With Dr. Nick.
"Oh! This is nice! Louie!!" She looked around the store with a dead look on her face. Finally Louie shows up and she shows him the life size cardboard cutout of Elvis. "Wouldn't this look nice in our living room?" Louie replied "actually it wouldn't." It was a rare moment of honesty that you don't see that often at Graceland. I don't know where they were from, but judging from their skin tone and a possible accent, Mr. and Mrs. Louie may not even be from the U. S. Even if they are, there is a good chance they flew to Memphis for Elvis week. In a post economic meltdown world, I can imagine them trying to board a plane with this thing. How much would it cost and where do you store it? It reminds me of the fight I took out of Memphis the day after Elvis' birthday several years ago. A fan club from England was on the flight and someone was trying to board with a velvet Elvis painting. They don't go under the seat or in the overhead very easily. Now you can't even find a velvet Elvis painting at Graceland. Louie isn't the only one feeling the pressure. It seems like Elvis Presley Enterprises as well as the fans are all feeling the economic crunch. On a week that celebrates the death of a musical icon, the presence of death feels even more real this year.
Flip Flop Elvis
Part of it may be the heat. They announce that the heat index was 119. I don't know if it was more than a couple of years ago when the lady died at the Heartbreak Hotel RV park, but it reminded me of that year.
Part of it could have been the fact that I got to meet Dr. Nick this year. George Nichopoulos was Elvis' doctor and prescribed him the drugs that most people feel are the cause of Elvis' death. Dr. Nick has written a book and was signing copies at the event. It wasn't promoted as an official event. I imagine that things might not be so good between Dr. Nick and Elvis' estate. His book signing was at Boulevard Souvenirs, the low-rent memorabilia shop on the same side of the road as Graceland. It's not an official part of Graceland and is an outpost the people who were part of Elvis' world that aren't welcome at Graceland. Dr. Nick was an old, frail man. I spoke with him briefly and got him to sign my book. He had already autographed the book so he just added a message below that says he hope I enjoy the book. I also got my picture made with him. A strange man with huge sideburns snapped a picture with my camera. My Facebook update said that I met the man that killed Elvis. I'm sure that some of my friends probably wonder why I didn't choke him while I had my arm around him.
But Dr. Nick wasn't the only thing that added to the sense of death for the event. I also got the feeling that the event is near death. It seems like I ran into more international people this year. Maybe American Elvis fans were smarter this year and stayed at home. Maybe they've had a falling out with the way things are changing at Graceland. Maybe they just don't have at much money. Maybe they are dieing.
Before this year, I had never met any Elvis fans from Australia. Crossing the road after buying the Dr. Nick book, I ran into Trish Bishop, a tall, older lady on her first trip to Graceland. She was on her way to join her three friends who had joined her on her journey. I also met Marlina and Margarita from Brazil. I ran into them when I was trying to take a picture of the Elvis impersonator wearing a silk KISS shirt. Things are getting real casual at Graceland and no where is it more evident that in the Elvis impersonators. Usually when I get to Graceland in the late morning or early afternoon, the action is in full swing at the Elvis tent. This is a tent where they usually have non-stop tribute artists, the preferred job title for these performers. But this year, they were getting more casual. There were the brothers that were wearing denim shorts, not even trying to look like Elvis except for the hair. You can always count on them having at least black hair. Sideburns are optional. And this year it seems like the jumpsuit has almost been completely abandoned. The only one I saw was on a guy posing for pictures in one of the gift shops. One of the low points this year for the performers was a guy dressed all in black with a receding hairline wearing flip flops. Elvis would never wear flip flops when performing!
Then there was the girl that got up and sang. She was an attractive young girl with long legs and a short skirt. She didn't try to sing like Elvis and didn't necessarily sing his biggest hits. She wasn't that bad, but wasn't the kind of performer for this crowd. They were polite but never really got into her songs. They are older women who like attractive young men who sing familiar Elvis songs, use his sexiest moves, and flirt with them. The more they move and flirt, the less they have to sing or look like Elvis. The performer that was the most successful at getting the audience involved was a guy that looked more like Adam Lambert from American Idol than Elvis. He spoke with an Italian accent. He also picked the best songs and got the audience more involved. He brought a group of girls on stage to help him sing and dance on "Love my Baby", one of Elvis' best songs that he sang with Ann Margaret in Viva Las Vegas. He was a good performer, but a cheap imitation of Elvis.
While the impersonators may have gotten cheap, the prices at the gift shops haven't. The music shop was one of the places where the prices are still as high as the passion for Elvis but the feeling that the death of the phenomenon of Elvis fans is inevitable. The many of the CDs in this store can probably only be purchased in this store. If you ever saw Elvis perform live, you can find a CD with a performance from that time, that tour, that set of shows at a casino and maybe even the show you saw. At least you will be able to find the song set he performed from around the same time. The price on these CDs is $30. The expanded soundtracks of his films with alternate takes and unused songs are also $30. This when normal retailers price their CDs less than $10 and they have a hard time selling them. Yes, you can't find this stuff anywhere else and it is specialty material so it should come at a premium. But if you expect to keep this phenomenon going, you have to do something to try to appeal to a younger group that will only listen to it if it's easy to loan on to their iPod. While I was in this store, a sales lady brought a customer over to a shelf to show her where they had copies of Viva Las Vegas. The sales lady asked if she wanted the DVD or Blu-Ray. The lady wanted Blu-Ray. She took it but came back in a while to compare the price with the DVD. I asked her how much the Blu-Ray costs. She said it was $40 and the DVD was $7 less. I told her if she really wanted it, she should go to Best Buy. I had stopped by there on the way into town and found a set that had Viva Las Vegas, Jailhouse Rock and Elvis on Tour, all on Blu-Ray for $40. The lady replied "I never thought of that!" Many of the people that still come to Graceland to celebrate don't think about this stuff. They are slow and weak and dieing. The ones that aren't are wising up and staying at home. Only the freaks are showing up at Graceland now. Freaks and people who come to see the freaks. I've used the term freak loosely in the past but this year it applies in the strictest sense of the term.
No Leg Elvis
I was in one of the gift shops next to the Elvis performers tent. It looked like the performer was laying down on his belly on stage. It also looked like he was using a headset microphone. I thought this was just wrong. Elvis would have never done any of this. When I came out of the store, I saw a man with no legs performing. This is just ripe for jokes. The guy couldn't shake his legs like Elvis, he didn't have any. He couldn't shake his hips, he didn't have any. He had a belt, but it seemed like he was having problems keeping it on. He sang ok, but didn't really sound like Elvis. He had sideburns but really didn't look like Elvis. He was energetic and a good performer like a good sideshow freak. They've shut down most of those carnival sideshows because they are considered cruel. But they can still perform for Elvis fans. They aren't exactly right either so you might as well have freaks perform for freaks.
There was a large group of young people with Down's syndrome that I ran into several times. They were wearing matching grey "Property of the Spurs" shirts. I don't know if they were from San Antonio or if they found these shirts cheap and thought it would be an easy way to keep up with the group in a sea of Elvis shirts. These people were much more normal than most of the people I met.
They were more normal than Marlene Mayle who told me about the wild party at the Days Inn the night before and talking to the crippled Hawaiian Elvis impersonator that everyone gave a standing ovation out next to the pool.
They were more normal than Travis Persuad. Travis is a tribute artist who is from Toronto who has only been singing for 3 years. His parents are originally from India. In addition to being a tribute artist, he has a detailing business on the side. He really wanted me to email Danny, the guy that runs the Elvis tent and request him as a performer next year.
They were more normal than the lady that I saw in the wheelchair being pushed away from the visitor center. I couldn't tell if she was normally in a wheelchair or had been overcome by the heat. I saw her later at the candlelight vigil. She was slumped over in her wheelchair with a wet towel around her neck. She looked like she was barely hanging on but I think she probably always looked that way.
They were more normal that the old Jewish guy with the bushy eyebrows trying to look like Elvis but coming across more like Eugene Levy's Sid Dither's character from SCTV. He even had a huge star of David around his neck.
They were more normal than the girl from the Billy Graham Ministries I met in the parking lot handing out tracks that give the "Steps to Peace with God".
They were more normal than the young man in the black jumpsuit in a wheelchair. I don't know if he was going to perform or not but it was way to hot to be in a black jumpsuit especially if you are in a wheelchair. I don't care if you are under the tent. It's shaded but there is little air stirring under the tent. He and his mom sat next to me when I was trying to get a picture of flip flop Elvis' feet.
They were definitely more normal than the guys I saw in the parking lot when I first got there. They parked next to me. I moved my water to the back of my Jeep and they got out and the older man started spraying something on his neck. At first, I thought it was bug spray. I've never noticed bugs at Graceland. Then I realized it was sunscreen. The older man was huge and very pale. He handed the spray to his younger companion, possibly his son who appeared to be in his late teens or early 20's. He told him, "spray this on your neck and rub it all around you and shit". The old man asked me how to get to the place where they sell the tickets. I told him he could follow me. Then he couldn't get the alarm set on his car because one of the doors wasn't closed. "Ain't that some shit" he said. I found out these sophisticates were from Alabama.
I took them to the visitor's center and didn't see them after that. I immediately started looking for souvenirs for the year. I always get a tee shirt and cap. I also bought a shirt for Terry White. Terry went with me on my first trip in 2002 and had requested a shirt. I always start my trip just looking at the memorabilia and I always find something new and different. I found the Elvis Mr. Potato head that someone had told me about before. They had a limit of 2 per customer. I saw a new Elvis version of Monopoly. It looked like the middle of the board was different but most of the game pieces and properties looked the same. It was probably just enough different that a hardcore Elvis fan would feel the need to have both.
Elvis Pot Holder
I noticed that we were short on wine glasses and I said something about getting some at Graceland. Andrea said I should get some. So my wine glass search was on. Graceland must be under the assumption that Elvis fans are not wine drinkers. You can easily find shot glasses, martini glasses, hi-ball glasses and beer mugs. The wine glasses are not so easy to find. I was able to find to styles. Both of them were small. The ones I didn't get were blue with a bulky pewter type Graceland gates thing stuck on the side. The ones I got had a picture of Elvis on one side and "Love me Tender" on the other. They also came with charms for each glass. Later I also got a pot holder with picture of Elvis and a recipe for barbeque on it because it was cheap.
When it is as hot as it was, you can only spend so much time outside. You have to plan when to get something to drink, when to go in and cool off and when you are going to eat. In the past, I have picked between a Chinese buffet and KFC. The buffet was horrible and I have discouraged many people from going there. I guess it got really bad because this year the building wasn't even there. The KFC was one of the many places where I noticed shorter lines. When I was purchasing shirts and caps, the lines were relatively long but as the day wore on, I noticed fewer people actually buying things than in years past. There was a line for the tour of the house when I first got there, but most of the time there was no line at all. Why would you pay $69 for the VIP package of the tour to move to the front of the line when there is no line? Sure you get access to exhibits that you don't get to see with the $34 premium package but I think that's just stuff that they have removed from the regular tour. Trish from Australia had the VIP package, but she is old and her money won't do anything for her after she is dead. When Trish and people like her gone, I still think people will want to come and see Graceland, but they won't come in large numbers. Elvis week won't have the same buzz that it has now. It's already scaling down because of fewer fans. The people who run Graceland know this and are scaling back too. They no longer have the big screen out on the lawn with video going. They have even scaled back on the Candlelight vigil. In the past few years, they would give you a candle when you got there for the ceremony and another one when you went through the gates to go to the memorial garden. They would encourage you to keep your candle lit throughout the ceremony. This year, they only gave out candles at the visitor center. They encouraged you to light your candle for the photo-op and then extinguish it until you actually went through the gates. I guess it's harder to buy candles for everyone when you don't have as many people spending money in the gift shops.
The candlelight vigil is always a highlight of the trip. Because you spend more time with the people next to you in line, you get to know them better than anyone else. First, I met an old lady and her son standing behind me. The son is working in Memphis but they are from Northern California. Behind them was a family from New York. In front of me was a family from France. Their English was horrible. A husband, wife and two daughters. One of the daughters spoke better English than the rest. Soon, a camera crew and two couples from France broke line behind me. I'll probably show up in some French Elvis documentary. So now I had French in front of me and behind me. I introduced them to each other and they talked to each other for a long time. In French. The documentary couples behind me were rude and I thought they were going to break in front of me. Then they suddenly disappeared. I think their crew got them moved up in the line. We had lost California granny and her son a long time ago. So now I'm standing next to the New York family. The dad was Dean. He was my age and looked a little bit like a flat faced Ernie Kovacs. He was a big Elvis fan and the reason they were there. The mom was Lauren. She was not an Elvis fan. She realized how big this trip was for her husband. She was patient but the heat and the wait was pushing her about as far as she could take it. She showed a huge amount of restraint for a New Yorker. Jordan was there 12 year old daughter and she would be best described as slow. She introduced herself several times. She told me several times what time she gets home from school in the afternoon. She was obsessed with Elvis horses and told me more than once that the black one with the white lightening bolt mark on its nose is named Candy. She didn't like it when the hot wax dripped on her hands and leg. Dean was fascinated by Southern hospitality and the whole Graceland experience. He told me that in a strange way, he was happy that it was as hot as it was because that was how it was when Elvis died. Lauren said she couldn't understand that. I told Dean about my friend Sally and her Elvis story. It's one of my favorites. She lived in Memphis when Elvis died. When her mother heard the news, she made Sally and her brother dress in their 70's Sunday finest and go to Graceland. This meant a dress with hose for Sally and a suit and tie for her brother. They joined a crowd of people in tee shirts, cutoff shorts and halter tops. They waited for a long time to get into Graceland in the hot August weather of Memphis with really nothing happening. A short time after they left, they started letting people in.
I also found out that Dean had accidentally wiped out 250 pictures on the memory card of his camera late in the afternoon. It included all of the pictures of their trip to Tupelo and their tour of Graceland. He planned to get up the next morning while the rest of the family was still at their hotel and take the tour again just to get another set of pictures. He got out of line during the vigil to go over to the horses and get more pictures of Jordan and Candy. While they were there, that was when I found out about how Lauren really felt about the whole trip. She knew how important it was to Dean but thought it was all a bit much. When Dean and Jordan returned, we made our way to the gravesite. Jordan continued to talk about the horses and told me at least one more time when she gets home from school. We parted ways after we came out of the gates.
It's people like Dean and his family that are the reason that return to Graceland every year. They are a bit obsessed and crazy, but they are genuine too. We all have our things that we are obsessed and crazy about. Most of us don't have a place where we can go to share those obsessions. I think I'll continue to go to this thing as long as it still happens to meet people line Dean.
Singer, Songwriter, Entertainer, Storyteller