Wednesday, April 02, 2008


Did I forget to mention
Forget to mention Memphis

Home of Elvis, and the ancient Greeks
What do I smell, I smell home cooking

It's only the river, it's only the river...

"Cities" by Talking Heads

I will not forget to mention Memphis.

Our trip started and ended with one-night visits there, both too brief. The main reason to stop there was for the girls to see Graceland and Sun Studio. On the way down we stayed at the Gold Strike Casino Resort in Tunica, and coming back we crashed at the Days Inn across from Graceland. I won't say too much about the Days Inn, because Splotchy captured it perfectly in his piece here. I will say that to stay at the Days Inn is to wrap yourself in a wonderful cocoon of Elvis-themed Elvisness. I confirmed that the parking is for Elvis fans only, as Splotchy stated.

I was also lucky enough to actually see the Elvis fan vehicle for whom that spot was intended:


If you've ever seen the Jim Jarmusch movie "Mystery Train" you have a good idea of what Memphis looks and feels like, even 19 years later. The town seems kind of dumpy and run down, but not in an entirely unappealing way. Here's a strange thing we noticed: there were a lot of stray dogs running around. We counted about 10 within one hour on a Saturday afternoon.

Like a lot of other places in the south, you're never far from the smell of barbecue smoke, frying onions or the deep fryer. When we stepped out of our room at the Days Inn at 6:30 in the morning we were immediately hit by the smell of frying onions and bacon coming from the residential neighborhood behind the hotel.

Ever want an intense, almost exquisitely lonely feeling, like the song "Sunday Morning Coming Down"? Then stand on Elvis Presley Boulevard in front of Graceland at 6:30 in the morning on a Sunday.

There's no one around, and you can smell breakfast cooking in the houses of people you don't know. There's hardly any traffic, and to top it off the canned Elvis music from the Graceland visitor center and gift shop never stops playing. That's right, you can look over at the place where the tourists line up for the shuttle bus and there's Elvis on the video monitors and speakers, performing for an audience that isn't even there yet. I have to tell you, it spooked me--it was like seeing Elvis somehow trapped in there, forced to perform forever. It's even better if it's a little rainy and gray like it was the morning we left to come home.

Anyway, I seem to have started at the end there.

Our first stop when we arrived last Monday was at Graceland. What can I say...I've turned into one of those great American cliches, the sappy middle class yahoo who gets weepy when he visits Graceland. The first time I was there it didn't happen until I walked out of the racquetball room and into the memorial garden. This time it started almost as soon as I walked in the front door.

Maybe it's all the stuff I read over the past few months (Peter Guralnick's excellent two volume biography) which gave me a lot of backstory for every room we walked through. I think a lot of it had to do with my kids' enthusiasm for Elvis.

The girls have no Elvis nostalgia, no memory of all those tabloid headlines from the mid-70's documenting his weight gain and drug problems. My daughters have an image of an Elvis as he was in the years 1954 to 1958. A kid just a little older than themselves, having the best time of his life singing and shaking his ass, full of energy and joy. I think they relate and have a purer enjoyment of him and and his music than people my age or older. The story of that young Elvis, his epic success and then the excesses and self-destruction and long slow decline that followed, is tragic.

As he got older the most popular entertainer in the world was terrified of not being liked, and of growing old. Elvis became trapped by being Elvis.
If you've got any imagination, all that early joy and all the later sadness comes on and pours over you in waves, and you wish you could go back in time and grab that kid and shake him, and maybe save him from what was coming.

I was armed with a digital camera on this visit, intent on getting lots of pictures. Here's the thing--my camera would not work when I tried taking pictures inside the house. And I tried. I gave the camera over to MizBubs to check the settings, which she did, and it still didn't work. In my heightened emotional state I was convinced that Elvis' spirit didn't want me disrespecting the house by taking souvenir photos. I was crushed, because I was certain that if anyone had entered that home in the proper spirit of love and respect it was me.

The camera started working again in the racquetball room, where about a dozen of Elvis' later costumes were on display. Then it got stubborn again when we were outside in the memorial garden. The picture you see of Elvis' grave was taken with my cell phone camera.

I am convinced that the south is more obsessed with religion and death than any other region in the nation. At the time we walked through the memorial garden I didn't realize that this intensity of devotion, and the honoring of the dead, would be a theme that carried through the rest of our trip.

We saw other stuff at Graceland; there's a new exhibit called "Private Presley" that details Elvis' military service, and we went on the Lisa Marie, one of his private jets. There's also an exhibit featuring Elvis' cars, including this one that I think totally kicks ass:

Do you know why that car kicks ass? Because that car sports a gold alligator roof! Best of all, though, the car exhibit also features giant red "ELVIS" letters like the ones used on the 1968 comeback special:

I don't know why I didn't get my picture taken in front of this. These are the letters in the background as Elvis sings "If I Can Dream" at the end of the special. If I'd worn a snappy white suit I know I would've gotten my picture taken here.

When we left Graceland we headed over to Jim Neely's Interstate B-B-Q. Really great barbecue and fantastic smoky barbecued beans, served up in a formica heaven circa 1978. The cole slaw and potato salad were not that great, and the barbecue spaghetti is worth trying but I wouldn't make a meal of it. The chopped shoulder, though, was some of the best barbecued pork I've ever eaten anywhere, and the people there were really nice.

We visited Sun Studios on Saturday, on our return trip. If Graceland is a shrine, a memorial to the memory of Elvis, then Sun Studio is closer to actual holy ground. A tiny place where big things happened, and walking into that studio was humbling. Standing on the spot where Elvis recorded "That's All Right", seeing where the Million Dollar Quartet sang together, seeing the same dingy acoustic tiles on the walls all these years later. Holding that old microphone. Whew. Johnny Cash. Carl Perkins. Jerry Lee Lewis. Oh man.

It was fun, again, watching my daughters go all googly over those old pictures of Johnny Cash and Elvis. What a reminder that this was music made by kids. My daughters were still smart enough, though, to be scared of Jerry Lee.


One thing I really liked about Memphis was the signage. Here are a few examples:

He sells "herbal viagra" and is the "Piller" of the community.

Worried about your taxes? Then get likkered up and stuff your face with hot wings to ease your anxiety

In Memphis the pests are so pesty you need atomic-powered spacemen and giant cheese-eating rats to kill them all. And fly your flag proudly.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

I could all but taste and smell the place! Memphis sounds like a crazy trip and who better to guide us through the wilderness than you. Thanks!

Splotchy said...

Lovely, lovely, lovely post.

Sun Studios is still on my to-do list (I almost said bucket list. Oh, crap! I just said it!).

FranIAm said...

Oh man, Splotchy did the place justice, but this is now a companion piece to that.

Holy crap man, I want to get in the car and just go. Now.

Bubs said...

Fran, thank you! If you ever get a chance to travel with Splotchy, do it, by the way. Next stop is Vicksburg, I'll put up that post later tonight.

Splotchy, thanks! You'll love Sun Studio--did you know it's still an active recording studio? I know if I was a musician that's where I'd want to record.

Barbara, you are so welcome! Feel free to head south across the border for a tour some time.

Anonymous said...

I remember going to Memphis once to track someone down. I was just driving along checking the street numbers when all of a sudden, BAM there's Sun Studio. It has such a huge place in history, I was shocked at how small it was. Kind of the way I felt when I realized I had driven past the Alamo several times without noticing it.

I love Memphis. Thanks for the photos.

Splotchy said...

I knew that U2 recorded at Sun Studios during their Rattle and Hum business, but didn't know it was an active studio -- I thought they might have just opened it up special for them. That's pretty cool it's still going!

I forgot to mention in my last comment, but we received Mystery Train from Netflix today. I haven't seen it before.

Gifted Typist said...

I've never been the Memphis, but now I feel I have.
Is Mystery Train really 19 years old? I love that flick

vikkitikkitavi said...

Being a second generation Elvis fan, I must recommend two movies, if you've never seen them:

Heartbreak Hotel - totally corny guilty pleasure of a movie about a teenager who kidnaps Elvis in order to stop his mother's emotional breakdown. Also a wonderful fantasy about what might have happened if Elvis had taken charge of his life and gotten away from the drugs and the Colonel.

Bubba Ho-Tep - Hilarious sci-fi thriller with Bruce Campbell as a aging Elvis. He's stuck in a rest home because no one will believe that he's the real thing and not an impersonator. Oh, also stars Ozzie Davis as JFK. Awe. Some.

BeckEye said...

I've always wanted to get down to Graceland. Someday, I suppose.

That shot of Sun reminds me of that Drive-By Truckers song, "Carl Perkins Cadillac." Do you know that one? If you don't, look it up. You'll love it, I guarantee.

Bubs said...

Beckeye, I'll look for that, thanks! I've liked what I've heard from the Drive-By Truckers.

Vikki, we loved Bubba Ho Tep. Matter of fact, I have a Sebastian Haff action figure that my daughter gave me. I'll add Heartbreak Hotel to the Netflix queue.

Gifted Typist, yeah, I was surprised it was that old too. But a lot of stuff surprises me like that lately.

Kirby, I know what you mean. I drove right by Sun Studio--my daughter saw it as I drove past. I found the Lorraine Motel accidentally the same way first time we visited, after a night out. I turned a corner and there it was, which was surreal and sad at 2 am.

And when you said you were there to "track someone down" what exactly did you mean? I love talk like that.

Dale said...

I think I'd like to do an eating tour of the South sometime. I'll ask you for recommendations. A tasty post in many ways!