Blending Awe and Peanut Butter
For devotees, Elvis Presley was more than music - he represented hope.
MEMPHIS, TENN. — 'Elvis wore Brut?" a woman asks incredulously as she breezes through Sincerely Elvis, a self-guided exhibit at Graceland, mecca for the King's devotees.
A few minutes later, two more women visiting the music icon's former home file past. "Brut cologne?" they ponder. "He wore that?"
Yes, it's perhaps a little pedestrian and unromantic, but it was the 1970s, after all. Elvis had gold car keys custom-made in the shape of lightning bolts and decorated his house with extravagant and, ahem, distinctive taste.
This week, more than 50,000 Elvis Presley fans - with their insatiable appetites for such minutiae - as well as the simply curious will descend on Memphis. As part of Elvis Tribute Week they'll pay homage to the man who has sold more than a billion records worldwide.
Activities from concerts to marathons to lectures like "Redneck Diaspora: Surfing the South with Elvis" promise to keep things all shook up. Thousands will gather on Aug. 15, the evening before the anniversary of his death, for the annual Graceland candlelight vigil to remember a Mississippi boy turned rock 'n' roll king.
More than 20 years after his death, Elvis continues to pack 'em in. Followers never seem to lose their taste for his quintessential American blend of reality and fantasy, success and self-destruction, artistic talent and aw-shucks ordinariness. "Elvis represents a rags to riches story," says Dr. Vernon Chadwick, founder of the International Conference on Elvis Presley. "People who love his music see something else in him: hope, a chance to make it in this country."
On Aug. 8, thousands of fans stood in line at Graceland to get a firsthand look at some of the material symbols of Elvis's life - his classy cars, the funky Lisa Marie jet, the hundreds of gold and platinum records, the hard-to-describe-without-being-uncharitable shag carpeting. But are the people standing in line wondering about Brut true fans?
"Some people are fans, but other people are tourists," says Mike Keating, president of Elvis's Chicago fan club, one of more than 500 worldwide. "They come here to see us, the fans, and even make fun of us. They don't really care about Elvis or what he did."
Clearly, some folks care deeply.
Sitting around a table at Luby's Cafeteria just a quarter of a mile from Graceland, Mr. Keating and a few other Elvis fans reminisce about the days when the shrine drew only true worshippers. That was before rock bands like Ireland's U2 came to film a video in front of the famous white gates. Back when Graceland didn't have a theme-park vibe, but rather an air of quiet reverence.
June Kline of North Lewisburg, Ohio, and her husband were former "gate people," fans who hung out in front of Graceland's gates before Elvis's death.
"Once," Mrs. Kline recalls, "Elvis had the gatekeeper let us in, and we got to go to the Meditation Gardens, Elvis's favorite spot.
"It was just a few months before he died," she remembers. "Elvis hated flash cubes, but he said we could take a few pictures. I took a picture of a statue of Jesus."
Fans like Keating and Kline keep Elvis's image burning bright. Commercialization helps, too. At Graceland, almost any imaginable item is for sale. From the cheap to the ridiculously expensive, visitors can take home a little piece of Elvis.
On Beale Street, Elvis Presley's Memphis offers the King's favorites - meatloaf, which he once ate nightly for six months, banana pudding, and those infamous fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches.
Purists, though, wonder about the sandwiches. "Some people think the bananas were sliced and put on the peanut butter, then fried," says Keating, who sports a "Blue Hawaii" T-shirt. "I know for a fact that they were mashed up. Elvis's cook told me so."
Happily, that's what the restaurant serves.