NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Elvis Speaking Quietly In the Garden

My first visit to Graceland was on the occasion of Elvis ’ death, 25 years ago. I was working for Rolling Stone magazine in New York and, as soon as we got confirmation of Elvis’ death from the Memphis police department, I caught the first plane out, without stopping to pack.

The Shriners were holding their convention in Memphis and had already claimed most of the hotel rooms. So, the thousands of Elvis pilgrims streaming into town found no room at the inn, in most cases. Whatever clout Rolling Stone possessed got me a room at the nearest Holiday Inn — but I had to agree to change rooms, if not Holiday Inns, every night because they had no rooms available for consecutive days. Encounters in the streets and in hotel corridors between the drunken Shriner revelers and the dazed Elvis mourners quickly turned ugly.

Thousands of grieving Elvis fans remained massed night and day in front of Graceland. People were weeping openly, wandering up and down Elvis Presley Boulevard. Crying while carrying a six-pack of Budweiser out of a 7-Eleven. Embracing total strangers. Collapsing in a heap at Graceland’s huge wrought iron gates, adorned with their famous musical notes, and sobbing uncontrollably.

Elvis was laid out for a short public visitation in a massive casket just inside the front door of Graceland, guarded by hulking members of his Memphis Mafia. The line of visitors snaked up the hill from the gates, over toward the Meditation Garden on the right and then back to the front door, where you could step just far enough inside the vestibule for a glimpse of the body and then you were directed back down the hill to the left. All of a sudden, a shout went up. They had locked the gates and a steady low wail of disappointment rose from the crowds packed up against the gates and the low front walls. It grew into an anguished cry of desperation from those who knew they had been turned away from a final glimpse of their King.

When I gained entry into the vestibule, I gazed down at the bloated, waxy corpse filling up the casket, that seemed to be Elvis Presley. And I sensed or felt only a massive emptiness there. There was no aura there, no feeling that a powerful man had recently occupied that mound of gray flesh.

After the gates were locked, things turned strange. The mourners swarmed over the wall. They stripped the trees bare of their leaves and clawed at the very grass, so desperate were they to carry away a souvenir of the King. They mobbed Graceland Christian Church next door to Graceland, assuming — wrongly — that it belonged to Elvis. They picked clean the church grounds of everything that could be carried off. The church was to be soon forced out of business, so heavy was the crush of Elvis pilgrims in the days and months following Elvis’ death. The congregation gave up and sold the church and grounds to Graceland.

Years passed. I took the occasional friends from out of state to Graceland and began to become genuinely fond of the place. I spent one very memorable Saturday there with Jerry Lee Lewis. I was in town to interview him for a magazine piece and he surprised me by calling the day I was scheduled to leave and inviting me to go along to a radio interview he was doing from Vernon Presley’s old office in Graceland. Jerry Lee had long had a love-hate relationship with Elvis and his running commentary about Elvis as we toured the place was endlessly entertaining. His description of Elvis ran toward words such as “f***-up.” And Jerry Lee vividly described for me the fateful night when he — Jerry Lee — was arrested, drunk and waving a pistol at the gates of Graceland. He had gone there, he said, either to save Elvis or to shoot him. The story has passed into myth and I’m not sure that Jerry Lee knew the truth of it anymore.

Then several years ago, I got an assignment to write the text for a coffee table book about Graceland. The book, by the way, went out of print almost immediately. It had been sanctioned by Graceland, which withdrew it from circulation after Elvis’ manager, the late Colonel Tom Parker, read it and complained to Graceland about my treatment of him. I guess Parker realized that I had written the truth about him. I hope so. If you ever see the book — titled Graceland: The Living Legacy of Elvis Presley — snap it up. It’s now a true collector’s item. And it’s also a gorgeous book.

At any rate, when I was researching the book, the Graceland staff gave me pretty much free rein of the place — except for the upstairs, where Elvis passed. I came to especially treasure early mornings at Graceland. Just after sunup, before the tourists began filing up the hill and turning the place into a sideshow, it became in many ways just a house just beginning to wake to the day. The alluring smell of coffee wafted from the kitchen. Horses came out of the barn to graze. I came to treasure Graceland for what it is –- just a house. A very vibrant, warm and comfortable house that Elvis bought and fixed up primarily for his mother.

The Meditation Garden, where Elvis, his mother and father and his grandmother Minnie are buried, is one of the most peaceful places I have ever known. I still miss those clear mornings when the dew sparkled on Elvis’ gravestone and birds darted and sang among the flowers.

One morning, I was writing there, sitting alone on the stone steps before the brick wall, with its 19th-century Spanish stained glass windows, that curves around the graves and the circular central fountain. I occasionally gazed over at Elvis’ grave. “What a wasted life,” I thought. A voice, that sounded very much like Elvis, spoke quietly to me. “What about your life, man? Take a close look at that, why don’t you? Then come back and tell me what’s a wasted life.”

I have never gone in much for the spiritual or the mystical. But that was a very real experience. And I have to tell you, I did sort of take a close look at my life. I won’t say that I did anything drastic, but I did start making a lot of corrections in things I was doing that I perhaps shouldn’t have been doing. And re-examining things that I hadn’t been doing that I perhaps ought to be doing. And now I realize that I’m a whole lot better off for it. I must go back and thank him some day.

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo)

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