After his death, Oxford American re-upped an interview with Tom Petty from 2000. Did you ever wonder what got him into music? Wonder no more: It was Elvis. He tells interviewer Holly George-Warren about a childhood encounter with the King at a movie location near his home in Florida.
I remember a long line of white Cadillacs that came in, and getting out were guys in mohair suits—really very flashy lookin’ cats in sunglasses. Every time one would get out, I’d say to my aunt, “Is that Elvis?’’ and she’d say, “No.’’ Then all of the sudden, she went, “That’s Elvis.’’ And it really was a semireligious experience. I mean, he glowed to me. I’d never seen anyone’s hair dyed so black that it was blue—it shone blue in the front. He looked amazing. My uncle was there, and he says, “Elvis, these are my nieces and nephews.’’ He said hi, and then he went in his trailer. And we stayed and watched them film throughout the day. I remember at one point a crowd was handing records over the fence for him to sign and then hand them back. And I was like, “Damn, if I had an Elvis record, I could get an autograph.’’ So when we went home, I was a changed person. I set about finding Elvis records, so I could get Elvis’s autograph in case I went back. That was how I fell in love with rock ’n’ roll records—and that was my only interest ever since.
My wife Elizabeth and I went to Graceland for the first time twenty-five years ago, right after we married, and as the van took us back down the hill to the parking lot, the driver asked his load of tourists if we had enjoyed our tour. One lady, a true pilgrim who had been sitting silently by herself, responded softly and immediately, “It was vury movin’.” I looked at my wife and rolled my eyes.
I’m ashamed now of that response, because during the last few years I have rediscovered Elvis. Come home to the King, really. I always liked the early stuff, watched the first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show when I was a kid and the ’68 Comeback Special as an adolescent, but now…well…now things are different.
It began when research for Elizabeth’s most recent novel took her to Tennessee and some awful Cold War–era experiments on pregnant women at Vanderbilt. She needed the experiments, but not Nashville, and she’d been through Memphis a lot as a kid. She grew up in Indiana and when her family went to Little Rock, where her grandmother lived, they always went through Memphis. So, being a fiction writer, she just moved the experiments from Nashville to Memphis.
Fifties. Memphis. Elvis was unavoidable. Soon we found ourselves doing fieldwork in places like the annual Big E Festival in Cornelia, Georgia, with its T-shirts and tribute-artist contest (don’t call them impersonators). Then, almost before we realized what was happening, we’d visited the home place in Tupelo, begun buying CDs, watched bad movie after bad movie, put nothing but Elvis on our iPod, read and re-read the biographies. But mostly we went to Memphis—a dozen times or so we went to Memphis. Sometimes we took our daughters; sometimes Elizabeth went alone; more often we went together—to Graceland, to the house on Audubon Drive, to Sun Studio, to Dixie Locke’s house, to the band shell at Overton Park. One weekend we stayed in the Presley family’s old apartment in the Lauderdale Courts. But following Elvis around town means going everywhere—to the city’s blues clubs and barbecue joints (not the ones on the now gussied Beale Street, the real ones), record stores, the lobby of the Peabody Hotel, and Lansky’s for shirts. Everywhere there is the residue of the past—a past still hoping for a future that hasn’t arrived. Neon lights that seem to speak from the Fifties—Prince Mongo’s Planet, Walker Radiator Works, and a glowing shirt (with bowtie) waving you into Happy Day Cleaners. Flaking painted signs on brick walls, palimpsests from another age hawking beers and tobacco products no longer available. A beauty shop that’s become a restaurant called Beauty Shop, its décor all Naugahyde and glass bricks. Sometimes, it seems, the whole city is done up in retro, right down to the Lorraine Motel—its balcony so familiar, its hopes undone.
Tad Pierson showed us a lot of this. He gives custom tours in his 1955 pink Cadillac, what he calls “anthro-tourism.” He introduced us to Jimmy Denson, who grew up with Elvis in Lauderdale and whose brother, Jesse Lee, taught Elvis how to play guitar. Most of our friends think we’ve gone round the bend and are absolutely mondo, though one of them, the fiction writer Robert Olen Butler, gave us a beautiful portrait of Elvis made of candy wrappers and a certified piece of Elvis’s hair.
I assure you there is very little irony in all this, and Bob’s gifts are true sacraments, given and received as such. Yet I must admit I remain uncertain about this brave new world in which I find myself, and there are lines I still won’t cross. I don’t have an Elvis tattoo on my shoulder, for instance (though Elizabeth does). I believe Elvis is dead and isn’t Jesus. He left the building and won’t come back. And, as much as I love his music, even the rhinestone ballads of the seventies, I see the skid of his last five years—the long, druggy depression after Priscilla left—as impossible to defend. Finally, however, I’m surprised at how I willingly I’ve given myself over to the King.