Cover Story: Memphis in the Meantime

A road trip to Graceland leads local duo to a deeper understanding of all things Elvis

Jon Hughes/

Writing on the wall, Graceland grounds

Amazingly, I wasn't an Elvis fan in the 1970s, the decade in which 1.5 billion tuned in to the Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii TV special via satellite.

In our household, in the southern Ohio countryside, Elvis Presley wasn't a household name. When I was learning to play the trumpet in grade school and junior high, my family and teachers were listening to Classical music and Jazz.

What little I knew about Elvis in high school was filtered through a passion many of my friends shared for Led Zeppelin ("Shake it one time for Elvis") and U2 ("Elvis Presley and America"). But my knowledge of and passion for Elvis grew after high school.

In the Midwest in the early 1990s, Paul Simon's Graceland album seemed as common around campus haunts as Dread Zeppelin's Un-led-Ed quasi-tribute was at college parties. I began encountering more and more intelligent, interesting people who were passionate about Elvis: a friend who had a 3.5 GPA, a double major in History and Sociology and a big black light poster of Elvis; a professor who compared Elvis' Graceland mansion to a pipsqueak Versailles; a poet, David Wojahn, who wrote about "the kitsch" of Elvis in his book Mystery Train: "the living room's wall of mirrors" at Graceland, "waterfalls cascading from imitation stones" in Elvis' Jungle Den, "the three TV sets side by side ... three stations at once" viewable from the plush sofas in Graceland's basement.

But, almost a decade later, my interest in "going to Graceland/Memphis, Tennessee," as Simon's lyric exclaims, still hadn't piqued. After all, I thought, why travel to Graceland with the fun kitsch of Elvis in my own backyard?

At Jungle Jim's grocery in Fairfield, a singing, guitar-playing electric bear dressed as Elvis "IS ON A TIMER" and "COMES ON EVERY 5 MINUTES."

In a downtown building, a woman runs her own elevator with photographs of Elvis on its walls. In his poem "The Elvis Elevator," collected in an anthology of Elvis poems due out this month from The University of Arkansas Press, local poet and UC professor Terry Stokes describes the elevator as a kind of shrine to Elvis.

In the 700 WLW-AM booth at Cinergy Field, the Elvis memorabilia that belongs to Marty Brennaman is also somewhat kitsch or camp when viewed strictly as King idols. For Reds fans, Marty's good-humored invocation "Elvis has not left the building" is almost as synonymous with his unique radio personality as his call, "And this one belongs to the Reds!" It's strange, but both seem oft-anticipated statements connected with the morale and spirit of Cincinnati.

Also, there are the more artful, less kitsch images — "sightings" — of Elvis in Cincinnati. For the Big Pig Gig, Michael Beeghly designed Elvis Pigsley (still holding court in the Cincinnati Hotel lobby). In the style of C.F. Payne, Gabriel Utasi's colorful Elvis was one of a number of drawings, big-headed and small-bodied, that collectively earned him the Art Academy of Cincinnati's Senior Thesis Award in 2000. Though expensive and rare, original movie posters advertising such Elvis films as Roustabout and Viva Las Vegas are sometimes available at Jack Wood Gallery in O'Bryonville.

But what really made me want to go to Graceland wasn't the culture or kitsch of Elvis as much as his music. I bought Elvis 56 for fun, but soon found it ranked among my favorite Rock & Roll CDs. Maybe for the heap of extra Elvis stuff — the camp, criticism, kitsch, materialism, sexuality, trash and vulgarity — it had been nearly impossible to find the true art of Elvis' music and performance underneath.

I convinced my photographer friend Jon Hughes, who grew up with Elvis and his music, to make the pilgrimage with me to Graceland. It took us around nine hours to drive to Memphis, with a stop in Buck Shot, Tenn. Thirty minutes outside Memphis, we scanned the local radio stations to find Guy Clarke's "Cold Dog Soup" on WEVL-FM.

It was the beginning of a number of events that would serve to remind me that this trip was as much about Memphis and the Blues as it was about Elvis and his music.

Across the Mississippi River, we took Highway 51 to Elvis Presley Boulevard, southeast of downtown, and found our room at Days Inn Graceland, with its version of the guitar-shaped pool that Country musician Webb Pierce built in Nashville in the 1950s. We were within walking distance of the mansion, but Graceland had closed for the day. After dinner at a nearby barbeque restaurant, we relaxed in our room with Love Me Tender on the motel's 24-hour Elvis movie station.

The next day, we got up early and ate breakfast in the hotel lobby alongside participants of a huge Church of God convention in Memphis that weekend. We walked to Graceland, on a few hundred acres well back from Elvis Presley Boulevard, surrounded by a stone wall covered with well-intentioned graffiti.

I enjoyed seeing the Hall of Gold, an 80-foot long room lined with Elvis' gold and platinum albums and singles, representing the sale of more than 1 billion records worldwide. The Wall of Gold, located in Elvis' racquetball court near his grave in the Meditation Garden, presented, among other achievements since 1977, Elvis' posthumous gold and platinum records as well as a 9-foot-tall multi-paneled etched glass award from RCA that names Elvis the greatest recording artist ever.

After a meatloaf sandwich — advertised as one of Elvis' favorite lunches — at the '50s-style diner in the mall at Graceland Crossing across from the mansion, Hughes and I checked out the Automobile Museum, which displays Elvis' 1955 pink Cadillac, '56 white Continental, '66 Harley chopper, '73 Stutz Blackhawk and '75 Dino Ferrari, among other classics.

From there, we drove downtown to Sun Studio on Union Avenue, a couple blocks north of Beale Street, where Elvis made his first records (now available as 38 remastered tracks on the Sunrise Elvis Presley CD). U2 would later record part of Rattle and Hum here.

Though the studio is still active — Billy Swan was taking a break from recording when we were there — it's also a museum that boasts Elvis' original microphone and a respectable record store. The energetic, knowledgeable guide told a history that included Bob Dylan's recent visit to this "birthplace of Rock & Roll." Apparently, Dylan got down on his hands and knees and kissed the floor, where Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin' Wolf, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and other greats had stood, recording hits like "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Ooby Dooby."

Then we headed to one of Beale Street's newest clubs: the somewhat upscale Elvis Presley's Memphis (across from B.B. King's famous club), where you can pay $16 to play a round of pool on the very table that Elvis and The Beatles played. We had Memphis' famous barbeque in mind, however, and took a quick tour up and down Beale Street, taking in the talents of the street musicians, before walking past the elegant, historic Peabody Hotel to the Rendezvous, recommended by a trumpet player outside a bar on Beale.

The Rendevous didn't disappoint. The atmosphere and service was as good as the barbeque, which Elvis loved.

We drove back to Elvis Presley Boulevard, where there was an 8 p.m. performance at The Hot Rod Diner at Graceland Crossing for $5. While we waited for Joe Kent — Elvis impersonator extraordinaire — to take the stage, I read the Memphis Flyer, the free local weekly, noticing that Memphis lived up to its name as a music town and wishing I had more than just the weekend to take in such things as Taj Majal or Ahmad Jamal at the New Daisy Theatre on Beale or local Jazz at The Peabody on Union.

Karioke-style, Kent gave his all, performing 20 songs that Elvis made hits from the '50s to the '70s, a nice retrospective made nicer by Kent's knowledgeable between-song interjections about the hits. The kids under 12, admitted free, seemed to really enjoy the show. Days Inn Graceland was only a short walk away.

The next day, driving back to Cincinnati, we heard Midwestern rocker John Hiatt's refrain "Let's get back to Memphis/Memphis in the meantime, girl" on the low end of the dial somewhere near Louisville. We sort of regretted not having had time to visit the Peabody, with its marching ducks taking the elevator from their penthouse each morning to swim and play in the lobby fountain, or Stax Records and its famed part in the history of Soul music.

I'd heard Hiatt's song before, but now I really understood it. I had walked a mile in Memphis' shoes and knew what it meant to want to get back. ©

Poems About Elvis

Will Clemens and Jon Hughes have collaborated on a book of poetry centering on Elvis Presley, All Shook Up: Collected Poems About Elvis. Published by the University of Arkansas Press, the book is scheduled to be released at the end of March.

Clemens and Hughes teach in the University of Cincinnati's English Department — Clemens is an assistant professor and Hughes a professor — and have been working on the book project since November 1999. Clemens collected and edited the poems, 51 in all in the final book, which are complemented by images Hughes shot on their recent trip to Memphis.

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