Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Elvis, Your Spirit Soars

The introduction of the Elvis stamp in 1993
inspired a trip to Graceland
I fell in love with Elvis almost two decades after the newspapers reported his death on August 16, 1977.

In the late fifties, when Elvis appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show," I was too young to understand why the cameras only showed him from the waist up. All his hip movin' and leg shakin' was lost on me.

By the time I was old enough to scream over rock singers, Elvis had been discharged from the Army and was making movies. Anyway, my heart had been captured by The Beatles and I was basking in the "Summer of Love."

Fast forward to January 8, 1993, the 58th anniversary of the birth of Elvis in Tupelo, Miss, when the U.S. Postal Service issued the Elvis stamp. I was working in a bookstore two doors down from a post office branch where people where coming and going all day long buying the postage with the image of the King.

That day, a chance remark to a co-worker led to our planning a pilgrimage to Graceland and a plunge into all things Elvis. Suddenly, Elvis was everywhere.

For the next two months I acquainted myself with Mr. Presley by watching videos of concerts, documentaries, and television performances: "Elvis on Tour," "Elvis Live!," and "Elvis, Aloha from Hawaii."

I knew that a multitude of books could not possibly capture the essence of Elvis, so I listened closely to his music and found myself humming "Hound Dog" and "Heartbreak Hotel" in the shower.

I watched the movie "Jailhouse Rock" for his dazzling dance scene to the title song and "Blue Hawaii" for a glimpse of Elvis in a swim suit.

I was mesmerized by images of a fresh, young Elvis and a fading, older Elvis, thin Elvis and heavy Elvis, shy Elvis and glittery Elvis. Elvis in sports jackets and Elvis in studded jumpsuits throwing red scarves to his weeping fans.

There was Elvis with sideburns and Elvis with mega-sideburns. A jittery backstage Elvis and an exuberant Elvis on stage.

But it was while watching the video of his "'68 Comeback Special" that my heart was swept away. (View it: Comeback Special.) 

Here was my Elvis, young and sultry, slim and trim, dressed all in black leather. Innocence and unruly bad boy combined. He played and sang on a stage in the midst of a small audience. It was on the second verse of "One Night With You" that I fell in love. I couldn't resist.

So, on March 23, 1993, my bookstore co-worker and I found ourselves heading south in the Kentucky rain to Memphis. We packed a video camera to record any and all Elvis sightings and had enough Elvis music to last the six-hour trip.

We were going to Graceland to see The King of Rock and Roll.

First stop, Sun Studios, where Elvis recorded "That's All Right, Mama" in the summer of 1954 and made music history. In the Sun Studio Cafe, under swirling ceiling fans, we ate our hamburgers and gazed at huge photographs Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins.

After touring the studio, we drove straight downtown for a view of the Mississippi River flowing grimly along under low gray afternoon clouds. We checked into the historic Peabody Hotel, ate Memphis-style BBQ ribs at The Rendevous, and snapped photos of each other next to a bronze statue of an unsmiling Elvis, guitar in hand. In the cool evening we listened to hot blues at B.B. King's night club on Beale Street.

Elvis and the gates to Graceland

The next day, under a clear southern sky, we set out for Graceland. We drove the ten miles down Elvis Presley Boulevard and soon spotted the famous music gates, open to reveal a winding drive leading to the white-columned mansion. We had arrived.

We parked in front of the rock wall that edges the property. There are hundreds of messages to Elvis written on the stones. I lay on the cool Memphis concrete and wrote my own: "Elvis, your spirit soars."

We walked on to the house. Up the drive, past the silent stone lions guarding the entrance and through the front door - just as Elvis had done hundreds of times.

I peered at the pale white living room with its grand piano, the TV room with its mirrored ceilings and lightning bolt logos on the yellow walls, and the quirky Jungle Room with its lighted waterfall and green shag carpeted floor and ceiling. (No one ever claimed that Elvis had good taste.)

In the Trophy Room, there were exhibits of his gold costumes and gold records, jewelry, album covers, awards, movie scripts and posters.

Finally, I strolled out past the swimming pool to the Meditation Garden. Here under body-length brass gravestones are buried Elvis, his parents and grandmother. By evening, the spot would be spilling over with flowers and wreaths and notes left by fans and visitors.

I gently placed three red carnations on Elvis's grave and contemplated its eternal flame. I stood silently. My sense of loss was overwhelming. I thought, Elvis, I have just gotten to know you. 

I felt tears on my face. As I wiped them away, a young girl standing close by looked up at me and asked, "Did you know Elvis?"

"Only in spirit," I replied. "Only in spirit."

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