(ELVIS’) HOME SWEET HOME

I’m just a singer. Elvis was the embodiment of the whole American culture.
Frank Sinatra
The other thing about Elvis, apart from the whole culture embodiment thing, is that so much has been said about him that there’s quite possibly nothing left to say.
Sweeeeeeet. Shortest post ever.
Jks.
I don’t remember the exact time Elvis came into my consciousness but I do remember learning the recorder at primary school and having ‘Wooden Heart’ in my first book of sheet music. My mum told me it was an Elvis song and that my uncle used to lock himself in a cupboard with a guitar and play that same song. It stands out as a memory less because of Elvis and more because it was a surprising revelation of a melodramatic side to my usually stoic uncle.
Then like all of us, I couldn’t help but put the pieces of Elvis together from there. The odd snippet of a daytime movie. The barrage of pop culture references to jumpsuits and peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwiches. The conspiracy theories.
It was this last point – the conspiracy theories – that I think gave me my most enduring impression of the guy. In my mind he must have been the ultimate tortured soul, otherwise why would so many people believe that he elaborately staged his own death simply to escape his life?
It makes sense that I would be preoccupied with this train of thought. Elvis died only 5 years before I was born so I think in the early stages of my life his passing and the circumstances surrounding it were still very much in the minds of the public.
So this was the expectation I took to Graceland. In my mind, it was to be a shrine to a guy who gave so much but was ultimately tortured by the arduous task of trailblazing the very essence of superstardom and celebrity for everybody that would come after him.
Well. Boy, was I wrong. Elvis might well have been a tortured soul but as is made clear from the moment you arrive, Graceland was his happy place and the whole property is a glowing tribute to a guy who loved his home, his family and who knew how to have a good time.
Graceland
Graceland is a welcome respite from the speculation and the feverish adulation. From the unique approach to interior decorating, to the epic collection of toys – golf carts, horses, a purpose-built squash building – it’s simply the place that the King loved the most and this is evident in the personal touches he left all over the home.
Admittedly, these personal touches include peacock stained glass windows, yellow and navy colour schemes and green shag carpeting – ON THE WALLS – but they were his all the same, so I’m okay with it. Being there, you just get the sense that this was a young guy who thought, you know what, I’ve done okay. I’m going to treat myself. By putting what will surely be a timeless floor covering on my living room walls. 

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Even if you don’t consider yourself an Elvis fan, it’s a real treat to see a home of this period so well-preserved and so untouched by the trends of the last 30-odd years. There was not a distressed brick wall or exposed beam in sight, I’m happy to report.

Needless to say, it was a big morning. The folks involved in Graceland have done an epic job of preserving and cataloguing anything and everything related to the King. My favourite artefact was a letter from a Miss Hedda Hopper, who ostensibly wrote to thank Elvis for a donation to her School for Visually Handicapped Children (one of a plethora of charitable acts, apparently), but who also informs Elvis that she’s taken up The Twist:
It is the best exercise I have found. I have taken one inch off my waist and two off my fanny. Now I know how you keep so thin.
Picturing Miss Hedda Hopper working up a sweat doing the twist in her living room was quite possibly the best part of the Graceland experience.
hedda hopper
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1966 ROCK-OLA MODEL 433

A reconstruction of a primary school journal entry, circa 1990:

On the weekend, mum and dad took us on a long drive to a place called Woodend. We went there to go to a jukebox auction. We bought a jukebox. When we got it home, mum and dad turned off the money bit so you don’t even need coins. My favourite song is ‘Leader of the Pack’ by the Shangri-Las.

 leader of the pack

True story.

At the time, I genuinely thought this was a thing that parent-type people did; go for a drive one random weekend and buy a secondhand jukebox. It was only much later that I asked myself, “What on earth possessed my parents to do that!?”

I’m still not exactly sure, but it was a Rock-Ola model 433 and it was the best.

Rock-Ola-433-Imperial-Gp-160-Jukebox-Working

We got to play whatever music we wanted and we knew where the secret cancel button was if someone picked something rubbish. Our friends loved coming over and playing it (as did their parents) and we had some awesome parties with the jukebox providing the soundtrack. We rummaged through op shops and trash and treasure markets for the elusive record singles it played. It was such a thrill to actually find a few. And when we did, we took them home, catalogued them and typed up a title strip to slide into the display window.

title strips

Later mum and dad got a pool table and darts board too so the jukebox lived in the poolroom. It was sort of like the best man cave ever, only better because we all got to play there and the whole idea wasn’t rooted in toxic masculinity.

The thing is, I realise now that the very best thing about that jukebox was the invaluable musical education it gave my sister and me. Absolutely priceless.

So when we got to Memphis we headed straight for Sun Studio which is considered by many to be the birthplace of rock and roll. Walking through the doors, I felt intimidated. Not because of the calibre entertainer that had passed through them before me but because I felt like a bit of a poser. I didn’t know much about Sun Studio, only what I’d read in my dog-eared Lonely Planet, and I was dreading having to feign recognition when the guide inevitably started rattling off the musical names associated with the place’s history.

sun studio

I thought it might be a bit like that time we went to Florence and went to about forty famous art galleries and museums before we realised we know nothing about art or European history.

But, that wasn’t the case at all this time. Aside from the administrative characters associated with Sun Studio, I had a pretty good strike rate of recognition. No posing for this little tourist, just enthusiastic nods of recognition.

And it made me realise what a good job my folks had done of educating me in all eras of music and in encouraging me to enjoy and appreciate music that had come years before me. Elvis recorded ‘That’s All Right (Mama)’ at Sun Studio in 1954 and the fact that this music remains relevant to me today makes me feel totally warm and fuzzy inside.

thats alright mama

I’m not suggesting every artist I know passed through that old Rock-Ola, but the fun we had listening to old music on that thing certainly gave me a taste for different styles of music. More than that, it gave me a fundamental understanding that there is value and reward in looking back and in preservation.

This is my absolute favourite thing about travelling. That thing that happens when you take the time to venture out and try something new, and the connections your mind makes when you’re trying to make sense of it all. In my case it was realising how lucky I am to have parents who not only exposed me to all kinds of music growing up, but who created such happy memories in my childhood. Memories that suddenly come flooding back standing in front of a tour guide at a 78-year-old Memphis recording studio.

Memphis recording studio