Monday, 2 March 2009 Taking Care of Business

"Nothing really affected me until I heard Elvis" - John Lennon

We boarded a plane today, something I never thought I’d be doing on our travels around the world without flying.

This was no commercial airliner though, and indeed it was going nowhere, parked up on a piece of tarmac just off a busy highway.

Clearly the former owner had been a person of some means: this jet was blinged to the max. There were lush thick sofas, leather seats, a double bed, gold seat belt clips, even gold leaf basins in the toilets.

But then this wasn’t any old plane: this was the Lisa Marie, and this wasn't any old owner - this was the former plane of none other than the King of Rock ‘N’ Roll, Elvis Presley.

And whilst the Lisa Marie may once have flown through the clouds, taking Elvis on tour or indulging him in spontaneous missions (taking his dog to a vet in Boston, visiting Denver for peanut butter sandwiches, visiting the Rockies for half an hour to show his daughter snow) today she was going nowhere, parked up on a piece of tarmac just off a busy highway.

She stands as a dusty display in an outdoor museum, just one of the many exhibitions at his old stomping ground, now a pilgrimage site for his legions of adoring fans, the Mecca of rock and roll: Graceland.

Welcome to : Taking Care of Business.

TCB. Elvis’s favourite acronym was emblazoned on the back of the Lisa Marie and his other jet, Hound Dog II, on his cars, throughout his house and even on his clothes.

It seemed rather a naff slogan for such a cool cat, surely more befitting of a small-town haulage company rather than a man who could make girls swoon with a single shake of his hips.

Indeed the slogan seems more pertinent since ‘The King’s’ death, Elvis bequeathing us not only a great musical legacy but a whole retail park dedicated to his memory.

For the dedicated Elvis fan the dollars start flying out of your pocket the minute you turn into Elvis Presley Boulevard.

If you've time on your hands (and at Graceland you need it) you can stay at Heartbreak Hotel (situated on Lonely St, naturally) or park up your RV (those enormous bloated caravans Americans seem to insist on taking with them, as it they’re anticipating an alien invasion) on the campsite behind.

The house is, of course, the big draw and Elvis's former manor perches on the top of a grassy slope opposite the visitor centre, accessible only by shuttle bus.

The visitor is shepherded straight through the front door of the building, more a large house than a great mansion and straight into the Presley family’s inner sanctum for a voyeuristic glimpse into their private, intimate, lives.

It felt strange to walk through their rooms, inappropriate - almost ghoulish - to intrude into their world, handing over fistfuls of dollars for a thrilling peek at how the family lived, commenting on the furniture and the crockery, staring at the framed photos of beaming parents and happy children.

I couldn’t help being aghast at the ludicrous décor of course, frozen as it is in a weird 1970s timewarp, a decade notorious for bypassing all acceptable boundaries of taste.

Not one to be outdone Elvis smashed past these boundaries with great zeal, choosing to decorate each room to its own individual theme.

The visitor moves between these rooms rather like contestants did between zones in the Channel Four game show The Crystal Maze.

There was the TV room (black, white and yellow colour scheme, mirrored walls and ceiling, and a bank of three TVs for simultaneous viewing - an idea borrowed from President Johnson, apparently); the pool room (thick, heavy material from floor to ceiling, like a dingy bordello) and the lounge (a ‘jungle’ room, complete with slippery leather furniture, indoor waterfall and thick, green shagpile from floor to ceiling.

A fellow visitor standing next to me couldn’t help but be impressed: “I gottasay, boy, he’s classy!”

We proceeded to the raquetball room, one a playground for Elvis and friends, now lined with rows of platinum discs and, inside glass cabinets some of his legendary costumes: sequined jumpsuits with massive lapels, tight at the crotch, flared at the ankle and split down to the belly.

From the screens on the wall the King struts about in such costumes, the final word in bad taste.

This coverage of his later live shows showed a decidedly pudgy Elvis, sporting the kind of sideburns you’d expect find in a zoo behind bars, gyrating before adoring fans and sweating heavily through innumerable Las Vegas shows.

The mawkishness cranks up another notch still when we come to the ‘meditation garden’, the final resting place of the King himself. Private family graves; public shrine.

In front of a tinkling fountain, his grave, between those of his family lies festooned in flowers and toys, limp star and stripes and notes of heartfelt professions of adoration.

Fans still flock here from far and wide. One enormous wreath on display was sent from the ‘United Elvis Presley Society Belgium' (United? Was there a split into factions, I wondered? Perhaps a divide along ethnic lines, the Flems disapproving of the Walloons interpretation of Blue Suede Shoes).

Away from the house there was more of course: an exhibition dedicated to Elvis’s many films, another to his many cars, and one entirely about his days in the draft.

The latter provided a particularly fascinating insight into the Elvis phenomenon.

When they heard that E.A Presley was due to be drafted the various branches of the armed services vied for his services.

One glance at the images of the impossibly handsome young batchelor - already a pin-up for many -willingly doing his duty and its clear why they would have been keen to have him in their ranks.

The propaganda value alone during this time of the Cold War must have been almost incalculable.

A grinning Elvis poses happily whilst having his head shaved at an Arkansas boot camp, a rugged Elvis in military fatigues tinkles with his tank deep in the Bavarian woods. Soviet propagandists must have been green with envy.

Yet even a hardened, cynical military general cannot have calculated the value of Elvis once he’d passed to other side. Beyond the grave Elvis is still generating millions of dollars.

The merchandise stands wall-to-wall, at the exit of each exhibition and in every shop in between them. There’s Elvis posters, pens and steering wheel covers, keyrings, CDs and films, t-shirts, ringtones and playing cards, dolls, monopoly and karaoke sets...

But it doesn’t stop here: for the more ambitious there’s an opportunity to let Elvis into just about every corner of your life.

You can get married at Graceland’s ‘Chapel in the Woods’ or listen to Elvis every minute of the day on Elvis Radio.

Indeed if you have the money there seems to be no limit.

Fancy a go on Elvis’s pool table? All yours for $100, with a certificate of authenticity and a Polaroid of the moment thrown in.

Or perhaps you’d like to splash out on a replica Elvis jumpsuit, complete with buttons and sequins. Yours for only $3,300.

Elvis might have passed away some 25 years ago but the tills are still ringing. The King is dead, long live Elvis®.

When the shy boy from Tupelo, Mississippi strolled in through the doors of Sun Studios back in 1953 he didn’t know he’d be launching a music career that would define a generation and change
the world.

Such was his popularity that when he died, aged only 42, in August 1977 hundreds of thousands turned out to see his casket.

As we chowed down in the ‘Chrome Grille’ café (sat in a Cadillac, of course) I munched metaphorically over the Elvis phenomenon and couldn’t help drawing a parallel between Elvis and the United States.

Big, brash and lovable; thrilling, exciting and new.

Extravagant, excessive and greedy; tacky, tasteless and wasteful.

Could he have appeared in anywhere else other than the United States?

Like him or not, even today Elvis retains his legions of devoted fans. Indeed he seems as popular as ever, a simple search for him on google returning 52,600,000 results.

And whilst people still come to Graceland, streaming through the gates in their hundreds of thousands every year, his songs will keep spinning and the tills will keep ringing.

The King is dead, long live Elvis®. U-huh.

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