February 14, 2016

A tale of two pilgimages: From Elvis' house to Jack's

Recently got back from a weekend in Nashville full of cool stuff, starting out the night I arrived by wandering through the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood Art Crawl in order to see Th3 Anomaly, a hallway-spanning, floor-to-ceiling, wall-covering, sci-fi graphic novel featuring Nikola Tesla, Jules Verne, and Sarah Bernhardt (who knew Sarah was a science geek?). Very compelling, entertaining stuff, the scope of which was incredible both in size and the amount of imagination and effort required to create it.

The next day was spent visiting a pair of old cemeteries in Franklin, hiking through Stones River, one of the few preserved Civil War battlefields in the Nashville area, and hopping off of route 840 to find the road leading to a castle overlooking the highway.  But the first of the dual purposes of this trip began on Monday, with a smooth three-hour cruise along route 40 from Nashville to Memphis to visit Graceland.

As they say on the website, "For fans of Elvis Presley, Graceland is the ultimate pilgrimage", and I'm a big fan of both Elvis and pilgrimages. And, seeing as how it's
 been just over two years since I plunged purposefully down the Elvis rabbit hole, the timing of this visit also made it a late anniversary celebration.

Coming down route 51, I had expected to turn off the highway onto a side street or two to get to the house, but there it was, right smack on the side of the four-lane road. Should've realized, considering 51's been christened Elvis Presley Boulevard but, no, it was a disorienting surprise.  It might have been a smaller neighborhood road back in the day, but not anymore, not with all the traffic and gas stations and fried chicken joints and the Graceland visitor's complex across the street. So I girded myself for a schlock attack and headed in to buy my ticket for the Platinum level "Elvis Experience", plus airplanes.  

You apparently can't walk up to Graceland anymore, unless you go early in the morning when the grounds are open for free walk-ins to the meditation garden where Elvis and his parent are buried. At any other time, you have to grab an iPad and headphones and hop a shuttle for a ride across 51 and up the long driveway to the front door.

My favorite photo from one of the visitor center exhibits, snagged from here

The thing most people seem taken aback by right away is how small Graceland is. It's probably half the size of today's average McMansion, and even cozier considering the number of people who inhabited it and just plain hung out there when E was still alive. 

Borrowed from here. Follow the link and click on the image there to be taken to the
360-view images used in the Graceland iPad tour.
Only the ground floor and a couple of basement rooms are open to the public. Visitors are told before entering that the upstairs area, and Elvis' bedroom specifically, are kept private and closed. His bedroom and the bathroom in which he died have apparently been completely untouched since his death (though, of course, someone scrounged up before-death and after-death photos for the morbidly curious amongst us). The closest you can get is the bottom of the stairs.

Borrowed from here, where there are a lot more great shots

But his parents' ground-floor bedroom is viewable, complete with a few of his mother Gladys' dresses hanging in her closet. What was it about those modest dresses hanging there that brought tears to my eyes?
From here
And I began sniffling again when the tour got to the kitchen and I imagined his grandmother, Minnie Mae (or, as Elvis called her, "Dodger"), holding court and cooking for the family.
Another shot from here
The basement, with its mirrored-ceiling tv room and tucked-fabric walls and ceiling pool room, is where things began to get noticeably ostentatious.
From here. That creepy-eyed little white monkey had brothers on display elsewhere in the house. 
From here
And then, of course, you come back upstairs next to the jungle room. Doesn't everyone have a jungle room with a built-in waterfall wall?

From here
Then you're suddenly stepping out the back door, following the walk-way to the carport and E's father Vernon's office, then to the trophy building, which is a series of rooms displaying gold and platinum records, movie posters and memorabilia, and awards for everything from music to philanthropy. Then into the racquetball house, which has been filled with displays of those famous/infamous jumpsuits.  And then you're back outside and the walkway wraps around to the side of the house to Elvis' meditation garden. One of the things that I was most surprised to learn about Elvis was the breadth of his spirituality. I'd assumed he was raised deeply Christian, being from the deep south and all. He was, of course, but he apparently explored a vast variety of faiths, reading everything from Kahlil Gibran to very New Age-y sounding stuff.  The meditation garden was built during his lifetime for exactly the purpose its name indicates, and it's perfectly fitting that it would become Elvis' final resting place, along with his parents and grandmother.

From here.
And, yeah, I felt no shame in pulling a Kleenex out of my pocket and wiping my eyes repeatedly while I stood there reading the inscriptions on their graves.

From here
Then it's back onto the shuttle bus and back across Elvis Presley Boulevard to the visitor's complex, where there are a variety of exhibits of his cars, his clothes, his two private planes, and where every single exhibit space dumps you out into another gift shop. Hell, at one point, one gift shop led into another.  The gift shops are totally schlocky, but some of the exhibits are great. And it's all part of the Elvis mythos, all of it, the schlock and the grandeur, the tv sets in every room and the gaudy jumpsuits and the love he felt for his parents and grandmother and whatever his conception of God was. How many people in the history of this world have inspired the kind of joy and rapture that Elvis has? Certainly not many in recent decades. So many people seem to know of his legend as something cheesy, but what he accomplished, not just for himself but for popular music as we know it, was extremely powerful.  The tour of Graceland is definitely a must for anyone even slightly curious about Elvis, but it does not tell the whole story. It tells a lot about the man and the myth, but you need to go elsewhere to really learn about the music.  If the folks running Graceland were smart, they'd add another exhibit space focusing on that aspect of the man's deep and more-complex-than-you'd-expect legacy.

Back in Nashville the next day, I had my second pilgrimage, and a second anniversary celebration. Anyone who's followed my babbling knows I've been to Third Man Records in Nashville many, many times. But on this occasion, just a few days beyond the sixth anniversary of my original White weekend, I was allowed the opportunity to step "behind the curtain", as it were. Third Man has begun offering behind-the-scenes tours as an incentive for things like their annual holiday blood drives. Well, a pal of mine gave of his blood for the second year in a row and was rewarded with pulling a certificate for a tour for 6 people from TMR's pile of mystery gifts. And then he surprised the hell out of a few people, myself included, by inviting us to join him. And then... he got horribly sick and wasn't able to come for the tour himself.  But Third Man honcho Ben Blackwell graciously gave the rest of us well over two hours of his time and has promised a make-up tour for our incredibly generous friend once he recuperates.

Surprise! I have no grand revelations to reveal. Most serious fans know what's contained behind those black, yellow, red, and blue walls, beyond the store-front: Foremost is the Blue Room, a 150-or-so-person live venue for music performances, film showings, and art events; facilities for recording shows in the Blue Room to both tape and acetate; a warehouse/distribution center for the in-house and on-line stores; a photography dark room; the offices from which the entire company is run; and, last but not least, a temperature-controlled, fire-, smoke-, and bomb-proof vault for the master tapes of all of Jack White's music and Third Man recordings.

So for me, the revelation was not so much in seeing what was contained back there, but in how it's all contained, how it all fits within that really not very large complex, how the two buildings are connected (one tall hallway leading from front to back between the two, a second hallway crossing through the first from one building to the other with windows on each side looking out into the larger hallway), how the various design elements flow from one space into the next (matching desks on the loading dock-turned-office space, very graphic wall decor in the graphics dept, gorgeous over-stuffed sofas in the shipping dept...).  I had always imagined trick walls and subterranean chambers, but there were none (at least none that we were shown). There was just a shrewd use of every nook and cranny of space, an eye-boggling mix of seemingly jumbled clutter and and neat, sleek design. And incredible furniture. My eyes kept being drawn to the vintage furniture and light fixtures in every. single. room. Except the graphics department, but they had nifty wall installations instead. But it was everywhere else. The place is a vintage decor lover's wet dream. From Deco to Retro to Diner, it had me salivating. 

However, the fact that there was nothing really unexpected does not mean that there were no thrills.  The first was walking into the lathe room tucked behind the stage of the Blue Room.  That room is definitely no secret, TMR highlighted it in their video of the recording of the World's Fastest Record-- 

(Had to kick myself afterward that I forgot to ask for a peek inside the furnace elevator to see that incredible wallpaper. In an elevator, for crying out loud!) 

And you can see the lathe machine itself through a large glass window at the side of the stage.  But to walk into that room, to stand in it and have Blackwell describe exactly what they do there-- capturing live music as it happens, no second takes, no overdubs... I'll admit to bouncing a bit in excitement as we entered.  Because listening to live records cut there really is the next best thing to being at the show. You can watch YouTube video footage of all sorts of concerts, professionally or amateurly filmed, but as close as that seems, it's still two-dimensional.  The acoustics of the Third Man Blue Room are so crisply pristine and the recordings so immediate, that you can close your eyes while listening and really, truly get a feel for what it was like to be there.  It's a room in which technology and magic come together. 

The next big thrill came when Ben led us into the master tape vault (after leaving us waiting momentarily in the Blue Room while he unlocked the door  with its state-of-the-art keypad lock).  You can see this room in Dan Rather's interview with Jack, at 24 minutes in--


Let me say it again: The master tape vault. To actually be in that tiny room, to scan the jampacked shelves and read the names of much-loved records and performances on the spines of the boxes, to know that these were the original tapes from which all of every fan's records were created and could be re-created if necessary, all housed in Jack's "house" under his control... it was the mother lode, pure and simple, and my eyes were probably as big as dinner plates the whole time I was in there. And that's what meant so much to me about this tour-- It wasn't that any secrets might be revealed, it was the thrill of proximity, of being close to the literal sources of the music. Where Graceland focused on the man behind the music, this tour of Third Man focused on the music and how it's created and made available to us all.

Throughout the tour, it was nifty peeking into people's offices and meeting members of the staff. But, really, the biggest treat of all was hearing the stories told by Ben. Those are what made the tour 
unique and special.  In hindsight, there are so many things I would've liked to ask about if I'd remembered while I was there, but we could have ended up there all day, and having him answer questions might've meant he wouldn't have talked about other things (like the story behind the exceedingly rare White Stripes/Virgin Airlines poster on his office wall, which I found especially funny seeing as how my antiquated cell phone is a Virgin phone). And like every other Third Man experience I've had, the people I was fortunate to share it with added a camaraderie that warmed up that very cold day, especially after the tour was through and we huddled around the TMR Record Booth to record an appropriate tune for our missing benefactor.

But of course, tucked into a corner of the sitting area in the midst of the main building, between the store-front and the Blue Room, was one door that we were not allowed behind-- the door to Jack's office. Ben didn't even point it out to us as he ushered us past it on the way to his own office, or when we came back out and stood chatting for a bit longer before the tour came to an end
.  But it was there, with "JOHN A. WHITE III, D.D.S., FAMILY DENTISTRY" emblazoned on dark glass. I can't help but think of it now as being like Elvis' bedroom, kept private and inviolate from the prying public.  

Though, thanks to J.D. Wilkes of the Dirt Daubers, I'll always envision Jack's mysterious room as looking something like this---

Full image borrowed from here.