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Elvis lives!: Dilettante goes home to Graceland.

by Summer Burkes

“Dilettante” column originally published at the turn of the century on 05.19.99 in the SF Bay Guardian. Re-intro May 2019 here.


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.

of course if he hadn’t died then none of this would be happening

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 piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project; this post’s intro is here, and Dilettante’s first installment is here.

Oh and ten years after this article, on 05.12.2009, the SFBG‘s next nightlife columnist Marke B talks Aerosol melodies.

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