In Tupelo, Mississippi, for $14, you can enter Elvis Aaron Presley’s birthplace and get a personal guided tour from a kindly old lady… A very kindly, very old lady… Who really doesn’t care much about Elvis.
My old lady is called Eleanor, and she is sore and cold from sitting in the famously primitive shotgun shack that Elvis had to suffer for his first 13 years, a space so rough that all his later excesses – overindulgence in food, women, living spaces and prescription drugs – were attributed to this very shack.
Eleanor, rubbing her elbow and stomping her feet, tells me that she thinks Elvis might have been born near the ironing board. “People are so impressed by the ironing board. It reminds them of his surfing movie, Blue Hawaii.”
I step over and look at it. Everything in the cabin is five feet from everything else. The whole of the cabin is three rooms, kept tidy but still miserable enough. The outside walls are the only things that are original anymore; even the ironing board I’ve been asked to admire is a replacement ironing board. Tupelo is the single worst museum I have ever seen – even for a birthplace museum, it is pretty bad.
A matronly guide, Eleanor tells me that I look tired and thin, likely because I have yet to agree that the ironing board is indeed like a surfboard. I say I’ve been travelling in Mississippi; I’m just arriving from Oxford and Clarksdale.
“Clarksdale?” she says, seemingly warming up.
Yes, the home of Ike Turner, Muddy Waters and Son House, Clarksdale. I realise that the old woman has been playing possum – she’s a music junkie. Why else would one sit all day in a clap-trap cabin talking about Elvis
“I’ve always wanted to go to Clarksdale and see Morgan Freeman. He’s such a lovely actor. He was so wonderful in that film Driving Miss Daisy.”
I come to the conclusion that I did not enter Elvis’s birthplace with the proper reverence and have therefore ruined the dialogue. I decide to stick around in the cabin, talking with Eleanor, until someone else comes in, so I can see their reverence – so I can understand what you do when you’re near Elvis history.
Eleanor talks for ten more minutes. I realise she’s starting to get creeped out. She tells me the full, virtuous history of Elvis buying back the home he grew up in and donating it to the city to be used as a museum in 1956 when he was 21 years old. She makes some tea in the microwave that is located in her little sitting station. We talk about Iceland. Finally, another person enters.
“You going to the Rotary Christmas show tonight, Eleanor?”
It’s Eleanor’s relief, an equally amiable old woman.
“I don’t know that I feel up to it. You’ll never guess where this young man is from,” Eleanor says, trying to pleasantly brush me off. The new host, who has a more Southern name, Maggie Anne, sits down at her guide station, folds her hands and asks me to tell her all about where I’m from. I get the impression there won’t be any visitors any time soon.
Without Elvis, we wouldn’t be here. As authentic as we’d like to be, the three of us cruising through blues country were only exposed to blues because of the charismatic white guy who introduced blues and rock to the masses. Still, we openly loathe him and can’t stop making jokes about how bloated and stupid the King was before his heart stopped while he was on the toilet. We love what inspired him, we love what was inspired by him, but we just can’t get over Elvis himself.
Which explains why we decide against going into Graceland, despite recommendations from a few extremely authentic bluesmen in Clarksdale who said we just had to see Elvis’s plane and cars. Instead, we drive straight to the Graceland Outlet Store, just across the street from Graceland, more crowded, if the parking lot is any indication, and $28 cheaper.
The manager of the Graceland Outlet understands why we’re skipping Graceland: it’s because of the new management; the people who do American Idol now run Graceland, and Elvis fans are complaining.
“Sure. I love Elvis, but can’t stand corporate giants,” I tell him.
“Still, you should go. People just pay it. It’s Graceland.”
I promise that I’ll go soon, but first ask for a tour of Elvis merchandise, and a description of Elvis discount fans.
“There are just a lot of nice crazy people,” he tells me. “I mean, one woman came in with a tattoo of Elvis on her back – her whole back. I thought that was a little much. And a lot of guys come in and tell me that they’re Elvis, but they’re nice.”
I consider asking which psychology book rates a tattoo as more crazy than multiple personality disorder, but settle on just asking what discount item the typical man who thinks he’s Elvis buys at an Elvis outlet store.
The typical man or woman who thinks he or she is Elvis and visits the Graceland Outlet buys the following: 1) Elvis Gold Record 45, in frame, of Are You Lonesome Tonight? For $49.95, 2) Elvis folding camping chair, 3) Elvis salt and pepper shakers for $9.95 and 4) Elvis throws, the Love Me Tender series. But by far the most popular item is the Elvis Tour 2003 t-shirt, available in sizes M-XXXL, he tells me.
He points out the XXXL size when he explains the popularity, but refuses to be too much more specific. He leaves to help a customer with Elvis golf balls.
He Sings, Too
It’s easy to hate Elvis, and I realise, as I purchase a handful of postcards of fat, bloated, Las Vegas Elvis just before his death, that more merchandise seems set up for those who mock the man than genuinely admire him. You don’t see heart-shaped postcards of John Lennon after a rough night out – I own three of Elvis after a rough night, then week, then year.
In an act of penance, we drive to downtown Memphis and walk to Sun Studios. The greatest appeal of Sun Studios as an Elvis tourist attraction is that Sun is significant with or without the King. The first studio to record rock n roll, a single by Ike Turner called Rocket 88, Sun also put BB King on vinyl, along with Carl Perkins – arguably the Beatles’ greatest influence. Johnny Cash was discovered by Sun, as was Jerry Lee Lewis. It is still a functioning studio, remarkably easy to book, if you’re interested, though there is one drawback – while you can record in the same booth as so many masters including, more recently, Beck and U2, you must also realise that Maroon 5 has recorded three tracks there, possibly undoing any magic once in the room.
The Sun Studios tour, led by young local Memphis musicians who slip in references to their own music as much as possible, is the polar opposite to Tupelo. (Our guide’s band was El Dorado and the Rachets, in the punk blues genre.) If you love music, you’ll love the tour. If you like shiny things and are easily bored, you’ll still enjoy the tour – it’s interactive; you get to do things like grab the microphone Elvis and Johnny Cash sang into, rub the piano Jerry Lee Lewis played on. In fact, you’re encouraged to touch things that seem like they’d be impossibly valuable on eBay, if not in the real world, and make a fool of yourself.
What do you learn? That when rock and country were finding their mass audiences, they were being created by a bunch of oddballs in a simple studio with one or two decent microphones. The average home computer has a couple thousand times the production capabilities of what went behind the better recordings of the 20th century.
Our guide wound a dollar through the strings of a guitar to show how Johnny Cash created a simple percussion instrument that would get people dancing to Ring of Fire, and, a few seconds later, admitted that this was the point in the tour where things got crazy. Older women freak out when they see Elvis’s microphone, but recently, young men have been crying, somewhat hysterically, over the recently deceased Johnny Cash.
I ask if he hadn’t thought of just saying, “I’ll give you something to cry about,” and threatening people at random. He smiles politely.
“This is important to people. It’s moving to be here, where your favourite song, something you’ve grown to love, was first put down. It’s important to me, too,” our guide tells me.
As much as Sun Studios is about bonding with the founders of rock and country, especially lesser-known names, Elvis Presley stands out somewhat head-and-shoulders above the other geniuses. While you get the Horatio Alger story of Elvis coming in dirt broke to record his first single, you also get some myths debunked – Elvis famously claimed that he only recorded his first single to give his mother a birthday present, but the session was in July 1953, and his mother’s birthday was in April. Trivia is one thing, but the Sun tour also presents video of Elvis’s first television appearance – a flawless but aggressive blues-rock show number that stunned everyone on the tour. Once you see the show, you no longer think Elvis was a cracker with a good voice and full lips… you think Elvis was a cracker with a good voice and full lips who, at one point in his life, invented the rock performance, perfected it, showed the world how to do it, then moved on to invent and perfect cracker kitsch karate, which, to somebody somewhere in the world, was likely another act of genius.
The Other King’s Street
The locals, including the many hipsters at Sun Studios, recommend we go out in Midtown Memphis, where indie music dominates. The highest recommendations go to a woman playing a double bass and singing, wearing horn-rimmed glasses, to a crowd full of mid-20s thin people drinking whiskey cocktails and beer. Handed a copy of the Memphis Flyer, an excellent weekly street paper, we are also told about rockabilly shows and a post-pop rock show. Beale Street, we are told, is only for tourists.
Nice as it is to see young musicians get credit and recommendations, our quick spin through Midtown reveals somewhat generic music and style – a crowd of temps, computer programmers and art students watching their friends perform is a good night out, but it doesn’t quite capture our imaginations.
So we head out to Beale Street. Before the hurricanes, Beale Street was the slightly less sinful little brother to the French Quarter – today, it is likely the best place in the world to see a whole lot of top-tier blues at once. BB King’s club dominates Beale Street, sitting atop the seven blocks of neon and blues and jazz music like a castle.
BB’s is packed, but the street and the other blues clubs are mostly empty – tourist season is March to October. Now it is mostly locals and a few wayward Europeans.
We head for the Juke Joint, one of the older clubs on Beale Street, to see harmonica guru Robert Doctor Feelgood Potts. The Dr. Potts band tells you a lot about what goes on in Memphis – the bassist is a young woman from Osaka, Japan, the keyboardist from Janesville, Wisconsin, the drummer from New Orleans, and the guitarist from Nashville, while Potts himself is from Greenwood, Mississippi. Everybody but the bassist has moved to Memphis because this is the only place you can play blues every night and make a good living.
“Except on the down months,” the keyboardist tells me, after we’ve had a moment of Wisconsin bonding talk. “We live on those tips, and you just have to convince people that, you know, even though there aren’t many people in the winter, we still need those tips.”
Dr. Potts, the bandleader, is less worried about the tips. After posing a bit for our photographer, he points out that it is only natural that a group of Icelandic journalists would travel thousands of miles to see him. “What you’re talking about, with the blues, is miracle root music, the universal beginning.”
When I acknowledge the universality of blues, he moves on to explain the appeal of Robert Doctor Feelgood Potts. Mainly being that “if you go on Google, you’ll see hundreds of Dr. Feelgoods. But there’s only one Doctor Feelgood Potts.”
Dr. Potts asks me if I understand the importance of Mississippi, and I say I guess that I do, as I’ve just arrived from there. He gives me the broadest of smiles, leaning back so that he almost falls off his chair.
“You ain’t been in one of those juke joints down in Mississippi, have you?”
“I’ll tell you, you’re talking about home. I’ll play you some home-style music, then,” and he stands up. Instead of going onstage, he turns to greet the rest of the crowd and sell CDs.
In a few minutes, the band heads back up, the keyboardist stopping by one more time to remind me of the tip bucket, and to point out that the New Orleans flood has brought a lot of musicians into town, which makes it that much harder to make a living.
Dr. Potts eventually gets back onstage, and while the music is still big band and polished, Memphis style, he begins to stomp and jump on the beat – his eyes half open, a beatific smile on his face, he seems in danger of falling off the stage.
“Yup, that’s the juke joint style,” our photographer says, recalling our experience at a Clarksdale, Mississippi juke joint, then gets out of the way.
We begin the drive back South at dawn, taking a brief detour to cross the Mississippi and look over the enormous glass pyramid set against the river in order to remind the world of Memphis’s namesake.
A few hours later, we stop at our tenth Waffle House, and drop the last of our money on deep-fried chicken sandwich concoctions and bottomless coffee. In eight days, we have driven 2,000 miles, examined the wreckage of one of America’s worst natural disasters, interviewed scores of people, done significant body damage to our rental car by running over middle-of-the-highway potholes and been overwhelmed by the culture of the poorest state in the US.
As we cover another 800 miles to get to the Orlando airport, we talk about the life of a cultural and tourism magazine – how much good it might do for an Icelandic publication to point out the diversity of a place on the opposite end of the hip spectrum. Hip, we feel, almost always goes hand-in-hand with income level. Just as rich kids are popular in John Hughes movies, rich cities and nations get the benefit of the doubt in the gossip of tourist and economic publications – first comes the money, then comes the hype.
When we run a feature story on the South with New Orleans, Mississippi and Memphis getting full coverage, we will have done ourselves proud, we say.
The next day, after a marathon of driving to get to the Orlando airport, our ad man will inform us that he misread our contract – we never got full approval from our sponsors. We are supposed to cover Orlando, not the South.
A week later, I will pull the Mississippi feature altogether, opting instead to cover a local political concert that the international phenom Björk has gotten behind. It will be the most popular feature the magazine has run.