Elvis is dead, but his memory lives on in Memphis

Fans from all over the world have descended on the king’s home to commemorate the 40th anniversary of his passing

Pablo de Llano Neira

The room had a horseshoe-shaped cushioned sofa, white and yellow pillows, and was lit by 1970s-era disco ball. There was a porcelain monkey on the nightstand and three old TVs where you could watch three episodes at a time. In 2017, the first thought an obsessive visitor would have is: how wonderful would it be to watch Game of Thrones in Elvis Presley’s den.

Elvis Presley fans visit his grave in Memphis on August 12.
Elvis Presley fans visit his grave in Memphis on August 12. Mandel Ngan (AFP)

But, alas, you cannot. It’s a museum. Its owner, Elvis the Pelvis, could, if he were alive. But the prince of Graceland, the king of rock and roll, America’s beloved boyfriend, is dead.

Elvis is dead.

He’s been dead since August 16, 1977. If you don’t believe it, go to Memphis and buy the Memphis Press-Scimitar’s special edition for August 17, 1977 for $25 and slowly repeat its serene and majestic headline: A lonely life ends on Elvis Presley Boulevard.

He was so handsome and he would let us get on his tractor Sara Erwin, Elvis Presley´s neighbor

That day, in her house next door to Graceland, Sara Erwin, 76, spent hours staring out the window at her own garden full of “thousands of strangers.” Elvis worshipers surrounded the mansion.

Mrs. Erwin knew him after he bought Graceland in 1957. She was a child. Elvis rode a tractor. The farm still did not have billboards and the neighborhood kids chased after the rock star turned farmer. “He was so handsome,” she recalls, “and he would let us get on his tractor.” Everything changed once the fans caught on and the Adonis from Tupelo, Mississippi, had to flee from them on his tractor.

This week, Memphis is an endless stream of stories of people united by their nostalgia for Elvis. At the Sun Studio, where he recorded his first release, That’s All Right, in 1954, a redheaded woman took photos of the façade. She has traveled from with her daughter from Poland where she is a trolley car driver in Warsaw and has nine Elvis tattoos on her pale skin. One on her chest, which she freely shows us by removing her bra. Teresa Rek is 48 years old and when she started listening to Elvis, she lived in a country that was part of a bloc considered hostile by the United States, but it wasn’t an obstacle. “I fell in love with Elvis as a young communist girl,” says Rek.

When Elvis started here, rock and roll was an expression of art outside the mainstream Ples Hampton, sound engineer at Sun Studio
The hillbilly cat: Elvis on stage.
The hillbilly cat: Elvis on stage.GETTY

Meanwhile, at Sun, Ples Hampton, a 34-year-old sound engineer, steps outside to smoke a cigar and give his take on what Elvis meant to music history. “When he started to sing here, rock and roll was an expression of art outside the mainstream, basically limited to African-Americans,” says Hampton. “Elvis took it to the masses.”

Guided tours take place inside the studio. The guide, Maria, explained Elvis’ influences. They were generally black musicians such as The Prisonaires, a group of inmates from a Tennessee jail, who were later pardoned by the governor after composing the hit song, Just Walkin’ in the Rain. Later on, a 72-year-old black taxi driver, Sterling Jeter, admirer of B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Marc Gasol (Memphis Grizzlies basketball player) recognized Elvis as: “one of us. A white man with the voice of a black man.”

Elvis had millions of fans who would give everything for him. But he was lonely, especially since his mother Gladys passed in 1958. Elvis Aaron Presley was a demigod. But despite it all, he was just a small town kid, an only child who loved his mother. One day, he watched a movie with his mom that ended in a shootout. Gladys began to cry and said “I don’t want them to kill you, not even in the movies.”

Nevertheless, his believers still want to save him from his lonely demise, from his final crumbling moments in the bathroom of his mansion. They’re combing their toupees, growing out their side burns and walking like rockabillies. They’re wearing handbags, earrings, and shirts printed with the face of the man they’re celebrating. They believe in the resurrection. Memphis is expecting about 100,000 Elvismaniacs this week. Some are upset that this year there is a $28 entrance fee to the vigil.

Fans are flocking to all the different points in the city associated with the myth. For example, there’s the Arcade restaurant, with a beautiful neon exterior and where the blonde waitress suggests the sandwich that the Hound Dog interpreter used to order, “Peanut butter with fried banana, mister.” Founded in 1919, the restaurant is on the National Register of Historic Places.

At the table where Elvis used to sit, a Spanish family is eating. Raquel Álvarez, a 12-year-old who thinks Elvis sounds too old, sits with her parents Jorge Álvarez, 54, and Esther Calpena, 50. Calpena remembers how in the preparations for their wedding, she said to the priest: “Don Ramón, I have to ask you for one thing. I want to listen to Elvis’ gospel music on my wedding day.”

At Graceland, everything remains as the king of rock left it

At Graceland, next to Elvis’ private jet, named after his daughter Lisa Marie, 64-year-old Puerto Rican Pedro Gómez is dressed as his idol. That’s how he’s looked everyday for a decade. He’s an electrician, who claims his appearance does not interfere with his work. “On the contrary, customers are delighted by my appearance,” says Gómez, “and my electrical installations are impeccable.”

In the mansion, everything remains as the king left it. The Meditation Garden, where his remains lay to rest, his fridge, the billiard room with the multicolored drapery, the mirrored stairway to the basement, the room with African carvings, all left as they were. People walk in amazement through the corridors of Graceland. It is a dream mansion, but also a nightmare for its famous owner. It took 100 vans to remove all the wreaths left behind in his honor.

English version by Debora Almeida.

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