16 August 2016

Elvis Magic

‘Have you come a long way?’

To Randers, Denmark. That question always stretches my continued claim not to be an Elvis fan.

‘From England?’

Yes. From England, but I’ve been staying in Malmö, in Sweden, and hired a car to get here over the bridge. The Bridge. That bridge. I don’t like driving over bridges, and the added menace of Scandi-noir, and the eye-watering toll do nothing for the sense of dread.

And it’s still a long way.

‘Have you come for Elvis?’

The large man in the rock ‘n’ roll leopard print t-shirt seems a little shocked.

Elvis died 39 years ago today. The carnival of grotesquery and magic that has attached itself to his death since in an unquantifiable vectoring is global. Randers is the municipal town of East Jutland. Driving in past prefab showrooms, distribution sheds, burger joints, I wonder at the mutual gifting and regifting between Europe and North America of highway culture. My map gives up working offline on the edge of town, but it doesn’t matter: “Graceland” is signposted to the right, and then to the left, off wide, gridded roads. Around the back of a furniture warehouse, on a patch of greenfield, approached along “Graceland Randers Vej”, then left into a neat car park where Elvis music floats across a beautiful lawn. There are picnic benches outside a scale reproduction of the shotgun house in Tupelo, Mississippi, where Elvis was born. A double swing on the porch. Sitting on it later, at the end of the visit, a smiling woman approaches and points up to the oriel window above a life-size bronze statue of a lone and lonely looking Elvis, guitar swung behind his back, “Elvis is watching you” she says, and I vaguely make out the familiar bequiffed silhouette up there. He watches as you walk past him to enter Graceland, Randers, through its main door. It fronts onto the road: that same industrial spine road into Randers from the motorway.

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Do what you enjoy, said the doctor. And so it’s a week of sleeping and of the architectures of seawater bathing and the pursuit of Elvis magic. Forces of nature. It’s been a cold August in Scandinavia, but the sun comes out for Elvis’s death day, and there’s an impromptu stop at Hans Christian Andersen’s house in Odense too, and I’m reminded of all those stories of disappointment and retribution, of not wanting too much from life that those of us in the European tradition grow up on. At first, one must endure so much hardship… Rags to riches, and maybe the riches don’t bring happiness after all. Something central to a fairytale life. The uneasiness that quietly permeates the warm familiarity of childhood. Hans Christian Andersen’s mother was born, and died in poverty. Gladys Love Presley was born into it, and briefly elevated from it by Elvis, before she died of hepatitis. Andersen’s mother died of the delirium tremens, it says on an information board in the house.

Elvis is my childhood too. I was born the day after he and Gladys were reinterred at Graceland, from their mausoleum at the Forest Hill Cemetery, but it was my dad’s childhood to adulthood Elvis admiration that I inherited. He wasn’t born in rags, but he was uprooted and a little abandonment can go a long way. I was surprised and unsurprised to find in his last notebook the outline of a story or play about that Elvis melancholia, the sort of sketch I might have written myself.

I’m told that the Swedes were the first to invent the outdoor heritage attraction (Skansen) of rebuilt vernacular architectures, in the late 19th century. The Americans imported that concept. But Graceland is neo-classical, of course, signifier of wealth and power. Graceland, Randers is twice the size of Graceland, Memphis. It’s still not as big as you think it might be. Back in Malmo, I read that a Black Lives Matters group will attempt to shut down the Elvis Week death vigil at the “real” Graceland as a protest at how publicly supported tourist ventures, such as the new guest house at Graceland, don’t trickle down into the largely black neighbourhood. The strangeness of how Elvis’s rags to riches is still an unhappy place.

Henrik Knudsen – the Danish Elvis fan and entrepreneurial visionary behind Graceland, Randers – is unofficial. He’s licensed to sell the various Elvis-wares in the giftshop, but uses the term “unofficial” in much of his marketing. Henrik Knudsen turns out to be the man in the leopard-print t-shirt. The museum displays letters from various Elvis orbitals – his band, friends, even Priscilla – gifting and verifying and endorsing, or just thanking him for various hospitalities. He’s collected and dealt in Elvis paraphernalia. There’re the China dogs from the real Graceland, and a photograph showing where they were and I note the ceramic tiger that I saw at the 02 exhibition last year. There’re ashtrays from the hotel where Elvis and Priscilla were stealthily married in ’67. Elvis’s personal suntan oil (Hawaiian Tropical, factor 4). But one suspects, most of the money comes from the attached diner, clearly a popular place to eat in the locale. I have a milkshake and recall the Elvis deathday a few years back where my assembled guests went home feeling sick from all the sugar from my Elvis feast. The same foods are on the menu here. I realise I’m leaning on a display of scissors and cut ribbons, I assume from assorted exhibition openings. One says “Suzi Quattro”.

But Graceland, Randers isn’t a replica of Graceland inside. It’s a conference centre. I guess it’s got to recoup its construction costs somehow. And you can get married here, surrounded by memorabilia and film posters.

Or you can just drive the length and breadth of Denmark in the pursuit of the inexplicable fairytale melancholia of storytelling and Elvis magic.

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