MEET YOU IN MEMPHIS
Portrait of an Elvis Fan
My friend Lynette is one of the keenest, most intelligent Elvis fans I know! From the minute she greets you at her front gate with her dogs frolicking at her heels, Elvis is everywhere. Seated in her cosy lounge you are immediately drawn to the memorabilia on display, and an Elvis video is playing on the TV screen. “Isn’t he fabulous” she remarks. Working for TV3, Lynette is always in touch with programmes even remotely connected with Elvis, and is quick off the mark to let the newsroom know of any Elvis events worth filming. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Lynette without an Elvis T shirt on, (including a musical one), and as we chat, she casually holds out her wrists for me to inspect her impressive Elvis tattoos. “I’m part way through getting this one done” she informs me, “But it’s a good one don’t you think!” Lynette is a powerhouse of enthusiasm and information, when it comes to things Elvis, and recently she and her sister flew out to the USA, where Lynette had a long list of places to visit, and things to inspect. Top of the list of course, was Memphis and Graceland. All this sounds pretty normal for an Elvis fan, but wait, there is a difference - Lynette is blind and therefore her experience of travelling as a tourist may differ considerably from the way we think about it. I tried to imagine what it would be like to visit Memphis and Graceland from a blind person’s perspective, but my mind could not cope with the idea of not being able to see the rich tapestry of exhibits relating to Elvis’ life and career, all of which we sighted people take for granted.
So I asked Lynette to explain it to me. Here is her story: “Being blind has never stopped me from enjoying life to the utmost and making the most of every opportunity, if anything, it has made me more determined. People might ask me, why would I spend so much money, and travel so far, when I am unable to see anything. But the idea of not going has never occurred to me. As far as I am concerned, visiting the King’s home is where I want to be. Just walking inside Graceland, and absorbing the atmosphere, is indescribably magic. Remembering he was there, feeling his presence, just as you do when you close your eyes and think about Elvis. Going to Memphis more than once, was important to me, and this was my second visit. The first time, I could hardly believe I was actually there, and I relied quite heavily on the commentary when I was touring Graceland, but this time it was not necessary. My sister, Lyndall, accompanied me, and although she is not really an Elvis fan, her descriptive powers are brilliant, especially when it came to describing Elvis’ costumes in detail. I did not feel I had missed out on anything, other than touching them perhaps, but then this is not allowed for anyone.
Unfortunately, some items which are usually on display at Graceland, and are permitted to be touched, had been removed for an exhibition in Tupelo. I was told there was a replica of one of Elvis’ jackets, and reprodutions of the peacocks on the glass doors of the music room. Finding I had just missed them was a bit disappointing. Walking up Graceland’s driveway in the early morning sunshine, when there was hardly anyone around, was very poignant and moving, I spent quality time in the Meditation garden and walked past the grave - the emotion was very strong, and I could not bring myself to touch the gravestone, or bear to hear the inscription read out. I will save this for my third visit sometime in the future. I could hear the water fountain splashing, and was conscious of maintenance people mowing Graceland lawns nearby. I was interested to find there was a little plaque in the Meditation Garden, especially for Jesse Garon, Elvis’ infant twin brother. I have always had a special affinity with horses and been closely involved with them.
There were three horses in the paddocks at Graceland, while I was there, and I was so pleased to be able to visit them and give them a pat. Being able to board Elvis’ plane the “Lisa Marie” was a real highlight and something I had not done before. It was really fascinating, and the commentary was excellent. I suppose you could say it created word pictures in my head. I had hoped to visit the new wedding chapel, but somehow this did not eventuate, but I enjoyed the shops and finding Elvis memorabilia to bring home, although I did not think the range of products was as good as last time. A visit to Beale Street was high on the agenda, and we went to “Elvis Presley’s Memphis” restaurant for a delicious meal. I had Southern fried chicken which had a tasty sweet sauce over it. this sounds unusual but was very nice. I noticed a lot of American food is very sweet, including the bread! Elvis’ music was playing in the background, and the serviettes were personalised with Elvis’ name. I enjoyed the Elvis atmosphere, and there is a good shop. We couldn’t leave without revisiting Sun Studios, and I smuggled in my tiny portable walkman radio which I use to record everything I hear. It fits inobtrusively in my bum bag, and gives very good reproduction. All in all, I recorded eighteen, 90 minute tapes during my trip. These are marvellous when I return home, to recreate every detail of the tour. I just turn them on, and immediately I am back in Memphis or wherever. I rely a lot on sound, and my memory is very sharp - trained to absorb information. B.B. King’s Night Club was another highlight, and we enjoyed the band and the entertainment which turned out to be several young, athletic guys doing flips and handstands over and over, delighting the audience who threw money on the table in payment. I understand B.B. King himself strolls in there from time to time even though he is over 70 years of age.
It transpired that while we were in Memphis, it was the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, which took place on 4th of April 1968. We visited the Lorraine Motel where he was shot, and saw a wreath on the actual balcony where he was standing on that fateful occasion. I was told there is a woman who has been going there and sitting outside, every single day for years, in protest against the crime. But really I’ve got side tracked talking about Memphis! We started our tour in Nashville where we spent two days, and stayed at the Ramada Inn. I was told by the man in the gift shop, that when Elvis stayed there, he had a room on the 8th floor. After hearing this, I tried to change my room for Elvis’, but it wasn’t possible. Maybe next time! We visited the Grand Old Opry but I found this a bit of a let down. Most of the country music singers I heard, seemed to be washed up old guys who should have retired long ago. However, a visit to Studio B at RCA was so enjoyable and meant a lot to me. Hearing about Elvis when he recorded there was so interesting.
One story in particular stuck in my mind, it was when Elvis was recording “Are You Lonesome Tonight” - he was such a perfectionist and did take after take, ordering the lights to be turned off so he could create the right mood for the song. After about 52 takes, he was still not satisfied and declared the very first take to be the best. Inadvertently in the dark, he bumped the microphone and if you listen carefully at the end, this slight bump can be heard, but does not detract in any way from the song. We also heard how on one occasion Elvis was recording a Christmas album. Priscilla, knowing Elvis’ penchant for atmosphere, decorated the whole studio as if it was Christmas, just to get the festive feeling. Our USA tour was quite comprehensive. From Memphis we set out for La Fayette, travelling through the Mississippi Delta on the City of New Orleans train, a journey taking about seven or eight hours. I remember this was the only time on our whole tour, that we had proper linen table cloths and serviettes on the table. Leaving the train, we were taken by bus to La Fayette, heart of the Cajun Country where the inhabitants originally come from Nova Scotia and speak their own language - a peculiar mixture of French and English.
These people are well known for their rhythmic, foot tapping music, incorporating accordians, fiddles and guitars. Leaving La Fayette, we travelled to New Orleans a city which famously revolves around jazz and blues music. Every bar and cafe especially on Burbon Street, seemed to have a group playing music, and for the price of a drink, we could slip in and be entertained for hours on end. It was enthralling, and I’d love to go back again. Louis Armstrong is synonymous with New Orleans and there is a park named after him and a statue there. Our last stop was LA and Disneyland. We stayed at the Disneyland Hotel and I always try to get the same room there because I am familiar with the surroundings and it makes things easier for me. I can hear the waterfall outside our tower block and this acts as a directional aid. Checking the location of the nearest fire escape is also a safety precaution I make wherever I stay.
We caught the monorail to Disneyland and headed for the newest attraction - “California Adventure” which opened in February. I was very pleased to find they have an informative braille guide book about this and other attractions, written from a blind person’s perspective. Because I was staying at the Disney Hotel, I was able to borrow the book overnight with a deposit of US$20 which was refundable the next day on return of the book. The Disneyland policy for disabled people is very helpful. They even gave me a special pass, which enabled me to bypass the normal queue and get in faster. LA was the last stop of our tour before returning home, and I would not have changed anything - the whole trip was wonderful. Being a blind person, did not diminish the pleasure I felt, or the experiences I treasure. If anything could be improved, I personally would like to see Graceland, and similar places, cater more for disabled people and make provision for them. Exhibits which can be handled, and a slightly more relaxed attitude would help. Having a fulltime liaison person to assist blind or disabled people would be wonderful.
I am sure Elvis would have done this for people - because he was such a perceptive, caring person.
Braille menus in cafes and restaurants would be a big plus. Only one place that I went to had a braille menu, but even then, they were unable to find it when I asked.
Airlines also need to familiarise themselves with the needs of disabled people. Qantas Airlines, and Delta Airlines both provide safety instructions printed in braille, but our own Air New Zealand has not caught up with the play.
Susan asked me how I perceive Elvis in my mind. This is a bit tricky to answer, but I can tell you that I know him as a person, but do not have a visual image.
I hear the warmth in his voice, I read about him, and I just love the out-take recordings, such as the Burbank Series, where you hear him laughing and joking, and fooling around. This builds a feeling as to what Elvis is like as a total person. I am very tuned in to the inflections in his voice, and sometimes I can tell if he is nervous or insecure.
Everybody tells me he has the most incredible, intense blue eyes. I somehow imagine this as very signifcant when I think of Elvis.
Now I am back home I am already planning ahead for my next trip to Graceland. I would strongly urge anybody who is in the same or a similar position to myself to get out there and make your dream a reality. Don’t be put off by negative thoughts or suggestions, if I can do it, so can you ....... meet me there next time!”