(Above: Elvis’ house.)
Every year a phenomenon called “Elvis Week” takes place in mid-August. It centers on the anniversary of the date that Elvis Aaron Presley died at the too-young age of 42 in 1977. I’m always disappointed that we don’t do Elvis Week in January, around the anniversary of his birth. It’s the tragic end that gets all of the attention. We’re more fascinated with how Elvis died than how he lived. (As such, I think I’ll save the Elvis records for January.)
To say that Elvis was a polarizing figure isn’t telling the whole story. The box of 45s I inherited from my parents contained exactly one Elvis record: “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” from Blue Hawaii. My mother once explained that she thought Elvis was “a greaser” and wasn’t drawn to him. Back when I did a television history course at Grand Valley I did a whole unit on the contentious relationship between rock and roll and television, digging out some early Elvis performances. You know, the one where they wouldn’t show him from the waist down on Ed Sullivan, the one where he sang to a basset hound in a top hat on Steve Allen’s show, etc. They don’t see the controversy. Now, granted, there’s been a desensitization since 1956 that makes the gyrating hips look like much ado about nothing, but in a nation weary of perceived outside threats the menace of rock and roll was not to be taken lightly. Context is everything.
I was eight years old in 1977 and took note when Elvis died. My parents normally had WGN radio on in the kitchen each day, and the Wally Phillips morning show did not feature music. It did then. The story was the full front page of the Chicago Sun-Times, complete with color picture, which was rare in those days. The simple headline, “Elvis is dead,” conveyed a familiarity normally reserved for family. You knew who they were talking about, and didn’t need explanation. It’s been said that the only people you don’t “key” in television news (put up a graphic saying who they are) are the Pope and the President. I suspect the same was true for Elvis.
But the lore of all things Elvis continues. In most years Elvis continues to reign as the highest-earning dead celebrity. Much of that comes from licensing by his estate and from the money that Graceland, his home, brings in. If you have never had the chance to visit Graceland, I recommend that you do it exactly once. (Then, go over to the Sun Studios tour, which I found much more interesting.) Graceland – or at least the parts the public is allowed to see – is a time capsule of sorts. The home has been kept in the same condition that it was in 1977 when Elvis passed. On the tour you learn that his father continued to live there for a while after that, but clearly no one wanted to disturb the place. I, for one, found the place to be a) smaller than I expected for a mansion (I think there are bigger homes on Plymouth Avenue in East Grand Rapids) and b) terribly depressing. I got a sense that once fame arrived at Elvis’ feet, he wasn’t entirely sure what to do with it. He ended up surrounded by people who didn’t necessarily have his best interests in mind (I’m looking at you, Tom Parker) and – I may be projecting here – wasn’t comfortable with the whole thing. The decor in the house is a little tacky: the Jungle Room is small and gaudy, and the formal living room looks like the room anyone’s parents would have in their home that only gets used on Christmas morning.
The pull of Elvis in music isn’t lost on me. I debated whether for this piece to use the Marc Cohn song or Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” which is also a good song. But the imagery in the Cohn track resonates more with me. I visited Memphis last in 2009, before I was in the habit of carrying a camera with me everywhere I went. It occurred to me walking down Beale Street that I should stand about ten feet away from it and get a picture, but alas, I did not, fearing it would be too touristy. (I had the same fear at Abbey Road: I took pictures of the studio rather than stand in the crosswalk.)
“Walking in Memphis” is a song that took me exactly one listen to decide would be a hit. It made #13 and won Cohn the Best New Artist Grammy in 1991 – and, then, that was it. Subsequent releases failed to make the Top 40. Maybe we liked the song because of the Elvis story in it and didn’t realize it? After all, we spend millions on Elvis music each year. My own collection now features a number of Elvis singles (some on 78 RPM, which I guard carefully) that I have managed to find over the years. And when you eventually finish that Graceland tour, you’ll be dumped – as all good tours do – into a gift shop where you can acquire all manner of King things. It’s that thought that so many have that maybe Elvis isn’t really dead that feeds the legend. Of course, if we have the music, the artist never truly leaves us. In that sense, Elvis isn’t dead, and there’s nothing to commemorate this week after all.
You can wait for the King down in the jungle room. Hear “Walking in Memphis” by clicking here.