The thing about Memphis that takes some getting used to, for someone like me, who spends the majority of her time in New York City, is that no one is ever breathing down your neck. You can wander, you can meander, you can stop in the middle of the sidewalk and take a picture, nobody crashes into you. It’s the same with driving. There are certainly other cars on the road, but even during rush hour there’s not that insanity that you feel on approaching New York. And so what happens to me is that I calm down and relax. It’s physical. I got used to having space around me. I got used to not being bothered, hustled, bumped into. Even on Beale Street, where, in general, you see more people, it’s pretty quiet. Granted, this is a slow period (New Year’s Eve notwithstanding). Schools are shut down, lots of businesses are closed for the holidays, and except for the throngs of people from Iowa who poured into town for the Liberty Bowl, Memphis was closed into itself. There was no distance between me and it. I loved that. I was told by many people that Beale Street has a blues fest in the summer and the streets get so crowded that you can barely walk.
And I know that Elvis’ death anniversary in August draws people from all over the world. But I was seeing Memphis in a quiet period, and the space expanded around me. I could stop and sit on a bench and nobody sat down next to me. (Well, one time someone did, but he was clearly insane and looking for a friend so I moved on pretty quick.)
I have my morning coffee in the freezing air of Confederate Park, overlooking the Mississippi. I am looking west, at Arkansas, so as the sun rises, the landscape is half in shadow and half ablaze with sunlight.
The only people you see are joggers and people walking their dogs. Everyone says “good morning” or “Happy new year” as they pass, but they always pass. Solitude is respected. I imagine it’s because there’s just not as many people, you are not crushed up against your fellow man at all times here, and so it is assumed that if someone is alone, then they want to be alone. I love that about being here.
It seems to me that along with the fact that this was his hometown, Elvis liked it because of that respect for solitude, that Southern hospitality which is both warm but also distant. People leave you alone. I can imagine quite well that Elvis could breathe better here in Memphis. There was a space around him too. Even with his clamoring entourage who basically waited around downstairs in Graceland for Elvis to appear down the stairway. Even in that environment, here in Memphis Elvis could stretch out. It’s not about an escape. Elvis did plenty of that. He escaped in Las Vegas, he escaped in Hawaii. In Memphis, though, he was a hometown boy. This was the place that had nurtured him and recognized him first. They loved him unconditionally. They were proud of him. They were protective of him. None of that would need to be said out loud. It’s in the air. Elvis was obviously a prisoner at Graceland, with the fans lined up along the stone wall on the outskirts. He let the tension out by coming down and signing autographs, and letting fans he recognized come on up to the house and look around. It’s hard to imagine a star of his magnitude doing such a thing today. There’s a back driveway where Elvis would escape to drive around. He had an old beat-up pickup truck for that, and could exit his home without anyone knowing that it was him. Insanity. If he wanted to go to the movies or the zoo or the amusement park or roller skating, he would rent out the entire joint and do his thing afterhours. He did what he had to do to survive. But only in Memphis would any of that be possible. He knew everyone. He could pull strings. He knew if he went to The Memphian to watch a movie, he would be safe. He was the biggest star in the world and he chose to stay in Memphis as his home base. Memphis was (and is) rightly proud of that.
It’s not an accident. It’s not evidence of his lack of curiosity or his childish desire to keep things the same, although these things have been said about him. I have said it before and I’ll say it again: try to walk a mile in his shoes, try to imagine the crush of that level of fame, and try to imagine it coming to him so young. A year before he was living in public housing, now he has three Cadillacs. That type of fame turns people’s heads. We can see it happen time and time again. George Harrison said that the only way the Beatles survived the onslaught of fame, and what that type of fame does to the ego, is by relying on one another. That onslaught on the ego could be distributed between the four of them. Elvis didn’t have that. He also didn’t write his own stuff, so the love that people had for him wasn’t about his awesome lyrics, and his personal songwriting. They loved him because he was him. Try to imagine that, it’s very important. It’s also unique. Now, he came up in a time when the singer/songwriter thing was not the vogue. Frank Sinatra didn’t write his own stuff. Ella Fitzgerald didn’t write her own stuff. These people are not seen as somehow lesser because they aren’t Bob Dylan. But somehow Elvis gets that criticism all the time. “Well, but he didn’t write his own stuff ….” The singer/songwriter thing happened right after Elvis became famous, with the British invasion and the rise of folk singers like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Elvis was left out in the cold because songwriters suddenly weren’t offering him their best stuff. Regardless: his fame was truly personal, and it had to do with who he was, and the self he projected, and he never protected himself, he never held back. Okay, so they want all of me, apparently … so here it is.
That type of fame was, of course, very gratifying (you can see it in the flash of expression on his face in the back of the limo here), but it is also isolating and probably a little bit scary.
Memphis gave him a break. He wasn’t anonymous in Memphis, he was its most famous citizen, and everybody knew his schedule. “He should be arriving home from Hollywood soon …” “The Lisa Marie is taking off tomorrow, Elvis must be going to Vegas again …”
But again: there was a space around him, a forgiving and kind space. Time could stretch out for this man who was on the clock from the time he was 19 years old. He needed space. Not eternally: he couldn’t live without the wider world’s acceptance. He loved his fame. He respected it and gave it its due. He felt blessed. He was not a complainer.
Memphis shows its character best in the early morning and in the late afternoon. The shadows are long, and the air is still. The cars going by are not an insistent rush of traffic. There’s one, then a space of silence, then another goes by. Graceland is so clearly a private home when you drive by there off-hours, early in the morning or after supper. It’s wrapped up in itself: on display and yet also protected. The house is not hidden by trees. The drive is not so long that the house is not visible from the street. There it is. Elvis’ house.
A mansion, sure, with columns and a lot of land, but certainly not like, oh, The Breakers, or the Spelling mansion in Los Angeles. The house is relatable, somehow. (Well. When you see the Jungle Room or the Billiard Room, you know that the occupant was, shall we say, freakin’ OUT THERE.)
I think I can be safe in guessing that had Elvis lived, he would have always kept Graceland. I cannot picture him giving up that house (he had bought it for his mother, really), or moving from Memphis. Memphis provided him too much. It launched his career. It was the type of place where the racial segregation of the South became meaningless once you started turning that radio dial. A revolution. Certainly devastated by what happened at the Lorraine Motel, which Memphis has still not recovered from. (I spoke to a musician at B.B. King’s, who was white, but played with an all-black band, and that was his theory. “We’ll never get over what happened at the Lorraine Motel, never. It still affects us,” he said.) Memphis remembers that too. Its shame, of being the place where that assassination took place, was turned into a memorial. They could have easily demolished the Lorraine Motel, to wipe out the memory of that horrible event and its aftermath. But they didn’t. It is a scar, from a wound that will never heal. Memphis can take it. America can take it. We can take the horrible events in our past. We can try to understand, try to heal, try to remember. That’s what I feel, when I come across the Lorraine Hotel, in my walks through the city. It always surprises me. “Oh, look, there it is again …”
Milan Kundera wrote a lot about “forgetting”. In a totalitarian society, there is a high premium placed on amnesia. The past is not acknowledged, and a heap of lies is unloaded on the public, giving them the correct interpretation of past events, even though everyone knows it is bullshit. Vaclav Havel spoke about that in his “moral contamination” speech in 1990. He told the Czech people that they were also responsible for the contamination: it would not do to just blame the Politburo. Because the only way a totalitarian society can continue is through the willing participation of its citizens. A tough thought. We all feel better when we are victims: “But he made me do it.” “But I had no choice.” When a society is devoted to forgetting, everyone is lost.
Memphis is wounded, and Memphis is obviously depressed. There are a lot of sad ghosts here. But Memphis does not forget. Memphis is brave enough to remember.