This is a blog I’ve been meaning to write since last year.
One of the many pleasures of the End of the Road festival are the interviews that take place in the mornings and early afternoon in the literary tent, tucked away in a secluded part of Larmer Tree Gardens. Last year one of the talks featured Bethan Roberts who had written a book called “Graceland”, a fictionalised account of Elvis Presley’s early life and, in particular, his relationship with his mother, Gladys. They were very close, but of course as Elvis found fame she began to lose her hold over him, for all sorts of reasons, not least all the girlfriends and the ubiquitous “Colonel” Tom Parker. The story begins and ends as a tragedy: Elvis was a twin, but the other baby died at birth; and Gladys turned to alcohol quite early in her life and died from heart failure at the age of 46 after suffering from hepatitis.
Bethan’s novel is beautifully written and captures the lives of Gladys and Elvis – and father/husband Vernon – with insight and compassion. She is herself the mother of an only son, which will have given her some of that insight. There is a lot of sadness and anger in the novel, but also a vivid narrative of Elvis’ journey in music, starting with his singing in the church choir with his first love Magdalene and his love for the music of the black musicians in his hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi, especially the trombonist Ulysses Mayhorn. In her talk Bethan described how she grew up in an Elvis-loving household and retained an affection for his music, which eventually led to the writing of “Graceland”. In the Q&A session I asked her what her favourite Elvis song was. The first she mentioned was “Mystery Train” which I thought was an excellent choice. I too love those early, raw, bluesy rock’n’roll sounds. Elvis at his most primal – and revolutionary.
I was reminded of all of this when I recently listened to a Word Podcast with Bethan Roberts on my daily walk around the nearby park during our lockdown. The subject was again “Graceland”. The podcast is hosted by Mark Ellen and David Hepworth, and features talks about music and literature with a musical theme. The Word magazine was an indispensable music publication until it fell victim to online competition in 2012; but Mark and David have kept its spirit going with the “Word in Your Ear” talks, usually in an Islington pub, and the podcasts. Bethan’s interview is podcast number 314 from 18 February this year if you want to listen to it.
That also reminded me that I’d never written anything about my trip to Graceland in May last year. I wrote about Nashville soon after getting home, but never got around to Memphis and Chattanooga. Graceland was a pretty extraordinary place. The house itself is big but not massive, although there are extensive grounds. The delight for me was some of the décor – classic 70s kitsch. The indulgences of a wealthy man. There are some lovely photos of the family and the young Elvis in the house, and then, as you go outside, you reach the graves of Elvis and his mother and father. He was always a family man, even if it was a troubled family.
The other delights of Graceland are in the museum complex nearby – you get a minibus between the two. I met some very friendly people from Birmingham, Alabama on the bus. They were interested in where I was from and extolled the virtues of their home state. I decided it might be best not to describe the profound effect that the National Museum of Civil Rights in Memphis had had on me the previous day. We lost touch in the house and the only time I saw them after that was briefly across the floor in one of the diners in the complex. But it was good to meet them and was just one example of the friendliness that I encountered in all three Tennessee cities I visited.
The museum exhibitions were sometimes amusing – the over-the-top collection of cars and the stage costumes for example – but also inspiring. They were a reminder of what an incredible performer Elvis was and about the revolutionary effect he had on music in the 1950s. This in turn inspired many of the great bands of the 60s and 70s and set off the musical journey that I, amongst others, have been on ever since. I think anyone who loves rock’n’roll music should try, if they can afford it, to get to Graceland one day. And they should read Bethan Roberts’ “Graceland” too.
A few photos from my Elvis experience in Memphis, Tennessee…
Gladys, Elvis and Vernon. Vernon had problems holding down a regular job in Tupelo, and spent some time in prison for altering a cheque.
Baby’s got a pink cadillac!
The favoured outfit of Elvis impersonators everywhere!
The primal Elvis. Imagine the impact…
Elvis’ debut album in 1956, featuring “Blue Suede Shoes”. Note where the Clash got the design for “London Calling”
I like the honesty and the commitment of this statement.
Of course Elvis had his own fleet of planes!
Sun Studio, Union Avenue, Memphis
Sam Phillip’s Sun Studio is the place where Elvis made his first music. Songs like “Mystery Train”. It’s in an area called the Edge, which lies adjacent to Downtown. Sam Phillips was a blues man first and foremost and he wasn’t convinced by Elvis at first; but he saw the light. The studio closed down in the early 60s and lay dormant until the 1980s when it was reopened for tours and recording. U2 were one band who recorded there – so the Edge was recording in the Edge! They left a set of drums which are still on display.
The Fab Four at Sun Studio: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash.
Enjoyed that, thanks. It must have been amazing being a teenager when he started out.
Springsteen explains it very well in his autobiography.
Yes, phenomenal. I guess our equivalent was punk. But that was only reacting against things getting stale, exciting as it was to us. It wasn’t really that different to to the Beatles and Stones in the 60s. Elvis on the other hand was something completely new. Drawing from the blues and jazz and country of earlier times but presenting it in an unprecedented and feral way. As you say it would have been amazing at the time.
Yep, like DC, I liked that piece a lot.
I’m currently rather rooted in reading non-fiction, but I should make an exception for Bethan Roberts’ novel. Thanks also for the tip on the Ellen/Hepworth podcast, which sounds right up my street. (Talking of books, Ellen’s ROCK STARS STOLE MY LIFE is said to be superb, with a prose style described by the New Statesman as “Acid Wodehouse”.)
Back to Elvis, who is someone I’ve always admired distantly, but never really embraced. But you’re right – a trip to Graceland, and of course Sun Studios, would certainly help to resolve that. I’m sure that when you’re there, and you can palpably feel the influence of the south, and the sheer hold that the music has on you in those cities, he must feel like a true innovator and hero.
Loved that last picture of him with Lewis, Perkins and Cash.
Thanks Jon. Yes, it was an inspiring and memorable trip. I found myself listening to classic American sounds when I was over there: Elvis, Bruce, country music, blues and, after the trip to the National Civil Rights Museum, Stevie Wonder. The Word podcast is highly recommended – you’d enjoy the recent interview with Pete Paphides. And the ones they’ve been doing during lockdown, where they seem to be talking about anything that comes into their heads, are very entertaining.