I stopped in Memphis, bound for New Orleans, with a U-Haul filled with stuff in tow. The clerk at the motel gave me a dinner recommendation.
“They’ll pick you up in a pink limousine,” he said. The significance of that detail escaped me until I noticed that most of the stores on our route displayed signs evoking Elvis. At last it dawned on me. I was in Memphis, home of “The King.” The pink limo had to figure in the Elvis legend. It wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that Elvis tooled about in such a conveyance. If I remember correctly, he wasn’t famous for his refined taste.
The pink limo picked me up. A few blocks from the motel, suddenly, there it was: Graceland, looming like a mausoleum at the end of a long driveway lit with pale lights.
“Elvis is pretty big here, huh?” I said, stupidly. “Have you ever been to Graceland?”
“Of course,” the driver said. “I grew up a few blocks from here.” We drove along Elvis Presley Boulevard and he dropped me off at the restaurant. Exhibited in a glass case was one of Elvis’ white sequined jumpsuits on a mannequin, without the head, of course. But then, it was the lower body that Elvis “the Pelvis” was famed for, not his rarefied brain.
I can’t remember what I had for dinner. The “Elvis Burger,” perhaps. No matter. The mystical presence of Elvis opened the floodgates of memory. I never cared for the man’s music, but I was surprised by the wealth of Elvis trivia I’d unconsciously absorbed by virtue of living during his reign. Somehow, I knew that his favorite food was a peanut butter, bacon and banana sandwich. I knew that when Elvis appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, the cameras showed him only above the waist, lest the viewing audience be turned to pillars of salt by the spectacle of his gyrating hips.
There was no escape from his music when I was growing up. The songs came back to me: “Heartbreak Hotel,” “All Shook Up,” “Hound Dog,” “Blue Suede Shoes.” I never quite got them. I was weaned on Cole Porter songs about romantic love, songs that had a thing called “tunes.” I was a graduate of Miss Atkins’ Dancing School, where I learned to do the box step, holding my partner at a respectable arm’s length. But I did actually own a pair of blue suede shoes when I was in eighth grade and I know exactly what Elvis was talking about when he sang, “You can do anything, but don’t step on my blue suede shoes.” They were easily scuffed.
I understand that some people have an almost religious feeling towards Elvis. Elvis “scholars” have written about Graceland as the “church” of Elvis, about Elvis’ “healing powers,” about Elvis as a “fertility totem.” “Don’t Be Cruel” has been compared to the Sermon on the Mount.
How far we’ve come in 50 years: From Bing Crosby to Elvis to Snoop Doggy Dog.
Who remembers Bing Crosby? Driving back home on a two-lane road through Arkansas, I passed the town where Preacher Roe was born. Does anyone remember Preacher Roe? He hurled fastballs for the St. Louis Cardinals. Does anyone remember “You’re the top?” The words come back to me from the distant past: “You’re the top, you’re the tower of Pisa, you’re the smile on the Mona Lisa…You’re a Bendel bonnet, a Shakespeare sonnet, you’re Mickey Mouse…” Does anyone remember?