December 2018 – Mark Vawser
Walking through Memphis I only wish I had brought my blue suede shoes. Like the Marc Cohn song, I wanted to see the ghost of Elvis in the city of blues. The city leans into its music heritage hard with signs and billboards depicting guitars on every corner. It would be irresponsible of me not to see what the city has to offer. My first stop would be Graceland before checking out Sun Studios and walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale. Come with me for a walk through Memphis.
Graceland (December 2018)
Graceland posed a particular challenge. The interior was very low light, cramped and crowded, but the biggest challenge was the décor. The iconic ‘Jungle Room’ was so dark and had so much texture my camera could not get a clean shot. I guess it just adds to the mystery.
Tip: The colours in this photo of Graceland just weren’t working. The blues and green were arguing and the pink wouldn’t stop making a scene. When colours misbehave Black & White saves the day.
The second most visited house in the US (first being the White House) Graceland is separated into two parts, the visitors’ center complete with museums containing Elvis artefacts, diners, memorabilia shops and big white purely gates to welcome Elvis devotes. The second part located across the road from the visitors’ center is the property of Graceland itself, the small colonial mansion that housed the Presley family between 1957 until it was opened as a museum in 1982.
Newcomers park at the visitors’ center and walking through the pearly gates purchase one of three ticket options. I opted for the cheapest option ($40 USD) because hey I’m on a budget. This allowed me access to an audio-guided tour of Graceland and the Airfield containing the two private jets Elvis owned (nothing special but good to get photos in front). After buying the tickets we were ushered into a small theatre where we watched a surprisingly well-made movie showing his achievements and welcoming us to Graceland. I did note that there were no pictures of fat Elvis, the later years when he stacked on the weight with monstrous peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwiches. This signaled to anyone looking for any of the grittier sides of the king’s life that the following tour would be a sanitized, clean experience. Outside the theatre each group gets a photo in front of a Graceland mural, this is for purchase later somewhat like a graduation photo, equally unflattering and expensive at $50 USD. Formalities over its just a quick bus trip across the road and you’re in Elvis’s driveway. The old gates to Graceland are scrawled with signatures, some offering well wishes to the Presley family, others simply stating that someone was ‘there’ in 1998.
The building itself was a colonial revival style mansion, large white pillars holding up two stories of 1970s luxury. It was surprisingly small considering the large acres of land it sat on (now somewhat developed). Inside carefully positioned furniture from the 1970s told the story of Elvis’s home life. Large box TV’s were in every room, white leather furniture in the lounge and mirror surfaces on the tables and walls. A Christmas tree complete with presents had been added to match the season and create a sense of family atmosphere. Each room brought its own opulent flair. The basements two rooms were decorated in yellow leather for the bar, and multicolored fabrics hung from the walls of the pool room. According to the guide, it took three men 10 days to achieve the curtain style that should only ever been seen in the seventies. The infamous Jungle Room located at the back of the house was a hot mess of wood, green shag carpet (on the ceiling too) and an indoor waterfall. The acoustics were said to be a happy accident that helped Elvis record an album in there. Maybe he knew what he was doing putting The carpet on the ceiling.
The upstairs rooms are closed and remain private, they say in respect for Elvis who maintained his privacy upstairs during his lifetime, but it’s probably so we don’t see the toilet he died on. That or it’s probably a logistical nightmare managing tours going up and down the single set of stairs, we’ll never know. After moving through the house proper there were two galleries of Elvis family artefacts, birth certificates, wedding clothing, his Police badge collection etc. A squash courts, or racquetball in America. And finally the garden of contemplation, where Elvis himself is buried.
The gardens were surprisingly in their restraint. No statues of Elvis dominated the scene only a marble angel headstone once located on his original burial site (he was moved from a Memphis cemetery after two months because of security threats) a small fountain located in the middle and the Elvis family buried on one side under black marble gravestones. A fire of commemoration burned above Elvis himself in a glass box. Despite not being a huge Elvis fan I had to admit that standing there in did inspire some awe. His pop culture imprint was titanic and will continue to be prevalent for generations to come. To spend a couple hours in the shadow of this rock legend was worth the price of admission. A must see for any, even casual fans of music, pop culture or classic film.
Next on the list for the souths home of music was Sun Studios and Beale Street. Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio, is the most seminal recording studio in American popular music, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison all made their first recordings there. Tours are offered but the gift shop and café that occupy the front of the building are open to anyone. Given that the tour was for only a small building and a rather blank recording studio I opted to save my money, after all, it doesn’t hold a candle to Graceland. The large guitar sign that hangs over the door was iconic and the memorabilia is tempting to any music fan. With another site ticked off the list, we headed to Beale Street.
The drive towards Beale street showed another side to the city, the side you only see between the polished tourist’s sites. The city seemed tired, run down and in ill repair. Buildings were vacant, car parks were littered with rubbish and homelessness was apparent. Even parking directly across from the opening to Beale Street the feeling of rough times permeated each building, that was until you entered the street proper where music and neon lights assaulted your senses. It wasn’t busy, being a Tuesday night the partygoers were at home, only dribs and drabs of tourists and map pushers greeted us. The rows of bars, memorabilia shops and diners were all lit up in neon and the Coyote Ugly while not the original the movie was based on was still a highlight. Honorable mention to the Hard Rock Café, it makes a mean Memphis burger. On a weekend I could imagine a hopping street full of drunk patrons and bands but on a weekday it was just a regular street with a neon glow.
My trip to Beale Street exemplified my feelings about Memphis. The old city peaked in the 50s and 60s with the post-WWII golden age of America, its been in decline ever since. Our Air BnB was only five minutes away from the city, and only a block away from Memphis University. The iconic southern houses complete with large fireplaces, low fences, patios with built-in ceiling fans, and oaks consistently shedding leaves looked at first glace completely normal, but a closer look found the fences peeling or missing planks, old couches littered patios, and fallen branches laid where they fell. It felt like going back in time, a uniquely Memphis experience. Fantastic for visitors, but perhaps not for long-term stays. The city of Blues has sung its song and it was an instant classic, but there won’t be an encore, the band has moved on.
*All Photo’s taken by me unless otherwise stated.