TOO MUCH ELVIS
Dominic Dunne takes an unusual detour to check out the other Graceland
IHAVE heard about an outrageous hotpink house in a tiny southern US town that is a shrine to Elvis. Apparently the owner is obsessed with the King and has been for 50 years. So much so that, sadly, his wife divorced him over his obsession, but even more sadly he called his son Elvis Aaron Presley McLeod.
I decide to visit but can’t track down a phone number. I find an email address via the internet but my message bounces back.
Has Elvis finally left the building? Or at least moved out of 200 East Gholson Ave, Holly Springs?
I turn to the local tourism bureau. A woman on the other end of the phone assures me, in her best Mississippi accent, that Elvis is indeed alive and well in downtown Holly Springs, that curator Paul McLeod does not have a phone number and that all messages for him can go through her.
She tells me that Graceland Too, as the place is called, is open 24 hours a day; you just have to knock louder at night.
‘‘ I would like to come for a look this weekend. Will he be home?’’ ‘‘ Oh, he’s always home,’’ she says. I fly to Memphis, Tennessee, where I recruit a local tour operator to drive me to Holly Springs, 70km down the highway, across the border in Mississippi.
From what I know about McLeod, mainly from a colleague who stumbled across Graceland Too while on a road trip across the US, he is quite something. When we pull up outside, the house does not disappoint.
Graceland Too is a tall timber building that apparently predates the US Civil War; when the Elvis fan moved in, he put two cement lions on the front porch and a row of fake Christmas trees, which appear to have been spray-painted black, around the perimeter of the block. Not to mention painting it in Elvis’s favourite colour.
McLeod, who looks to be in his 70s, meets us at the door and invites us in to what could otherwise be an attractive foyer, were it not packed with Elvis toys and plastered memorabilia. Everything is old, dark and dirty, and naturally I am enthralled.
McLeod launches into his spiel about his obsession with Elvis but I can only understand every third or fourth word because his top false teeth keep slipping. We then go into an adjoining room that, in similar fashion, is crowded with Elvis-related stuff. And with a lot of stuff that is not related, such as a stuffed cobra and an equally stuffed panda.
We sit down on an old couch and proceed to watch a video that inexplicably, yet deftly, combines images of a squirrel being skinned with clips from Elvis concerts. The room smells. Suddenly, and for no reason other than the quantity of coffee I have drunk this morning, I have a desperate urge to go to the toilet. I ask if I can use the bathroom, so McLeod leads me to the back door and tells me I can go out there. I’m not sure I’m supposed to know where the outside lav is, so I ask where specifically I am to go.
He waves his hand across the back yard, strewn with an alarming array of junk, and tells me to go anywhere I like.
He closes the door and I relieve myself in the corner of the yard, close to, I discover as I survey the surroundings, what appears to be an electric chair with a male dummy lying nearby. His tribute to Elvis’s JailhouseRock , he tells me later.
Back inside I spend a bit more time taking in the assortment of items, which allegedly includes a complete collection of every record Elvis released in the US. But I’m a little disappointed as this is not so much a museum of Elvis memorabilia as the junk room of a very unusual man.
However, the bizarreness of the overall experience does make up for any lack of archival quality and I am glad I have come (but just as glad to be leaving). Graceland Too has a reputation for being one of the stranger tourist attractions in the US. McLeod says he has had a large Japanese group go through the house recently. I want to ask what happens when groups need to go to the toilet.
I indicate to Peggy, the tour guide, that it’s time to escape, and she tells me in the bus that the house has no water connected, which is why I had to pee in the back yard.
I have almost had my fill of Elvis fanaticism but we press on to Tupelo, Elvis’s birthplace, 110km down the road.
Peggy tells me she feels the people of Tupelo never forgave Elvis for leaving the town for Memphis when he was 13, an act of disloyalty that, I soon discover, doesn’t stop a few businesses from cashing in on an Elvis connection, however tenuous, 60 years later. From first impressions of Tupelo, I wouldn’t have waited 13 years to leave. Anyway, it’s not as if Elvis had much choice. His father Vernon couldn’t find work in Tupelo after he was thrown in jail for forging a cheque, so the family decided to make a go of it in Memphis.
We walk around the tiny cottage where Elvis was born, then drive past an unrenovated version of the same cottage where Peggy tells me Elvis’s second cousin lives, before calling into the hardware store where Elvis bought a toy guitar. Masking tape on the hardwood floor points to the very spot where the gangly kid purportedly stood.
We stop outside a house where Elvis lived for a short time, where he went to school and where he went to church (although the church is now a different denomination and in fact is a different church altogether because the original burned down) and cruise past the homes of an assortment of Presley relatives. Peggy asks me if I would like to see the library where a young Elvis took out a library card, the hall where he sang his first song in public or the diner where he used to eat hamburgers.
The tour guide has seen it all a hundred times and is probably relieved when I reply that I really need to make tracks for Memphis airport.
In thrall to the King: The world’s biggest Elvis fan, Paul McLeod, right, and his son Elvis Aaron Presley McLeod preside over Graceland Too
All shook up: Elvis performing in 1956
All shacked up: The Tupelo cottage in which Elvis was born