Before I left town, I stopped off at the bank. I thought I recognized the teller as a lady that had gone to Lambuth when I was there. I decided that it was not her and that it could possibly be her mom or a much older sister. Definitely not someone my age. When she waited on me, she asked me if she knew me from somewhere. It turns out she was exactly who I originally thought she was. It also meant this lady was only a year older than me.
My ability to determine anyone’s age has pretty much gone out the window. Although I turned 50 this year, I imagine myself much younger. I don’t see the guy in the mirror as often as I see that guy that went to Graceland 10 years ago who had just lost a significant amount of weight and was in pretty good shape. All of this was running through my mind as I stood taking part in our first “encounter” of the day. As my friend Nick and I were walking to the visitor center from the parking lot, we ran into our first group of people wearing similar t-shirts. I asked who they were and where they were from. Their shirts said that they were part of a flash mob. They told us that it was taking place next to the Sirius radio booth in 30 minutes. We made sure we were there at start time. This was the first time I’d been present at a flash mob so my knowledge of them is limited to what I’ve seen in videos. It didn’t appear that they knew what they were doing. Lots of clapping but not much else. Pretty soon they started play the song “C’mon Everybody” from “Viva Las Vegas”. This is one of those songs where they give you instructions on how to dance. It’s one of the best parts of the movie. Anyway, people in the mob started dancing together or at least trying. There were people from everywhere in the mob. One of the ladies that had told us about this was in a motorized cart. She couldn’t really dance but did the hand and head motions. It was during the dance that I noticed she was wearing blue suede shoes. Earlier she told us they even had one lady in the group from Transylvania. It was while I was watching the flash mob that I thought about the age of these ladies. Most of them are my age. Not necessarily exactly my age, but most of them are right around my age. Even blue suede shoe lady. I wonder how much older she is? Or is she actually younger than me? There was a lady gyrating way too much with a Loverboy-type headband. I can’t help but look at her and think she is way older than me while the reality of the situation is that she is probably a little younger than me. Anyway the song ended and the mob broke up. The participants passed out beads. No one had to show anything to get them and I ended up with two strands.
The first thing that I noticed about this year’s celebration was that the crowd was significantly bigger. The past few years, the parking lot at the visitor’s center had been about half full. I’ve used that as a gage to compare the crowds from year to year. This year, we had to park at the back of the lot. It showed this event is not dead yet. I think that the people who run Graceland were a little overwhelmed with the number of people who showed up. I don’t remember crowds this large since the first couple of years that I went. They seemed to have plenty of souvenirs on the shelf and plenty of extra registers to check out at. The selection wasn’t as deep as usual. Last year I purchased a really nice glass with the Elvis Week logo. I was looking for one for this year but couldn’t find one. Only champagne flutes. I really like this year’s Elvis Week caps, but they have a really plain design. My purchases were limited to a cap and a shirt. The shops were really busy this year. I talked to a lot of people who were there for the very first time. When we were in the parking lot, we saw a huge variety of states on the license plates on the cars. But there were a lot of people who didn’t show up in these cars. We talked to groups from England, Belgium, and Chile that were huge. When we asked them how many people were in there group, 200+ was a typical answer. I think it was the guy from England that said there was a second group that had 250 people. For many of them, it was their first trip to Graceland.
While this was the first year for me to have an iPhone at Elvis Week, I wasn’t able to get pictures of everyone that stood out in the crowd. There was the guy in a Molson Canadian baseball jersey that was open down the front. His chest was wet. I couldn’t tell if it was from sweat or if he had been pouring beer down his chest. It was disturbing and there was no casual way to get a photo. There was a guy with a homemade t-shirt that had a picture of him and an Elvis impersonator. I talked to him briefly. He was there from San Diego. He was there just to watch the tribute artist contest. He introduced me to his friend, a lady from Maryland. I don’t know if he had picked her up there or if it was a planned meeting. Anyway, they were very pleasant and seemed more normal that a lot of the people you encounter at Elvis week.
It seems like we spent more time at the performance tent this year than in the past. Early on, we were treated to what seemed to be an endless stream of wailing Elvi. It is unfortunate that Elvis ever recorded the song “My Way”. Remember at the end of his recording where he goes up and hits those high notes to end the song. Remember how good it sounds. He could do that on a variety of songs and it was always good. The modern day tribute artist likes to try and do this and always seems to fail miserably. The biggest problem seems to be that they cease to have the ability to form words. It is literally wailing. Most of the time it is out of tune. When Nick hears these awkward performances, he gets uncomfortable and tends to want to escape. He has been to enough Elvis Weeks that he is able to handle bad Elvis impersonators ok. We came out of a gift shop at one point and there was a lady on stage just getting started. She was wearing a red, white and blue outfit and a studded collar. It sounded like she might be doing a Marilyn Monroe impersonation although she in no way looked like Marilyn. She said she was going to sing-a-long with the king. Then they started playing “Can’t Help Falling In Love with You”. She said along quietly as she danced around on the stage. Her outfit did not flatter her shape at all. Her dancing was only comparable to that of a little girl who is in her third week of dance classes and hasn’t really gotten serious with them yet. Her dance wasn’t planned at all. It was complicated by her attempts to stay in her flip-flops. And they weren’t those flat flip-flops. I was waiting for her to fall out of them and possibly off the stage. Her singing was at best horrible. At times it was thankfully quiet and close to being in tune. Other times it was growling and out of tune so bad that it ceased to have any melody at all. More than once, Nick said “I’ve got to get out of here”. I completely expected to see him run into the nearest gift shop, cower in a corner with his hands over his ears and make enough noise to insolate him from ever hearing her again. I’m happy that he did stick it out. As soon as she was done, I told Nick that I needed to get a picture with her. We went and found her. She agreed to a picture.
Later we saw a lady that I called Divine because she looked like she was a Divine impersonator. She had stacks of hair and a red, sleeveless dress. She danced around just outside of the tent like she was trying to get attention. I was trying to figure out how to get a picture of her without attracting too much attention. I started following her around. At one point, I knew that she would be walking toward me so I decided to start taking video and just hold my phone against my chest. I also had an “Aloha from Hawaii” fan in my hand. She asked me where I got that. At first I thought she was talking about my phone but I soon realized that she was talking about the fan. I told her and I got a reasonably good video of her and the guy she was with. She had bizarre make-up and botox lips. I saw her again later in the line at the candlelight vigil. She had changed out of the red dress and was crying uncontrollably.
We did get some seats in the performance tent for a little while. The first performer was a short guy who looked nothing like Elvis. He looked more like the bass player for Spinal Tap. He started with a lot of energy and I took some video of him. Later he was sweating profusely like most of the performers end up doing. They gave him a towel and he unzipped his shirt, turned his back to the audience and toweled off. He had glittery stripes up the sides of his pants. They were coming off. Another performer talked about his first trip to an Elvis Week 25 years ago. He looked more like Skeletor than Elvis. He was talking about going to his first candlelight vigil with his wife and said, “we didn't stop bawling for two days". My eyebrows raised. The audience applauded.
There was an old lady wearing purple crocs sitting just down from us. She really got into the music. She would twitch to the music in her chair. Later, she got up and danced. I really thought she was going to fall over at one point. I got video of both twitching and dancing. Later, I saw her at the vigil. She had a multi-color, light-up tiara. She was sitting in a lawn chair in the middle of Elvis Presley Boulevard.
Any time I saw a group of people wearing shirts that were all the same, I would talk to at least one of them. Most of them were international groups. Very few of the French group could speak any English. Most of them were in the U.S. for the first time. The group from Chile brought their own Elvis. I got a picture with him and the whole group. When I asked if their Elvis was going to perform, it seems like they thought I was the guy that could get him on the stage.
Other than the waiter forgetting to bring our drinks, our meal was uneventful. After we left the Rock and Roll Café, we listened to a tribute artist from Italy. I’ve seen him there before and he is really good. His set only includes songs that the crowd enjoys. Songs where the crowd claps and dances. He always gets a standing ovation. He is there every year and is a crowd favorite. He made an announcement that this year might be his last year to be here as a performer. He is having surgery on his vocal cords and doesn’t know if he’ll be able to sing anymore. Then he sang “My Way” and the crowd went crazy.
We shouldn’t have stayed to listen to him. We he was done, we went to the visitors center for candles and then went to get in line for the vigil. This was about an hour before the ceremony started. This is about the same amount of time I would usually give myself before the ceremony so I don’t end up so far back in the line. When we got there, the line was already out of the queue area and stretched down the street almost to the point where they had the street blocked off. I’ve never been that far back in the line. We stood behind a couple from Plymouth, England. The lady was a big Elvis fan. Her husband likes him but is not the big fan. I got a picture with this couple. The lady sat on the curb most of the time. The man had a backpack full of beer. They were very nice and we talked about music, religion, the Olympics and the EU economy. They left right before the ceremony began. The guy immediately behind us was a young, retired West Point instructor from Oklahoma. He had been awake for 22 hours. He was just a guy passing through Memphis who decided to take the vigil in while he was there. We talked about music. Behind him was an elderly Canadian couple. The last time they had been to a candlelight vigil was for the 25th anniversary, the year of my first trip. They were interesting but quiet. Another group of Canadians broke line in front of them. They were from different parts of Canada and did not know each other. The most bizarre people in line were the couple in front of the Brits. The guy was from Kentucky and the lady was from Ohio. The man was little, wore a little cap, had the name “Jim” on the back of his shirt and looked like a troll. His companion was shorter than him, whined when she talked and tugged at the hair hanging down on the left side of her face. She wanted to make sure we knew that she had written a book about the Memphis Boys, the musicians who did sessions for Chips Moman’s American Studios in the late 60’s and early 70’s. She said it has a whole chapter on Elvis. While we were there, I googled the book on my phone and was able to easily find it on Amazon. It had mostly positive reviews but there was one titled “Great story clumsily told” that I thought would probably be the most accurate. We were behind Jim the Troll and the author most of the night. The author was having a breakdown just as we were about to go through security to go to the gravesite.
Prior to the ceremony, Pricilla and Lisa Marie made an appearance. They both spoke. Pricilla’s comments were very gracious. Lisa Marie seemed to be appreciative but it also seemed like she had a hard time dealing with the freak show that is Elvis Week. She said the right words but my heart really went out to her, trying to figure out how to deal with this show of obsession from so many people.
There is always a theme for the candlelight service based on the title of an Elvis song. This year, the song was “I’ll Never Know”, a song I’m not familiar with. They always play several songs and have some readings that are related to the theme song, repeating the title of the song in the readings. One of the guys that read this year was really emotional. I don’t know if he was trying to put more emphasis on the words because Pricilla and Lisa Marie were there but it came across as more cheesy than usual, which is hard to do. This was my favorite part:
“What happens to this heart of mine each time you hold my hand? When he walked on stage it seemed that he put his arms around every individual in the audience and sang only to you. Elvis made every person feel special and loved. How he accomplished this, I’ll never know.”
Another set of Brits broke like behind us. We didn’t talk to them as much until we were practically at the gravesite. The lady had classic Brit bad teeth and was hard to understand. It was their first time to the states. She complained about how long it took to get through customs in Chicago.
It was a three-candle vigil. In the past, I’ve been far enough up in the queue that the line moved pretty fast even after I was through the gates. Last night was different. It took at least two hours to get to the gates and probably another hour and a half to get to the gravesite. It wasn’t as hot as past years and there was a pleasant breeze. They had plenty of water stations set up and the workers at the stations were very good about bringing water to the people. As usual, most of the workers at Graceland are from the neighborhood around it and are therefore black. I was amused at the looks on the faces of more than one worker and some of the cops. Their looks just said, “Look at all of these crazy, white people!” We stopped at one of the water stations right after we were done at the gravesite. I spoke to the workers there and one of the ladies asked me for my beads. She said she was just joking but I gave her one of the strands. Before we exited the gates, I saw something else I had never seen before. There are members of the Elvis Country Fan Club lining the entrance of the gates holding battery powered “candles”. They also man the torches and pass out programs. This is the fan club that started the Candlelight Vigil service and still run it today. I have never seen a “changing of the guard” but they were installing a new shift of workers at the gates when we were exiting. A line of new people comes in and stands in front of the people holding the candles. They pass off the candles, exchange places and then the first workers file out.
By the time we got out of the gates, many of the candles in the shrines had long burned out. The locals who come out to watch and drink beer had put a large dent in their alcohol stash. As we checked out these tributes, I saw a homeless man asleep on the ground at a bus stop in front of the visitor center. There was a young black man who appeared to be waiting on a bus. The road was closed off so no busses were going to come by.
I thought we had seen all of the excitement for the night. As we were getting on Interstate 240, I was about to change lanes. Before I did, I saw a small group of motorcycles fly by us. Nick said we would see them on the side of the road after they crashed. As we were getting off of 240, we saw where at least one of them did.
Singer, Songwriter, Entertainer, Storyteller