A few weeks ago I gleefully announced that the Mrs. had arranged for me to fulfill a lifelong dream: We would visit Graceland, home of the late, great King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Mr. Elvis Aaron Presley.
My joyful anticipation prompted many who had already made the trip – including the Mrs. herself – to warn me not to get my hopes up about what I might see there. “It’s not what you think,” they all said.
But I wasn’t disappointed. Not in the least. In fact, every expectation I had was thoroughly exceeded.
Memphis is rich in character, color, and legacy; there are breathtaking antebellum mansions, magnificent restaurants and galleries, and there is the musical carnival that is Beale Street.
But the cultural hues of the city, vibrant though they may be, have simply been overwhelmed by the imposing shadow of Graceland. Like Elvis himself, his famous home has eclipsed and influenced everything (and everyone) around her. It’s as if the entire city has become little more than a glorified yard for that one mansion. And the nearer one draws to the King’s castle, the more boldly this phenomenon presents itself.
Virtually every native we met inquired, “Have you been to Elvis’s house yet?” (I got into the spirit of things, naturally: Each time a friendly local asked where we were staying, I would reply, “In the ghetto.” Eventually, the Mrs.explained that I was the only one who actually found this amusing.)
By the time we finally reached Elvis Presley Boulevard, I didn’t see a single business that didn’t have some kind of Elvis pun in its name. I expected the “Hound Dog Veterinary Hospital,” of course, and “Jailhouse Rock Bail Bonds” was no surprise. But I was a little shocked by the “Suspicious Minds Psychiatric Clinic,” and I still question the propriety of the “Return to Sender Funeral Home.”
Nonetheless, it all made sense once we walked through the front door. The house was quiet, despite being packed with people. Part of the hush is due to the elimination of human guides. The tour is now self-guided; visitors are given headphones and a digital audio device programmed to play a pre-recorded spiel about each room. For normal people, this approach provokes silence, giving the tour its tone of reverent awe. For the pathologically chatty visitor like me, however, this method just means that I will forget that I’m surrounded by people and end up making a lot of embarrassing verbal declarations at the top of my lungs that I would normally keep to myself, like these gems:
“Wow! Now THAT’S a long couch! I could take two naps at the same time on that sucker!”
“Maybe I could bribe security to let me upstairs. Why, if I could get a photo of that porcelain throne that the King rode into eternity, I could sell it to the National Enquirer and recoup whatever it costs me to grease the guard.”
“How ironic that a man who hated televisions enough to hunt them down and shoot them for sport would also love them enough to watch three sets at once.”
It was all there, and I savored every bit of it: The “Lisa Marie” jet; the rhinestone-spangled jumpsuits and the ’68 Comeback leather ensemble; the gold records; and all those fabulous cars.
What was unsettling for me, though, was concluding the tour at Elvis’s graveside. I had just stepped out of a house which, during his life, was considered the ultimate in extravagance. Now I was faced with his grave, a bleak, tacit reminder that all the wealth, adoration, and achievement in the world can’t delay that one inevitable appointment.
It reminded me of “Citizen Kane,” and that Coleridge quote at the beginning: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree…” Like the film’s titular character, Elvis came from nothing, yet he ascended to the highest heights of human materialistic desire. For both Kane and the King, even everything wasn’t enough; their self-destructive appetites first embittered them, and then consumed them.
In Ecclesiastes 5:10, Solomon declared, “He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase: this is also vanity.”
There’s a statue of Christ and the cross near the grave. Elvis had decreed a stately pleasure-dome indeed, but it is Jesus alone who prepares our eternal, heavenly mansions. And they aren’t for sale – they’re free. Whether any of us takes up residence will not be decided by our bank accounts or our achievements. It will all come down to whether or not we have turned to Jesus in repentance of our sins and trusted in him alone for forgiveness and salvation.
Elvis’s Graceland may sit high atop a hill, but in the land of the grace of Christ, his shed blood makes the ground perfectly level for all of us.