Road Trip Memories #4: Memphis

It’s hot, I mean really hot. 100 degrees F in the shade hot. It’s still only 10 am and I fear how hot it can actually get in a place before people stop functioning, people like me. Soon the heat doesn’t matter though because I find myself stood outside the most famous gates in Rock n Roll, the gates outside Graceland. Whether you’re an Elvis fan or not (and let’s face it, everyone is a bit of an Elvis fan right?), there is something quite stunning and electric in the air around Graceland. The knowledge that music’s most famous icon called it home, the evidence in graffiti on the walls and pavement that millions and millions of fans have made their pilgrimage, the almost theme-park like presentation of America’s greatest cultural gift to the world, Rock n Roll and the awkward moment your realise the tour climaxes with what is essentially the Presley family cemetery.

Graceland appears to have been shrink-wrapped and preserved from the day the King left us. It is magnificent in its gaudy sheik, a testament to seventies style (or lack thereof) and exuberance. Amongst the thick shag pile carpeted walls of the jungle room and bright yellow leather sofas of the TV room, what strikes me is how homely the house feels. You can really get a sense of the Presley’s living here, albeit with their various cronies. The kitchen looks like a kitchen Ma Presley would rustle up Vernon and her boy some peanut butter fried chicken sandwiches, the living room looks like where the King would have sat down with Lisa-Marie to watch Sesame Street, there is still a swing set and slide in the yard by the pool! Graceland represents Elvis in all his excess and all his country-boy down to earthiness. Between the squash courts and corridors full of his gold records, jumpsuits and jewel encrusted presentation pistols, you find an old teddy bear, a family bible, and the Presley’s first television set. Graceland is quite cosy considering its reputation and I got the feeling of it at sometime being a warm and loving family home, a refuge away from the madness of fame. That was Elvis, the boy who wanted to be with his Ma at home, the man who wanted the world at his feet; all wrapped up in an eclectically decorated testament to all that is good and bad about his life.

As we walk around the house and attached buildings, we’re treat to music and narration beamed directly to us via headsets. The expertly choreographed soundtrack is timed so just as you approach Elvis’ grave, ‘American Trilogy’ fades in at the line of ‘…hush little baby now don’t you cry, you know your Daddy’s bound to die. But all my trails, Lord will soon be over…’ then the climaxing ‘glory, glory, hallelujah’ refrain with crescendo-ing music puts a lump in the throat of even the most hardened cynic. Feeling the wave of emotion, we spill into the gift shop to quell our grief over Rock n Roll’s greatest loss by the purchase of Elvis CDs, Shot Glasses, Key Rings and my personal favourite, a hand-made Lansky Brothers of Peabody St shirt. ‘Always On My Mind’ shirt. Black with white vents and collar, Elvis’ signature on the breast and his photograph on each pewter button. A prize possession to this day I have only dared to wear out of the house on a handful of occasions. While hunting out my size on the rail, I notice another guy looking at the same shirt. He looks familiar, but I can’t think why. He notices me noticing him and shoots a friendly smile then goes back to his business. It is only after he walks away I realised it was Robin Williams, Mork from Bloody Ork himself! Coincidently or not he ends up behind me in the queue for the till. I notice him again and he holds up his shirt proudly, the same one I am getting, and says ‘Gee you can’t get them this good anywhere else!’. I generally don’t get star struck, but for some reason I couldn’t think of any sort of response. Eventually I blurted out ‘Yeah… Hey I really loved that film you did, with DeNiro… Err…Awakenings?’ He politely smiled and nodded towards to the impatient cashier waiting to take my money.

The rest of the afternoon is taken with trips around the Elvis car museum, the Elvis aircraft museum and posing for pictures outside the Heartbreak Hotel. A huge burger and chilli fries meal later, we seek out our hotel in downtown Memphis. Considering it’s the most expensive hotel we have booked, its probably the shittiest. Not to worry though, Memphis beckons. Not really knowing where we are heading I am soon distracted by the biggest Tower Records store, possibly biggest record store full stop I have ever seen. Without even attempting to fight the urge I go in and splurge on many CDs I would be unable to buy at home. After wisely depositing them back at the hotel, we head out once again in search of the legendary Beale Street.

Now the thing about Memphis is that away from the Elvis theme park-esq end of town, it’s a bit of a dump really. A lot of a dump in fact. It is certainly an old industrial town that has been left behind and you’re met with scores of beggars and the homeless trying to capitalise what they can from the only real remaining industry of tourism. As we finally arrive at Beale Street I am happy to find two things, blues music blearing from every bar and street vendors selling beer. It’s a good job you can buy beers on the street because all of the bars are heaving with a one-in-one-out type policy on the door. Not that I mind, the one bar we did venture into was so hot I was relieved to get back out on to the street. I guess that Beale Street is probably quite unrecognisable to the days when it produced the finest bluesmen the world has seen. There was a TGI Fridays, Subway and all manner of other corporate chain pubs, bars and grills. The only real remnants of its glorious past were the Memphis walk-of-fame type markers on the pavement and the buskers at the shadier end of the street. We sunk our beers and listened to some pretty incredible guitarists along the way until we happened upon a guy with a homemade two-string guitar and stomp box. He was very entertaining but eventually gave up his spot for an ancient looking bluesman who claimed to have busked on this spot since he taught BB King how to plays those famous bends. I would soon find that most of the old blues playing buskers on Beale Street apparently taught BB King something or another, true or not it was fun to believe and certainly improved their tips!

Eventually we made our way back to our shitty hotel room and with several beers inside of us decided the best thing to do would be to wreck it. We travelled on somewhere else the next day (I forget where, the chronology of these travels has been muddied by time and alcohol) and it was only after I left I realised I hadn’t visited the famous Sun Studios. We should have gone back but for whatever reason, didn’t.

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