What good is life if you can't be obsessed with something? Obsession and unrequiting are the truest forms of love and devotion because you know never to expect anything in return. It may be the closest thing to real, untempered altruism that exists in the world. Most of us won't ever know what it's like to be truly and deeply obsessed. Obsessed to the point of neglecting everything else. Obsessed when one thing is in your thoughts for your every waking moment; your first thought upon waking and your last before falling asleep. Obsession can be beautiful. It can be ugly and overpowering. It can drive a wedge between you and everyone you care about. It can elevate you beyond just your own life. No one has ever been great without also being obsessive. But, man, it's a thin line. Meet Paul MacLeod.
The universe's, the galaxy's, the planet's, the world's greatest Elvis fan.
I first heard about Paul from my friend Aubrey, who'd discovered his home, Graceland Too (not affiliated with Graceland Industries [which he is forced to say, by law, everytime he says the name "Graceland"]), while on a trip to Mississippi. When I told her I was going to Memphis, she insisted that I drive 30 minutes further south to Holly Springs, Mississippi, so I could meet Paul for myself. A self-confessed Elvis maniac since the age of 10, Paul has spent the better part of fifty years making himself, his son (Elvis Aaron Presley MacLeod), and his home into the world's grandest tribute to the King. His obsession is overwhelming; it is his entire life. All of it. Every ounce of his energy is tied up in his devotion.
Paul operates his home as a museum, albeit a ramshackle museum that operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. All you have to do, any time day or night, is ring the doorbell, and for $5 a person Paul will invite you in and give you a personal tour of Graceland Too. No appointments are necessary and he claims to have entertained over 100,000 visitors over the past decade alone.
I drove to Holly Springs and had a greasy breakfast at the town's Huddle House, which is an even greasier version of Waffle House, which as anyone who's been to the South can tell you is possibly the greasiest place on earth. I asked the waitress if she could point me in the direction of Paul's house and she had no idea what I was talking about. Then I said, "You know, the Elvis house " Her eyes lit up and she said, "Ooooh, that crazy white man!" I pulled up in front of Graceland Too at 11am and rang the bell.
Holly Springs prides itself on one thing: it's antebellum homes. Holly Springs is a very button down Southern town where everyone says sir and ma'am and nothing of note has happened since the Civil War. And to be honest, not very many people like Paul or his home. In fact, despite the fact that he's listed in every local tourist directory, he's the town pariah. Whereas every other house on the street is classically tasteful (though not by a long shot understated), Paul's is unmistakably gaudy, just like his hero's house in Memphis. The house has been decorated and built up to look like a scale-model version of the real Graceland. There's a fake Roman portico and plaster lions and the house is surrounded by dozens of plastic Christmas trees, all lovingly painted neon blue. A broken down limo sits in the driveway.
I rang the bell and waited. I rang again. After a minute, I heard shuffling behind the door. A tall man with greasy white hair in complete disarray answered and stared at me from behind the screen door. He was in his mid 60s and fat in the way you think of an iceberg or a mountain. He had no teeth. He coughed for maybe a minute, dislodging something deep in his lungs, and asked me if I wouldn't mind waiting on the porch while he got himself organized. I sat down and ten minutes later Paul reemerged wearing a shirt and pants, his hair slicked back, and a set of ill-fitting dentures held tentatively in his mouth. He invited me in and shook my hand grandiosely. Big bear hands. He spoke to me awkwardly while trying to keep his teeth from slipping out. Paul asked me how I'd heard of Graceland Too and asked me to fill out a questionnaire. Then he started in on his shtick. It was like a tape switching on. I wondered how often he'd repeated the same speech. He was the consummate showmanhalf carnival barker, half game show host. It was awesome.
He told me, "Young feller, you shoulda been here about four hours ago, I tell you. There were naked girls sitting on the lions out front and midgets were serving them drinks. Oh you shoulda seen it."
Then the tour began. You couldn't walk into most rooms in the house because every available square foot of floor and wall space was packed full of Elvis memorabilia. Photos, records, promotional products, anything Elvis was stacked and hung everywhere. The house was filled to overflowing. I couldn't tell yet if Paul was insane or not. Actually, I still don't know.
One of Paul's blue Christmas trees was hung with cutout Elvis ornaments. Get it? "Blue Christmas." Get it? Paul loves puns about Elvis songs.
In the first room we entered I wasn't sure if there was some system he used to keep track of everything. It all seemed pretty haphazard. Maybe he knew the location of every item simply by routine. But he didn't just know the location of everything he owned; he knew the origin, the relevance to Elvis, and perhaps most importantly the alleged worth of everything.
Paul had dozens, hundreds, of 45s and LPs tacked to the walls. What space was left over was filled in with photos, news clippings, and assorted unclassifiable Elvis tchochkes. He began long tangential histories about everything he owned. Paul can talk. It is maybe his truest talent. He can talk through loose dentures and through a hacking cough. He can elbow you in the ribs and wink at you while sucking down a bottle of Coke (of which he drinks a case daily, he showed me the empties). He refers to women as "hot cunts," and black people as "colored folks," and yet you can't hate him for it. You're simply bowled over by the magnitude of his devotion to a man dead for 30 years.
In truth, Graceland Too is not simply a tribute to Elvis. It is a tribute to Paul's obsessionit is a tribute to tribute. It is a place where someone untouched by fame (and arguably talent) can place himself on a dais with someone who was afflicted by fame. For every fifty or 100 photos of Elvis, there are one or two photos of Paul and his son or newspaper articles about Graceland Too. Paul has managed, in whatever small way, to write himself into the myth of Elvis. Paul showed me: records, guitars, leather jackets, photo after photo, movie posters (imagine: a man who could sing so well that he was allowed to be a terrible actor. What kind of precedent did that set?), magazine clippings, dolls, clothes. Things that were obvious Elvis memorabilia and also things that were so distantly linked as to warrant convoluted explanation.
I got to see Paul's Elvis outfits, immaculately pressed and ready to be worn should a TV crew arrive. Of which, Paul told me, there had been literally hundreds. He estimated, conservatively, that he'd appeared on every news program in the world, as well as in every newspaper and magazine. There came a point during the day when I began to suspect he was lying. Here: he says to me that he gets sometimes 75 visitors a day, yet we were completely alone for 3 hours. He says to me that he is recognized by books of world records and the legitimate media, yet for some reason until a few days previous I'd never heard of him. He tells me that President Bush came down from Washington DC to offer him $10 million for a single first pressing of the earliest known Elvis recordingfor the National Archivesand how he, Paul, had refused. How Priscilla herself had come to Graceland Too and cried, literal tears of joy and awe (!), at the spectacle of what Paul had gathered around him and created and how, out of gratitude, had given him one of Elvis's limousines. How celebrities from Hollywood, California, come regularly to visit him. How his friend offered him 10 big screen TV's because Elvis liked to watch multiple TV's simultaneously. What was I to think?
Above is a photo of Paul in the 1970s.
In the next room, what would have been the house's dining room, there was more. There was always more. Paul showed me the bottles of Elvis wine he was saving. He told me they were worth $10,000 a bottle. He forgot to remove the price tags.
I'll be honest with you: I didn't care if he was lying to me. It didn't matter. I was there for the fiction. I wanted a part of the myth just like all the people who stood outside of the real Graceland and cried, quietly humming Heartbreak Hotel. I wanted Paul's version. It was better.
Paul told me about his son, Elvis Aaron Presley MacLeod, and how as a toddler he'd been the spitting image of his namesake. Did I think that was a coincidence or had God preordained it? Paul had posed his son in the same kind of farm clothes that Elvis wore in a baby picture. The resemblance was pretty spot on, but the camera had also been poorly focused. Priscilla herself had cried when Paul first showed her the photo. Paul claimed that he and his son were regularly asked to appear on Elvis-themed TV shows. I asked him where his son was just then, and he told me that Elvis Aaron was "in New York City taking care of business." He said that a lot. Then Paul told me about the women. First his wife. It was a fact, reported in the National Enquirer, that Paul had paid his ex-wife a $1,000,000 divorce settlement after she'd given him the ultimatum of Elvis or her. Paul claimed that his belief in the afterlife stemmed mainly from his desire to come back and haunt the fucking shit out of her when he died. Then the other women. The ones who wouldn't leave Elvis Aaron alone. The ones who showed up half-drunk in the middle of the night and rode his plaster lions. He took out a pair of souvenir underwear, folded lovingly inside a Ziploc bag.
On them, handwritten in glitter paint: Eat you heart out.
They were the biggest pair of women's underwear I'd ever laid eyes on.
The photo above is of the world's youngest Elvis impersonator. Paul told me how the baby had never before raised his arms in Elvis's trademark triumphal gesture, but when he was placed in the leather jacket the ghost of the King himself came down from Heaven and inhabited the infant for just a moment. The photo to the right? Oh that's just how Paul rakes in the cash. No big deal.
At some point Paul began to detail the devotion he inspired in other Elvis fans. This now was devotion twice removed. The devotion has itself become an object of devotion. Above is a map of the U.S. made of photos of Paul and various Elvis-related themes. The little boy hovering over East Texas? That's Elian Gonzales. Remember him? Paul told me about how "that little Mexican boy from Cuba washed up in Florida and he was touched by the spirit of Elvis himself." Then Paul began hauling out stack upon stack of photos of police officers from around the world who'd come to visit. For some reason Graceland Too was immensely popular with vacationing law enforcement types. He claimed that entire sheriff's departments had given him their badges, uniforms, and guns as a sign of respect. I saw the photos of many, many men with mustaches and flattops.
Just above, perched on a globe, are cutouts of Paul's head on Elvis's body and Elvis Aaron Presley MacLeod dressed as baby Elvis. I had a hard time deciding what impressed me more: the actual Elvis memorabilia or the imperfect Elvis devotionals that Paul had patched together. There were, in addition to the photos and magazines and records, odd shrines in each room we entered. I can't now remember how Paul explained the juxtapositions but they all seemed to make sense to him.
The photo of Bruce Lee is meant to commemorate Elvis's love of Kung Fu. The stuffed tiger represents Elvis's Kung Fu name: Tiger. I have no idea how the eagle and the fish tank fit in there.
Then something happened: Paul showed me his room full of big screen TV's. They were all there, lining the perimeter of the curtained room. In the center was a velvet couch draped with blankets. I guessed that Paul slept there.
But the TV's were there, just as he'd told me. I wondered if Paul hadn't been telling tall tales at all. He showed me the televisions with pride. Each was attached to a VCR that continuously recorded in hopes of catching a reference to Elvis. Paul showed me his footlockers.
Inside each one were a hundred videotapes. He handed me a binder and told me to open it up and read aloud a televised reference to Elvis. All I could think was that episode of the Simpsons when Homer was a country music manager for Lurleen Lumpkin and he bought a suit that was made out of a space age fiber, created just for Elvis, that is actually cleaned by sweat. And, are you kidding me, I opened the binder to that page. I looked at Paul and gave him that "come the fuck on, man" look. Crazy or not, ill-fitting dentures or not, Paul had won me over. Elvis or not, I was a fan of Paul simply for the all-consumingness of his devotion.
Empty packs of Reese's peanutbutter cups were strewn about because Elvis loved Reese's peanutbutter cup.
This is Paul's massive sound system. It cranks out Elvis day and night, relentlessly. He turns it down when he has visitors. Then Paul took me to the backyard. He told me that he was most proud of his efforts to transform his yard into the scenery from Jailhouse Rock.
There were snarls of barbed wire. Wood planking painted gunmetal gray. Dead Christmas trees and tipped over plastic snowmen.
Paul said, "And there's the limo Priscilla gave me."
And there it was.
Paul had even built a model of an electric chair. He has mannequin prisoners waiting to be put to death. The jumper cables scared me. I thought the backyard looked less like Jailhouse Rock and more like a concentration camp run by gay Nazis.
There were a few flags hung on the back porch. The United Nations of Elvis Fans, Paul informed me.
By this point, I'd been there for three hours and was getting hungry. No, that's not true. I'd eaten a huge omelet at Huddle House; I could have stayed longer. I should have pestered Paul to let me stick around all day shooting photos. I don't know. Maybe I was getting hungry. Maybe I have low blood sugar. For some reason I was ready to leave. I was getting antsy. Paul told me that the tour would conclude after one more room. He was going to show me all the photos he'd taken of all the people who'd come to visit him. We ducked behind a curtain and walked down a long dimly lit hallway. The floors were uneven and Paul asked that I excuse the mess since he was in the process of remodeling and expanding the museum. It was 95 degrees in Holly Springs that day, but the hallway was cool and moist. I felt weird.
I'd been alone with this stranger for a few hours and he'd been at me relentlessly, hounding me to help him bring his collection to the world. Maybe I'd been too honest with him when I told him that I lived in California and worked for a magazine. He jumped on it, telling me that whatever we could sell on eBay or shop around to a movie studio he would split with me 50/50. I didn't know what to say. I kept putting him off by telling him I'd see what I could do, that I'd call some agents I knew. He'd talked so much up until then that I got anxious in the hallway when he grew quiet. I didn't think he was dangerous-crazy, but I will admit that for just the briefest second I looked around for a blunt object should he try to kill me and lock me in some sort of closet. Turns out I'm just a pussy. Paul isn't dangerous-crazy. Not even close. He was simply a combination of unhealthy and out of breath as well as duly reverent in the hallway in the presence of his evidence. There they were: the photos of the 100,000 visitors he'd given the same tour I was taking.
He even took out a scrapbook that contained photos of celebrities. And there they were. "That young feller from the Batman movies," meaning the various photos of Chris O'Donnell. "That other one who's married to Demi Moore, from that Mtv show, Kutch Ashter? His uncle lives near here, he's a martial arts guy loves Elvis. Steven Segal? You heard of him?" Photos to prove it.
Right up there, on the wall. Can you see what that is? I don't know how I feel about this, but here it is: the flowers from Elvis's grave. 30 year-old flowers, stolen, secreted away from the grave of his idol. Paul sells them occasionally on eBay. Paul also sells notarized scraps of carpet from Graceland's jungle room. How he came by them is equally a mystery. After that the tour ended. Paul asked me if I'd send him a California flag. I promised him I would (I haven't yet, but I will). He asked me to fill out another questionnaire. And just as I was leaving a couple came to the door hoping to take the tour. I walked back out into the Southern heat and Paul hit rewind on his mental tape and began the tour anew. I walked to my shitty rental car and heard the beginning all over, verbatim.
So, here's what I think: You define yourself by what you love, what you invest with emotion and devotion. You set yourself up in opposition to everything else. You give life to things that otherwise might have been lost and forgotten. Who cares what anyone else thinks? Find a reason to live and do everything you can to keep that reason alive. Fuck everything else. Ex-wives? Who wouldn't gladly pay $1,000,000 to get rid of someone that didn't understand their obsession?
But you know, it's also sad. In order to really give something everything you've gotlike Paulyou've got to let go of everything that's not that thing. Paul kept talking about his son and what a great time they had together, but I got the feeling Elvis Aaron hadn't been around in a long while. Paul's obsession might be what will elevate him, in the end, beyond being just a fat man who loves Elvis, but it's also the thing that's driven an insurmountable wedge between him and everything that had at one time mattered to him. He may inspire awe and disbelief in people who visit him, but theywedon't have to live his life. We may see him for an hour or two and listen to his tired monologue and drive away to tell our friends about Graceland Too, but we're not there in the middle of the night during a coughing fit. He sleeps sporadically on a lumpy couch, he watches a dozen TV's at once, he himself has become a museum exhibit so that we don't have to be. He's utterly alone except for Elvis. I hope it was worthwhile.
Here are some photos from the rest of my trip:
I think this is the funniest/saddest poster I've ever seen. Memphis is very depressed and poor all around Graceland. I wouldn't want to go to a check cashing place there at night. Someone named The Handsome One is offering a million dollar reward to catch the killer of someone named Killah C. They're not big on irony down there.
This is the motel where I stayed in Oxford, Mississippi. I went to visit William Faulkner's house, Rowan Oak.
I have this thing where I go out of my way to visit landmarks and museums and never call ahead of time or consult the interweb for the hours of operation. Rowan Oak was closed the day I went. So I climbed a small fence and broke in. I was not about to come so far and just go home. Have you guys ever read As I Lay Dying? Have you ever had your heart broken completely by grief? I figured getting a trespassing ticket would be justifiable.
On my last day back in Memphis I went to Sun Studios. It's a bit touristy, but the tour guide was a fairly amicable rockabilly cat and asked me out of nowhere if I knew how to play guitar. I told him I did , and in front of a group of tourists we played "Walk the Line." He had me stand where Johnny Cash stood when he recorded it. My heart was in my throat. Then everyone took turns posing with the microphone that Elvis used to record "It's All Right."
Then I flew home and cue requisite cloud photos:
Here's why I love clouds seen from above: they appear to have a density and texture, as if they wouldn't just evaporate if you tried to grab hold of them. They are infinitely soft. They look warm and nurturing, even though we know they are not. When we look down on them, we look down on the things we usually have to look up to see. We feel buoyed and less temporary than we otherwise would. We are so lucky.
There's a film being made about Paul. www.gracelandtoothemovie.com
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