Walking in Memphis — a travelogue

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It has taken us seven months, but at long last, we’ve visited Memphis, Tennessee, for reasons that don’t involve using the airport. This is a good thing because, among the city’s various claims to fame, some of its welcome signs bill it as “America’s Distribution Center,” and the airport terminal has all the ambiance of one. It would have been tragic if the airport and its environs were the only things we ever experienced in Memphis, the closest major city to Tupelo. 

It started with a decision to get tickets to a Ryan Adams (an indie-rock singer-songwriter not to be confused with 1980s stalwart Bryan Adams) concert. Given the nearly two-hour drive, we decided to make a weekend of it, leaving home Friday night and returning late Sunday afternoon. In between, we did the following touristy things:

Dinner at Itta Bena

This restaurant and bar is named for bluesman B.B. King’s Mississippi hometown, boasts “contemporary Southern cuisine,” and sits atop a blues club that also bears his name. The food was delicious, and the atmosphere was … interesting, to say the least. Our dining soundtrack was provided by a female jazz/blues pianist who I would guess is also a pretty solid wedding singer. The bar crowd was decidedly middle-aged and older, while the dining room was besieged by an army of 20-somethings out on the town. The women were clad in rompers or minidresses with stiletto heels, while the guys opted for what I call the “Southern gentleman frat boy” uniform of checkered or white button-down shirt (open collar, no tie), khakis, and sport coat. One of them had already imbibed so much that he was in danger of passing out in his entree, and the night was still pretty young (around 8 or 9 o’clock). “It’s like we’re in a Billy Joel song,” my husband observed.

Lunch at King Jerry Lawler’s Hall of Fame Bar & Grille

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This is the closest we got to an actual Jerry “The King” Lawler sighting, which was fine by me.

One thing I realized I was going to have to tolerate early on in my marriage is that my husband was not only a rabid sports fan, he was an equally avid fan of faux sports, i.e. professional wrestling. I have suffered through many a Monday night with WWE’s “Monday Night RAW” blaring on the TV. Among the luminaries of this alleged “sport” is a native Memphian and former radio DJ named Jerry “The King” Lawler. Last year, Mr. Lawler opened a restaurant on the city’s famed Beale Street, which becomes the Memphis equivalent of Times Square after dark, and Mike was determined for us to eat there. As expected, it’s decorated in a wrestling motif, with posters, capes and other memorabilia prominently displayed. The televisions by the bar show college football, golf, or archival footage from Mr. Lawler’s illustrious career. There are exactly two items on the menu that I feel capable of digesting, given that a late dinner, which included a glass of Malbec, plus the cayenne in the crawfish etouffee that garnished my red snapper, gave me terrible acid reflux the night before. The waitress tells me she can make a “side salad” to go with my crawfish chowder, even though a side portion isn’t listed on the menu. The salad bowl is about the same size as the soup bowl. I barely eat half of both.

The Peabody Hotel

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It’s fair to say ducks in a fountain aren’t necessarily the most ridiculous thing to see in Memphis.

The Peabody is an opulent grande dame of a hotel where, between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily, you can loiter in the lobby and gawk at a small group of ducks paddling around in the fountain. If you are fortunate enough to be present at either end of the ducks’ shift, you are treated to a waterfowl parade along a red carpet that leads to the fountain. This is a tradition dating to the 1930s. It’s odd, but at least it doesn’t cost anything. For us, it’s worth about 10-15 minutes of entertainment before we move on. My husband is crushed that feeding the ducks is expressly prohibited.

Sun Studio tour

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The one and only Prisonaires. John Hinckley Jr., Charles Manson, and Ted Kaczynski can only dream of having this kind of talent.

Known as the birthplace of rock’n’roll, Sun Studio, though humble in size, is a music Mecca. A bearded hipster who I assume is in his late 20s and claims to be a musician himself is our tour guide, packing an enormous amount of history into a 45-minute tour. The central character in this narrative is Sam Phillips, a young radio DJ and sound engineer who took a leap of faith to launch his own recording studio and record label. You learn that the rhythm and blues song “Rocket 88,” an ode to the Oldsmobile of the same name, was recorded there and is considered to be the first rock’n’roll record. You also learn that Sun’s earliest artists included a quintet of convicts from the Tennessee State Penitentiary who performed as The Prisonaires (no joke). And of course, you learn about Sun’s role as the springboard for Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc. One piece of trivia that probably resonates best with my generation is that they still have the drum set that U2 used on three songs recorded at Sun on their “Rattle and Hum” album, including “When Love Comes to Town,” featuring B.B. King. I feel both enriched and cheated at the same time, given the $14 admission fee and the lack of flexibility to linger over the exhibits upstairs.

The National Civil Rights Museum

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This wreath marks the spot where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was standing when he was assassinated at the Lorraine Hotel in 1968.

Opened in 1991, this museum is a complex of buildings developed on and around the site of the former Lorraine Hotel, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. We spend two hours there, which doesn’t seem nearly enough to gain an understanding of the more sinister chapters of U.S. history. It is overwhelming, and it unsurprisingly and depressingly reinforces my view that Mississippi ranks first in everything that sucks. It is jam-packed on a Saturday afternoon. Although I grumble privately at the lack of elbow room, I realize I should be grateful that it’s attracting so much interest. It’s a resource that’s probably needed more than ever today. I deeply appreciate getting a such broad sweep of the movement’s history, having visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in August.

Graceland

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“Poor boys and pilgrims with families / And we are going to Graceland” – Paul Simon, “Graceland”

This was our last stop before heading home. If we weren’t within reasonable driving distance of Memphis, I could have survived just fine without experiencing Graceland, but I couldn’t live so relatively close to it and not see what all the fuss was about. I was just 7 years old when Elvis died. You wouldn’t have found any of his records in rotation on the mammoth stereo console that my parents used to own. During the debate in the early ’90s over whether the U.S. Postal Service should go with the fat or skinny version on the Elvis stamp, my mother opined that he was undeserving of such canonization because he hadn’t led an exemplary life. Needless to say, I wasn’t raised in an Elvis household, and I regarded him as mostly a cheesy joke by the time I came to understand whoever I thought he was.

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How Elvis continues to make money from beyond the grave.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the experience of Graceland, just like its famous occupant, was a study in excess. It starts with the price of admission. If you are an adult, Graceland on the cheap will run you $43.75 per person, which gets you a tour of the mansion and Elvis’ private planes. From 1982, when Graceland first opened to the public, until earlier this year, the mansion was pretty much all  there was to see. More recently, a $45 million, 200,000-square foot museum and retail/entertainment complex was added, providing more ways than ever before to separate visitors from their hard-earned cash. The “ultimate VIP” experience encompasses the mansion, the museum, the planes, an “expert guide,” a meal voucher, and a private lounge for $159. After some debate, we landed in the middle and paid $57.50 for the “Elvis Experience Tour,” which included the mansion and museum complex, but not the planes (they become a $5 add-on at this level). My husband thought we’d get more out of seeing the new facility than Graceland itself, although the reality would prove otherwise.

With tickets in hand, we were directed to a holding area where a promotional film was shown, then herded onto shuttle buses that would ferry us through the iconic wrought iron gates styled as sheet music and up to the house. We were each given a tablet computer and headphones, which essentially served as our tour guide. More specifically, our tour guide was John Stamos of “Full House” fame, or rather his voice narrating an interactive program loaded onto the tablets explaining the significance of various rooms and other points of interest on the property. At one point, he enlightened us that the name of his “Full House” character, Uncle Jesse, was named after Elvis’ deceased twin brother. Well, OK, if you say so …

It appears that the flesh-and-blood human beings in Graceland’s employ primarily function as crowd control. As we disembark from the shuttle, we are lined up single file along the driveway. The visitors ahead of us form a line spilling out onto the front walkway. Groups of perhaps 10-20 of us at a time are permitted to cross the road and step up as the line moves along. The staffer stationed at the front door is one of a very few who will speak to us to provide ground rules for photography and such, and then points out a window directly above the entrance that marks the bathroom where the King met his untimely end. The front staircase is roped off to prevent the more morbid curiosity seekers among us from looking inside.

It’s striking how, for all of the mythology constructed around Elvis and his bottomless appetite for food, women, drugs, and all manner of material goods, the place he called home after hitting it big seems so ordinary. It could just as easily be the home of a successful doctor or lawyer when you strip away oddities such as the three televisions embedded in a wall of the media room, the 350 yards of fabric that swaddle the walls and ceiling of the billiard room, and the now non-functioning indoor waterfall in the Jungle Room. Even more striking is the sheer volume of random objects on display. There is nothing too trivial or irrelevant to showcase, not even his parents’ tax records. As we pass through a former smokehouse on the property that was used as a shooting range, I spy an ancient Sears outboard motor dangling in a random corner near the ceiling. It is noteworthy for being one of the few objects at Graceland that hasn’t been curated for the masses.

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Obligatory gravesite photo, because, Graceland.

We end at the Meditation Garden, where the line reverently shuffles past the graves of Elvis and his parents. By this point, I have reached my limit for standing in line, so I break free and go around the other side of the fountain around which the graves are arranged and find a vantage point on a couple terraced concrete steps behind the line to get a few photos. This probably violates some unwritten rule of Elvis worship, but I am a heretic, after all. Then it’s time to part ways with the tablets containing the disembodied voice of John Stamos and board the shuttle bus back to the 200,000-square foot monstrosity housing all the crap they don’t have room to display at Graceland.

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From the Elvis Presley archives. Also available at Walgreens.

And that’s the most polite way I can describe the remainder of our visit, which chews up about another hour and 45 minutes. We are deposited at a small retail area where patrons can pick up and pay through the nose for cheesy red carpet-style photos that are snapped before boarding the bus to Graceland (we are decidedly camera shy). From there, we scurry past exhibits of Elvis’ collections of cars and motorcycles. We then pass through an “archives experience,” where you can peek at artifacts like … cheap drugstore cologne!

Behind the archives, you can learn about his military career and read bits of correspondence from the King’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, that provide a tiny bit of insight into Parker’s tightfisted control of the Elvis gravy train. From there, you abruptly transition to an “ICONS” section where contemporary music stars across all genres wax poetic about Elvis’ influence on their own careers. Fair enough, but do we really care about what Carrie Underwood, who might well be working the county fair circuit in Oklahoma but for the divine intervention of “American Idol,” thinks of Elvis?

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Wherein Elvis laments how he’s gone without fresh milk and butter since his milk cow wandered off.

Moving right along, you enter the Elvis the Entertainer Career Museum, where some semblance of an actual chronology finally starts to take shape, but it is short-lived. The story of how Sun Records launched him into the stratosphere is retold here, and it’s amusing to note the titles of obscure early records such as “Milkcow Blues Boogie.” Just when you start to think you’re finally getting some sense of order and an effort to tell a compelling story, you get distracted by the jumble of movie posters, costumes, jumpsuits, and gold records clamoring for your attention. There’s a lot that we skipped — an exhibit on his birthplace of Tupelo (we live there, thankyouverymuch), a recreation of the 1956 Mississippi-Alabama Fair (the site of one of his legendary live performances), an exhibit on Sam Phillips (seems redundant after our Sun Studio tour). Lastly, there is Graceland Soundstage A, and if you haven’t experienced Elvis fatigue by this stage you can park yourself here to watch his movies and concert performances until closing time.

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From the magazine cover on the left: WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ELVIS? The answer is pretty well documented.

As we walked back to the car, my husband asked, “Will people ever get sick of Elvis?” His estate certainly can’t afford for that to happen. It’s abundantly clear that at Graceland, cash is king. Last year, Elvis charted at No. 4 on Forbes magazine’s list of top-earning dead celebrities at $27 million, thanks to music sales and Graceland proceeds. Graceland’s expansion is likely indicative of the freight it carries as an economic engine of the entertainment-industrial complex that is Elvis Presley Enterprises. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the property also includes a $92 million, 450-room resort hotel just down the street that opened about a year ago.) As a museum, it doesn’t tell a particularly coherent story about its subject.

But perhaps that’s not the point. You don’t succeed as an entertainer if you don’t give the people what they want. If hardcore Elvis fans who plan their lives around pilgrimages to Graceland are always wanting more, I fully expect the powers that be will work hard to determine how much more to give them, and when, to keep fueling the flames of idol worship.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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