Ray Van Horn, Jr. is a veteran entertainment journalist whose writing and live photography has been featured in Blabbermouth.net, Dee Snider’s House of Hair Online, Fangoria.com, Horror News.net, About.com Heavy Metal, MetalManiacs, New Noise, Music Dish, AMP, Hails & Horns, Unrestrained,Noisecreep, Impose, Pit, The Big Takeover.com, Rough Edge.com, Pitriff and others. His blog The Metal Minute won a “Best Personal Blog” award in 2009 from Metal Hammer magazine and he wrote and produced his own hard rock e-zine, Retaliate.

He has contributed essays to UK author Neil Daniels’ Iron Maiden and ZZ Top biographies. Ray’s fiction has been published in various periodicals and anthologies, including his flash fiction piece “Off the Record” for Akashic Books’ “Mondays Are Murder” noir series. His recent short stories “Before the Ball” and “Widow” were featured in subsequent editions of Alex S. Johnson’s Axes of Evil anthologies. Ray wrote serialized original superhero fiction for Cyber Age Adventures and five of those stories appear in the anthology Playing Solitaire. He was the winner of Quantum Muse’s fiction contest in 1999.

Ray is a former NHL game analyst for The Hockey Nut and one-time host of the forum “Comic Books” at ReadWave. He has done beat reporting, photography and lifestyle articles for Metromix, an affiliate of The Baltimore Sun, Carroll Magazine, The Northern News and The Emmitsburg Dispatch.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Many, Many Miles to Memphis...Impressions of Graceland

So I just completed an eleven day trek that found me hitting Nashville, Memphis and Kansas City.  The trip was based upon the wedding of my brother-in-law and completed by a relaxing visit amongst friends.  There were seldom few moments to rest and I saw much in my travels, including a trip to the estate of The King of Rock 'n Roll, Elvis Presley.

If you really know your Elvis, you're familiar with the "TCB" acronym that followed his larger-than-life aura.  TCB was Elvis' slogan for "Taking Care of Business," and there's no denying the work ethic of the man.  The cat took care of his business, and then some.  Graceland is a testimony to wealth, fame and indulgence (particularly Elvis' car museum and the Lisa Marie jet airliner), but it's more a presentation of living like royalty with a grounded sense of modesty.  After all, Elvis was a renowned philanthropist aside from mega-entertainer.

Depending upon your outlook of life, Graceland is either a mecca or one of the biggest tourist traps you'll ever encounter.  With all due respect to Elvis, I consider Chuck Berry to be the true king of rock 'n roll, but there's no taking away from Elvis' vocal talent, charisma, wherewithal, dedication and above all, confidence as the first prestigious American rocker.  Thus I found Graceland, for all of the cash register ka-chings tolling in the back of my head on the opposite street of the mansion, to be a testament to the American dream.  Elvis is the quintessential rags-to-riches story lead, and thus, he is to be revered and celebrated, even if America at-large no longer stops to pause for his birth and death days as it once it did.  Those are just the times.

After the wedding festivities and long days of preparation, my family and I were drained.  We'd had a quick sojourn into downtown Nashville (that can hold for another post) and had already agreed to hit Graceland since we were in the area.  Now I'd been under the delusion that the distance between Nashville and Memphis was only about an hour-and-a-half tops.  Wrong.  With Elvis and Stray Cats tunes rolling down the long, three hour pike into Memphis, we finally arrived with a very squirmy six-year-old in desperate need of a bathroom.  Considering the boy was so good along our hefty travels, I'm not going to hold it against him.  Getting him attended to and our bellies stuffed at The Rock 'n Roll Café, I smirked at the adjacent Heartbreak Hotel, which is erected at the end of...you guessed it, Lonely Street.  Tres cool. 

A shuttle takes you across the street into Graceland, and in the meantime, I'd been observing how less stately the surroundings of the thoroughfare was.  Perhaps they were more golden during Elvis' time in life, or perhaps he'd chosen the less-than-regal spot to remain modest.  Either way, Graceland seems to be the only reason to truck down this downgraded portion of Memphis unless you're a local.

Nevertheless, with storm clouds rolling in, we jumped onto the shuttle and began our tour of the mansion.  You get an audio guide for your tour and I would suggest that if you visit, do not follow the group you're with, or you'll miss out on the nuances and subtleties of Elvis' wonderland.  Take your time.  No one inside will rush or pressure you.  Soak it up, absorb.  It's all a throwback to a mix of fifties and seventies architecture and interior modeling, and that'll either impress you or you'll find it a little tacky.  Me, I was engrossed from start-to-finish.

I'm not going to recap every room, but my favorites were the club basement that has three t.v.'s, a stereo, a bar, a wraparound sofa and a zany color structure between navy blue and yellow that's intimidating upon entry, but strangely welcoming once you get used to it.  Then how can anyone not be impressed by the jungle room with its man-made wall fountain?  Elvis reportedly loved the acoustics in that room since there's shag carpet on the floor and ceiling, thus he pulled recording equipment in and laid down many songs in the latter part of his career.

While the horse farm, the garage-converted-into-office and Elvis' vehicles are all quite impressive, what really stole my breath away was the labyrinth of gold records inside of his trophy room, followed by the shrine inside what was once his racquetball court.

I have to say I was feeling a bit emotional stepping into the former racquetball court and hearing on my audio guide that Elvis spent some of his remaining few hours in this life inside the adjacent lounge, playing music.  You step inside the racquetball building to find a pinball machine and incline exercise bench, followed by the comfy lounge area.  Once you put it all into perspective that the workaholic Elvis (who was, as far as I'm concerned, exploited by his manager, Colonel Parker) was spending his last moments doing what he loved, then the enormity of the lifetime achievement awards room that was once the racquetball court just sucker punches you.

With a handful of Elvis' seventies jumpsuits in display cases (including that bitchin' tiger suit I remember loving as a kid), the certified award records that rain from the ceiling on down will keep you glued there awhile.  I thought about the day Elvis died in 1977 (the same year Star Wars enchanted me as a kid and changed my life forever) and how the world around me seemed to stop, at least with the adults of our time.  It's comparable to and far more impactful than Michael Jackson's recent passing, though you had to be alive at the time of Elvis' passing to truly get it.  Jackson left this world with controversy behind his name.  While Elvis' death had speculative overtones to it, anyone who saw his rise to popularity will tell you, he represented all the danger elements of rock 'n roll while keeping true and retaining a nice guy image.  He opened the door for his peers and turned American music on its head.  Even better, he remained humble by recording gospel music in his time.

The truly jaded might call Graceland a pit of decadence, but considering all the joy Elvis gave his fans through his music, and to the world with his charitable contributions, the preservation of his legacy is just.  As you tour the mansion and the subsequent exhibits across the way, you'll be surrounded by Elvis tunes.  There's no escaping them.  If you're a fan, it's paradise.  If you're an employee, I'm sure it's purgatory.  If you're not so much a fan, it's still worth the excursion.  I only found offense by the price tag of $30.00 for CD packages, but overall, well-worth the experience.

As we drove back to Nashville under God's super soaker that turned into a four hour soggy retreat, I lingered happily upon our visit to Elvis' homestead.  The Vegas hall containing more of his circus-like costumes made them seem less silly than they appear in old footage of the King in his later days, particularly when you consider how many shows he did in such a short period of time.  They're lordly uniforms indicating a life well-lived and well-pushed to the edge.  Thus I would say Graceland is a mandatory pilgrimage, not only for rock 'n rollers, but also for those who value tangible proof that the common man can make it through perseverance.

All photos (c) Ray Van Horn, Jr.

           Listenin' to:  Gene Vincent - Capitol Collectors Series

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