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HE WAS JUST A COUNTRY KID : Presley’s Graceland Turns Out to Be His Own Heartbreak Hotel

Elvis Presley is the ultimate Beverly Hillbilly success story and, like Marilyn Monroe and J.F.K., his function as a mythical totem becomes increasingly clear with the years. A two-headed Hydra representing the Rebel (an erotic avatar in sideburns and leather) and the Good Boy (loved his mother, went to church), Elvis was a sacrificial lamb consumed by contemporary culture’s collective fantasy of youth, innocence, and beauty. A simple country lad fond of home cookin’, Cadillacs and TV, Elvis metamorphosed into a mass-media icon representing a tribal dream that was simply too deep and wide for any one man to navigate alone.

He probably never knew what hit him; nature simply didn’t provide him with the psychological equipment necessary to deal with the period of perfection that befell him. He was about as close as we’ve come in 20th-Century America to epic Greek tragedy.

And, yes, there was a shimmering moment when Elvis was nothing less than a godlike model of grace, joy and style. To see such beauty and know it to be but a fleeting moment of glory is heartbreaking enough; but to be it and feel it slowly slip away--who wouldn’t drown themselves in Demerol attempting to numb the pain? Misery will surely come to him who refuses to put aside childhood things when the time comes to do so, and Elvis, poor country bumpkin that he was, never could figure out how to grow up. His mansion on the hill became a prison where he hid as the clock chipped away at the boyish charm that had won him the heart of the world.

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This is so fantastic a tale encompassing such extremes of triumph and despair that it transcends the specifics of Elvis’ life and stirs the ashes of a million broken dreams. This may begin to explain the unending pilgrimage of people--fans, curiosity seekers, travelers with time to kill--who visit Elvis’ home in Memphis. Laughably tacky though it is, Graceland is a strangely moving place that invites us to grieve for Elvis as we grieve for whatever of ourselves we’ve lost in pursuit of a dream. The power of the place is quite surprising.

I visited Memphis recently and performed the obligatory ritual; I visited Graceland, loaded up on cheap souvenirs and marveled at the myriad ways people have come up with to make a buck off Elvis. There is, in fact, an entire mall devoted to post-mortem Presley merchandising.

Located just across the street from the King’s crib, this complex of shops, restaurants and tourist attractions sells Elvis from dawn to dusk. After forking out $11.95 to tour the Presley manse, fans can then duck into the Bijou Theater and see the film short, “If I Can Dream,” which recounts yet again the exhaustively chronicled life of the boy from Tupelo, wander next door to a recording studio and wax one’s very own disc (it’s how the King got started, ya know), then wind things up at the Heartbreak Hotel Cafe with a spot of lunch. In between, you will, of course, wander in and out of an endless sequence of shops, gorging yourself on mementos and trinkets, some of which give new meaning to the word kitsch .

There’s an entire store devoted to teddy bear-related items (Elvis had a thing for teddy bears after he scored a hit with "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear,” and there are scads of items emblazoned with the “TCB” logo (Elvis’ motto was “Taking Care of Business”). The complex is equipped with an eerie sound system that allows Elvis music to play everywhere. Seeming to waft down from heaven itself, Elvis songs are piped into the shops, outside the shops, in the parking lots.

All this bustling commerce tends to diminish the emotional impact of the life that ended here so sadly a decade ago. On my last day in Memphis, I got up at 6 intending to walk over to Graceland in pursuit of my own private audience with the King. I planned to stand on the street, look at the house for a minute and wallow in a spell of unadulterated melancholy undisturbed by Graceland’s thriving tourist trade.

I arrived at Graceland on a gray morning shrouded in a soft veil of rain, only to discover that inclement weather and early hours are no deterrent to Elvis fans. The Graceland gates stood agape like the jaws of Jonah’s whale, eager to swallow the camera-toting faithful who traipsed up the long, winding drive. Across the street, a few of the shops were already open and doing business. It wasn’t even 7!

Seeing as how my reverential moment was out of the question, I went down the street and took a picture of the Krispie Kreme doughnut stand on Elvis Presley Boulevard instead, figuring that was probably the place where Elvis procured his daily supply of doughnuts. I figure that’s what really killed him. Doughnuts, the terrifying love the world bestowed on him, and his fear of losing it.


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