Thursday, August 30, 2012

Elvis Week 2012, and Why I Love Elvis As Much As I Do

For my first post in the new blog, I feel that it's appropriate that I write about my recent visit to Memphis during Elvis Week. I feel that I should also introduce myself, as an Elvis fan, to anyone who might read this, so you can get a sense of where I'm coming from and why my visit was such a meaningful experience.

I started listening and watching Elvis when I was 11 or 12 years old (I found magazines in my collection that date to just before my 12th birthday, so clearly I was already hooked by Elvis at that point if I was collecting magazines about him). I was 11/12 in 1994-1995. I had just joined a music club and I had my choice of 5 cassettes to order as a new member. I saw Elvis's #1 hits as one of the choices and was intrigued, so I asked my mother if she thought I would like his music. I probably already had a basic sense of his style because I listened to Boston's Oldies 103.3 constantly and knew a lot of the '50s and '60s music that my parents grew up with. My mother said that she thought I probably would like him, so I bought the tape. I can't tell you exactly what I felt when I first listened to his music, but I was clearly hooked right away. There was no turning back now. My mom decided that the next step was for me to see him perform to get a sense of his charisma (and to see how handsome he really was), so she took me to Blockbuster and we rented the 1968 Comeback Special. At that point, I was totally in love. The '68 special was definitely one of the defining performances of his entire career, when he was at his physical best and was singing pretty darn well. (More on that in another post). From there I bought documentary videos about Elvis, bought more compilations on tape and started seeking out his movies. Some were easier to find than others, and it took a while before I found the much-sought-after Blue Hawaii, but I managed to get most of his movies from 1956 to 1964. Early on, I decided to concentrate my efforts on acquiring and learning his '50s and '60s music more than the '70s catalog. I certainly heard some of his '70s songs, particularly the often-performed tunes like "Polk Salad Annie," "See See Rider," "Steamroller Blues," "Burning Love" (one of my favorites from the Top 10 Hits), "I'll Remember You," "American Trilogy," etc., but I just wasn't as rabid about this time period in his career. I also had the sense that this was an increasingly unhappy time in his life and thus kind of shied away from some of it.

Lucky for me, my parents realized how serious I am about this whole Elvis thing and decide to carve out some time in our 1996 family vacation to go to Graceland. At this point I've already started reading some Elvis biographies and other books about him/his career, so I arrived at Graceland with a good sense of who he was. I was pretty excited to be there; it's always exciting to me to visit somewhere that I've read a lot about, and at that point I was pretty much nuts about Elvis and his music. I remember seeing the Meditation Garden for the first time and being quite moved by it, even at age 13. It was hard for me to reconcile the images of a young man so full of energy, life, and love with the plaque I saw before me with Elvis's birth and death dates. It was a hard dose of reality, a fact of life I couldn't ignore. The following year, on the 20th anniversary of his death, I held my own candlelight vigil for Elvis in my bedroom and played his music to commemorate the day.

I continued collecting music and movies throughout high school and college, along with other memorabilia (including a Jailhouse Rock telephone given to me by some close friends for one of my birthdays). Thanks to Napster, I acquired some more music in college and kept up with the new single releases in the early 2000s.

Fast forward to 2011, when I discovered that Graceland streamed the candlelight vigil on I remember talking to my co-blogger and co-worker about this, because we were just starting to share our mutual Elvis love/obsession. I had wanted to go to Elvis Week for as long as I knew there was such a thing, and seeing it online last year renewed my determination to do it. I visited periodically over the next few months to read about what kinds of activities they had planned for the big 35th anniversary celebration and finally decided in March that this was finally my year to go. Who knew how much longer Graceland would continue to host this event, considering that the people I refer to as the "original fans" (those who were teenagers in the '50s) are getting into their 70s. So I booked the trip. I decided I need to participate in the vigil, take another tour of the mansion, and go to the 35th anniversary concert. Before I left, I would listen to many fantastic CDs of Elvis concerts and outtakes provided by the impressive Elvis library of my co-blogger. This was going to be an amazing trip.

I arrived in Memphis on August 15, just before 5:00 CT. After I picked up my car, I drove to Graceland to get ready for the vigil. I had a quick bite to eat and then made my way onto Elvis Presley Boulevard where the line ended just at the end of the wall on the right if you're facing the mansion (this was about 7:00 pm). Soon after I met a nice group of ladies from Illinois who were definitely some of Elvis's original fans: one of the women told me she had been a fan since 1957 when she was a sophomore in high school. They were interested to know how I got to be a fan and then we spent the next few hours talking about Elvis and other topics and taking in the scene. The vigil officially started around 8:30, with presidents of various fan clubs taking turns making remarks and with the welcome visit by Priscilla and Lisa Marie, who were participating in the vigil for the first time. Then, as it got darker, we just watched the flickering candlelight moving up and down the driveway toward the Meditation Garden and were serenaded by Elvis. The ladies and I made it to the gate around 11pm and then made the long walk up the driveway over the next hour or so. At the top of the driveway there were flower arrangements and tributes that had been sent to Graceland from all over the world. Seeing Elvis's grave for the first time in 16 years wasn't as emotional as I had expected it to be, though by that point I had been waiting for about 6 hours and was quite tired from traveling and waiting. It was a somber moment for everyone, though, and I was glad to be there. It was great and amazing to see all of the people who were still waiting to file by as I left Graceland. I think it took a while for the emotional impact of the experience to sink in.

On the 16th I returned to Graceland for a tour of the house and special exhibits on the property. Visiting the Meditation Garden was more emotional on this day, because I had just been inside his house, looked at his records, clothing, and achievements, and heard him sing through parts of the audio tour. All of the flower arrangements were great to see, and Elvis's grave was covered with flowers and stuffed animals. I could only see his name and birth and death dates because of all of the gifts. The whole time I was there, and ever since I came home, I just kept thinking about how great it was that so many people still care. Elvis has been gone for 35 years, and still thousands of people are so moved by his music and by his life that they came to pay their respects and to celebrate him. This really moved me. I've thought so many times over the years about how I wish I could somehow go back in time and save him, make him stop taking the drugs, convince him that they're hurting more than they're helping, so that somehow he would still be alive today. Sometimes I think, "If you only knew, Elvis, how much people love you, you would help yourself and not die." I wish that Elvis knew how many people were at his home that week, and I hope that it would make him feel appreciated and worthwhile.

Lisa Marie curated a nice exhibit at the end of the VIP Graceland tour called "Elvis: Through His Daughter's Eyes" that included artifacts from her childhood at Graceland along with some mementos from her own music career, photos of her children, and artifacts from her own charitable giving, inspired by her father. It was nice to see so many happy pictures of Lisa and her parents, though of course it is sad that her father has missed most of her life. I often wondered during my visit whether Elvis Week is helpful or harmful to Lisa. On the one hand, it must be heartwarming to see such an outpouring of affection for her father from the fans, but on the other hand, it must make her relive that awful day over and over again. My thoughts are often with her on the anniversary, because I can imagine how difficult that day was for her.

I continued making my way around the Graceland properties, seeing the auto museum, exhibits on the '68 Comeback Special and Elvis on Tour, and, of course, going into every gift shop on site and seeing the planes. I made sure to drive downtown to visit Sun Studios, which I had never been to before, and got a thrill when I recorded "Loving You" in the control room behind the studio where Elvis, Scotty, and Bill cut those great Sun hits.

In the evening, I went to the FedEx Forum to see the Elvis 35th Anniversary Concert. I have to say that before the trip, this was probably the event that I most looked forward to. I had been to the first incarnation of the virtual Elvis concert in 1998 at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, which had been phenomenal. It was like Elvis was there and it was great to see so many of the musicians who toured with him in the '70s still performing. The 35th anniversary concert was different, in that it wasn't set up like an Elvis concert. It started with this kind of weird, New Age-y intro where a giant map of the United States was projected onto the screen and then it zoomed into Tupelo, MS. Elvis started singing "My Happiness" and we saw a small white house that resembled Elvis's birthplace, with a woman (Gladys) sweeping the porch. Her husband (Vernon) comes home from work and then their son (Elvis) appears at the doorway. Kind of a weird beginning that made me wonder what we'd see next. Fortunately, the concert got started and DJ Fontana came out with two other musicians to play along with Elvis's '50s TV performances. Sound Fuzion, a music group from the University of Memphis, came out to sing the Jordanaires' parts, and they were fantastic. Priscilla then came out and introduced Elvis's movie music, and then Elvis and the orchestra proceeded to play some of my movie favorites, including "Rock-a-Hula," "Return to Sender," and "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care." There was some music from the '68 special and then the first act ended with a wonderful gospel section, starting with the Sweet Inspirations singing "Amazing Grace" with Elvis, followed by the Imperials singing "He Touched Me," and then everyone, including a black gospel choir, singing "How Great Thou Art." Wow! It was a true tribute to Elvis and the music that he loved so dearly.

The second act started with a touching video montage of photos of Lisa Marie and her parents and then Lisa with her own children. Elvis's early recording "I Love You Because" provided the soundtrack and there was video and audio of Lisa singing along in some parts, too. After the video, Lisa came out on stage to greet everyone and to express her appreciation for the fans' love and support. She stated that there was nowhere she'd rather be on that day than in Memphis with her father's fans. The second act was made up entirely of the '70s music, with the Sweet Inspirations, the Imperials, former members of the Stamps Quartet, Joe Guercio, and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra playing along with Elvis. An Elvis hologram even made a brief appearance, walking across the stage to "shake" the hands of the audience members in the first row. It was cool, but I'm glad they didn't make the hologram sing or perform because if it wasn't perfect, it would have been awful. The concert ended with one of my favorite Elvis songs/performances of all time, "If I Can Dream" from the finale of the '68 Comeback Special. Because I tend to be quite affected by live music, and because I am affected by Elvis's music and his life and legacy, I was crying on and off during the whole concert, from "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" in the beginning, to "Don't Be Cruel," "I'll Remember You" and "If I Can Dream" in the end. It was an emotional experience, but also a wonderful concert.

I am so glad I went to Elvis Week. I wish I could have been there longer. The impact of the trip continued to sink in in the days following my return home. I think all of the emotion finally hit me a couple of days after I came home. Part of being an Elvis fan, from my point of view, is always experiencing a little bit of sorrow with all of the joy that his music brings to you. There is always the element of tragedy, because he shouldn't have died when he did. There is always the wish that he had recovered from his addiction and had continued performing. Some of these feelings come from the fact that I was born after he died and therefore never knew him alive. I never got to see him in a live concert. I never got to experience the excitement of a truly new Elvis album being released. The joy outweighs the sorrow most of the time, of course. There is no other musician who makes me feel the way Elvis does. He makes me smile and draws me in like no other singer. I want to know what's behind those twinkling eyes. I want to hear what he thinks and feels. Elvis makes me want to sing and to learn to sing with the same emotion that he expressed so naturally. I often think of Elvis as my musical soul mate. When I was growing up, my dad was always playing music in the house and my natural response was to dance to it. I couldn't/can't keep still when music is playing. That led to me taking dance lessons for many years before I even knew what Elvis was all about. When I see his performances from the '50s, I get what he's doing. I get what he feels. Sometimes the music just moves you and you go with it.

I think I felt some of Elvis's soul while I was in Memphis and some of it may have lingered a while after I returned. With Elvis, there seemed to be a lot of love and joy with just a hint of sorrow. As I wrote on his wall, I hope he has found peace.

I have loved Elvis for most of my life and his music and personality have enriched my life in so many ways. I believe that love for Elvis lasts forever. If there is a Heaven or some other afterlife, Elvis will be singing in mine.

Now that I'm back, I'm listening to Elvis with renewed vigor and am determined to hear every last song and see every last movie before I return to Graceland the next time, which I hope will be for the 40th anniversary celebration.

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