Elvis Presley was born January 8, 1935 and died August 16, 1977. For an article in the February, 2003 edition of High Times, writer Chris Simunek and his friend Stephen E. Lewis took a road trip to Graceland to find out what it is about Elvis that still makes people go nuts.
How Great Thou Art
I’ll never forget being four years old and watching Elvis’s “Aloha from Hawaii” satellite broadcast back in ’73. My diaper days were behind me, I owned the fastest Big Wheel on the block, and now this: a comic-book man-god dressed in a red-white-and-blue American eagle suit and cape, singing “Dixie” with sweat running from his eyes like tears. It would remain the coolest image of my life until I caught my first glimpse of tit a year later. The future seemed blessed with an infinite amount of fun and adventure, and I never considered the fact that Elvis might not be there with me for the long haul.
People talk about all the drugs Elvis did and what a mess he was at the end. I’ve seen those videos of the guy in ’77, overweight, wearing an Aztec sundial jumpsuit, and singing “My Way” with half the Physician’s Desk Reference swimming through his bloodstream. I mean, if you can’t see for yourself just how cool that is, then I don’t have the time to explain it to you.
Elvis’s death on August 16, 1977, is one of those benchmark dates by which I chart the long journey from my happy childhood to the desperate and confusing present. Elvis provided a living example of this “cool” thing that the Fonz was always talking about, and he made some great records to boot. My decision to make the pilgrimage to Graceland for Elvis Week this year was made out of an obligation I felt I had to a man who gave much and asked for nothing in return. Anyway, it beat sitting around in New York waiting for Osama’s dirty bomb.
You can drive to Memphis from Washington, DC in 20 hours if you drink giant cups of coffee, eat a lot of ephedrine, and feed your CD player a steady diet of Mississippi Delta blues. At least that’s the way I did it, swapping the driver’s seat every six hours with my friend Steve Lewis, creator of paintings and woodcuts that contain enough unadulterated id to curdle the milk in Freud’s morning coffee.
“Do you know that Elvis’s overriding obsession toward the end of his life was to star as a badass black-belt detective, kind of like Shaft meets Bruce Lee, in the greatest karate movie ever made?” I asked Steve as we cruised south on Interstate 81. “In the last scene of the movie, Elvis wanted to appear on a mountaintop in his karate outfit; then he wanted the camera to pan back and reveal that beneath him, as far as the eye could see, people were doing karate with him—all races, all nations, just one great, unified world, kicking the air with the King.”
“When they talk about the tragedy of a man getting cut down young and not being able to fulfill his destiny on earth,” Steve asserted, “that’s what they mean.”
From the stereo, Charlie Patton sang, “The Lord sends us sunshine, the Devil he sends us rain….”
At dawn we crossed the border from Virginia to Tennessee. Nashville was kind enough to sell us some biscuits and gravy and sing us a few songs about lost loves and squandered lives; then, with trembling hands, we drove the last three hours to Memphis in time to catch the 25th birthday of Elvis Presley’s death.
Elvis Presley Boulevard glistened under the blinding light of the southern summer sun. Outside the Graceland mall a video screen flashed images of a young and beautiful Elvis to the faithful. It was a lovely sight—people wearing Elvis T-shirts buying Elvis ashtrays while Elvis hamburgers dripped ketchup in their hands.
Locating the press office behind the manor, Steve and I went to see what sort of journalistic handouts EP Enterprises had for us. After signing a legal document basically promising not to use any photographs we might take of Graceland for anything anywhere at anytime, we managed to walk out of the place emptyhanded. Our interview queries were laughed at, and our requests for tickets to “The Concert,” where Elvis’s video ghost was to sing along with the live backing of his old TCB band, were scorned.
“I can’t help you,” the publicist explained as she slurped from a can of Pepsi with Elvis’s face on the side. She pointed to the door and the melee forming outside and said, “Your story is out there.”
Steve turned to me and said, “Do you get the impression that maybe there’s a jar somewhere with Colonel Parker’s brain in it that’s calling all the shots?” There was more than one king to pay tribute to on this day. Climbing back in the rental, we continued the journey south to Mississippi, birthplace of the blues.
Hellhound On My Trail
Coincidence, or the result of intense planetary forces? Elvis shares a deathday with none other than Robert Johnson, king of the Delta blues singers. Two kings struck down by fate on August 16, 39 years apart. I personally don’t buy the story about Robert Johnson’s Faustian deal with Lucifer. The way I see it, if the man did sell his soul at the crossroads, he wouldn’t have died penniless, the victim of a pint of poisoned whiskey.
The moment we crossed the border from Tennessee to Mississippi, everything changed. Gone were the Tiger Marts and the Taco Bells, replaced by mystic cotton fields and the occasional bait-and-tackle shop. Legend has it that the crossroads is the intersection of Highways 49 and 61, about an hour south of Graceland. I took over the driving as Steve sat back and hit the peace pipe.
Flipping through the AM stations, Steve found an evangelist who asked the question: “Is your heart right with God? If he should call on you today, where would you spend eternity?”
It was an awful question, really. If I die and it turns out that the Arabs are right, I’ll spend eternity on my knees shaving corns off the Ayatollah Khomeini’s feet. In the Judeo-Christian afterlife, it won’t be much better. With all my moral transgressions, I’m a sure bet for purgatory, and I don’t exactly relish the thought of spending a 2000-year penance teaching some Osmond family troglodyte how to read.
So as Mississippi rolled past my window, damp and green like an American Eden, I figured I was already fucked in the afterlife, so why not visit the Devil and at least get a price quote on my thus far useless immortal soul?
“I don’t know about this soul-selling business,” Steve confessed. “I mean, your soul is the only thing separating you from, like, Will Smith.”
His point was well taken, but I had other reasons for wanting to commune with Satan. I had questions that could only be answered by an eternal being, like why is it that a nice guy like Elvis has to die at 42, heartbroken over a woman and unable to get his karate movie off the ground, while Ronald Reagan lives a long, vicious life and gets to spend his autumn days pampered and spoon-fed, his conscience wiped as clean as a newborn baby’s?
At the crossroads there was grass, a few vine covered trees in the distance, and not a whole lot else. It was a blank stretch of land waiting for travelers to come and write their destinies in its dirt. About 100 yards north there was an old Confederate cemetery.
“Our best bet is probably the boneyard,” Steve guessed. “I think the Devil is supposed to appear as an old black man.”
“I always figured the devil would look something like Jann Wenner,” I replied.
The wind and rain had beaten the headstones so smooth you couldn’t read the names anymore. The first Americans ever to lose a war rested peacefully without comment. Stone lambs marked the graves of dead children. I was envious of the little things. The rest of us have to live long, complicated lives that take dozens of years to end.
“I don’t see anything particularly evil,” Steve surmised.
Back in the car, we drove north towards Memphis. As Robert Johnson wondered aloud what the world would be like if he had possession over Judgment Day, our vehicle approached some kind of animal in the road. Trapped in the meridian, chasing its tail, taunting death, was a large black dog.
“Maybe we should whack that dog,” I suggested as we passed it. “Satan likes shit like that.”
“I think you’re losing focus here,” Steve concluded. Looking in my rearview mirror, I watched the thing jump up on its hind legs. It stood there for a moment, watching us disappear. I don’t know whether it was the trucker speed playing tricks with my eyes, but for a second I thought I saw it wave its paw at us.
“Jesus,” I mumbled, pressing on the accelerator. “I really need some sleep.”
The Electric Graceland Elvis Test
After a fitful nap in a faceless Memphis hotel, Steve and I swallowed a couple of hits of LSD and caught a cab down to the candlelight vigil. The vigil was started back in ’79 by 30 or so members of the Elvis Country Fan Club. Today, attendance was expected to be near 40,000. A thunderstorm was in full swing when we arrived at the gates of Graceland. A line of soaking-wet white people wound its way from the street up the driveway and into the Meditation Garden, where the mortal remains of Elvis, Gladys, and Vernon Presley waited to be viewed. Estimated wait: eight hours.
Steve and I stood outside the driveway and watched people exit the gravesite. Men and women hugged, mothers and daughters held hands with glassy eyes. They all wore the joyous expressions of the newly blessed.
An Elvis lookalike with bandages on his face left the driveway in tears. I have no respect for an Elvis impersonator without any visible scars, and this guy looked as though he’d been called upon to defend the King’s honor many times. He was approached by a silver-haired woman with a shirt that read Elvis Presley Friendship Circle. As she wrapped her arms around him, he let it all go into the soft meat of her shoulder.
I saw a few other Elvis Friendship people standing near the gates. The acid was kicking in: It was time to be social.
The first woman I approached, Jane Anderson, turned out to be the president of the Elvis Presley Friendship Circle. The club formed back in ’81 in Shreveport, LA. Tonight they were standing “honor guard” at the gates, meaning they assisted in handing out candles for the vigil and giving moral support to the bereaved.
“What’s Elvis’s lasting contribution to your life?” I asked her.
“Fie makes me real happy with his music and all the friends I’ve met through the years. I would never have known these people,” she gestured to the other Elvis Friends who were gathering around us, “if it hadn’t been for Elvis.”
Another member of the Circle, Barbara Bradley, first heard Elvis 47 years ago, and had even seen him at the Louisiana Hayride in ’54, a full two years before he cut “Hound Dog.”
“How did you first hear that there was something called Elvis that you should go see?” I asked.
“I’m a girl,” she laughed.
“So you were one of those screaming female fans you always see on TV?”
“Yeah. As soon as he came out, all the girls talked about his legs. He was something different.” “You won’t believe what they’re asking us at the press tent,” Jane told me. “Let’s get one thing straight: We’re not weirdos, we’re not praying to Elvis. He’s no god.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” I asserted. “This is a social outing. Everybody hangs out, talks about how cool Elvis is, and has a good time. It doesn’t strike me as being weird.”
“Tell me this: What is it about Elvis?”
“There’s a saying in the Elvis world,” Jane explained. “If you don’t understand, if you don’t get it, we can’t explain it. He was just the best. What was there before Elvis? Frank Sinatra, Patti Page. There was good black music, but we hadn’t heard it.”
“What’s the official Elvis Friendship Circle opinion on Colonel Tom Parker? I think he was evil.”
“Notice we’re not arguing with you.”
“I mean, the Colonel kept Elvis on the road when he was all sick and fat—”
“Don’t say that word!” Jane demanded.
“You’re asking for it, mister. I saw him in March of seventy-seven, and he was not that word that you said.”
“He always sang great,” I offered.
“His voice just got better and better.”
“I mean, he might not have known exactly where he was all the time—”
“Don’t start! I’ll break that tape recorder over your head.”
“So I like to poke a little fun at the guy. I mean, who doesn’t?”
“There’s your answer,” Steve smirked.
“So are you going to wait on the line?” Jane asked me.
“Jane, believe me when I tell you there are unnamed forces at work right now that will not allow me to wait on line for eight hours.”
“You say you’re an Elvis fan; well, this is the way we pay tribute.” She pointed to the gates. “Do your thing.”
“Yeah, man,” Steve laughed. “What kind of fan are you?”
“You know one person who never waited on line for anything?” I asked Jane.
“Believe me, mister, you are not Elvis. Now go!” she commanded. She was a tough little lady, I can’t argue with that. “Just remember what we said: Don’t use that word in your article, because we’ll hunt you down. We have connections worldwide.”
The idea that there was an international legion of silver-haired ladies protecting the legacy of the King was so sweet I almost cried.
The sound system was broadcasting some of the worst Elvis songs I’d ever heard, those turgid ballads that he loved so much. “I’ll Remember You” and “Memories” and a whole bunch of other songs that neither rocked nor rolled. The acid was not pleased with this. The acid enjoyed talking to the ladies of the Elvis Friendship Circle. The acid did not like the rain, however, and it was really taking exception to the music.
The biggest problem for the acid was that no one seemed to be worshipping the Total Elvis. They’d isolated the Pious Elvis and the Lovelorn Elvis while ignoring completely Elvis the Pelvis and the Elvis Who Just Wanted to Swallow a Shoebox Full of Pills and Buy Cadillacs for All His Friends.
We found sanctuary at Rockabilly’s Diner across the street, a crowded faux-’50s restaurant where they sold beer and hamburgers under oppressive fluorescent lights. We bought beers and took a seat next to a barking woman in a wheelchair. Where her knees and thighs and ankles had been, there was now only art. As I contemplated her unique beauty, I could see Steve was having a bit of a problem.
“Rejoice,” I told him. “God has chosen her for this.”
“Dude, I’m tripping….
I couldn’t convince him. We had to leave.
By that point, the line had become more than a challenge: It was a rite. There was something on that line that I was unprepared for, some truth I wasn’t ready to witness.
But when I got outside and looked at the video screen and saw a lean, mean Elvis singing “If I Can Dream” from the ’68 “Comeback Special,” dressed in white, with that hair, that jet-black mane that looked like it had been hand-woven by God, I just couldn’t look the man in his video eye and tell him no.
“Elvis gave us everything he had,” I reasoned, the acid cutting through my reservations and making clear my debt. “The least we can do is wait on this stupid line.”
I entered the procession a Homo sapien, but by the end of the second hour my posture was stooped and I began grunting like some drug-ravaged missing link. Acid needs something to do, and in the absence of any activity, it had decided to take me on a journey backwards through all stages of human evolution. After five hours I was little more than a puddle of primordial sludge, crawling across the sands of time back to the ocean where my ancestors began.
An old man behind us pointed to the colored gels illuminating Graceland’s expansive lawn and said, “These are my lights. I did all the electricity in this place. I knew Elvis.”
“In what way did you know him?” I asked.
“I just told you. I did the electricity in this place.” A few young, commercial-looking Elvis impersonators posed for TV cameras in front of us. A morning news anchor interviewed them.
“That’s a disgrace,” the electrician-to-the-stars behind me said.
“It’s exploitation. A damn disgrace,” the electrician repeated.
I did him one better. “We should cut their heads open and pour salt into their brains so ideas like this can never grow there again.”
He was quiet for a few minutes, then turned to the guy behind him and said, “These are my lights….”
A line of candle-holding supplicants stretched from the Meditation Garden across the lawn and back to the street. The sun was coming up, casting a wet blue light over the proceedings. As we entered the gravesite, there were all sorts of tributes left by fans. I was struck by a photo of Elvis from the late ’70s, stoned out of his gourd, leering at the audience as if amazed by the fact that so many people loved him. There were flowers, teddy bears, and American flags piled so high on the graves you almost couldn’t see where it explained the reasoning behind Elvis’s tragic death.
Etched in his gravestone were the words “God saw that he needed some rest and called him home to be with Him.”
Most stared silently at the flat stone monuments, but one lady next to me was sobbing aloud, wiping her nose with a tissue. “They try and rush you out,” she confessed to me, “but I can’t go.”
“Is Jesse Garon buried here?” I asked, Jesse Garon being Elvis’s stillborn twin brother.
“There’s a marker.” She pointed at a little stone. “They don’t know where his body is, and that’s good. Can you imagine what people might do with something like that?”
“You’re right,” I consoled the woman. “It’s best this way.”
I walked away, thinking, “Damn, how cool is it to have all these people, twenty-five years later, still fucked up over the fact that you’re dead?” As we walked out of the driveway, the Elvis Friendship Circle laughed at us.
“How was it?” Jane asked. Steve muttered something about the Bataan Death March while I ran into the street in search of taxicabs and hard liquor.
Anyplace is Paradise
Rain fell from the sky in unending lines as our cab entered the freeway and headed back toward the hotel. The acid had leveled off, leaving me with the feeling that everything has the potential to be beautiful if you catch it at the right moment, even forest fires and traffic jams. The world was so pretty I couldn’t imagine ever leaving it for heaven or hell or any other ethereal resting place. I’d rather stay here a ghost and haunt the living.
The driver who escorted us back to our hotel had an Elvis story of his own, which I listened to while the acid turned every car on the highway to gold.
“I picked this couple from Alaska up, took ’em to this Elvis sock-hop kind of thing. The woman turns to me and says, ‘We have it on very good authority that Elvis is still alive….’ She told me that Elvis had met this man who was dying of some kind of terminal illness and noticed that they were the same height and build. Elvis said, ‘I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll pay for you to have plastic surgery so you look identical to me. That way when you die, people will think it’s me and I can have a life of peace, and I’ll give your family a couple million dollars to live on.’ According to this couple from Alaska, he’s living somewhere in South America, and they’re ninety-nine percent sure it’s Guatemala.”
Steve and I both got a good laugh out of that one. Wouldn’t that just be the best? If E. was chilling down there, practicing karate on the beach, listening to the sound of one hand clapping and all that? But he ain’t. He’s toast. He died on the can. He was one of us.
It must be nice to be Elvis and have all these people weeping over your dust 25 years after you’re gone, but I don’t see it happening that way for you or me. We get to rot beneath a stone marker next to people we’ve never met. If you ask me, it’s a lousy payoff.
Looking out the window at the wet highway gave me another idea. What if I were to be buried right there on the side of the interstate? Just give me one of those little white crosses they mark the sites of fatal accidents with so thousands of people can pass it on their way to work and wonder, “Who was that person? Someone’s husband or child? A drunk driver? Was he a reckless idiot or just someone in the wrong place at the wrong time?”
And from beneath the earth, I will be so happy. “Yes! Yes!” my ghost will gladly acknowledge. “I was all those things and even a few more. Thank you so much for asking….”