Grandma Moses with
Pompadour and
Peggers

Douglas Cruickshank

Part I
It's a cold, church-going morning in Memphis as the van crosses Elvis Presley Boulevard, a wide street like every other in suburban America, lined with strip malls, collaged with light up plastic signs, criss-crossed with power lines. We pass through the famous gates adorned with iron musical notes, and two metal outlines of a guitar player, and drive up the curl of asphalt that leads to the front porch of Graceland. The guide waiting on the brick steps announces that taking flash photos or making tape recordings is not permitted and then leads us inside.

The first strange thing I notice is how quiet it is. Graceland's last owner, after all, got famous for making a new kind of noise, and for being unable to stand still while he did it. It's quiet inside except for the monotone drone of the tour guide's patter, and the interior decoration, which is loud, energetic, quirky, unselfconscious and refreshingly improper (the same qualities that brought its owner to prominence). Which is why it's not surprising, I suppose, that in addition to being one of America's most profoundly odd roadside attractions, Graceland is a work of art. The experience of walking through it is both fascinating and peculiarly moving, even for those who were never aficionados of the King of Rock 'n' Roll.

Elvis was twenty-two years old when he bought the place; it was named after Grace Toof, the aunt of the woman who built the house in 1939. Presley paid $100,000 for the Georgian Colonial style residence sitting on 13 acres --- $45,000 cash plus a $55,000 credit for the trade of his family's previous home on Audubon Drive in suburban Memphis. Today Graceland is on the National Register of Historic Places, and one of the five most visited private homes in the United States, with over 650,000 people touring it each year.

The house was about 10,000 square feet when Elvis, his father Vernon, and mother, Gladys, took up residence in April of 1957, the same month he recorded "Jailhouse Rock," and little more than a year after "Heartbreak Hotel" entered the charts to become his first number one hit. Graceland is now over 17,000 square feet (not counting the large racquetball court building where Presley spent some of his final hours), but you'd never guess it --- because the second strange thing one notices is how small Graceland appears --- the living and dining rooms are not particularly spacious compared to those of many lesser show business luminaries. Even from the outside, when the shuttle drops you at the front of the house and you wait to enter, looking up at the four white Corinthian columns, you realize you' re not looking up very far. Most of the photographs you've seen of the house were taken with a wide angle lens --- the same technique used when photographing automobile interiors, cruise ship cabins and hotel rooms for advertisements --- which tends to make things appear vaster than they actually are.

But the relative modesty of Graceland is what's so appealing about it. For all the attention it's engendered as a rock and roll icon (in Graceland: The Living Legacy of Elvis Presley, Chet Flippo calls it "The Plymouth Rock of Rock 'n' Roll", though I prefer to think of it as Presley's Monticello, his Giverny) what is immediately obvious when you enter is that it was actually someone's home, and that person was an even more extreme specimen than we suspected. Elvis, it turns out, may have made a good living as a rock 'n' roller, later sanitized into an "entertainer," but his first calling was folk artist. He was a primitive, a naive surrealist --- Grandma Moses with a pompadour and peggers --- whose most personally expressive work was his home, not his music. His talent went into his performances, but his genius was channeled directly into Graceland. Artists now hailed as brilliant post-modern recyclers of extravagant middlebrow aesthetics do little more than borrow shamelessly from a style Presley may not have invented but certainly embraced with enthusiasm long before the art elite's avant-garde irony squad got hold of it.

Elvis, commingling the spirits of Louis XIV, Andre Breton and an assortment of Russian Futurists with his own, started ferociously imagining what Graceland's interior would look like even before moving in. He told a Memphis newspaper reporter he wanted "a black bedroom suite, trimmed in white leather, with a white rug." Chet Flippo reports that Presley also envisioned "the entrance hall painted to resemble the sky, with clouds on the ceiling and dozens of tiny lights for the stars." And that the singer planned for the living room, dining room and music room to have "purple wallcovering with gold trim [and] white corduroy drapes." (The Sun King-like notion of painting the entrance hall to resemble the sky not only prefigured the present treatment of the vaulted ceiling of the Forum Shops mall at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas by more than three decades, it anticipated a similar scheme applied to uncountable ceilings and walls of innumerable hippie pads long after Elvis took over Graceland.)

Unfortunately the purple and gold idea never came to be. A white, blue and gold motif were maintained in the living room and dining room during most of Elvis' years at the house. However, in 1974 Presley and his then girlfriend, Linda Thompson, tapped into some kind of divine Dadaesque inspiration when they gave the main rooms a crimson makeover complete with satin curtains and fake French Provincial furniture upholstered in red crushed velvet. It must have been thrilling to behold --- too bad the killjoys now running the place changed back to the blue and white decor.

In every room you enter and down every hallway you walk at Graceland you are forced to confront your own assumptions about taste, and the assumptions of others. What is good decor and what is bad and what makes it so? The extent to which apparently intelligent people can get their knickers in a twist over an issue as seemingly innocuous as furniture design or the color scheme of draperies is astonishing. If one function of art, as someone said, is to make you uncomfortable, then Elvis' live-in artwork is abundantly successful. It's amusing to watch people squirm, and to eavesdrop on their heated conversations, as we are led into one eccentricly decorated room after another. In the Jungle Room, which is intended to evoke Polynesia, and includes what's called an "indoor waterfall" (I call it water dribbling down flagstone), the woman in front of me was appalled at the furniture and not afraid to say so.

"How could anyone think that's attractive?" she loudly wondered as I stepped away from her. "The fur's fake, the carving's bad. If you could get anything you wanted, why would you get that?" She went on at considerable length until several of the Elvis devotees on the tour started scowling in her direction (I scowled too). I wasn't crazy about the pseudo tiki-carved chairs myself (Elvis's favorite Monkey Chair, for example, doesn't much resemble a monkey), but they were nowhere near as bad as the imitation Chinese pieces that fill a room at the house of Victor Hugo on the Place des Vosges in Paris. Years ago, when I visited there, I stood in that room loudly asking my companions "If you could get anything you wanted, why would you get that?" They stepped away from me. Then I read the explanatory sign on the wall --- Monsieur Hugo, who apparently could turn a phrase better than he could a table leg, had built the unsightly stuff himself. Presley, to his credit, merely purchased his Jungle Room furnishings.

From its bright yellow and black TV room with mirrors everywhere (kind of like being inside a kaleidoscope filled with bumblebees) to the pool room (as in eight ball), which is covered, walls and ceiling, in more than 350 yards of frantically patterned fabric (our imaginative guide called it "oriental"), the overall effect of Graceland is that of a kids' clubhouse operated on an unlimited budget, which is approximately what it was when Elvis and the Lost Boys of Memphis, forever calcified in their adolescence, were headquartered here.

Go on to Part II


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