Yesterday I rented a fairly inexpensive car from National/Alamo around 1:45 pm after landing at Memphis Airport, and soon after began my quickie tour of the four tourist attractions. I loathed Graceland, felt awed and saddened by the Lorraine Motel, didn’t much care for the Disneyland/Universal City Walk vibe of Beale Street, and loved the little shrine that is Sun Records, the small-scale, modest-vibe recording studio that was begun by the great Sam Phillips in 1950, and is now a down-homey, old-time funky studio and and souvenir shop.
The only image I was able to find in the entire area of Graceland (i.e., on both sides of Elvis Presley Blvd.) that didn’t seem garish or tacky.
Graceland, the former home of Elvis Presley and an ongoing shrine to the money that his music and movies continue to earn, is just southwest of Memphis airport and located on an ugly straightaway called Elvis Presley Blvd., littered with tacky blue-collar chain stores and fast-food franchises and unsightly warehouses and car washes. The area is flat and character-less with amber-brown grass and very few trees, except for a relatively small forested area near Graceland.
The area around Graceland was probably wide-open country (or close to it) when Presley first bought the place in early 1957 for $100 grand — now the Graceland commercial milieu is indistinguishable from the crap and clutter along New Jersey’s infamous Route 22. One look and you want to escape. It’s the pits.
And economically depressed. I bought a burger at a little joint called Checkers, which is just north of Graceland, and two panhandlers hit me up for money while I was waiting.
The tourist stores pandering to the Presley fans are located across the street from the walled-in main property, which consists of a long upsloping lawn, a modest-sized home with a kind of southern-style neo-colonial design with a brick facade, and a couple of buildings built alongside, including what looks like a barn or a horse stable. It’s said to have 23 rooms but it didn’t look all that big to me. Presley is buried in the back yard (we’ve all seen the photos), but I took one look at this parched, depressing, over-hyped sucker attraction and decided not to take the tour.
40 years, 10 months on — Thursday, 2.5.09, 4:08 pm
Lorraine motel, site of the April 1968 murder of Martin Luther King, located on a somewhat neglected, borderline seedy portion of downtownMemphis — Thursday, 2.5.09, 4:05 pm
The snaps I took yesterday of the Lorraine Motel, site of the April 4, 1968 murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, speak for themselves. The strongest impression I got was that it’s quiet — dead quiet. The Lorraine stopped being a working motel in ’82 and was soon after bought by the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Foundation and eventually became part of a small network of buildings called the National Civil Rights Museum.
It’s a queer sensation to suddenly be eyeballing with great concentration a place as famous/infamous as this, and to just…I don’t know, just stroll around and take it all in. I was assessing the distance between the motel’s upper balcony (where King stood just before being shot) and the rear window of a former down-at-the-heels rooming-house from which James Earl Ray fired . Over and over I’ve watched black-and-white photos and newsreel film film (and lately, since the 40th anniversary last year, color video) of this sad place, and it’s just weird to see it live.
You can take Beale Street, the historic birthplace of the blues, and stuff it. It’s strictly a tourist trap with one Disneyworld blues bar, tourist merchandise shop and musician T-shirt or instrument shop after another. Beale Street obviously has a storied reputation; it just as obviously has sold that atmosphere down the river for tourist bucks.
I loved visiting the fabled Sun Studios because it hasn’t been expanded or glitzed up. It looks and feels a lot like what I imagine it used to be back in the ’50s. I bought an “Elvis at Sun” CD and listened to it twice during the 90-minute drive south to Oxford. “Y’heard the news, thayuhs good rockin’ tonight.”
I tried to attend the Oxford Film Festival’s opening-night attraction, Sunshine Cleaning (Overture, 3.13), but this middle-aged goon hired by the distributor stopped me from entering the theatre because I had my camera slung around my neck. If you don’t want cameras in a theatre you set up a table in the lobby asking people to surrender their devices, and then you put each device into a plastic baggie and give the owner a receipt. Not a problem; I’ve done this dozens of times. But the dickhead at the theatre last night just said “no camera” and “maybe you can get somebody outside to hold it for you.” So I walked. I didn’t care. It was just Sunshine Cleaning.
I missed Sunshine Cleaning, come to think, when it played at Sundance ’08 so last night’s episode was in keeping with tradition. I’ll presumably see it before next month’s opening.
Historic Lafayette courthouse in town square of Oxford, Mississippi — Thursday, 2.5.09, 9:05 pm