The Jungle Room
It was 30 years ago this month when I entered the darkest period of my life. I had been carrying a monkey on my back for a long time. I had a wolf by the ears and was afraid to let go. No need to go into the gory details, let’s just say politely I was out of balance. A time finally came when I dispatched the monkey and let go of the wolf. That is when things got wickedly bad.
There are many ways for life to go off track. Sometimes we do it to ourselves. Sometimes it is the random spinning of the Great Wheel. Don’t know if you’ve ever been in one of these places in your life. I hope not, but if you have you know what it feels like. You are in free fall in a dark elevator shaft and you’re not sure when you will hit bottom. You just keep falling and falling. After more than a few bad decisions, I ended up in a faraway town with a faraway feel. Surrounded by strangers, some kindly, some not, I was the most alone I’d ever been. On a whim I drove to Graceland.
Now you can make fun of Elvis all you want. Sure, he was a hillbilly, but he was our hillbilly. He was also a King when that meant something. Now everybody is a King of this or a Queen of that with all those selfies and social media puffery antics. You city slickers can snicker all you want, but you aren’t worthy to polish his black go-go boots. You who doubt his greatness need to only view him sing American Trilogy. Southern gospel, rural opera, and American history all combined in one sweeping tour de force. John Lennon said it all, “Before Elvis there was nothing”. He was the original Big Bang.
Graceland is the second most visited house in the US. Only the White House draws more tourists. I have been to both and let me tell you this, that thing in Washington can’t hold a candle to the dignified and noble Colonial Revival estate in Memphis. Elvis, always the Mommy’s boy, bought Graceland in 1957 so she could live it up among the red velvet splendor that white trash adored at that time. Yep, I said it. The whole family was white trash and I have a right to say so because a good streak of my own DNA contains those chromosomes. That is what is so redemptive about the whole Elvis saga. Born in a “shotgun shack”, he rose to the highest levels. With a check bouncing father and an alcoholic mother his birth was so low it might as well have been in a manger. He became the brightest comet in the darkest sky until he was struck by the cruelest blow. Until Gladys, the adored mother and object of his deepest worship, died. That was it for Elvis. The 30 year descent into Hell began and only ended when he fell off that toilet at Graceland. Kinda ironic that sometimes they call a toilet a “throne”. Elvis died on his throne.
So, there I was at Graceland in a small guided tour. They wouldn’t let us go upstairs to see his bedroom. His bedroom was considered among true believers as the Ark of the Covenant, too sacred a crucible for the eyes of the common man. I tried to hang back from the tour and slip up the stairs, but a security guard stopped me at the first landing. I told him I needed to use the bathroom and he said, “Good try”. Now let me tell you something. I have been to the Forbidden City in Beijing and it was far easier to slip into the Emperor’s bedroom there than the one in Graceland where Elvis rested his noble brow.
All kinds of people make the journey to Graceland. It is an American duty to perform the pilgrimage at least once in your life. Stuff yourself to the gills at the “all you can eat” buffet down the road. Walk in a single file through Graceland. Hit the gift shop and pick up a shot glass that says “Love Me Tender” to take back to your buddy at work. Then the long drive home with the kids asleep in the backseat as you try to collect your thoughts at the many wonders you have seen. It is almost too much to absorb.
Most of Graceland bored the crap out of me. It was fun to watch my fellow countrymen. Sometimes you could see them struggle to maintain their composure only to finally break down in hysterical sobbing at the sight of something like the stove where Big E’s meals were prepared. People would gather around the grief-stricken supplicant, pat them on the back and say, “We understand Dearie”. Others would whisper to themselves, “Bless her heart”. I must admit it even got to me after a while. The air grew stuffy with grief and I needed some fresh air but there was none to be had. I tried taking slow cleansing breaths and that helped bring me some small measure of emotional control. Just when I thought I was doing OK a rumor spread through the crowd like wildfire. The next stop would be The Jungle Room. We all knew about the Jungle Room and in fact some refused to cross the threshold into the alternate reality of that sacred space. It was simply too much for them and they were quickly ushered out a side door with minimal fanfare.
At some performances Elvis would declare “I am the Tiger Man, I come from the jungle”. In our bones we knew what he meant. Elvis personified giant conflicting undercurrents in the nation’s psyche. Coming to terms with race had something to do with it. The shadow of suppressed white European culture had something to do with it. Unbridled sexual expression had something to do with it. With those bedroom eyes, that pulsating rhythm, and those hips of joy it is a wonder they didn’t toss him in jail and throw away the key. Later on, after the tiger was tamed he was embraced and became part of the status quo, but in those early years, he was a danger to all citizens far and wide. Elvis was a cultural terrorist from the jungle. No wonder the Jungle Room had to be built. It was the Tiger’s lair.
As we stepped into the room I heard several of my group gasp. It was the same involuntary sound I would hear coming out of tourists decades later as they stepped into the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. The room was smaller than I had imagined. On one wall was an artificial water fall that obviously had a history of leaking as there were water stains at the base. Oversized furniture was present in abundance. Dark wood with a thousand coats of shiny lacquer brought hints of the Tiger’s fashion sense. Green shag carpeting covered the floor and parts of the ceiling. The room was a sight to behold but the true significance of the room was in what we knew had happened there. Very few were ever allowed into this inner sanctum to be with Elvis. Here he would find comfort in the company of only blood relatives and his closest confidants, the infamous Memphis Mafia. The Jungle Room was his shelter from the storm. It was where his final recordings were made. The guide told us solemnly in a reverent whisper that this is the very spot, where Lisa Marie, his only spawn, received the news that “Daddy is gone.” O the Jungle Room. The place of joy, redemption, protection and grief. If only the walls could speak what tales would we hear? It made me stop and think. Maybe we all need a Jungle Room to shield us from the steel rain of life. Our time in the room was brief but every last drop of emotion was wrenched out of our group in a final crescendo of remebrance, grief and loss. When we were finally pushed out into the blinding bright sun to see his grave there were almost no tears left to shed as we read on the gravestone, “God saw that he needed some rest and called him home to be with Him.”
I emerged from Graceland with a new perspective on my self-made problems and a plan. I had trapped myself in a cage of bad decisions and confusion. The only way out was through my own Jungle Room. That night I put together a “go bag” and hid it in the closet in the house I shared with those strangers in that strange land. Several weeks later the dam broke and I grabbed that bag, sprinted to my car and drove 300 miles back to myself, freedom, and my own life. Back home to a place of solace and comfort where grief and joy could be shared with those who truly knew me. Back to my own Jungle Room. I have never forgotten the lesson I learned at Graceland. Whether it is disease, divorce, addiction, general bad craziness, or any of the other potential horrors of life I hope you have a place to go and regroup. Life can be treacherous at times. We all need a Jungle Room. Here’s hoping you have found yours.