Today is the day I drive, bleary-eyed, to Graceland. First time ever. So excited I was up before dawn—not because this is my world but because it is not. I love the music, love what came through of who that boy was. But I long to rinse away the kitsch, the glitz, the grease in his hair and the goo in the girls’ screams, the tacky excess that feels like the worst of us, money thrown around just because it was there, colors so gaudy it is no wonder he needed the aviators.
I need to swallow this mood somewhere between St. Louis and Memphis.
“You cannot understand America until you have been to Graceland,” a friend recently informed me, and I took it as a dare. This trip, timed to hit the end of Elvis Week, the day the King died (though no one could be sure) is an exploration for me, but a pilgrimage for most. Ribald as Chaucer, exhausting as the Camino de Santiago, solemn as the hajj. Because beneath the bopping fun of Elvis, the soundtrack we are playing at full blast as we speed down the highway—the same soundtrack that has crept inside my brain and played all by itself for the last two weeks as I read everything I could find about Elvis—is something sad and sweet and tragic. But you have to get below the idea of Elvis first, and that idea is bottomless, different for each of us, reinvented every decade, the same way we reinvent America.
Paul Simon made his own pilgrimage—not with his nine-year-old son, as he lied for art’s sake, but alone. Questing. Because when he wrote “Graceland,” he did not want to write about Elvis at all.
He came up with the music in South Africa, where he found local musicians to jam with. When he sat down at the drums and told guitarist Ray Phiri to play over his beat, Phiri shifted out of African sound into the minor chords he associated with Simon’s music. By the time they finished recording, “between Phiri playing his approximation of American country, and Baghiti playing a straight-ahead African groove on bass, Simon felt there was a commonality in the music.” The fast, happy drum rhythms reminded him of some of the early magic that came out of Sun Records back when Elvis first recorded there, and country and gospel and R&B began their sexy, unlawful miscegenation.
Still, “Graceland” was just Simon’s placeholder title, because of that echo. He would write lyrics to the track, maybe find a title that connected to South Africa. He started looking—but “Graceland” would not go away. Every time he tried to erase the placeholder, “Graceland” came back at him, insistent. He would have to go there, he decided, and figure out what he was writing about.
So there he was, like “poor boys and pilgrims with families,” and now me, too, all of us going to Graceland. Following the river “through the cradle of the Civil War” and winding up at the folly of a man who was called a “white Negro” and a “hillybilly cat” because he mixed Black ways with White. Whites were shocked and suspicious, and Blacks, first welcoming, grew resentful when they saw the millions pour in.
Two decades later, Simon was criticized for the same thing. He flew to South Africa during an international boycott against apartheid, seeing no point to the restrictions. Once there, he drew South African artists into the spotlight, giving credit as freely as Elvis had and winning the same wild acclaim for “his” album.
“So, it has taken another white man to discover my people?” snapped the acclaimed trombonist and South African activist Jonas Gwanga. Graceland’s success, like Elvis’s, gave the “homage” and “borrowing” a bitter aftertaste.
Many fans still say Simon’s “Graceland” had nothing to do with Elvis. The song is about personal reconciliation, they say. But the song is also about redemption. About a need to be caught when you are flying too high, rescued from turmoil, loved and forgiven, received and blessed. And nobody needed that more than Elvis, a man who scooped up all the fame and money the world could heap at his feet and still died lonely, uncertain, sick, addled by drugs, sure that, as he told a friend just weeks before he died, “People aren’t going to remember me. I’ve never done anything lasting.”
Elvis strung both Hebrew and Christian symbols around his neck, laughing that he was hedging his bets; he read Kahlil Gibran and studied Buddhism, Scientology, psychokinesis, and faith healing, and the last book he read was about finding the skeleton of Christ. He respected people with the college education he never received, and even without that context, his questions went deep. His fans had made him a king, and later they would make him a god, but he was as vulnerably human as the rest of us, anxious and insecure, amused by the fame but never sure he was good enough. Knowing that lets me hear in Simon’s ending the hope, reassurance, and salvation that Elvis had been reaching for, one way or another, since his mom died:
I’ve a reason to believe
We all will be received
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.