The Strange Tale of Graceland Too
Among the King’s acolytes, it’s hard to seem crazier than the average Presleyhead. But Paul MacLeod went plumb overboard.
Elvis is everywhere. Mojo Nixon was right about that, at least on Beale Street.
Memphis’s slightly shabby entertainment district is the place where the Blues came off the Mississippi Delta to be launched into the world. It was too hot this sticky August afternoon to be wandering around in double-knit polyester and bedazzling capes, but you can always spot a true believer. Seated next to me in the tap room of the King’s Palace Café was a man with a jet-black pompadour and those unmistakable sideburns. He said that his name was Jesse, like Elvis’ stillborn twin, so who can tell?
Every year they arrive around the second week of August — Dead Elvis Week, as it’s known to the locals — like colorful, if freakish azaleas that walk and talk all things King. Twice a year they flood Memphis in full regalia like a Mardi Gras parade without a route or much of a point. Some of the pretenders are pure enough to make you believe in ghosts. Others take on a more holistic “We are all Elvis” approach, such as El Vez, the Elvis with a Latin flavor. There are African-American Elvi, Arab Elvi, and fleets of them from Japan. Many don’t speak a word of English save for the memorized songs. Then there was Tortelvis — who claimed to be the illegitimate son of Elvis (there is a lot of that) and fronted a band doing reggae covers of Led Zeppelin. The effect of seeing a jumpsuited Tortelvis flanked by wailing Rastafarians and a 112-pound bassist wearing nothing but gold lamé briefs and crash helmet was, among other sensations, nightmarish.
I asked Jesse about one Paul MacLeod. He knew who I was talking about, and had heard that the old boy had shot an intruder to his home — a worn shrine called Graceland Too in Holly Springs, Miss. MacLeod was held for questioning, but never really suspected of anything other than defending himself. Two days later, the question of guilt was moot — MacLeod was found dead of natural causes, slumped over on the porch of his trashy monument to the King.
“That guy,” Jesse said into his beer. “That guy went overboard.”
This coming from a grown man who goes about life with the hairstyle of a 1970s pop icon and makes what can only be called a religious pilgrimage to Memphis once a year. But all things are relative, and in the end Jesse had a point. The people I saw milling about Memphis were the respectable true believers: nice, God-fearing Elvi who probably had long-suffering wives, embarrassed children and mortgages somewhere out in the real world.
But the real world was too much for Graceland Too’s Paul MacLeod — or perhaps not enough.
To get to the heart of the Elvis phenomenon, it’s tempting to head to Graceland for the annual candlelight vigil, or to Presley’s two-room birthplace, a shack turned museum, in Tupelo. But those places miss the point of what the King’s strange cult has become over the last half-century. Those slick corporate monuments give us insight into the man — and the product — Elvis Aaron Presley. Somewhere between Hollywood and Las Vegas, the myth eclipsed the person. To really sink your teeth into that American legend, you have to leave the main corridor and trek out into that mass of freaks, crazies and unmoored souls who make up the king of rock and roll’s countless subjects.
I MET PAUL MACLEOD about two years ago on a random day in the middle of the week with no significance whatsoever to the Elvis Holy Calendar. Finding the place was a trick, as the citizens of Holly Springs seemed collectively to ignore the place.
“A shrine to Elvis? Graceland Too? What are you looking for again?”
If you can get within a city block, though, there is no missing the traditional, sagging foursquare with a two-story portico over the front door. A hand-lettered sign wedged into the ironwork of the door read NO DRINKING, and a collection of half-empty beer bottles sat among the coils of heavy-duty extension cords massed along the concrete porch to light the rows of ice blue and evergreen Christmas lights that lined the front of the house.
The place had no stated hours, so I just knocked on the door until the massive, discombobulated bulk that was Paul MacLeod came to the door. It was cold, I remember, because the last thing I saw as I stepped into the darkness of the unheated foyer was my breath. The deep, scraping voice of Elvis’s No. 1 fan never stopped talking about memorabilia I couldn’t quite see. Then he was telling me how much money he was making when his face suddenly appeared — well-lit and glistening with sweat despite the cold. He was screwing a light bulb into the socket.
“I gotta keep the lights off, I can barely pay the ’lectric bill as it is.”
Now that I could see the collection, he went on to tell me that its worth is about $200 million.
“Why don’t you sell part of the collection?” I asked. “It might pay the light bill … and the heat.”
He shoved a thick finger in my face. “D’ats exactly what they want me to do,” he said.
Did he lock the front door?
The staircase was blocked with footlockers and clear plastic boxes, the walls covered with photos and a cardboard cutout of Elvis in a gold lamé tuxedo that bears the written testimonial of a wandered Ole Miss student, “More Impressive Than the Vatican.” MacLeod pointed it out twice, beaming, before pulling me deeper into the shrine, unscrewing the light bulb and taking it with him.
His “collection” was not really a curated exhibition but something more like what the ancient Egyptians used to do for their fallen Pharaohs. There are thousands of items — from LPs and movies to candy boxes and photographs — on the floor, on the walls and tacked to the ceiling. A good chunk of the compendium isn’t on display at all, but in footlockers and darkened display cases. Graceland Too isn’t a curated assortment of rare Elvis artifacts, or even famous ones; it attempts to house all of it.
The numbers spilled forth without pause, the value of 45s, Coke bottles, movie posters in the millions. He showed off photographs of the cash people allegedly had left on his door, 30 to 50 thousand dollars at a time. In all the pictures is a broom. “I’m really sweepin’ it in.” In light of the shooting that happened on his doorstep earlier this summer, it appears that at least one local grafter took MacLeod’s questionable accounting seriously.
If not completely honest, the man was at least committed. Breaking eye contact, even to study the collection, got me a swat on the shoulder to bring my focus back. “It was October 17th, 1954. My birthday,” growled MacLeod hoarsely. “I saw Elvis playing with Lash LaRue. A woman in the audience died at the show.” After that he was hooked, and saw Elvis live 119 more times.
MacLeod claimed that his obsession has cost him “four-paid for homes, 35 beautiful mint-condition cars and a wife.” His son, Elvis Aaron Presley MacLeod, would come around and help Dad with the collection.
“So was it worth it?” I asked.
MacLeod slapped my arm again and motioned to a movie poster for “Forrest Gump.”
“That kid who played little Forrest lives around the corner [he doesn’t] and he’s a lifetime member here. ‘Forrest Gump’ mentioned Elvis. Eight presidents and the Secret Service are members here. When Obama went to Oxford — you know, the college? — he came by. He gave me that.” He pointed to a wonky tabletop Christmas tree that had been spray-painted black — badly. “A black Christmas tree from the first black president.”
“REALLY?” I heard myself saying as my inner monologuist shouted, Don’t antagonize it!
MacLeod unscrewed the light bulb and we headed into another darkened room. “So what,” I ask, “does Elvis Presley Enterprises think about this?” He showed me what appeared to be a document on EPE letterhead proclaiming Paul MacLeod to be Elvis’s No. 1 fan. That was the first thing the man said that I actually believed.
WHAT IS BEHIND AN OBSESSION LIKE THAT? What is it about Elvis that neither America nor the world can shake?
Sam Phillips, Elvis’ first producer at Sun Records in Memphis, was not in the avant garde; he certainly wasn’t in business to revolutionize music. The King couldn’t have started a new genre of music if he had wanted to — he only knew three chords.
Elvis never set out to redefine anything. All he did, by virtue of being himself, was bring traditionally black music to a larger white population in a racially segregated nation. And it wasn’t a smooth ride. The White Citizens Councils were terrified that his primitive music would send their daughters running naked down the streets into the arms of gyrating Negroes. The churches and even the heads of television networks deemed Elvis the Pelvis too much for viewing audiences. By today’s collapsed standards, it all seems so quaint now.
Then, at the height of his fad, he was drafted by Uncle Sam and sent to Germany. In today’s entertainment market, that would have been the end of Elvismania. Elvis would have come out of the Army, become an electrician, and told his grandchildren unbelievable stories about youthful fame.
Which very well might have been his fate but for his manager, a Hungarian immigrant who called himself Colonel Tom Parker. He got Elvis into the movies: heaps of them, most not very good. Elvis’ acting gets a bad rap, and even the most die-hard Elvis fan will agree that Hollywood didn’t really play to his strengths. True enough, but watch “Love Me Tender” or “Kid Creole”: They are good, simple stories and the acting isn’t too terrible. In 1961, with the huge success of “Blue Hawaii,” Hollywood decided that Elvis was an entertainer, not an actor. After that, his roles didn’t require acting. Elvis just slipped into the same role he slipped into every time he walked out the front door: devil-may-care bachelor with a good heart and a colorful profession. These films were less good.
Some movies were lavish spectacles in the grandest tradition of musical Hollywood; others had production schedules of only two or three weeks, and probably didn’t take much longer to write. By his own reckoning, Elvis made the same movie 31 times — and that was enough. By the end of the ’60s, he’d returned to what he loved, performing before an audience in high style.
TALKING ABOUT HOLLYWOOD was where MacLeod drifted from delusional tall tales into a schizophrenic episode. When he launched into a naughty story about he and Ann-Margret, I heard myself barking, “You had a fling with The Vamp?” He stared at me for an uncomfortably long time while I calculated how many darkened rooms I’d have to negotiate to see daylight again. “No, Elvis did. Sinatra even walked in on us!”
Paul MacLeod had blown his pronouns.
So why the obsession with an outlandish poor boy from Tupelo who was manipulated by business partners but was so honest with the rest of the world? Was it Vegas and the jumpsuits and the over-the-top showmanship of his Fat E years? Was it his ability to look sideways at the weirdness of the hippie and flower power movements and beat them at their own game? That actually may be part of it.
Carnivals, the Mardi Gras, and the Junkanoo are all great escapes because they are great excesses to counterpoint the drabness of daily life. The reason you don’t feel foolish at the world’s great carnivals is that everyone else is dressed like a fool or festooned in beads and paint as well. That’s where Elvis was different from the rest of us; he was a one-man, self-propelled, weapons-grade carnival. He didn’t need a movement behind him. Whether he was on stage, on the movie set, in the White House, or riding a motorcycle down Memphis streets fairly nude with Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis was both the humble origins and wild excess of carnival. Everyone who got sucked into his vortex knew it. The mass media of the new age knew it, too.
When the former prime minister of Japan, Junichiro Koizumi, visited the White House in 2006, his one cultural request was to be taken to Graceland by President Bush. Koizumi, a self-described “Elvis Fanatic,” is a member in good standing of the Elvis Fan Club of Japan, reportedly the most outrageous Elvis fan club in Asia. And there is a fan club in every country free enough to indulge that sort of thing. By all reports, the former prime minister of Japan does a good Elvis impersonation. The proprietor of Graceland Too, I’m sad to report, did not. Imagine if a bull elk in full rut decided to sing “Heartbreak Hotel.”
What his weird outlier of a monument did get right was the simple, explosive array of stuff crammed, wedged and violently shoehorned into one huge display. Paul MacLeod had hit a nerve that my bar mate Jesse simply couldn’t. And now he and Elvis can compare notes in that vast dance hall in the clouds.
What about the rest of us? For those of us nearer the center of the Elvis bell curve, the effect is more subtle, but it’s there. We don’t dress up daily, but the white polyester is still one of the most popular Halloween costumes every year. His songs are played on commercials and at baseball games. Elvis clocks, the ones with the swinging hips, have replaced the lava lamp as the badge of kitschy décor.
It is not enough to be a character, and a lot of modern performers don’t get that. Elvis embodied the wild excess of a man born desperately poor in a small place, but who makes it big, really big. He’s certainly not the only one, but name another cultural icon you’d be comfortable serving fried chicken to if they showed up unannounced. The larger than life Elvis was just being himself, only bigger. Elvis was a stage act, but it was an authentic presentation. That’s why we love it and can’t seem to get him, so many years after his death, out of our heads.
At some point in the half-century since Elvis exploded on the scene, he went from rock star to cultural icon and then skidded into idiom, simply sewn into American culture to the point where we are almost unaware of it.
To most of us, saddled as we are with mortgages and careers and families, Elvis is proof that we just might, should the situation demand it, go over the top.