By Steve Beard
It was an oddly surreal experience to be walking down one of the gold-record adorned hallways of Graceland and spotting Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy and his then girlfriend Ashlee Simpson in front of me checking out Elvis’ sequined jumpsuits. Wentz was in Memphis for a gig and swung through the King’s old haunt before the show. With the exception of a few giddy and gawking female fans, the two pop stars were able to make their way through the mansion unfettered.
In many ways, Memphis is to music what Kitty Hawk is to aviation. It’s the cradle of rhythm ’n’ blues and rock ’n’ roll—the distillery of black and white musical moonshine. Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins revolutionized American culture in the scrappy Sun Records studio. Across town, Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, and Booker T. and the MG’s found their groove at Stax/Volt records. On the legendary Beale Street, B.B. King still holds court occasionally at his restaurant, while Isaac Hayes fronts his nightclub a few blocks away.
The city is also the site of two of the most profound tragedies in our nation’s pop culture—the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony outside of Room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel in 1968 and death of the King of rock ’n’ roll at Graceland nine years later. The National Civil Rights Museum was created next to the Lorraine in order to pay respect to one King, while the gates of Graceland are opened to honor the other.
Elvis’ mansion is strangely magnetic. It’s kitschy, fairly modest by Cribs-standards, and slightly mystical. I was particularly intrigued by Wentz’s presence because of his own struggle with severe depression and seclusion—the very demons that wrestled with Elvis. A few years ago, Wentz swallowed a handful of Ativan anxiety pills in what he called “hypermedicating” to deal with his darkness.
The Graceland tour is a $25-per-person reminder that fame and fortune doesn’t equate to happiness. Sometimes clichés are true: Money can’t buy love. The wrought-iron gates around Graceland kept the crazies from knocking down the front door, but it also sequestered Elvis into a loathsome existence with cannibals devouring his cash, a manager who ruthlessly pimped out his talent, and sycophants who doped him up.
Raised in poverty and southern Pentecostalism, Presley was a country boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, who shook his hips and shot through our tightly-wound cultural atmosphere like a meteor. Fame brought him misery and the pills warped his personality. He struggled and prayed and tried to fight the darkness by singing gospel songs around the piano. Elvis was no saint, but he was not terribly different from you or me. He just did it with more swagger.
As I smiled at the funky furnishings of the Jungle Room, my blood ran cold when I realized that Elvis died right upstairs. Surrounded by the redneck grandeur of Graceland, I was curious how Wentz was processing the experience. I recalled his starkly honest admission regarding his struggles with fame and hopelessness in a Risen magazine interview two years ago.
“I traversed two ends of the spectrum where I wouldn’t care at all if I was alive or dead and I didn’t care about anything. On the other hand I was scared to leave the house,” Wentz said. “I was nervous and thought that everything was going to kill me. I would have the longest conversations with guys from the bands who were Christian. It was a very desperate feeling of wanting to believe. I found myself wanting to believe so badly that it almost hurt. It keeps me awake at night. At the same time I felt overly pragmatic. I want someone to give me the map of heaven before I sign on. It’s weird for me….I don’t know where I am with belief, but I want that and it’s really important for me to have that in my life.”
Elvis sang the same tune. He became obsessed with figuring out his place in the scheme of things, his purpose for life. During his first meeting with hairdresser Larry Geller prepping for a movie role, Elvis said, “Larry, let me ask you something….What are you into?” Geller responded, “Obviously, I do hair, but what I am really more interested in than anything else is trying to discover things like where we come from, why we are here, and where we are going.”
This was the key to unlocking Elvis’s attention. “Whoa, whoa, man. Larry, I don’t believe it. I mean, what you’re talking about is what I secretly think about all the time,” said Presley. “I’ve always known that there had to be purpose for my life. I’ve always felt an unseen hand behind me, guiding my life. I mean, there has to be a purpose.”
Geller was asking the kind of transcendent questions that Elvis was not getting with the Memphis Mafia—his team of security and advance people. Elvis experienced the shallowness of stardom but was a prisoner to his own success. “All I want is to know the truth, to know and experience God,” Elvis told Geller. “I’m a searcher, that’s what I’m all about.”
These are the kinds of quests that spark our interest at Thunderstruck. We put a premium value on creativity, spirituality, artistry, and redemption. In the midst of the big questions, we have always striven to dig in a deeper well. We have never been shy about our questions regarding faith, hate, loneliness, fame, love, and what lurks on the other side of life.
Perhaps that’s why on the day after visiting Graceland, I slipped into a pew at the Full Gospel Tabernacle to hear the Reverend Al Green—the indescribable soul singer who sold more than 35 million albums. After 31 years, the modest congregation has become very familiar with the novelty factor of having a musical icon behind the pulpit. Nevertheless, they are here to have church, not impress the looky-loos (none of Green’s Greatest Hits collections are sold in the lobby).
“If you feel like shouting, go ahead,” Rev. Al says among the hanky waving and amening. “If God’s been good to you, somebody needs to tell him thank you. He can make a way where there is no way!”
Rev. Al has been sick all week and his doctor warned about not “sweating and carrying on.” Fat chance, Doc. Bedecked in his preaching robe and bling, Rev. Al talks about recently seeing Terrence Howard’s film Hustle and Flow. “How many pimps do we have in here?” he asks with a gleaming smile. “Anybody who works for a pimp?” He knows the answer, but wouldn’t be surprised to see a hand lifted up. In talking about his own shortcomings and redemption, he says, “God looked beyond my fault and saw my need.”
Not a bad message—especially in the shadow of Graceland.
Steve Beard is the creator and editor of Thunderstruck Media.