Tag Archives: Elvis

Memphis Day 2: American Royalty?

Well, I last left you in front of Memphis Slim’s house after a full day of rocking out and getting down. Unfortunately, as I said, I became rather ill by the time we reached Stax and our visit was abbreviated. We went back to the house and I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening trying to recoup while my mother and aunt visited their aunt, who had just gone through surgery that day, and cousins in the hospital. My cousins Molly and Clark took exceptional care of me, and I was feeling much better that night. Clark and I watched the American version of Let the Right One in. He reminds me much of myself at that age, and we both have a penchant for the macabre. He then introduced me to an animated Batman film and he expounded on the virtues of Harley Quinn and the virtues of the darker Batman stories. They were both topics about which I do not have an extensive knowledge, but it’s always nice to talk to intelligent kids who have interests outside of their cell phones and crappy MTV reality shows. He’s very bright, and we’ve always gotten on very well. It’s hard to believe he’s about to enter high school, and I swear he grew a foot since I saw him last summer. I’m starting to become painfully aware of how fleeting time actually is.

Enough about my family, though. You really want to read about my adventures at the home of the King himself, Graceland, don’t you? Yes, that’s what I thought.

We all started the morning off in the car singing this. However, I think Paul saw something much more appealing in the experience of Graceland than I. Although, I’m sure the Graceland of his song is much more a theoretical concept than the actual physical place (tourist trap *cough cough*) that is Graceland. I think he meant the area and atmosphere of Memphis as the starting point for the Mississippi Delta. I’ve always found the fascination held by those far removed from the Delta with the Delta very interesting. I understand it completely (see my post about the first day), but I still find it interesting. I had a professor this past year from Washington state who I’m pretty sure knew more about the Blues than any other person in the world and has made many a pilgrimage down South in search of the greats and their haunts. He’s actually just released a book about Son House called Preachin’ the Blues: The Life and Times of Son House, which is a great read for anyone interested in American music history. I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed Prof Beaumont’s class on the Blues, for that matter, but not everyone can study under him at Rochester unfortunately.

Wow, so I’ve really gone of course already. I suppose I should be honest. I’m not an Elvis fan. This could very well be the reason I seem to be veering off  so easily when I should be talking about a trip to his famous home. Let me be immaculately clear. I can appreciate Elvis’ importance, and I find a few of his early, early songs before Sam Phillips sold his contract enjoyable. He was a rebel who revolutionized music, Elvis I mean, because that description fits Phillips as well. I do think Elvis is one of the biggest (maybe even the original) sell-out stories, though. His music post contract sell was awful and his Hollywood career was groan-worthy, oh, and don’t get me started on Vegas. I never had a desire to go to Graceland. You’ve seen one bad 1970s decorating job, you’ve seen them all in my opinion. However, our dear cousin kindly arranged for us to go with comp tickets, so we thought what the hell. At least then we can say we’ve been,  and we never have to go back, and let me tell you, I never will.

With all that said, let me give you my take on Graceland. We received the mid-level tickets which allow you a tour of the “mansion,” a tour of his two airplanes, access to view his car collection, and access to four exhibits which to me just appeared to be a bunch of film clips and rhinestone-studded jumpsuits. The house was first, and it was another one of those damn headset tours. I couldn’t stand the set to wear it so I didn’t actually learn much going through the house other than Elvis liked shag carpeting and ceramic monkeys apparently.

I apologize a head of time for the rather appalling quality of my photos. It was crowded, we couldn’t use flash, and they push you through pretty quickly.

Can't remember the significance of the peacocks, but they were definitely placed prominently.

This room was very yellow. (Notice the monkey.)

Oh yeah, he liked folded fabric on strange surfaces as well.

The pool room, again I apologize for the quality.

More monkeys in "the Jungle Room"

The house itself isn’t very big by today’s celebrity standards. It was owned by a physician prior to Elvis’ purchase. Interestingly enough, when my grandfather called on our drive over that morning, he told us that he and my grandmother had eaten dinner at the private residence there as guests the week of their wedding. This of course was before Elvis bought it.

The house

The tour takes you through the bottom two levels of the house. The top level is permanently closed to the public. It also takes you through his father’s office, the hall of fame with all of his gold records and awards, the racquet ball court holding a bunch of other commemorative records and jumpsuits, and the garden where Elvis and his parents are buried, as my uncle so cleverly quipped, “Like a hamster in the back yard.”

I am very convinced that the 70s were a dark, dark time globally just by viewing some of the surviving fashions of the era.

Because god forbid Americans actually possess enough intelligence to follow a foot path and a moving crowd without instructions from a headset.

Bit harsh? Maybe, but I can say that because I am American. Isn’t that what the rule book says?

The throng waiting to pay their respects to America's royal family (of sorts)

As we walked to the shuttle stop beyond the burial site, my cousins and I agreed that the whole atmosphere was incredibly surreal and strange, the adulation and near worship expressed by many of our fellow visitors were very off-putting, and we had seen just about all we cared to. So, lunch and air conditioning was in order, right? Ha ha, no, that’s where you’d be wrong! We were going to hit all six other stops on our tickets come hell or high water according to my uncle. I will admit, the car exhibit was pretty cool, but who doesn’t like looking at awesome classic cars, but after that and being dumped into the madness of about millionth gifts shop, I really was done. Guess what, Memphis is hot in July, hotter than blazes, if you’ll pardon the very southern colloquialism, but by golly we had every last tab on those tickets torn off by the time we left.

I do really want this car.

Mom in front of the Lisa Marie.

All right, so here’s my final assessment. Graceland did not change my life. I think I could have lived undisturbed for the rest of it by not visiting, but then again, I’m not an Elvis fan. There were so many people around us who were into it and soaking up every last fiber of acrylic mucous-green shag carpeting. That’s great. If you’re into that, then please go by all means. It was an experience. I personally am not sure what kind, but it was an experience nonetheless.

Clark expressing our overwhelming excitement to be at the home of the King. I should take this opportunity to mention our family's incredibly dominant sarcasm gene.

I will say this, though, the entire trip, even Graceland, was wonderful if just for the fact that we got to spend quality time adventuring as a family. I don’t get to see them as often as I like, and any chance I do get, I relish. I’ve begun making the ever clearer revelation that we are growing up, and times like these are harder to come by with each passing year due to busy schedules and increasing distance. It took me a while to realize the importance of family, but I’m getting there.

If nothing else, your family has to love you no matter how foolish you are, and sometimes, if you're lucky, they love you enough to join in as well.



Filed under History, Music

Memphis Day 1: The birth of rock and soul OR how Betsy nearly collapsed from multiple musical nerdgasms

I am a self-admitted music nerd. I gathered many hours at university in music history courses covering everything from the Delta blues to the Beatles. In May my parents and I stopped at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland on our way home from graduation. That was a really cool experience, by the way, even with 400 kindergarteners running around the museum. Who takes kindergarteners to a rock museum? Anyway, I decided that in light of our detour there, it seemed appropriate that we finally make the Memphis music trip. Memphis is extremely important in the history of American music, in case you hadn’t heard. The pulsing veins that carry the very lifeblood of three towering genres run straight through the heart of that city and continue to make Memphis a very relevant town in that respect.

My maternal grandmother’s family is from Memphis going back several generations, and much of our family continues to live there to this day. We go to visit my aunt and her family at least once a year usually, but we have never visited any of the multitude of important historical sites in the city. My younger cousin just graduated from high school in May, and we very much wished to see her before she leaves for college next month. We finally decided to be smart and kill two birds with one stone and make the music pilgrimage (at least for me) while seeing our family. Luckily my mother has a cousin with pretty amazing contacts in the Memphis tourism world, and our cousin generously made some phone calls and swung us tickets to Sun Studio, The Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, Stax, and Graceland, and my aunt, uncle, mom, two of my cousins, and I made a two day mini-vacation out of it.

To be honest, there was only one site I knew I had to see or the entire trip would be a waste: Sun Studio, the famous birthplace of rock and roll. I have read countless pages and watched countless hours of documentary film recounting the stories and importance of that building. Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, discovered and recorded many of artists who became household names and legends in music including Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, oh yeah, and a guy you might have heard of. Um, Elvis Presley ring any bells? While I disparage my home state quite often and am not choosing to continue my life within its borders, I have always been proud of the musical heritage of the state. From the peaks of the Smokies in the east to the rolling hills and rivers of the mid-state to the flat cotton and soy bean fields of the west, music has always risen and permeated everything here and then gone on to touch the world in the most spectacular ways.

I started my personal music pilgrimage at Sun Studio. There’s something in the air around that little building on Union Avenue. I’m not sure what it is, but it feels electric, magical even. As I walked down the alley from the parking lot and passed the images of the founding fathers of rock ‘n roll posted on the side of the building and looked up to see the giant Gibson hanging over the door, I couldn’t help but get goosebumps. As I opened the door everything else melted away, my family, the tourists around me, the sounds of the street outside. I was in the highest spiritual meditation at the altar of my religion’s most holy and ancient of temples.

The tour consisted of a trip into a small gallery containing photographs, memorabilia, and recording artifacts from the golden days. Our tour guide, Eldorado, was fabulous and came complete with slicked back hair, mutton chops, browlines, and rolled up Levis. He told us the story of Sun and Sam Phillips (which I realized I knew just as well as he did and could probably get a job as a tour guide there myself), played some music, and then took us down to the actual studio. It has been kept exactly as Sam had it fitted all those years ago. The only thing that’s changed are the pictures on the walls and most of the instruments. There are still some original pieces in there, though, such as…

...this microphone. This is the one they let you pose with for pictures. We were also told that one woman on a tour chose to lick it. To each her own, I suppose.

Oh, by the way, Howlin’ Wolf is probably my favorite of all the Sun artists from the early days. Here is the insane “Moanin’ at Midnight.”

It was a surreal feeling, standing in that space hearing clips of the recording sessions of the Million Dollar Quartet (Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins) and the stories of rock’s own creation myth. I almost had a Hesiod moment. Not only had my idols of the early days of rock stood where I was standing creating the Lexington and Concord of popular music, but scads of my modern rock idols like Tom Petty and U2 had also stood there soaking in the history to make their own amazing works at Sun. Yes, Sun is still a working studio. Tours are given during the day and bands, such as our lovely tour guide’s (Eldorado and the Ruckus), record at night. It’s a living, breathing place not just a dusty box of old vinyl memories. I wish I could properly do the place justice, but no amount of images or fluttery descriptions can. Please, please, please, if you love rock and roll, go to Sun Studio on Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee.

My cousin Mols working the mic

Our guide. I'm afraid it was so crowded that this was the best picture I could snap of him. He truly was fantastic, though.

After Sun, we went downtown (and walked down the world renowned Beale St.) to visit the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum which was very well done and told the story of those two genres more specifically as they related to Memphis and Nashville as well. I will say that I did not like the fact that they are set up on a self-guided audio tour system. That’s just a personal preference issue on my part, though. I’m old fashioned and would rather read panels for myself or listen to a guide. I don’t dig wearing a headset. They did have stations where you could stop and listen to songs, though, which was pretty cool. The museum’s main exhibit was actually designed by the Smithsonian (the only one out there that has been other than the actual Smithsonian, by the way) so it was VERY well done. The number and quality of artifacts was jaw-dropping. Everything from Ike Turner’s first piano to Sam the Sham’s motorcycle. I recommend you all go there as well. Right now they have a special exhibit called “The Beatles Hidden Gallery” which showcases Paul Berriff’s photographs from the Beatles last tour in 1966 when they played Memphis. For those who know their Beatles history, this was shortly after Lennon’s misquoted God comment that sparked many a Beatles merch bonfire party across the American South. The pictures in the exhibit are great.

Beale Street (taken standing next to B.B. King's)

The microphone into which Carl Perkins sang and recorded "Blue Suede Shoes" at Sun

Can you guess from the headstock which important bluesman donated that little beauty? I'll give you a hint: his name's there in gold.

The final stop we made on our outing that day was to Stax the record company so famous for producing soul music from Otis Redding to Issac Hayes. Unfortunately, after Stax went under in the mid 70s, the original building was torn down, but thanks to those who realize the importance of preserving history, a new building was built on the original site and a Stax museum was opened in 2003. It really is a lovely museum filled with amazing memorabilia (hello Issac Hayes’ Cadillac!) and music. Unfortunately, though, I became rather violently ill right as we began our tour and we had to rush through, which really did break my heart. I definitely would have lingered much longer if I could. A visit there is also recommended.

The fine folks at Stax didn’t stop at just a museum, however. On site is also Stax Academy and Soulsville Charter School, which give local young people the opportunity to shine and meet their absolute highest potential both musically and academically fostering the continuation of a great legacy that goes so far beyond the gold records. Now how cool is that?

Unfortunately, they don't let you take photos inside the museum, so this will have to do.

Also, on an interesting but completely related side note, as we were walking to the museum door we spied this across the street:

I’m glad to see someone recognized the importance of that place and is doing something with it because it needs some major TLC. Memphis Slim, for those who don’t know, was an incredible blues piano player from Memphis. Here he is playing his own (very, very famous) song “Everyday I Have the Blues.”

So that was day one. Rather than wax poetic or gush anymore since I’m pretty sure I overflowed quite a ways back, I have a better idea for summing up. I will do it quite appropriately with song, one by Frank Turner to be exact. A friend of mine recently turned me on to him, and his song “I Still Believe” seems to fit the nature and themes of this post astonishingly well. I think it also shows how important the people, places, and events I got a brief glimpse of this past week were and how they extended so far beyond Memphis and continue to have this brilliant snowball effect across the world and generations, but I’ll stop there. Listen to Frank (an Englishman, in case you couldn’t tell). He gets it.


Filed under History, Music