Monday, September 17, 2007

God's Other Tragic Son

Graceland sort of flummoxed us. On one hand, it was a pretty house, not too much larger than a lot of two-story houses that our friends and relatives live in. It was somewhat gaudy and overblown inside, but some of that was due to young Elvis' new found money and the lure of indulging his fantasies of what wealth looked like.

The other part, the part that's not his fault, was that Graceland is frozen in time in the mid-1970s, a shameful period in decorating history. Don't blame Elvis for living in the time of lime green and fake fur.

The counterpoint to young Elvis' pretty house, well-tended outbuildings, and gently rolling grounds is the multi-million dollar museum and shopping complex located across the street. You can buy a ticket to view the car collection, the jumpsuit collection, the videotapes of his meeting with President Nixon, his personal jet, the Lisa Marie, and much, much more. And every museum had a gift shop attached to it where you could buy stuff specific to the exhibit, in addition to the general Elvis souvenirs that were for sale around every corner.

After we walked away from all that glitter and spangles and faux-fur, we decided that Graceland was a metaphor for Elvis himself. He was a talented, shy young man, devoted to his family, who's life became a commodity. He slowly grew to embrace excess over time, until he became a parody of himself. Lori called him "the original Elvis impersonator."

After his death, his pretty house became a museum and a tribute to Elvis. Over time though, it also became a money-making machine, dedicated to separating tourists from their money and perpetuating the Myth of Elvis. Make no mistake, Graceland is a pilgrimage for a lot of people. It's like Mecca or the Grotto at Lourdes...people go to get closer to his holiness.

Oh, and besides shopping for the Elvis bobble-heads, snow globes, coffee cups, pillows, and the infamous Elvis bowling can walk through Elvis' pretty house too. For a $30 fee.

Elvis is sort of a curious combination of youthful exuberance and celebrity-fueled paranoia. He seemed to lose control of his life early on in his career. He couldn't shop, he couldn't get on an airplane, and he couldn't walk the streets of Memphis without intensive fore-planning and a phalanx of guards and toadies, AND a call in advance to warn the managers that he was coming, and to clear the streets and shops of other visitors.

I can't imagine what he was expecting when he started to become successful, but I have to doubt that this was it. Even 30 years after his death, his life still isn't his own. It's all on display, to be assessed and measured and gawked at. It was oddly sad and poignant; this nice young man from Tupelo, Mississippi, turned into a cross between Mount Rushmore and the Ninja Turtles.

Graceland is a shrine to the Elvis persona, but not to Elvis himself. There's no mention of his decline...his drug habit, his emotional problems, or his unglamorous death on his toilet. As far as the official history of Elvis goes, his unparalleled greatness continued, untarnished and unabated, until his sudden and unanticipated death.

He was truly God's Other Tragic Son, according to the carefully honed folklore at Graceland. Who'd ever have thought that they'd look at his fame and wealth and talent and think, " Poor Guy."?


Suzanne said...

Very nicely said.

Anonymous said...

I agree. A very enjoyed read and, a fine tribute to EP. :Diane