On our way to Graceland this morning, Tracy and I played Paul’s Simon’s song of the same name, by as many artists as I could find.
Each rendition revealed more about the song to me, from Willie Nelson’s brilliant guitarist creating all those complex riffs at the start that bring out the song’s musicality, to the now-tragic overtones in Justin Townes Earle’s voice delivering those seemingly simple lines.
After our visit (details below, I swear), I studied Paul Simon’s lyrics and thought how they capture the personal and the social highs and lows of the iconic American on a road trip, of the destination, Graceland, and of Elvis (as far as I can tell).
From the juxtaposition of this country’s beauty and tragedy:
The Mississippi Delta
Was shining like a national guitar.
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the Civil War.
To the beauty of personal love and pain:
And she said, “Losing love
Is like a window in your heart.
Everybody sees you’re blown apart.
Everybody sees the wind blow.”
I’m thinking that Memphis draws us to it through personal connections, and through the iconic, and back again to personal. There are so many ways it does this, from the Memphis women (and men) who led the suffragette movement, from the events here that spurred the civil rights movement for Black Americans, and from the city’s role as a music incubator that also changed the culture of the country.
But here I’m starting these thoughts with this man, Elvis, his private and public trajectory, his home where he and the bodies of his family members rest in what used to be his private meditation garden. It’s one small window through which I can see a strong attraction to this place.
7:30 am at the Gate
Okay, truth be told, we didn’t go on any of the Graceland tours. We did arrive at the famous gate to the estate at 7:30 because we’d heard that the public’s allowed inside, just up the drive and in the garden, to wander on your own until the official tours start. For free. So there we were in the cold, waiting at the gate.
I barely know a thing about Elvis, but these two women, they are the ones who believe we will all be received at Graceland. The young woman at the left became obsessed with the King when she was a child thanks to her father. At right is her mother, who arranged their trip from the U.K. for a week in Memphis, just to visit Graceland.
They were shining the whole time we spoke with them, telling us about how many times they’d taken the tours, showing us photos of the jungle room from their phones, talking about how they were staying next door at the special Graceland guest hotel, showing off their Elvis gear (you can’t see the adorable, embroidered “Elvis” on the jeans jacket, but check out their scarves and the t-shirt). They were the highlight of my visit.
Once the gate opened, we let them walk ahead so they could soak up what you’re allowed to see in the early morning before the crowds, as the grounds keepers blow leaves off the sidewalks and away from Elvis’ pool, as if he were about to step into it at any minute. Without a tour or crowds, it’s an intimate look.
Italy, Greece, Spain in Memphis
Elvis’ special garden where he spent time alone must’ve been more serene when he would retreat to it. The farm around it was larger; there were no fences to keep the tourists in line; none of the graves was there.
It was Elvis’s father who brought the bodies of his son and his wife (plus a marker for Elvis’s stillborn twin) to this special place; later, additional family members were interred in the garden.
What a personal—but also American, and in some cultures, universal—custom, to lay to rest your loved ones in a place that was familiar to them, that they loved the most. A place that still is loved by those left behind, including the public, in Elvis’ case.
And how human it is for the public to put their own mark where they can on the one item (the outer wall) that’s meant to make this sacred place more private.
And how Tracy and me to talk with people about the tours and look at photos and read about the mansion and grounds and its history, but to slip in for free at 7:30 am—and still feel the immensity of Elvis’ influence on American culture, while we parody it.
For reasons I cannot explain,
There’s some part of me wants to see
As usual, we didn’t sightsee the way friends are going to ask me about, but we took in what we could and we learned about this country in our own ways. Next on the agenda: ribs and music.
My apologies to the two ladies we met at the gate: I didn’t get either of their names, much less ask permission to use their photos. If you’re them; if you’ve found yourself here on the internet, please ping me!