Sunday, February 18, 2007

Memphis, TN – greatest vacation ever?

Well, maybe Hollywood 1985 was better. Or Las Vegas 2010? But for now, at this point in my life, Memphis is it.

Let’s get Graceland out of the way first since upon my return eight out of ten people greeted me with “How was Graceland?” and not “How was Memphis?” Maybe I encouraged the delusion myself before I left, can’t recall. But so many other attractions eclipsed Graceland, fine as it was. Still, gotta give the people what they ask for.

First off, a bit of consumer advice. As of this writing, there are “three great ways to tour” Graceland according to The Graceland Mansion Tour is just the manse and grounds. And truth be told, you could live an extremely rich and varied life exercising the consumer discretion to choose that option. But for just $5 more ($4.50 for students…and there’s a AAA discount) payable to The King’s cadaver, you get The Graceland Platinum Tour which “includes an audio-guided tour of Graceland Mansion and grounds, along with self-guided tours of Elvis's two custom airplanes, Elvis's Automobile Museum, the Sincerely Elvis Museum, and Elvis After Dark,” i.e. all the goodies across the street at Graceland Plaza, the complex where you start your journey anyway before being bused across Elvis Presley Boulevard and up to Graceland. I mention this because the biggest of the airplanes, The Lisa Marie, was sweeeeet. I liked it even better than Graceland itself. But my enthusiasm may be due to the fact that I LOATHE flying and the plush seatery and Elvis’ comfy bed (all befitted with regulation seatbelts) gave the illusion of safety. Stuart assured me I’d like the smaller one better because it’d move around less up in the air. I’ll never know. The other museums are fun but quickly consumable, sprinkled throughout shop after shop of memorabilia stores, each one visited in the hopes that it would reveal something fresh about Our Lord The Pelvis. And they did – Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley was easier to find there than his Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley.

I mention all this for another reason. There is the Graceland Entourage VIP Tour which costs $68 (Platinum’s $30). In addition to all the benefits of the Platinum Tour, you get “front of the line access, special all day ticket, keepsake backstage pass, and an enhanced tour.” Ok, first of all, we went on Elvis’ motherfunkin’ birthday and waited in no lines. Actually, we had no intention of going that day because we assumed the place would be swamped. But for some fucked-up reason, fans want to celebrate his death more than the day he was put on this earth. We drove by and decided to give it a shot when we saw no crowds (we later learned that the mayor gave a little speech early in the morning). Apart from free birthday cake and coffee back on the other side of EP Blvd., his birthday is just not a big deal. Now there may be lines during the summer or if you’re dumb enough to go on August 16th. Still, the VIP Tour would not have helped us in that regard. I don’t know what this “special all day ticket” is - after several hours with no one shooing us away, we felt that we had thoroughly exhausted the place (and even the Elvis outlet store up the street a bit). Fuck the keepsake backstage pass – your ticket is keepsake enough. And I’m suspicious of enhanced tours when there’s no mention of how exactly enhanced they are. The only sign of VIP privilege was a section in Graceland Plaza marked “VIP Section.” Only two people were sitting there. They looked a bit nervous.

In short, don’t do the VIP.

Before boarding the bus to Graceland (total trip time: about 2 minutes), you get your picture taken in front of a cheap painted Graceland backdrop for what we assumed were security purposes. But no, that’s not cheesy enough. When you step off the bus after the mansion tour, your cheese ass picture is for sale at a merch table for $10. I wonder if they would’ve let us purchase the pic of the cute rock and roll boys in our bus instead of our AWFUL one.

As for Graceland itself, I suggest reading Karal Ann Marling’s longwinded, hideously illustrated but still generally excellent Graceland: Going Home with Elvis. Elvis freaks get itchy about this book because Marling dares to shift her focus away from The Almighty for a larger portrait of The South (note to editor: retain caps) and a vast field of inauthentic Americana. But for those of us who can live without His presence for moments at a time, it will anticipate reactions and answer questions you’re going to have immediately. Here’s a brief rundown:

1. Graceland’s smaller than many people expect.

2. It is indeed situated in a long strip of crass commerce which somehow serves only to further mask Graceland's own crass commerciality.

3. Elvis did not find Graceland in some untainted Garden of Eden. The crass commerce had already settled in by the time he purchased it.

4. To the extent that it apes the mansions in Gone With The Wind, it is a sham: “There had never been a house in all of Georgia remotely like the Hollywood Twelve Oaks that threatened to disappear into its own forest of ornate columns.” (142) Also, Tara in the Margaret Mitchell’s novel was “plain, uncolumned” (147) to ironically set off “Scarlett’s (later) carpetbagger failures of good taste.” (143) But the film flattened out this irony by making everything “uniformly lush.” (147)

5. Pause for a gorgeous line about Mama Presley’s ghost which some claim to encounter now and then: “She flitted in and out of the blue lights strung along the driveway, carrying her ectoplasmic lawn chair down the hill to sit and visit with the fans camped just outside the gates of heaven.” (158)

6. Actually, a question remains. I always thought that a peanut butter and banana sandwich was THE Elvis dish. And indeed, I had one somewhere on Graceland Plaza (I gave half of it to Stuart – a bit too heavy for me, esp. with only a Sprite to wash it down). But now I read that Elvis made his notorious late night 1976 flight to Denver for The Fool’s Gold which is a deep-fried PB/J sub with a pound of fried bacon. Here are some pics:

So why isn’t this available on Graceland Plaza? And where/when did the banana (ever?) come in?

My favorite room? The Living Room and again, Marling helped me understand why: “The studied disposition of parts suggests public or quasi-public spaces, like cocktail lounges and hotel rooms…these spaces remain impersonal and lifeless in a way the funkier, more idiosyncratic red rooms upstairs were not.” (221) I don’t agree with “lifeless.” The Living Room breathes with the life of not only tourists enjoying their first “holy shit! I finally made it here!” glimpse of the house but also the many visitors to Graceland while Elvis was alive. This is where Elvis came down to meet you, the last stop before “the nervous, episodic quality” (196) of the rest of the house not to mention the funky idiosyncracy of the upstairs. Few people ever enjoyed these episodes of Graceland before it was opened to the public. And even when the King was alive, almost no one was admitted upstairs which is where the lifelessness really resides, a symbol of the unknowable, untourable reality of death.

But impersonal? Absolutely, in the greatest pop way. And here the most telling detail is those stained glass peacock panels which are supposed to separate the living room from something called the music room but serve only to underline the two spaces as one continuous flow of modest kitsch. They mark the kind of personal enclave one would find in a hotel lobby, at a slight remove from the nearest co-inhabitants but still visible and potentially audible to all. Nothing here suggests the comfort and permanence of Home, from the television set at an neck-stretching 90 degree angle in the music room to the uncomfortable low back of the living room’s fifteen-foot sofa. The peacock panels thus epitomize the illusion that this space isn’t for Elvis but rather “everyone” which helped mitigate my sad feelings of have-notdom during the rest of the tour.

Two quick observations to wrap up Graceland: I loved the staircase leading down to the Jungle Room. Always nice to have an extra escape route. And judging solely from the various jumpsuits on display, Elvis was never as fat as reported.

We lit out to Sun Studios immediately afterwards and it wound up the high point of the entire trip. I’m not a rootsy guy and have little use for origin myths. And it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hear the revolution in Elvis’ Sun sessions. But boy did I ever get sucked into the romance of firsts standing right where Sam Phillips placed Elvis for the recording of “That’s All Right,” the “first rock and roll record” (or the last if you’re Nick Tosches). Or fingering the indentation in the tile supposedly made by Bill Black’s bass. Or salivating over the 78 of “That’s All Right” on the wall (even though, yes, I know the “Milkcow Blues Boogie” 78 is rarer). Our cute, fun rockabilly tour guide actually gave us a moment to kiss the floor if we so desired.

Where Graceland was smaller than anticipated, I was genuinely stunned at how large the actual studio looked. It’s far from cavernous but Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train made it seem like a closet. Also surprising was the fact that it’s used very regularly for recording today.

Before entering hallowed ground, there’s a little exhibit upstairs tracing the development of rock and roll. Our guide told the tale of the busted amplifier that was responsible for the sound of another first rock and roll, Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88.” Upon seeing a busted amplifier in a glass case, I interrupted his spiel and asked if that was THE amp. No, he said, a bit put out, but he’d let us know if any item wasn’t the original although no further mention was made of simulacra.

Day Two was spent at The Memphis Rock N Soul Museum. Both the best and worst thing about it was that the digital audio tour guide allows you to listen to over 100 songs in their entirety – great for rockin’ the fuck out but an evil temptation with a husband who’s zipping through the place at three times your speed. Favorite factoid: Sam Phillips made a lot (most?) of his money by getting in on the ground floor of Holiday Inn. There was even a Holiday Inn Records label.

That evening, we ate at R.P. Tracks, a rather grungy bar/restaurant/café popular with the college set. I place “bar” first because that element gave off the strongest vibe and as such, I wasn’t expecting much from the food. But we were getting visions of Elvis by the time we reached the bottom of our vegan nachos. Supporting a tower of guac, chips, and veggies was a bed of THE very best barbecue tofu we’ve ever had. This was some deep red shit that let you KNOW it was barbecue every bite of the way. Please, R.P. Tracks – send your recipe to Mother’s here in Austin whose BBQ tofu is bland as carnivores imagine it.

Crammed in a lot during the last day. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music had the unfortunate, but predictable, effect of diminishing Stax’s contribution to popular music by focusing on American soul in general. I know it’s blasphemy to say but Stax always offered diminishing returns anyway, especially as the 1970s rolled around. And their greatest figurehead, Otis Redding, has been eclipsed by Al Green (and not just because Green has the luxury of still being alive). Still, the hallway showcasing every Stax LP and single was particularly jizzworthy. And let it be known that one of their divisions put out an awful Lena Zavaroni record someone gave me for free.

The National Civil Rights Museum would take days to go through properly but we only had 90 minutes. It was terrifying rolling up to the correct address and seeing the Lorraine Motel (where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot) but no sign that this was also the museum. Another terrifying moment was standing where King was shot and seeing someone staring back at me from where James Earl Ray stood when he shot King from across the street. Stuart neglected to tell me that the museum continued across the street with an exhibit which explores the assassination in detail.

Did a quick jog down Beale Street which was profoundly anti-climactic. It was around 5pm so most stores were closed and the night life had yet to begin. Still, I got the sad impression that I wouldn’t be missing much beyond the desultory fifteen minutes we spent searching for signs of significance.

After a drive-by view of Ardent Studios, we had dinner at The Bar-B-Q Shop. Ok let’s settle something right now. Dry barbecue is a waste of time. To my palette (which admittedly is the planet’s most undiscerning), it tastes the same as meat with no barbecue sauce on it. So the dish to remember here was the barbecue spaghetti which you can get without meat. Gene-yus! Better than anything that passes for barbecue in the sorry food town that is Austin. And I drank a gallon of their amazing sweet tea. When I told the waitress how good it was, she sweetly replied “thanks for the compliment.” Now when have you ever heard that phrase uttered in a restaurant? (P.S. We saw our cute Sun Studios tour guide come in to pick up a few BOXES of barbecue. Wonder who he was bringing it back to. U2? Paul McCartney? Billy Lee Riley?)

One final Memphis observation. Where was everybody? Even American Idol noted the ghost town feel of the place. And this wasn’t just in the touristy area since we experienced a similar sense of desertion near our hotel which was about 5 miles from downtown. Could the following observation from Marling about William Faulkner at his Mississippi home Rowan Oak be generalized to explain the lack of bustle:

“Modest affluence never overwhelmed gentility. Nor did labor: the study was tucked away at the back of the house, off-limits to family and visitors…What the plantation stood for in the twentieth-century imagination was a spaciousness of life, an ease and a perpetual leisure, unspoiled by the grim necessities of making a living. Nostalgia for an Eden without regular jobs and hard cash…” (37)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your advice! You answered a lot of questions that I had about the VIP tour and such. Good info overall...

12:24 PM  

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