Monday, September 20, 2010

Touristy Tours Part 2: My Mecca - Graceland

When a place has more than one song written about it you can pretty much guarantee it’s a place worth visiting.

Graceland, the stately mansion of the late, great Elvis Presley, located in Memphis, Tennesse, definitely fits into that category.

Yes, Graceland is touristy within an inch of its life. Yes, many, many people have been there before you and will go there after you’re gone. And yes it is a place where you’ve got no choice but to take a tour, but I don’t think that’s any reason not to experience it for yourself.

Places well visited are well visited for a reason. While it’s great to trek to far-flung exotic locations and experience things that few people have, I think it’s also just as fulfilling visiting a place which is well trodden by the shoes of tourists.

I will confess right now that I am an Elvis Tragic. It’s my father’s fault. I grew up listening to the crooning of Elvis Presley; in our family car, in the house and whenever an Elvis Special or movie happened to be on TV. Graceland has established a place in popular culture and the experience is worth it, even just for pop culture’s sake.

As I climbed the front steps of Graceland and entered the mansion I felt an excitement which literally gave me goose bumps. Here I was entering the home of Elvis, a place I had dreamt of visiting for many years, but in an inner contradiction I never expected, I also felt like I was invading Elvis’ privacy a little. After all, so many private things would have happened to Elvis that house, not to mention his actual death. It was definitely a little eerie standing in the foyer, knowing Elvis had passed away almost directly above where I stood, in the second floor bathroom.

That feeling dissolved a little when I continued past the foyer and into the front rooms. Firstly you’re confronted with the formal dining room and lounge room. The lounge is characterised by a multi-coloured stained glass door way ironically featuring peacocks, electric blue curtains and white-as-snow couches. Once you continue past these first two rooms, you view the famous kitchen of Elvis, where his mother lovingly baked for him and where he consumed many an artery-hardening peanut butter and banana fried sandwich.

Next is the outrageous Jungle Room, which Elvis created in part for his beloved daughter Lisa-Marie. The room is a sight which must be seen to be believed; it features bright green carpet, ornately carved wooden furniture and a waterfall.

The Graceland mansion experience has the ability to be very tacky and a little bit morbid, but the tour is tastefully done. Well, tasteful Elvis-style. The interior has been criticised as being everything from ‘white trash’ to ‘garish and gaudy’ but you can be sure there is nothing else like it. In fact, I was surprised at how much it felt like an actual home, as opposed to a house, despite the flamboyance. The upstairs area of the mansion is blocked off as a mark of respect; Elvis only ever hosted visitors downstairs, so no one goes upstairs. I found this soothed my feeling of voyeurism.

The tour continues into the downstairs area where you see Elvis’ TV room, complete with three screens, a bar and canary yellow walls. From there it’s through to the billiard room, with a real tear in the table still visible from a rowdy game of pool. The room’s walls are covered with multi-coloured material, arranged in a truly psychedelic concertina pattern. It almost hurts your eyes to look!

It’s then out onto the back lawn of the mansion and into Elvis’ father’s office, the former firing range (Elvis had a love for guns and law enforcement in his later years) and the well know racquetball court, which has now been converted into a record room, displaying an array of awards and famous Elvis jumpsuits.

From there you’re led into a series of rooms which serve as a museum of sorts to Elvis’ life and achievements. Several displays of The King’s awards, records, movie posters, famous costumes and even his wedding suit for his marriage to ex-wife Priscilla litter the walls. This part of the tour removes you from the intimacy of the rest of the mansion and takes you into the tourist-like experience, which is a little less confronting than the inner rooms of the house.

The mansion tour is of the audio type – and I have to admit, I was a bit apprehensive about that. Audio tours can be very good or very, very bad. It’s a LONG tour if it’s bad. Thankfully, my fears were unfounded. It’s a big call, but this was one of the best audio tours I’ve had the pleasure of listening to. The majority of the tour features Priscilla and Lisa-Marie’s recollections of the Elvis they knew and their life at Graceland, in between smatterings of Elvis songs, which is a unique twist to the experience.

I’m normally very torn between living in the moment of visiting a major tourist attraction, taking in the sights and sounds, and snapping away like a tourist possessed. I like to document the places I’ve been, but with some moderation. But Graceland was different, I succumbed to the touristy impulses and I snapped away like my life depended on it!

The relentless picture taking continued until the final part of the tour – Elvis’ Meditation Gardens and his final resting place. The gardens feature a serene-looking meditation area and fenced pool – but also the graves of The King himself, his parents and grandmother.

Whilst standing at the grave site, I couldn’t bring myself to take a single photo. In that moment, I felt like it wasn’t appropriate. I wasn’t begrudging those around me, who had also likely travelled thousands of miles to be there, of taking all the photos they liked. But I just couldn’t do it. I was also shocked to find I was getting a lump in my throat. I am a major Elvis fan, but I had always associated an emotional reaction to a tourist attraction (even a grave site) with obsessive, slightly loopy fans. Now I was an obsessive, slightly loopy Elvis fan.

But really, isn’t that the great thing about travel? Sometimes it’s for seeing and experiencing new things and sometimes it’s for breathing new life into old childhood memories. I never thought I would say it, but my tour of Graceland was definitely a spiritual experience, of the rock ‘n’ roll kind.

Standing there paying my respects, I suddenly realised why hundreds of thousand of people made the pilgrimage to Graceland every year. Not just because they loved Elvis’ music, but because to them, Elvis represents a time in their life, a memory; some long forgotten emotion.

That’s why Graceland is a Mecca for many, a pilgrimage worth making for any music fan, Elvis Tragic or not.

In my next post, I’ll lose the emotional ga ga about Elvis and give you some practical tips for your own pilgrimage to Graceland!

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