Essay from Norman J. Olson

a visit to Memphis

By:  norman j. olson

 

“fame don’t take away the pain / it just pays the bills / and you wind up / on alcohol and pills…”  Todd Snyder

 

last Friday, we were looking for someplace to go…  it is summer so weekend flights to lots of places are full but we found some open flights from MSP to Memphis…  so, Friday afternoon, we caught a flight to Memphis…  and rented a car… found a cheap hotel…

Saturday morning, we decided to drive to Graceland Mansion, Elvis Presley’s former home which is the main tourist attraction in the area…  so, after driving around the city on the I-40, we found ourselves on Elvis Presley Blvd…  a ramshackle street of used tire shops, closed storefronts and weed grown lots…  across Elvis Presley Blvd. from Graceland Mansion, is a visitor center which consists of several large gift shops, a museum of cars that belonged to Elvis and two large airplanes that also belonged to Elvis…  the actual house across the road is hidden by trees and a curving driveway that goes up a hill…  there are three prices of tours and we opted for the cheapest one ($29 for seniors) which did not include a close up of the cars or the airplanes… but did include an unguided tour of Graceland Mansion and the grounds…

 

today is Thursday, August 16, 2012, so 35 years ago today, I was driving my 1976 Dodge station wagon on I-494, when I heard a radio news bulletin that Elvis Presely had died…  funny, I don’t remember where I was or what I was doing during most of the big media events of the 20th Century, but I do remember hearing about Elvis…  so, last Saturday, we arrived at Graceland at the start of what is called among aficionados, “Elvis Week” and which has various concerts and celebrity appearances in a tent set up near the entrance to the visitor center which one could attend for payment of a fee…  events, I think, at which Elvis’s old cronies sit in front of a microphone and reminisce about their days with “The King…”  which seemed to me just a bit beyond morbid curiosity…

 

anyway, with Elvis Week in full effect, the crowds at the visitor center were still not really large and the parking lot was about 1/2 empty when we got there a bit before noon…  so we waited in line for the shuttle bus that would take us through the famous music note gates across the street and up to Graceland…  the mansion itself is not really imposing but more a big 1960’s style house than a real mansion…  later we learned that Elvis also had a real Mansion in the Los Angeles area someplace…  the tour through the house only takes a few minutes and thankfully includes only the downstairs and not the upstairs bathroom where the poor guy breathed his last, evidently overcome by a pill induced heart attack while trying to take a shit…

 

still, the cameras were clicking around us nonstop…  it was fun to see the living room with its 50s fancy dancy furniture…  I can remember when the big Magnovox “color” tv was a luxury undreamed of by my proletarian peers… and a 15 foot long white couch…  oh la la…  the kitchen is larger than in the ordinary house of my youth, but not huge and with two refrigerators, one almond and one avocado…  and Formica counter…  with a black and white tv, what we used to call a “portable tv” at the end of the room…  well, it was not opulent by any standards…  at the back of the house is a large rec room that Elvis added in the 1970s full of green shag carpet and that clunky wood furniture that we all had in those days…  well, for me, the house was a time machine…  I remember that furniture and style…  the basement was “professionally decorated” with a yellow and black design painted on the block walls…  in the 1960s, I lived in my parents basement and painting the block walls seemed to us the height of sophisticated city living…  back home on the farm, a basement was a dirt cellar for storing vegetables and canned goods…

 

so, it was kind of funny in the sense of unexpected, as I had expected not to be moved at all by visiting this shrine to Elvis, I found it very moving to see the things a poor boy got rich would have spent his money on in those days…  namely a 15 foot white couch and later a room full of shag carpet…  behind the house were horse pastures and outbuildings with white painted fences…  inside and out, though nice, the house was in every way modest…  but, two of the buildings behind the house were designated as trophy rooms, an old pool house (there was a small kidney shaped pool) and racquetball court that Elvis built…  and a walk through these rooms was not only a ride on a time machine for me, seeing all the old album covers and vinyl records…  but it was impressive…  really impressive to see what this man had accomplished in his short 42 years on earth…  how many musicians have one “gold record??”  Elvis had dozens…  the walls of a long room are lined with them and many many other awards, just about any award a musician of his era could have earned for record sales…  in his lifetime he sold a hell of a lot of recordings and the young men and women who were boogying to Elvis back in the 50s and 60s, and who were growing old while he wasted his time on idiotic movies and growing fat while Elvis grew fat in Las Vegas put their money on the line and bought the music…

 

well, at the side of the house beyond the little swimming pool is the place where Elvis is buried…  due to it being Elvis week, I suppose, there were piles of garish home made wreaths and memorials…  around the oblong brass plaque under which he presumably lies…  kind of sad and pathetic, I guess…  like the whole place…  I sat and made some drawings of the visitors and then left to go eat barbeque on Beale street and visit the Gibson guitar factory…  I played a three thousand dollar guitar that sounded almost as good as my old 1966 Gibson LG 1 (that I bought from a coworker in 1969)…  then in the late afternoon, listening to a very good blues band in a small outdoor market, I made a few more drawings…  then back to the hotel…

 

I am not sure what to make of Elvis…  I have always sort of liked his music in spite of myself…  and thought he had a very beautiful singing voice…  early and late in his career…  his charisma must be unquestioned as his singing and dancing certainly gave everyone, especially screaming hordes of females, a thrill…  back when I was a kid, I had the old pre-Beatle duck bill pompadour haircut, so I can relate to his style in those days, and I can remember the excitement of hearing a song like King Creole, back in 1957 when I was used to Perry Como or some lame ass crooner…  on the old radio in the barn…  at age 9…  still, the music was pretty shallow, compared to where pop music went later with ragged hard edged poetry of a Kurt Cobain, for example…  and his acting career, after a promising start with Love Me Tender, is a farcical footnote in cinematic history…  will he still be remembered when the last of his old time fans dies off, when there are no good old boys left to reminisce during Elvis Week???  well, who knows…

 

his rags to riches story, born in a shotgun house in Tupelo, is certainly the American dream… who after all does not crave a 15 foot white couch??  and his addiction to drugs (mostly speed and other prescription pills) and early death from that addiction as well as from, perhaps eating a pound of bacon a day…  well, his life certainly was quintessentially American…  as we are a fat, unhealthy, wealth and drug obsessed people…  American men are like Elvis, the boy child who never grows up…  dreams of eating pounds of bacon and has all the fantasies that Elvis lived out, a horse with a fancy saddle to ride, success and fame, 14 year old girls named Priscilla to fall in love with, three tvs and a fancy record player, a pool table to hang around with your friends, pills to make everything seem nice and fuzzy and, and a 15 foot white couch!!!  as I said, I am not sure quite what to make of Elvis but, I like the fact that Graceland is a shrine to an artist and not to some general or politician and I find it sort of interesting that in the past year, I have visited the homes of arguably the two most famous artists of the 20th Century, Elvis Presley and Picasso…  hmmmm

 

Sunday morning, on the way to the airport, we stopped at the hotel where Martin Luther King was murdered…  the area now includes a large civil rights museum and preserves the very site where Dr. King was assassinated…  I found this just overwhelmingly sad…  and this unhappy display shows, I guess what happens if an American starts talking about peace, equality and human rights and promotes peaceful non violent solutions to personal, national, international and political problems…  in our gun totin’ race hating country them’s fightin words and whether your name is John Lennon or Martin Luther King some idiot with a gun will find a way to shut you up…

 

well, we flew back to MSP on Sunday arriving in time for Mary’s book club meeting…  I bought a delicious barbeque sandwich to eat on the plane which turned me into one sticky human being, but it was very delicious…  and to my surprise and delight, I did not spill the barbeque sauce on myself or my fellow passengers…  I had forgotten to get a spoon so, wound up scooping the coleslaw out with the cover of the plastic bowl it came in…  yum…  I found the trip very moving and thought provoking…  and I am not sure why…

 

incident in Memphis

sitting outside

in a warm shady breeze

on the patio of McDonalds,

sipping a diet coke, I asked the

server about her tattoos…

she was very young, maybe twenty, and

looked hard and sad with

pretty gray eyes…  I saw

the green wall

of brush along Thresher Creek…  sparrows

darting in and out…

and cars coming by

like giant turbo charged insects…

milky sunlight fell to the ground

like old vinyl records and the

breeze whispered

that music, peace and nonviolence may

still be possible in this nation in

spite of

or maybe because of,

the skinny tattooed arms

of a young server girl

with pretty sad

old eyes…

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