Huckster and Tomsky (Marvin and Saul) discover more America

26 June 2008
Elvis was to rock and roll what Marilyn Monroe was to Hollywood movies, a great box office star, provoking teen-agers and, with Marilyn, the world’s “sex kitten,” even “mature” men. Like Elvis, she also failed to find contentment. At age 42, in 1977, Elvis overdosed on “prescription” drugs. You can find Graceland, his 14 acre estate with old fashioned white-columned mansion, on Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis, Tennessee, just north of Mississippi. In 1983, this “shrine” invited the public to a post mortem view of Elvis’ life. In 2006, it became a National Historic Landmark. Indeed, the parking lot contains cars bearing license plates from many states. He paid $100,000 for the land and house in the late 1950s. Now, highly organized tours begin by extracting a hefty parking fee, followed by $24 per person fee for a minimum walk through. A small bus shuttles crowds from the ticket office and store area across the road -- a few yards. The group of 25 snoops around Elvis’ mansion, not including his upstairs bedroom and bathroom, because “he liked privacy,” says the audio tape. In fact, Elvis pooped on his pooper and some sickos now yearn to examine the exact place of his drug death. The tour organizers provide ear phones over which one hears a Clorox version of Elvis’ life and career, replete with audio detours promoting Elvis products from CDs to t-shirts, jackets, coffee mugs, calendars and reproductions of Elvis’ costumes. Elvis guitars cost over $1,000, but poor or stingy visitors can get an Elvis refrigerator magnet for only $7. At the onset of the tour a bored employee took our photo with a Graceland set as the back drop. At the end of the tour, we bought the developed print for only $25. We peered into Elvis’ living room, dining room and other chambers, decorated in mixed kitsch-nouveau-riche style, including a mini-waterfall in his “jungle room.” The walls held photos of a young man dressed in fabulously gauche costumes. He performed on stage with confidence, but never discovered who his identity. His gold record sales poured in, and he built a racket ball court and a recording studio in his house. Hey, compared to Hearst’s Castle, Graceland is barely ostentatious. The overwhelmingly white tourists with whom we shared the Graceland experience behaved remarkably well. Like much of what we saw on the road, Americans tend toward plumpness and dress in an aggressively casual mode. No one screamed “he’s still alive,” although the tour provided no convincing evidence of his death. A gravestone supposedly covers his remains. Next to his grave are those of his parents Gladys and Vernon, and his grandmother. The mini graveyard bears the name “Meditation Gardens.” Only God knows whether Elvis really lives or whether he was Jesus reincarnated. Not one person in our group swooned or fainted. Did they do so as teenagers? In the basement Elvis had three TV sets he supposedly watched at the same time, next to the pool table and bar. Elvis had a jewelry collection and a model of the Mississippi house in which he grew up. His “Trophy Room” abounds with gold and platinum albums ‘’ denoting millions in sales. Needless to say, the tour would not be complete without seeing Elvis’ spangled and studded outfits, copies of which one can buy for $3,200. Elvis also owned two jets and several fancy cars. Graceland’s pasture and stable area seemed downright bucolic. The audio tape reminded us that Elvis the Pelvis, the “Nothin’ But A Hound Dog” man, gave money and time to mainstream charities and non controversial causes. If you buy a membership in “Elvis Insiders,” one can get 10% discounts for lots of wonderful opportunities, like access to the private Web site where you get a “view looking out of Elvis's bedroom window at the front lawn of Graceland.” In addition, members receive rare Elvis photos, artifacts, video clips and documents from the Graceland archives. Other rewards include 10% discounts on rooms at Elvis’ Heartbreak Hotel. The cynical Huck and Tom remained un-lured. We decided to wait for the new 500-room convention hotel and a redone and super high-tech museum -- coming within a few years. Elvis’ widow, Priscilla, used her hubby’s estate to direct Elvis Presley Enterprises. She shaped it, according to Wikipedia, “into the second most visited private residence in the United States, behind the White House.” In 2002, some 40,000 people assembled there in a downpour -- God always tests the faithful -- to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death. “Well,” Huck said to Tom, “we saw it,” as we drove south into Clarksdale Mississippi to visit the Blues Museum. Muddy Waters videos show how Elvis and the Rolling Stones lifted his material as well as BB King’s and the gyrating act from Bo Diddley. Some white academics wrote about blues as music representing black pain. But they downplayed the humor. “I got my mojo working, but it just don’t work on you,” sang Muddy Waters. B.B. King moaned: “The iceman came by this morning, And you know he didn’t leave no ice, The postman came by later baby, And he didn’t even ring twice I think you’ve been cheating on me, I think you’re running out on me, I believe to my soul baby, that you’ve given me some outside help, That I don’t think I really need.” Not the blues that come from slavery or from Nature flooding your house and killing family members and friends! In Rosedale, Mississippi the levee protects the town -- hopefully -- from flooding. We watched barges cruise downstream with the River’s gentle flow. Who would have thought that the same waters were inundating Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois cities and towns? Will FEMA officials have learned from their ignorance and subsequent judgment errors during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and respond to peoples’ emergency needs? One Mississippi man said “FEMA officials will learn when pigs learn to fly.” Another said: “Michael Brown lives in FEMA and many other federal agencies.” A small town Mississippi doctor, the town’s only doctor, treated the approximately 2,500 townspeople -- the majority African American. The nearest clinic was some 15 miles away and the closest hospital twice that distance. “95% of my patients don’t have insurance. Some have Medicaid or Medicare, but many have no protection.” Some paid him in kind with food or other “gifts.” “Say what you want about the drug companies,” he offered, “but without those samples they offer to doctors I wouldn’t be able to give my patients the drugs they need since they can’t afford to buy them.” The radio news warned of flooding further south as we drove from Graceland to Oxford, Mississippi. We would peer at the gracefully flowing River as we listened to deluge stories from Wisconsin, Iowa and northern Illinois. In Greenville, a major Delta city on the River, we sat at Doe’s Eat Place next to local farmers and their wives. The woman who insisted we foreigners taste the local shrimp, almost spat out her contempt for all things Bush. “I’m voting for Obama. I’ve had enough of that man [Bush] and his friends.” Her husband shook his head in agreement at the negative comment, as he cut into what looked like a three pound porterhouse steak. “Yeah, farmers do better under Democrats,” he stopped to chew. “But I don’t know yet,” indicating he still had not mustered the assurances he needed to actually confirm his intentions to vote for Obama. The couple at the next table shook their heads in agreement with the farmer’s wife. Marvin asked if Mississippi might go Democrat in 2008, a comment offered by an art gallery owner in Oxford. All four shook their heads. Yes, it was possible. We finished our meal, Marvin his juicy steak and me my superb hot tamales, corn ground with spicy sausage. The Mississippi of the 1960s, when I had made several trips related to civil rights activities, had changed. A middle aged black woman emerged from the back room of the restaurant. She shook hands with several customers. “She’s our mayor,” informed the white farmer’s wife. We asked about her performance. She hesitated. “She’s alright,” she said, without enthusiasm. Outside, the “Security poster man accompanied us to our car so that invisible stalkers would not attack. He graciously received the $5 tip and dramatically guided us out of the parking space -- even though there were no cars behind or in front of us. As we made our way south to Natchez, we shook our heads in awe and wonder at the complexity and diversity of the people who populate this great and crazy country.
Saul Landau is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and a senior fellow of the Transnational Institute. His latest book is A Bush and Botox World. His latest film is We don't play golf here! And other stories of globalisation .