|Elvis in 1957, after Graceland purchase.|
I can imagine music without sound, but not without time.
— former music teacher
Before my mother died, she wanted to make one last trip to Memphis. We rented a Lincoln Continental and drove ten hours from Austin, where she lived at the time.
In Memphis, we’d lived in a neighborhood about five miles from Graceland. Our neighborhood was on one side of the Memphis International Airport, and Graceland was on the other. When Elvis purchased the house in 1957 it was located on Highway 51 South in a rural part of town. The street later became Elvis Presley Blvd.
Graceland’s original owner, S.C. Toof, named the property for his daughter Grace. My mother and I drove past Graceland on our visit to Memphis. It’s on the same street as Forest Hill cemetery, where my father is buried. Elvis and his mother were also buried at Forest Hill before their bodies were moved to the Graceland.
|Graceland is a colonial-style mansion with 23 rooms,
including eight bedrooms. The entrance
has four white colonnades and two large
lions on both side of the portico.
Recently, Forest Hill sent photos of my parent’s graves. Across my mother’s tombstone is a dark stain where vines or weeds must have grown. The neighborhood Graceland is in, Whitehaven, is now a high-crime area. High school friends were shot and killed in the grocery store where I once worked, and Whitehaven became carjack capital of the U.S.
Driving around Whitehaven in a new Lincoln Continental made me uneasy, but my mother wasn’t nervous. She drove into a trailer park near Forest Hill where a distant cousin lived. I waited anxiously while she talked to her cousin on the front porch and handed her a large-print Bible. Her cousin didn’t look like she wanted the Bible, but mom hadn’t seen her cousin for years and, “Bibles always make good steady gifts.”
|Elvis at Lansky’s clothing store|
Both my parents attended the same high school Elvis went to, Humes, but graduated five years before he did. When I hear stories from this period of Elvis’s life in the early 50s, I don’t hear stories of a rock star but of a Memphian.
He shopped at the same men’s clothing store my grandfather, father and brother all shopped in. Lansky’s is located downtown on Beale St. just east of the Mississippi river. Beale St. was home to blues and jazz legends B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters and W.C. Handy. When I was in high school, I snuck down to Beale St. in a 1970 green Ford Maverick bought from a neighbor for $400 to listen to blues singer Ruby Wilson.
|Standing in front of gates
of Graceland in 1973 with cousins.
A few blocks from Beale St. down a back alley in a basement is a restaurant called the Rendezvous. It sells the best dry ribs I’ve ever eaten. Other parts of the U.S. sell beef barbecue, but in Memphis it’s pork. On a Saturday night, you can smell barbecue cooking all the way downtown to the river, and Elvis ate there as many Memphians did.
Today I was in in a barbecue restaurant in Boulder and heard a husband say to his wife, “Graceland, that’s one place I’ve never been.” On the wall were photos of B.B. King, Elvis, newspaper clippings from Memphis and a plastic-head Elvis shrine. The Presley family still lived at Graceland when I was a child and the house itself wasn’t open to the public, but we could tour the grounds and see the guitar-shaped swimming pool in the backyard.
Elvis’s music was not music we listened to in our house. My mother preferred Luciano Pavarotti or Beverly Sills. On the weekends, we cleaned house listening to Handel’s Messiah at full tilt. My father preferred Billie Holiday or Peggy Lee.
|Commercial Appeal published
Aug. 18, 1977, two days after
Elvis’s death, showing fans
waiting to view his body at Graceland.
Crowds were estimated
between 50,000 to 100,000.
When it was announced on TV that Elvis died in 1977, I was sitting on the floor playing jacks. The cause of death was uncertain at the time but later reported as heart failure. It’s now believed he died from complications related to drug use. Thousands of people descended on the city when they heard the news, and traffic made it impossible to drive anywhere for weeks.
I’ve often wondered if Elvis felt his life was full of grace. His fame made it impossible for him to be seen in public. The first house the Presleys bought in Memphis was on the east side of town on Audubon Drive near a church my family and I attended. When the neighbors became unsettled by the growing number of fans and newspaper reporters, he gave his parents, Gladys and Vernon, $100,000 to purchase a house with land surrounding it. The family had been very poor before they moved to Memphis and Elvis started his career. They lived in a shotgun house built by Vernon in Tupelo, Mississippi.
Elvis became so famous it’s debated now whether he or the Beatles hold the record for most songs charted in Billboard‘s top 40 and top 100, but by the end of his 23-year career he was addicted to drugs and sometimes became violent with fans. His family squandered money on extravagant expenses. Vernon had a swimming pool built in his bedroom. After Elvis’s death, his estate had dwindled to such an extent, his ex-wife Priscilla was forced to open Graceland to the public.
As my mother and I drove home from Memphis on that trip, she told me a story from her childhood I’d never heard. In 1933 when she was five years old, she was admitted to Cheerfield Farm Children’s Home, a facility opened in 1921 to serve malnourished, anemic and turberculosis-susceptible children. A 2007 Junior League of Memphis newsletter described the home as “fed from a spring in the midst of a beautifully wooded and hilly track of land,” from a pool “deep enough for the kiddies to have all the fun they need, but not deep enough to be dangerous,” with a dining room “with pretty gray and blue furniture.”
|Elvis’s birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi.|
Cheerfield Farm was not cheery for my mother. Left there without explanation, she cried herself to sleep every night. Her family was also poor and lived in a shotgun house in downtown Memphis. I asked her once why they called it a shotgun house, and she said, “If you aimed a shotgun through the front door, you could shoot it out the back door.”
There’s something beautiful about a teenage Elvis in 1953, greasing his hair back and wearing his new Lansky Brother’s suit as he stepped into Sun Studios on Union Ave. to make his first recording. At the time he was still singing ballads as well as gospel music he learned at the Assembly of God church he attended in Tupelo. He paid for a few minutes of time to record the ballad That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.
Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Studios, later asked Elvis to record the ballad Without You. The song wasn’t a good fit for Elvis’s voice, so Phillips asked him to sing as many songs as he knew. When they were about to give up, Elvis broke into a 1946 blues song That’s All Right, and that was the sound Phillips was looking for.
This is the part of the Presley story I like best, when he was goofing around, just being himself, not trying to impress anyone and in the process found his voice. It’s the same moment Jackson Pollock had when he first dribbled house paint onto a canvas or Madame Curie had when she first saw radium glow. “That’s the world I want to live in,” abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler said when she first saw a Pollock painting.
That’s the world we all want to live in. We all want that Ah ha! moment when something inside us, something we feel called to, makes it’s way out. That’s the Elvis I imagine jumping around on the floor and singing That’s All Right.
It wasn’t until 1958 Elvis was introduced to amphetamines by a sergeant, when he was serving in the army. The drugs helped him keep up his strength and promoted weight loss, something that became increasingly important to him as a performer when he was touring and appearing in movies.
Was Elvis’s life full of grace? It depends on how you define grace. The word is synonymous with mercy. It’s also thought of as seemingly effortless beauty of movement. I’ve even heard it defined as the trust other people place in you. Elvis died at 42. A man whose hips and voice synchronized with a new sound, a new rhythm in music, lost pace with his own life. Time itself became accelerated and slowed down by amphetamines and barbiturates until his career and his art form became about others’ needs and not his own.
|Presley graves in backyard at Graceland.|
I think of this poem by Adrienne Rich:
Nothing he had done before
or would try for later
will explain or atone
this facile suggestion of crossbeams
languid elevations traced on water
his stake in white colonnades cramping his talent
showing up in
facsimile mansions overbearing the neighborhood
his leaving the steel rods out of the plinths
(bronze raptors gazing from the boxwood)
You could say he spread himself too thin, a plasterer’s term
you could say he was then
skating thin ice his stake in white colonnades against the
ice itself a slickened ground
Could say he did not then love
his art enough to love anything more
Could say he wanted the commission so
badly betrayed those who hired him an artist
who in dreams followed
the crowds who followed him
Imagine commandeering those oversize those prized
hardwood columns to be hoisted and hung
by hands expert and steady on powerful machines
his knowledge using theirs as the one kind does the
other (as it did in Egypt)
— while devising the little fountain to run all night
outside the master bedroom