THERE'S a saying in the Elvis world which goes: If you're an Elvis fan, no explanation is necessary. If you're not, no explanation is possible. How do I know this? I am an Elvis fan. There was a time when people like me felt trepidation about admitting such a thing. After all, Elvis and his fans had been the subject of scorn for so many years, that we sometimes felt ostracised by others who were into 'cooler' music.
But now, 30 years after Elvis left the building and the planet, we can again hold our heads high. The days of Elvis being ridiculed for being an overweight, pill-popping, peanut butter and fried banana sandwich-eating monstrosity have been replaced with a more measured appreciation of his place in music history.
For me, Elvis Presley represents the very best - and the very worst - of the great American Dream.
The poor boy from Mississippi who conquered the world with his infusion of blues, country and gospel; the Big Bang of Rock'n'Roll tamed by Uncle Sam when he went into the army; the quaffed idol on the movie screen playing a singin', dancin' cowboy, soldier, navy frogman, boxer or doctor; the jumpsuited King of Las Vegas; and the sad, lonely recluse who ended up dying on the toilet.
All of these are Elvis to me. Far from being a simple country bumpkin, Elvis Presley is one of the most complicated people in history. An enigma, wrapped in a riddle, wrapped in a hamburger.
I was aware of him even before I could remember. His movies were weekend staples when I was a kid growing up in the 70s. And in 1973, the moment came when I became hooked for life: in January of that year, Elvis performed his now-classic Aloha From Hawaii concert, the first musical performance ever beamed around the world live via satellite. Sydney and Melbourne took the show live.
I was five years old, and I've never looked back.
His death - I won't presume to call it 'untimely' - affected me, even at ten years of age. It really was like losing a friend; someone I could count on to brighten my day if I was feeling down.
Like I said, if you're not a fan, no explanation is possible. We fans are still viewed my many people as freaks. For the record, I don't believe he's alive, and anyone who does is - well, a freak. And I think all Elvis impersonators should be hunted for sport and then left to rot in Guantanamo Bay.
Without wishing to draw any religious parallels, Elvis fans have their own version of Mecca and the pilgrimage: Graceland, the stately mansion where Elvis spent half his life. I first went there in 1988 for my 21st birthday after living in England for a year. At the time, it was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me (okay, so I didn't have a particularly interesting life) and it gave me a greater appreciation of the man, his music and what he'd come to mean to me and millions of others around the world.
I'd hoped to get back there one day, and this year I did.
In June, I travelled to the States for a five-week 40th birthday trek across the nation.
After living large in Los Angeles and Las Vegas (the second Elvis Mecca, but that's another story), I arrived in Memphis the night before my big 4-0.
Perhaps it's the ever-encroaching maturity of my years, or that my relationship to Elvis (note, I didn't say relationship with Elvis) had changed, but things in the Graceland centre were different this time around.
You can't exit any of the exhibitions now without being herded through tacky souvenir stores.
Yes, there has always been low-quality merchandise available, but can Graceland really justify selling cassettes of dogs barking Elvis tunes, or 'How To Be An Elvis Impersonator' books.
The area across from Graceland has been in decay for years, and Elvis Presley Enterprises has been buying up the adjacent land with plans to build a state-of-the-art visitors' centre, complete with audio-visual recreations of shows, and all sorts of whiz-bangery. But what worries me is that the dignity of the house, and Elvis' place in history may be lost in a Disneyland-style theme park.
Okay, so maybe it's just me. I've changed, man - it used to be about the music. But at least the mansion itself is still beautiful and reflective of the man who lived there: quiet, more tasteful than you've been lead to believe - and a peaceful haven from the clamour of whatever else is going on in the world.
You're probably all wondering why so many people make such a fuss of a man who's been dead for 30 years. I can't answer that. But if you want to know the man, look into the music.
Forget the crappy movie soundtracks and most of the schlocky seventies ballads. Even forget the polished post-Army Elvis encapsulated by songs like It's Now Or Never. Forget the Greatest Hits stuff you've heard a million times before. Look instead to Elvis' earliest recordings with Sun Records.
He didn't invent rock'n'roll as some over-zealous fans would have you believe, but he made it his own, and delivered it to the world - and we haven't been the same ever since.
Look also to the 1968 'Comeback' - the black-leather Tiger Man strutting the stage after years in the Hollywood wilderness. Look to the concert recordings of the late sixties and early seventies, before Vegas had become a nasty cliche. Look to Aloha From Hawaii - depending on your point of view, that concert was either the last of the best or the first of the worst.
And look, if you can, to his final studio work - the recordings done in the Jungle Room at Graceland in 1976 because this tired, tired man couldn't be bothered setting foot inside a real studio anymore. These recordings are his last cry, and they are - to use a classic journalistic clich� - a cry for help. And it's in the Jungle Room I heard Elvis again in my head, taking me back to 1988 during my first visit. Yeah, it's still about the music.
The United States is a planet unto itself, with a cornucopia of things to see and do.
So, if you're there - take the time to see Graceland. Despite the growing commercialisation perpetuated by Elvis Presley Enterprises, the King's mansion is still well worth the trip.
Graceland Photos By Scott Jenkins
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