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December 1991

Elvis lives in Graceland

by Matt Bergstrom

In the barren secular landscape of America, there is really only one pilgrimage for the American to make. It is Graceland. For the majority of modern Americans who participate in mass-media pop culture, it is a pilgrimage that must be completed at least once in one’s life.

When I arrived at Graceland’s gates, I too was a skeptic. I had come as a joke, a funny thing to do on a weekend. But during the hours of driving down to Memphis, listening to Elvis tapes for much of the way, I began to realize that I really did not know too much about a person I had always written off as tacky and disgusting.

It is true that Graceland is tacky. Excitedly we bought our tickets and boarded a shuttle bus that would take us into the estate and up to the house. The front drive was scattered with plywood reindeer and shepherds, sleigh and manger. Our tour, a random group of worshipers, cynics and bored tourists, crowded up the front steps and into the living room. Here were the gaudy treasures we had expected. A gilt piano (a gift from Priscilla to Elvis), plaster imitations of Greek statuettes and large chandeliers attempted to show some taste and refinement. However, the room was not as tasteless as I had expected because of its modest size. The house is not the sprawling extravaganza of a Las Vegas casino, perhaps because it was a living space. Beneath the pretentious appearance of the estate, it is possible to see that a human lived and worked here.

As we toured a few other rooms of the house, the office, backyard, and trophy room, we began to realize that behind the gaudy persona of Elvis people laugh at today, there was in fact a person not too different from the rest of us. He was born to a poor family in a two room shack just like a lot of people in that area. It was the common heritage he had with his fans that increased their love for him. Not only was he a great performer but he was one of their own. Through their purchases and support of his movies, they allowed him to live such a royal lifestyle. Even if the fans could not escape their own poverty, they subconsciously lived out their fantasies through Elvis, as peasants support their King.

The fame took its toll on Elvis, though. When he chose the life of a superstar, perhaps he did not realize that he would have to sacrifice his personal life to his fans. Drug abuse and depression killed him and he is buried next to the swimming pool at Graceland. The grave, like everything else here, is overdone. A fountain, statues, and memorials of artificial flowers decorate the memorial garden, signs of the fans who are still faithful to what he stood for.

If Elvis is still alive, it is in this faith in his legend. The common people of the South have the same need for a hero as they did in the 1950’s. When Elvis died, there was no one to fulfill that need. The ideals of America, the ideals of Elvis were disembodied, without a home. Since Graceland opened in 1982, his fans can pay their respects and imagine themselves part of his life as they did when he was alive.

We boarded the shuttle bus again and rode back across the street to see more artifacts in the museum. Each new museum cost an extra few dollars. $5 to see Elvis’s cars, $1.50 to see his bus, $7.50 to see the house. And then the gift shops everywhere selling decent souvenirs for high prices. Realizing the devotion of the fans who come to Graceland, Elvis Presley Enterprises has responded. At the shrine to America, capitalism is right at home.

Behind the marketing and hype of capitalism, there is a real belief in the image of Elvis, itself simply a ghost of marketing and hype, that will survive for years. That evening we went to downtown Memphis to see the Elvis statue. At the foot of the statue we met a carpet cleaner named Nick who said that many of the people in the Memphis area have three pictures in their living rooms: Jesus, Kennedy, and Elvis. At some point, years before his death, Elvis’ image surpassed his frail body into immortality.


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Copyright 2012 Matt Bergstrom. Text Copyright Matt Bergstrom