(Pictured: the King, 1968.)
Here’s the third and final part of something I wrote in 1997 after touring Graceland. As we walked through the house, I thought not just about Elvis the man but the multiple Elvises that made up his legendary career, and what they mean to us now.
We imagine a mansion as having thousands of square feet of living space, airy rooms, swimming pools, tennis courts, and scenes of grandeur. We expect to find that kind of mansion at Graceland, but what we actually find is different. It’s a lovely home, but small—almost too small for the legend we picture prowling the Jungle Room. Even the Meditation Garden, which we have seen on TV and expect to be large and lush, is small, awkwardly tucked away off a corner of the house, and near the front. Whenever Elvis relaxed there, alone with his thoughts, the traffic on the street that bears his name was only a few hundred yards away.
When we compare our expectations with the reality of Graceland, we gain a bit of insight into Elvis Presley’s character. If, as the Graceland story goes, Elvis wanted only to be rich enough to buy a nice house for his mother, he succeeded. If, as the story goes, Elvis remained at heart a country boy with a fondness for simple pleasures, the public face of Graceland seems to confirm it. While it is certainly true that the place conceals almost as much of the private Elvis as it reveals (and keeping the upper floor closed to the public makes this easier), what it reveals is surprising enough: Graceland’s hagiography may tell a story more truthful than fictional.
All four Elvises live on at Graceland. Graceland celebrates Rockin’ Elvis first and last, and just in time for the 20th anniversary of his passing, a brand-new collection of previously-unreleased demos and works-in-progress has just been released. It’s the latest in a collection of CD boxed sets released in recent years which have done more to restore Elvis’ reputation as an artist than anything since his death. (It is, of course, available in the gift shop).
Graceland is also a monument to Movie Elvis. In his early films, he was nothing short of beautiful—a realization which strikes both women and men even now. Then and later, movie viewers saw him as a giant presence in the dark and could not ignore him…
Graceland speaks of Fat Elvis in whispers, the Elvis with an insatiable appetite for prescription drugs, whose peculiarities were indulged and encouraged by his “friends,” whose livelihoods depended on pleasing him. These friends have chosen to remember him as a saint. But if that is untrue (and it surely is), the other extreme—Elvis as debauched monster—must be equally untrue. Graceland is of two minds about Fat Elvis—unable to deny the historical record, but unwilling to explore it in any detail.
Graceland does far more to perpetuate Dead Elvis than its keepers might wish to admit. While it attempts to hold the worst excesses of the Dead Elvis phenomenon in check—no velvet paintings are officially licensed by the Presley estate—700,000 visitors a year make Elvis wealthier dead than he ever was alive.
Finally, the biggest surprise about a visit to Graceland is how hard it is to leave. You may even go back a second time, just to look at those famous gates and up the hill at the mansion, to take one more picture.
And as you drive back down Elvis Presley Boulevard, you realize that Elvis is more than a rocker, an actor, a fat guy, a pet rock, a ghost on the fringes of popular culture. Elvis is an American type, a person we recognize as the embodiment of one or more of the things we are as a people—a mirror and ideal.
Here’s why. America encourages dreamers, like the young Elvis, because we believe that anyone can become famous beyond his wildest imaginings, like Rockin’ Elvis and Movie Elvis did. We see in Movie Elvis’ 1968 abandonment of Hollywood and return to his rock and roll roots something of our own continuing desire to get back to the basic values we believe in most. We see in Fat Elvis our own predisposition for overindulgence and laziness, our own tendency to stray too far from what made us great in the first place. We see in his too-young death the price that can be paid for going down a bad path. Dead Elvis shows us something of ourselves as Americans too. We cannot escape our history, but no matter how fat, silly, decadent, and lost we may become at times, America’s greatness still endures, contradictions and all.
That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of our different Elvises. Still, it fits. If he were anything less, his legend would not endure and continue to grow. Every society needs a mythic figure—a mirror and ideal. Twenty years after his death, the greatest tribute we can pay to Elvis Presley might be that if he had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent him.