Dilettante 44: Graceland

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Elvis: Turns out he’s less problematic in one area than the general public believes, and more problematic in another.

I hadn’t thought about Elvis much since visiting Graceland for this column in 1999 — taking Chuck D’s opinion as the adult gold standard to follow (“Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me / …straight-up racist that sucker was, simple and plain”). Appropriating black music, like stealing cheerleading routines from the Compton Clovers, is wrong. Reparations are due to the artists who wrote the music. Et cetera.

… but this New York Times piece “How Did Elvis Get Turned into a Racist?” says even Chuck D has recanted that line for a more nuanced view, saying he was using Presley as a symbol, not necessarily talking about him personally.

It turns out Elvis’ rumored racism is based on a debunked claim about something he supposedly said (“The only thing black people can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my music”) during a taping of a show in Boston — a show on which he never appeared, in a city to which he’d never been.

Many sources say he tried to give attribution where it belonged (sometimes). An NYT article recounts that someone asked Presley once about being the King of Rock’n’Roll and he promptly rejected that title as he usually did, and pointed to his friend in the room, Fats Domino.

but if he were really straightforward about attribution then we’d all know who Big Mama Thornton was from the time we were kids

As he rocketed to fame, Presley was quickly harvested and farmed to death by his manager Colonel Tom Parker, with the assist of Dr. Nicopolous prescribing Presley various drug cocktails not even a woolly mammoth could handle.

Colonel Tom was a beast of a man who, before he rode Presley to the grave, used to run a booth at the carnival where chickens danced because Parker had secretly put a hot plate underneath their straw. That’s the kind of man Parker, Elvis’ default father figure, was.

If you still liked Elvis, as I sort of did, here’s something heartbreaking: In addition to getting hooked on speed in the military, Elvis was a bit of an ebhebophile when it came to underaged playthings. Apparently he preferred pillow fights to naked time; he had phobias about sex, and exhibited a strange boyishness coupled with voyeurism (and he liked him some feet).

everybody start leaving feet pictures at the grave for the King ok go

Elvis’ ex-lovers say he was a gentleman, and some say he was even in love with a black woman, but he married a 14-year-old, and his constant use of tween girls as sort of a giggling entourage around him did not go unnoticed.

That’s problematic. All our old heroes are problematic; it’s a new world let’s just face it and move on and dance to the beat I guess.

One more gross thing but it’s important. When he died at age 42 Elvis was already so drug-addled he needed diapers for incontinence. Not to speak ill of the dead, just if we talked about it more, we wouldn’t need hokey “don’t do drugs kids” campaigns. Don’t end up in a diaper in your early 40s, that’s the truth.

Anyway James Brown said “Elvis and I are the only true American originals. There’ll never be another like that soul brother.”

And Little Richard said “I thank God for Elvis Presley. I thank the Lord for sending Elvis to open that door so I could walk down the road, you understand?”

So maybe Elvis was an anti-racist heart-thresher to women and predator to tween girls. Maybe not, maybe it’s more nuanced than that.

We can all agree at least that Presley got famous for another reason besides his charisma, talent, looks, and raw sexuality: He appeared at a time when white people really wanted to listen and dance to African-American music freely — and socially they couldn’t, so they listened to Elvis, and that opened the white-people-radio door for everyone else.

 

Scroll down or click through to read “Elvis lives,” originally published in the SF Bay Guardian on May 19, 1999.

This is the 44th piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project; Dilettante’s first installment is here.

 

summer burkes dilettante logo sf bay guardian 1997-2001_resized

Elvis lives!: Dilettante goes home to Graceland.

by Summer Burkes, 05.19.99

 

My hometown of Memphis, Tennessee — a hot, sprawling, sparsely decorated expanse of flat land where the haves and have-nots live very removed from each other and every inch of nonresidential ground is covered with strip malls.

Far from the teeming, musically prolific river city of yore, the economically dilapidating Memphis clings firmly to a five-point plan of reminiscence and erstwhile glory: (1) the blues, (2) the protestant God, (3) the Mississippi River, (4) barbecue and the correct preparation of its sauces, and (5) the legacy of Elvis Aaron Presley.

Although there’s nothing to do in Memphis and there’s a long, boring drive between each place to do it, 700,000 tourists a year nevertheless flood the town to see the tacky living quarters of the King of Rock and Roll.

Everyone in Memphis — regardless of sex, race, creed, color etc. — has his or her own Elvis story and wears the less-than-six-degrees-of-separation connection to his fame like a badge.

My junior-high best friend’s uncle taught Elvis to play the guitar. The mother of my elementary-school best friend went on three dates with him. My dad was among the first 20 or so people to learn of his death and even saw the ambulance cavalcade firsthand. My mom’s friend’s father lived next-door to the Graceland mansion, pre-Elvis, and he never forgave the King for filling in his pond to make room for horses (“That boy filled in my fishin’ hole!” he ranted, loudly and often).

On the playground, though, yours truly always won contest for the best Elvis connection: my aunt Sybil — fine white hair and stretch vanilla Lincoln Town Car to match — sold him Graceland.

And now here we were, with Aunt Sybil smiling down from sequined heaven

After Elvis’s death (brought on, according to Memphis revision, not by his own excessive behavior but by Colonel Parker’s mismanagement of his career and Dr. Nicopolous’s faulty over-prescription of his narcotics), the family soon learned that because of the King’s penchant for both philanthropy and impetuously blowing wads of cash, the coffers were nearly empty. Sole inheritor and oddball layabout Lisa Marie handed over the reins of his estate to her mama, and Priscilla copyrighted Elvis’s image and turned it into an empire.

Nowadays the Graceland souvenir-parking lot-restaurant-museum-hotel complex on Elvis Presley Boulevard dwarfs the house across the street.

Air-conditioned buses shuttle ticket holders (about $20 for the “platinum tour”) from the box office across the street to the front portico of the colonial house. The comely women who used to guide the tours have been replaced by audio tapes and headsets, and more rooms in the house have been opened to accommodate the throngs.

Graceland, which my dad repeatedly refers to as “redneck mecca,” stands as a time capsule for ’60s home beautification and, more honestly, an amateur interior decorator’s cry for help. The 24k gold-plated grand piano is inexplicably missing from the front room, but the stained-glass peacocks and shag rugs remain.

Portraits of the King, Queen, and Princess stare out with doe eyes from every corner at gaping, videotaping, and sometimes weeping visitors. Presley’s parents’ bathroom is wallpapered with pastel cartoon poodles.

A hallway of mirrors (ok a staircase of mirrors) in Elvis Presley’s house. Like Versailles but make it country?

The pool room is entirely swathed floor-to-ceiling in hideous fabric, and a genuine Picasso sketch (not mentioned on the tour tape for security reasons, one supposes) hangs humbly in a corner above a collection of unremarkable seashells.

The “jungle room,” one of Elvis’ favorite chambers in the house, looks like a practical joke. Throughout the house tour, fans turn a blind eye to upholsteries and accoutrements that would make Martha Stewart break out in hives.

Seeing it all, visitors can’t help but wonder: Which TV is the one he shot when he got pissed off that time and the cops came? Who made the rip in the pool table fabric? What do the inaccessible upstairs quarters look like? Where’s the crapper he died on? Why are there so many bars if Elvis didn’t drink? Where’s that crazy-looking red-headed aunt and her dog that still lived on the grounds last time we were here? And who took the damn gold piano?

fyi elvis’s house contains lots and lots of pictures of elvis

A building that used to house an electric car track (another one of the King’s whims, along with guns, horses, firecrackers, football, and karate) now hosts the Trophy Room, a maze packed full of memorabilia, awards, over-the-top outfits, and gold records that span his 25-year career.

The racquetball court (where he hung out and played with his homies on the night he died) houses yet more awards and records. (Elvis was a hero to most, and he never meant shit to Chuck D, but any man who sold over 1 billion records is gonna have quite a collection of shiny platters.)

another gem from the scrapbook pile

Behind the pool, the “Meditation Garden,” ostensibly a human zoo on both Jan. 8 and Aug. 16 (Elvis’s birthday and deathday, respectively) every year, holds the graves of Elvis and his family. Back across the street, the documentary film (free), disappointing car museum ($5, and where’s the pink jeep?), two customized airplanes ($4.50), and the “Sincerely Elvis” museum ($3.50 if you want to see Elvis’s aftershave and Lisa Marie’s crayons) compete with the souvenir shops and restaurants on the strip mall Priscilla built. On this day, we only see one Elvis impersonator but count three visible tattoos in his likeness.

Later, faced with the choice of fried or refried, we eat at (ugh) Taco Bell, and — I swear I couldn’t make something like this up — we run smack dab into Dr. Nicopolous and his wife.

Eating roach food while the theme to Star Wars plays in the background and Dr. Nick (the man some call the murderer of the King of Rock and Roll) gums his Burrito Supreme in the next booth proves to be too much for us.

We take off for Tupelo, Miss., to the two-room shotgun house where Elvis was born. It’s small and it isn’t much to look at, but it’s virtually deserted; it only costs $1 to get in. It’s got a front porch to relax on, and there ain’t no poodles on the wallpaper.

 

 

This is the 44th entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).

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