Friday, January 02, 2009

southern sojourn 4: graceland and stax

Welcome to Graceland
The second-most visited home in the United States - how could we stay in Memphis and not go to Graceland?

One expecting a rash of tacky Elvis-themed stores and outlets along Elvis Presley Boulevard on the way to Graceland from the freeway will be sorely disappointed. The strip has seen better days, symbolized by a burnt-out fast food joint. I prebooked tickets early in the day to dodge the crowds and afternoon heat.

Waiting for the Shuttle
Once we picked up our tickets, we headed out to the line for the shuttle bus to take us across the street to the mansion. Sounds lazy, but I suspect the buses (a) help control the crowds wishing to see Elvis' digs, and (b) prevent traffic congestion on Elvis Presley Boulevard that would result from a signal needing to change every 30 seconds to accomodate visitors trekking over. A steady flow of shuttles ensured that our wait was short.

A battery of fans kept those waiting in line cool. It was a good thing that we planned an early trip to Graceland, as the afternoon brought muggy, 100+ degrees Fahrenheit weather to Memphis.

Posing at Graceland
Those waiting in line are asked to pose in front of a backdrop. Note my cheery morning state. This turned out to be the only picture of all three of us taken during the trip.

Billiards Room

Jungle Room (2)
It was comforting walking through Graceland, as if I was revisiting the homes of childhood friends but on a larger scale. The areas open to the public maintain much of their 1970s decor and design, most noticeably in the green-carpeted "jungle room".

Other buildings on the mansion grounds are filled with memorabilia and preserved elements like Vernon Presley's office. We were impressed with tasteful and well laid-out presentation and relieved to discover that for all the jokes made about the later years of Elvis Presley and the fan base/velvet paintings that grew around it, Graceland was far from being a tacky experience (except for some of our fellow tourists). It was yet another pleasant surprise to add to the trip's growing tally.

Observing the Graves in the Meditation Garden
I admit that while I observed the Presley family graves, it was hard not to think of the scene in This Is Spinal Tap where the band pays their homage.

Jumpsuits (2)
After a trip back across the road on the shuttle, we checked out the other exhibits and gift shops, most of which are laid out strip-mall style. The exhibits focused on various aspects of Elvis, from his car collection to the staggering number of jumpsuits he utilized in the 1970s.


Standing by the Side of Stax
After dropping Mom off at a suburban mall, Amy and I headed to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Having been a Stax nut for years, this was a site I eagerly anticipated...and wasn't disappointed by.

The museum is a recreation of the original Stax building, torn down in 1989 after a decade of neglect. The complex is closely tied into the community, with an attached auditorium and charter school. While paying for admission, another tourist overheard that we were from Canada. She proceed to walk up to us and yell "Eh?" We didn't know how to react, though I considered identifying ourselves as Detroit natives at any future attractions.

Visitors are not allowed directly into the exhibit halls upon arrival. A introductory film outlines the context Stax operated in, dotted with interviews and footage from the label's prime. Once finished, the exhibits await, starting with a century-old church moved from the Mississippi Delta. Too bad pictures aren't allowed of the exhibits, or else your eyes would feast upon Isaac Hayes' pimped-out gold-plated Cadillac. Sadly, within a week of our visit Hayes passed away.

Stax Museum Parking Entrance
On the way out we noticed other efforts to improve the area, included a planned restoration for a one-time home of bluesman Memphis Slim.We drove around the neighbourhood for a few minutes. Several guidebooks I had read before the trip indicated that one shouldn't linger too long in the vicinity of Stax due to safety concerns and poverty. We looked around and while nearby streets were run down, it didn't look worse than some sections of Detroit we regularly drive through. This confirmed my theory that having grown up near Motown, we're all but desensitized while roaming through depressed neighbourhoods, unless the scale of devastation or sense something bad is going to happen is extraordinary (ask anyone I've taken to Buffalo how I react while driving through its grim areas). We shrugged and continued roaming.

Full set of photos.

Next: Downtown Memphis and the melancholy death of Meriwether Lewis 

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