TOO MUCH ELVIS

Do­minic Dunne takes an un­usual de­tour to check out the other Grace­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.

Pic­ture: Mario Tama/Getty Images

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

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