Graceland was once the byword for a garish display of stardom and wealth. A palatial residence — with all the mock-Edwardian, mock-Corinthian and moneyed-gentrified accoutrements that you might expect from a man who came into fabulous wealth after being born and raised in poverty.

By the standards of today's mansions, it doesn't even seem all that big. You'll see bigger — and more garish — houses on Auckland's Paritai Drive. But Graceland offers something no other flash pad on Earth can match: a window into the mindset of the first man to really take the stage in the full glare of pop culture's limelight. It's not that no one had been in the limelight before Elvis came along, it's more like there simply wasn't really that much of a limelight into which to thrust them.

Elvis flicked the switch. His fame started it all — long before Kanye was showing fans inside his "crib" on MTV, there was Graceland.

It was 60 years ago in March that the King bought his palace — putting up a US$1000 deposit on the spot against a full sale price of US$102,500 (a sniff under US$900,000 in today's money). In August, it'll be 40 years since he died. In the two decades he lived at Graceland (the physical address of which is the not entirely unassuming 3764 Elvis Presley Boulevard), the building and its grounds took on some of the character — and the madness — of the man and his life.


Here — looking through the window into Elvis' heart — the detritus of his life remains in dust-free splendour as pieces of the Presley domestic life mix with his celebrity. A giant, slightly scary teddy bear sits alongside a guitar on a sofa in the shagpile-carpeted Jungle Room. There are guns and goblets; microwaves and jewel-encrusted belts. There's a grand piano near the front door and ghoulish monkey-faced ornaments dotted around the house.

Photos from the great man's childhood and others from that of his own child, Lisa-Marie, sit near Elvis' house keys. All parents spoil their kids, but Lisa-Marie remains the only kid in history to get a Convair 880 twin-engined jet plane named after them.

The TV room has three screens — three TVs! In the 70s! — after Elvis learned that President Lyndon Johnson had three sets to keep up with all the major networks.

In a shed out the back, there's a scene that's more evocative of Matarangi than Memphis: a busted outboard motor hanging on a wall near the stables.

His suits! My god, the suits! The suit Elvis wore on his wedding day today stands behind glass alongside Priscilla's wedding dress; the dark suit with a subtle inlaid pattern far more beautiful than the plain white dress.

And everywhere is Elvis' face. Always beautiful. Always pouting, even when he smiled. A giant portrait of himself, wearing white and standing about 3m tall in the clouds hangs on one wall. He commissioned that one himself. As you do.

Visitors don't get to go upstairs — Elvis' bedroom is up there and the bathroom in which he died. The unseen upper floor is just as it was when he lived there, all maintained as taonga by Graceland staff. There's a bottle of his cologne in the bathroom (a Brut man to the end) and staff assure us that Lisa-Marie goes straight upstairs whenever she visits.

From a life so pored over, it's nice that the man's bedroom remains unexamined.

But the items on display in Graceland are merely the tip of the Elvis iceberg. Across the road, on the other side of Elvis Presley Boulevard, a vast complex, called Elvis Presley's Memphis, opened in March, showcasing his creative output, career and influence on other stars. Before this year's expansion, less than one-third of the collection's memorabilia were on display. The white, studded Vegas jumpsuit is there along with a fleet of cars.

Whereas Graceland itself is focused on his personal life, the focus here is on his career — though his personal excess is never far from sight; this is where they parked the Lisa-Marie jetliner.

Two strips of worn masking tape form an X, marking the spot on the floor at Sun Studio where Elvis Presley started on the path that would see him become the King of Rock 'n' Roll.

It's the sweet spot of the studio - the mark where the lead vocals could best shine
Sun Studio founder Sam Phillips was recording blues in the Memphis area. From time to time, local white kids would step up, singing something bluesy, but closer to country.

At first, 18-year-old Presley didn't impress. "Good ballad singer," noted Mario Keisker of the future King's demo.

Studio boss Phillips hated ballads but Presley kept returning and kept singing ballads.

With Phillips outside taking a break from recording another demo, Presley and the band messed around with a song called That's Alright. Phillips returned and asked: "What are you doing?" Presley replied: "Just messing around." Phillips: "Well keep messing around!"

Today the studio where Presley nailed That's Alright is still a working space where artists record. There's an office out the front and the production booth at the rear. When tours are finished for the day, musicians roll in. The original light fixtures still hang from the ceiling which eases in wavy forms as dusty, dirtied sound panels deck all the surfaces, sucking the messiness out of the room's sound.

The air has the cold, dead-calm of a cushioned sound box. When we chatter inside the room that launched rock 'n' roll there's a warmth and depth in the tone of our voices.

Photos of performers at work in the studio hang along the walls. One, taken at the site back in 1956, shows the "Million Dollar Quartet" — Presley sitting at a piano with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. A dozen or so guitars stand ready to use in that night's recording session and the drum kit left behind by Larry Mullins of U2 fame after they recorded four tunes for Rattle and Hum is still used by the house crew.

It was here that Cash got the weird percussion sound on Walk The Line by tucking a $1 note under the guitar frets. Drummers weren't allowed to perform on Nashville's Grand Old Opry radio show, so the Man in Black fashioned his own beat.

But mainly this is where thousands of people come to see where Elvis stood on the X and made his mark.

Finishing our tour of Graceland, walking from the racquetball court (the King loved the sport that's a weird hybrid between squash and handball), we noticed a group milling around some sculptures and shrubs.

"Might as well check it out as we wander through," I muttered.

And that's where we found Elvis Presley. Well, sort of — that's where we stood at his grave.

I had no idea Elvis was buried at Graceland, but there he was, at rest in a Meditation Garden, alongside the graves of his parents and grandparents, a memorial gravestone for his stillborn twin brother and a statue of Christ. The poor boy made rich, spending eternity with the family he loved.