Sunday, July 31

Memphis memories

Memphis was a fascinating destination. I flew in early Saturday morning after catching a jet-lagged enhanced 6am flight from New York city. I picked a rental car from the airport and drove straight to Graceland, the former home of Elvis Presley. Since his death in 1977 it’s become a shrine to his remarkable legacy and a rather gaudy monument to the enduring success of American capitalism. I was keen to arrive early before the Summer tourist horde began sweeping through the ticket hall.

As you approach the property’s iconic gates (comprising of an iron silhouette of the King surrounded by a musical score), it’s soon clear that the property’s original 5.6 hectres have grown to include a similar sized compound on the roadside directly opposite. This new compound includes an enormous carpark, hotel and guest centre containing museums, gift shops and a shuttle bus centre controlling access to the Graceland mansion. From the road you can also see a compound containing Elvis’ two private aircraft, including a large jet airliner called Lisa Marie. It’s fitted out with a separate living room, conference room, private bedroom (that includes a double bed) and a spacious bathroom.

US$35 gave me access to a range of fascinating exhibits; some awe inspiring, others rather tacky and crudely commercial. I ultimately spent almost four hours exploring the legacy of Elvis. The day started with a tour of the Graceland mansion. Even though I’d arrived within 30 minutes of opening time, I still had to wait at least 30 minutes to start my tour. Guests board a shuttle bus at an air-conditioned visitor’s centre that then drives across the main road and up the curving driveway of Graceland itself. The entire journey takes less than two minutes.

Once inside the mansion, a self-guided audio tour takes guests from room to room on the ground floor and basement. The building upper floor is not open to the public. I assume this includes the bathroom where he was found dead on the morning of August 16, 1977. Interestingly, the audio guide makes no reference to his less than flattering demise. As the years have passed the mansion has become an odd time capsule of seventies décor and popular kitch. The kitchen houses dated microwaves, the TV room displays three quaint CRT colour television screens and his favourite den is carpeted in a eye-watering deep green shag pile carpet.

However, the most memorable venue for me was the Hall of Gold. This a trophy room attached to the side of the mansion housing a mind-boggling display of dozens and dozens of framed gold and platinum records. Other rooms include his Grammy awards, film memorabilia and stage costumes from his final years of live Las Vegas performances.

The sight of wall after wall of awards is stunning. It’s probably the most awe inspiring tribute to one man’s fame and fortune that I’ve ever experienced. The scene brings his staggering success as an artist to life in the most confronting way. The audio guide claims that Elvis has sold more than one billion records since Heartbreak Hotel, his first hit in 1956; a feat that’s never been repeated by any other artist.

From Graceland I made my way into town to check into my hotel. I’d based myself a block away from Beale Street, the city’s blues music heartland. Today two short city blocks have been converted to a cobbled pedestrian mall where The street’s mid-20th Century shop front has been lovely preserved. Its simple venues continue to host a cacophony of live musicians who entertain the wandering (and somewhat intoxicated) crowds throughout the day and late into the night.

The scene was reminiscent of Bourbon Street in New Orleans; albeit on a smaller scale. Of course, this was America, and so it came as no surprise to find that access to the area on Saturday night was restricted to a handful of checkpoints requiring a full body pat-down for weapons before passing. I then spent a bemused hour or so wandering the crowd watching street preachers warn of hell, blues musicans sing of heartbreaks and dozens of youths drink as much cheap beer as humanly possible.

My first day in Memphis ended with a brief visit to the Cotton Museum. The museum is located in the ornate chamber of what was once the city’s thriving cotton exchange where thousands of cotton bales were bought and sold each day. The exhibit provided a fascinating insight into the Deep South’s agricultural past and an industry once depended on the slave trade for its survival. Like any dominant industry, cotton enjoyed its fair share of politics and scandal.

My second, and final day, in town was spent enjoying two iconic locations. The first was Mud Island, home to several venues capturing the spirit of the Mississippi River that marks the city’s western boundary. Once again I was reminded of the river’s awesome power as stood on its banks looking across 500 metres of fast flowing, muddy brown water. The island’s highlights included an extensive museum chronicling the history of the river and an incredible three-dimensional scale model of the Lower Mississippi River. This model maps the flow of the river from its confluence with the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois more 954 miles south to the Gulf of Mexico.

The scale model is filled with water that gently flows for more than 600 metres to a mock Gulf that doubles as a boat lake in the Summer months. Along the route twenty cities are mapped out; their main streets represented by carefully embedded stainless steel rods. The model gives you an incredible insight into the flood plains of the river, while marked displays along its length bring the river’s history and geology to life. It’s an incredible journey that took me more than an hour to complete.

After lunch I made my way to my second iconic venue, the Lorraine Motel, which houses the National Civil Rights Museum. Getting to the museum involved catching one of Memphis’ beautifully restored tram cars that still trace a leisurely route through the city centre. The Lorraine Motel is the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968. The museum opened its doors in 1991, chronicling the history of the American Civil Right movement from slavery days until the passage of equal rights legislation in the 1960s.

The museum’s exhibits are well presented and incredibly informative. The volume of information and images is almost overwhelming. However, it gave me an incredible insight into the plight of Black Americans over the last two hundred years. I still find it hard to believe that such oppressive, institutionalized racism was part of everyday life across the South less than fifty years ago.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the entire tour is the moment visitors are led to Room 306 on the motel’s second floor. The neighbouring room has been moved to create an open observation area looking over the concrete balcony where King’s lifeless body fell. Here you can also look up at the façade of the rooming house on the opposite hillside where James Earl Ray fired his fatal shot. The museum has since bought this building and visitors can now see the bathroom window where Ray had stood. Surrounding exhibits detail the international manhunt that led to his capture at Heathrow, as well as summarizing the Civil Rights movement’s enduring achievements.

However, the most unexpected and somewhat delightful moment of my visit came as I was leaving the museum. When I’d first entered, guests had been directed to a theatre to watch an HBO documentary replaying the final weeks of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life. Much the story is told in first person by the only other person on the motel balcony at the moment King was shot; Rev Samuel “Billy” Kyles.

Incredibly, as I was leaving, “Billy” walked into the lobby. A nearby security guard told me he still lived in Memphis and occasionally turned up at the museum without warning. It was awe inspiring to stand next to the man that held King in his arms as he died. Nothing could have made this tragic moment in modern history more real, and more personal.

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