ELVIS PRESLEY, his eyes closed, his dark hair brushed back off his forehead, wearing a white suit, a light blue shirt and a white tie, lay in a coffin opened from the top of his head to the middle of his chest as tens of thousands of men, women and children jostled in the summer heat for a chance to get in.
This was Aug. 17, 1977. Presley had been found unconscious the day before in the bathroom of Graceland, his home in Memphis, on the eve of a concert tour he had been in no physical shape to undertake. Now, dead at 42, he lay in repose in the foyer. To protect the red carpeting from the bottoms of the shoes of the thousands of strangers who would be filing past, someone had spread white sheets over the floor.
For those of us who were present at Graceland that day to report the story, it seemed barely conceivable that Presley’s father, Vernon, had made this decision: to open the property’s white gates, decorated with green metal guitars and musical notes, and summon all those who could push their way in to stand and stare at his son. It was an invitation to chaos. Presley, who during his lifetime had endlessly been referred to as an idol, was turned into a literal one. People gasped and cried, spoke aloud to themselves and prayed as they looked down at his body.
In Los Angeles today, at the Staples Center, the public memorial service for Michael Jackson is scheduled to be held. Whatever may or may not transpire, there is precedent for such an outpouring, and the precedent was established that day in Memphis.
In the years before Presley’s death, the grounds of Graceland had been off limits to virtually everyone except his family and trusted buddies. So to see it for the first time was something of a surprise. Graceland was situated on a congested commercial street, not a pastoral, country-manor setting; among its neighbors were a Mr. Tax income-tax-preparation storefront and a Tuffy Muffler and Brake Shop.
In the decades that would follow, the house at 3764 Elvis Presley Boulevard would become one of America’s most visited tourist attractions. But as Presley lay in the foyer, few had seen the grounds beyond the gates.
Perhaps elaborate marketing plans were already being formulated, even before Presley was buried; perhaps that was what opening Graceland to the public that August day was all about. Col. Tom Parker, Presley’s longtime manager, famously said to some business associates, in the hours after his client died: “This changes nothing.”
As cynical as the words may have sounded at the time, they were prescient. Presley, in death, became an enormous earner, a new kind of profit center. Joe Jackson, Michael Jackson’s father, within three days of his son’s death told an interviewer: “Right now, he’s bigger than ever.” Some lessons stick.
At Graceland that day, the people who had fainted on Elvis Presley Boulevard as they waited to get in were the recipients of a bonus: they did, indeed, secure priority entry; they were carried through the gates by paramedics and were laid carefully on Presley’s lawn. As the crowd swelled by the minute, threatening to overwhelm the police, the faint flicker of a realization began to occur: the next phase of a career was, in fact, being born.
There were, of course, many distinctions between Elvis Presley, who seemed to find his only security inside the walls of the home where he lived and died, and Michael Jackson, who was, at the end, an itinerant, long gone from the Neverland compound the world associated with him. But there remains between them a connective thread, that unsettling feeling of tragedy as career propellant. The men may have been dead; the frenzy had new life.
In Memphis that day, a baby-blue golf cart, driven by a Graceland staff member, zipped around the periphery of the line of mourners. On the back of the cart, half torn off, was a sticker that read: “I’m Just Crazy About Elvis Presley.” On the side was painted one word, “Lisa,” in honor of Presley’s daughter, the future wife of Michael Jackson.
Seven steps into the foyer, there was Presley, at peace, or some semblance of it. The sounds of sobbing filled the little room as each fresh wave of fans caught sight of him. He seemed defenseless: not in the traditional sense, for no one could hurt him now, but defenseless against all that was to come.
Bob Greene is the author of “Late Edition: A Love Story.”