Saturday, January 08, 2011

"For reasons I cannot explain/There's some part of me wants to see/Graceland."

The Song: "Graceland," Paul Simon. Words & music by Paul Simon. Track 2 of Graceland, 1986.
How/when acquired: Purchased cassette, 1986.
Listen here.

Today is Elvis Presley's 76th birthday. Happy birthday, sir, wherever you are. The only Elvis recordings I own are on a cassette of Christmas music, but this song feels more appropriate anyway.

I tell everyone that they need to see Graceland. I never felt particularly interested in Elvis Presley until my brother Ed and I visited his home, at the edge of a residential neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee.

Whatever you expect Graceland to be, it is not. It's relatively modest, for one thing, a brick center-hall Colonial similar to those many of my schoolmates grew up in. The furnishings are very much of their time (early-mid 1970s), but not particularly garish. The grounds are beautiful, and the famous gate is weirdly out-of-place, installed only to keep curious fans at bay. The house looks exactly like what it was: a family home.

Graceland is worth visiting, first of all, because it gives you a real sense of Elvis Presley the man, and how he struggled with his public image. I did not understand until I walked through his home that Elvis worked really hard, and never took any of it for granted. He was grateful, and he was humble, and he was scared. His private life was a constant effort to improve himself, through reading and karate lessons and the three television sets in his TV room. He was a prisoner of his fame as much as a beneficiary of it, and he must have been terribly lonely. Most of all, I came away from Graceland with the impression of a man who had meant well.

The author and music critic Jim Fusilli, whom I know and like (and whose novels you should read), wrote a thoughtful piece for the Wall Street Journal this week in which he observed that by the end of Elvis Presley's career, he'd become the first Elvis Presley impersonator. I think about this all the time, and it's a question you can't avoid at Graceland: do all great success stories inevitably become parodies of themselves?

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