Others argued he wasn’t racist – he openly credited African American spirituals and blues as his influences.
I figure Elvis appreciated talent and skill and that he felt the truth (with a capital T) behind that music. How could he not have? In order to emulate a playing style with that amount of passion, you need to understand the music on an intellectual level, like when the beat hits, and emotional level, to transfer that feeling to others. The music inspired him, and he invited it in, refusing to discount it because of the artists’ color in an age when it seemed like everything was discounted for this reason. As the Civil Rights movement was taking shape, Elvis crossed the color line.
Elvis’s iconoclasm burrowed under my brain as we stood cooped up in that little room. Heat does make me more contemplative and accepting, and it was warm – Memphis is only a stone’s throw away from Alabama and Mississippi, after all. For the first time, Elvis broke free from his velvet likeness, becoming a 3-dimensional human being. He was no longer just that guy in those cheesy movies.
Score: Elvis: 1, Amy: 0
As the tour group edged around the room, I saw a photo of Elvis together with a honey-sweet blonde. The photo was a close-up of their faces, and the way their noses nearly touched, the way her head angled up and his tilted down, you could tell they had their arms around each other. It focused primarily on Elvis, and he was looking down at the blonde with a look I can only call smoldering.
I wanted to be that woman. Just as I’m rarely attracted to a guy in the bar until we talk, knowing a sliver of Elvis’ backstory made him more attractive. Or maybe Fat Velvet Elvis had failed to prepare me for the mad hotness of young Elvis. The photograph crackled with energy. Elvis looked vulnerable – that gaze, those soft lips; he also looked like he had only one thing on his mind. There was a recklessness emanating from the image, and the proximity of the photographer gave it a slightly voyeuristic feel. I wanted to run my fingers through Elvis’s hair, despite the copious amounts of Vaseline he used to wax it back.
Did I mention I have a thing for dark hair?
The tour guide said this was one of the last improptu photos of Elvis, later a stickler for controlling his image once he became King. But that photo sizzled like steak on the grill.
Score: Elvis: 2, Amy: weakening
We were minutes from leaving the cramped room when, finally acknowledging the advent of moving pictures, the guide played a video of Elvis performing. The video began mid-song, and Elvis radiated energy onstage, singing, swiveling his hips. I felt the energy pour out of him, the wildness as he abandoned himself to the music. If I had been in that audience, I would have crawled over a dozen girls in knee-length skirts, yanking on their bobbed hair and flinging them out of the way just to touch him.
This feeling for a rock star, a carefully curated image, was new. Yes, I worshipped Trent Reznor in high school, but that was a talent crush. Sure, I fancied Damon Albon in his Blur days, but whatever. The closest I came to flat-out rock star love was in elementary school, when I unleashed my undying devotion in love letters to George Michael.
But watching Elvis onstage was like witnessing an explosive feedback loop – the intense way he experienced the music and projected those feelings onto his hysterical audience, who in turn unleashed their fraught feelings back onto Elvis, who coiled it all up into an even brighter, broader energy that sprang out of him, back to the screaming masses, flowing in some kind of tantric circle, building, building.
I don’t even recall what song he performed. His vitality took up 100% of my mind. If a new-fangled video recorder from the 1950s captured that much emotion, imagine Elvis in 3-D IMAX or, shudder, standing 20 feet from The King singing live. If blues-loving Elvis captured my mind and girl-gazing Elvis captivated my romantic notions, the Elvis who projected like the messiah onstage captured something else. Let’s just call it my heart.
Score: Elvis: 3, Amy: cooked
In a lovesick fury, I drove from Sun Studio to Graceland on Elvis Presley Boulevard. Graceland, it turns out, is a series of parking lots and strip-malls dedicated to selling Elvis paraphernalia, with his Memphis mansion across the street. I bought a ticket ($36 dollars for the platinum tour, because only a fool would spring for the $70 Elvis Entourage VIP tour) and they loaded me and the other tourists onto a short bus that drove us 100 feet to Graceland. My first disappointment came after learning that tourists weren’t allowed upstairs. The next blow came when I realized Graceland was decorated more sensibly than scandalously. In the age of MTV Cribs, his jungle living room seemed more cozy than pimped, and the fabric-covered ceiling of his billiard room more chaotic than crazed.
Graceland, owned by Elvis’s heirs, is dedicated to the image of sanitized Elvis.
I watched a few feel-good video clips of a handsome Elvis heading off to war and of Elvis together with his wife and toddler daughter. Absent was any indication of his chronic battles with drugs. No one mentioned Priscilla’s under-aged nature (14!) when they met 53 years ago in 1959, or the other women he bedded, including a young Cybill Shepherd, long before Moonlighting. The curators of his official life story ignored his descent into existential crisis compounded with heavy drug use, when he seemed to collapse under the weight of those emotions that fed into his music, not to mention his own expanding bulk.
Graceland was all surface, all feel-good candy and hermetically sealed solid gold records. I wanted to scratch through it and see what lived underneath, to hunt for the emotions and life beneath the surface. Graceland, frankly, left me wanting more. It is, after all, much easier to love someone who’s not perfect. But my disappointment at Graceland didn’t deter me from my Elvis quest. Visiting his home was like he had decided to play hard-to-get. Which was fine. I can play that game.
Lately, I’ve been reading about the King – nothing I can recommend, mostly trashy blogs holding little truth. But with all due respect to his ex, these seem better than Priscilla’s autobiography. “Suspicious Minds” has become my karaoke go-to, despite groans from my friends. My co-workers regularly compliment me on my Elvis mug – a black-and-white close-up of Young Elvis in profile, his turtleneck sweater Technicolor blue. He looks dreamy.
Score: Elvis: steady at 3; Amy: gearing up for Round Two
Amy Braunschweiger is a recovering journalist and the author of Taxi Confidential: Life, Death and 3 a.m. Revelations in New York City Cabs. She was once a master at climbing trees, but hey, times change.