"If you're an Elvis fan, no explanation is necessary; If you're not an Elvis fan, no explanation is possible."

(George Klein)





"Green Carpet Ceilings: The Textile Art of Elvis Presley"

by Mark Campbell

‘Human life is aesthetic for Freud in so far as it is all about intense bodily sensations and baroque imaginings, inherently significatory and symbolic, inseparable from figure and fantasy. The aesthetic is what we live by; but for Freud this is at least as much catastrophe as triumph.’ [‘The Name of the Father: Sigmund Freud,’ in Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, (London: Blackwell, 1990), p. 262.]

‘I love the fake, as long as it looks real I’ll go for it.’ [Liberace, as quoted in Karal Ann Marling, Graceland: Going Home with Elvis, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 197.]

Evidently, Joni Mabe, a regionally celebrated sculptor from Athens, Georgia, owns one of Elvis Presley’s toenail clippings. This revered artefact was discovered by Mabe during a tour of Graceland – Presley’s Southern–Antebellum style mansion in Memphis, Tennessee – buried amongst the long synthetic fibres of the shag–pile carpet engulfing the mansion’s private den – better known as the ‘Jungle Room.’

This clipping, now displayed amongst the Elvis whisky decanters, collectors’ plates, costumes, lamps, clocks, watches, bedspreads, pillows, ashtrays, bedroom slippers, towels, knives, cologne, worn shoestrings, and generous vials of the King’s sweat, forms the mythic centrepiece of Mabe’s tribute installation sculpture. Variously known as The Elvis Room, or Joni Mabe’s Travelling Panoramic Encyclopedia of Everything Elvis, this mobile ‘cabinet of curiosities,’ veering precariously between a self–described ‘high–brow level of Art’ and an indescribable level of trailer–home collectivism, began when the artist stumbled across this objet d’art and started to make an informal collection of her own ‘Elvis–objects’ in celebration of it.

As Mabe has written of this fortuitous discovery: ‘This was the first time that I had gone through the house and I wanted to touch where Elvis had touched. I was touchin’ the walls. I was in the Jungle Room and the rest of the tour went on outside. I just bent down and wanted to touch where he had walked and not where everybody else had walked. I just felt something in one of the fibres of the green shag carpet and picked it out and it was this toenail clipping.’ (1.) Mabe’s initial sense of astonishment had been tempered by doubts concerning the clippings authenticity and – accordingly – it is now labelled in the Travelling Panoramic Encyclopedia as the ‘Maybe–Elvis Toenail.’

It is evident, however, that nothing of Mabe’s archaeology – whether it is authentic or not – could be described as serendip–itous; in actuality the notion that a disembodied Elvis still resides in Graceland, amidst the fiberous depths of the Jungle Room’s luxuriant shag–pile, is endemic to the architecture of the mansion. Essential to the construction of this notion – and of architecture itself – is the figure of the Carpet. Instead of acting as a simple material that covers architecture, the archetypal function of carpet – as the German architect and critic Gottfried Semper theorised in 1851 – is to define architectural space itself. Asserting the primalcy of a suspended carpet as the origin of walled architecture (as enclosure), he stated virulently: ‘wickerwork is the essence of the wall.’

Such a working of the woven carpet divides space; literally creating architecture, this construction was coincidental with – and entirely dependent upon – the advent of textiles. The inter–weaving of carpet surfaces to enclose space is viewed by Semper as a ‘patterning’ of the world, the creation an ‘interior world.’

As such, the covering of the carpet actively constructs the domestic, and such a comforting interior is the source of a ‘lasting–pleasure’; a comfort brought about through the establishment of order, pattern, and unity in the space of the domestic. This ‘striving towards a lasting pleasure,’ becomes for Semper, ‘as old as the pleasure’ itself.(2.)

A statement that is ambiguously suggestive of the direct correlation between the ‘comfort’ of the carpeted surface and erotic pleasure, a convergence which is less than subtly implied in the ‘bachelor–van’ aestheticism of the shag–piled floor – and ceiling – of Graceland’s Jungle Room. However, the notion of ‘comfort,’ as Siegfried Giedion has written of the continued evolution of the modern interior, has been divorced from its original meaning: ‘the word ‘comfort’ in its Latin origin meant to ‘strengthen,’ however ‘the West,’ following the eighteenth century, ‘identified comfort with ‘convenience.’ Man shall order and control his intimate surroundings so that they may yield him the utmost ease.’ For Giedion it is this deliberate designing for ‘ease’ that ‘would have us fashion our furniture, choose our carpets, contrive our lighting.’ (3.)

Through a concentration on ‘interior comfort,’ as a construction of the domestic (and by implication architecture), architecture is inverted – turned inside out – and form itself is displaced. Within such a contrivance, the interior is perverted through this displacement of form and privileging of a sense of comfort. Lost, it would seem, amidst the confused profusion of interior furnishings and decoration, was ‘man’s instinct for quiet surroundings and for the dignity of space.’ (4.)

What is more, this undignified loss of architectural coherency began with the archetypical element of the carpet. For Nickolaus Pevsner, writing in Pioneers of Modern Design, an exemplar of these transformations was a patent–velvet tapestry – a suspended wall of carpet – that was exhibited in the 1851 World Exposition in London and on whose surface ‘the artificial flowers on the machine–made carpet shine more gaudily than they ever could in nature.’ (5.)

The greater the extent to which the ‘natural sense of the material’ – which the object imitates – is obscured by the object’s artificiality, the greater the illusion of that object’s relation to nature has to be reinforced. The 5" shag–pile of the Jungle Room is unnatural. Furnishing the Jungle Room with a lavish and undeniable opulence, it is a covering – between the architecture of the house and the body of inhabitant – that is utterly useless, obsolete, absurd, and fatally anaesthetised. The luxuriant shag–pile is sublimely artificial – even more so than the faux–Hawaiian furnishings of the room – and is splendidly formless (rather than form–giving).

In actuality, the essential element of the carpet of the Jungle Room – rather than defining space – is that it is de–forming rather than forming. The sensuality of the shag–pile, its tangible fuzziness, collapses the room’s inhabitant into the comfort of the interior, eliding the distinction between the two. To clarify that the carpet is used here – not as a functional material, nor as a symbolic definition of space – but precisely because of it’s obsolescence and elision of the distinction between the house and it’s inhabitant, Elvis covered not only the floor of the jungle room with shag, but the ceiling as well (figure one).

In one early instance, illustrated in a fashion spread taken for a local Memphis newspaper in 1965, the distinction between the very–public image of Elvis Presley, and the closely guarded private interiority of Graceland, melded into one another; beginning a ‘technicoloured’ dissolution that would reach it’s apotheosis in the Jungle Room. For this shoot Elvis was photographed wearing clothes that were costumes from Viva Las Vegas, made with Ann–Margret two years earlier, in Graceland’s recently refurnished living room.

These ‘sharp new clothes,’ and the maturing attitude they mirror, audibly reflect these renovations. However, it is not only the clothes, or his co–star, which have transformed from the fictive world of celluloid into the real world of Elvis: ‘It comes as no surprise, somehow, that an early version of the chandelier in Elvis’s dining room may be glimpsed dangling from the ceiling of the casino in Viva Las Vegas.’ The disjuncture between the fictive and the real was always preciously expressed in Graceland’s architecture, with either one collapsing back onto the other; aware that a celebrated private interior – however–unseen – was a necessary complement to the public persona of celebrity, Elvis paid scrupulous attention to the interiority of his mansion, collapsing the exposure of the exterior perilously into the world of the interior.

The necessity of continued renovation – of incessantly altering the interior in an effort to reinvent the exterior – was manifest in Graceland. Stasis was – literally – death. Accordingly, Elvis was ‘forever fiddling with his house,’ as Alan Fortas (a member of his entourage known as the ‘Memphis Mafia’) has said, ‘Changing things. Elvis liked red and the bright technicolour of the films.’ This reinvention was obsessive and Elvis’s ‘attitude towards [other’s] efforts to modify his house were always edgy … Graceland [itself] was sacrosanct.’ Priscilla Presley, who lived at Graceland for six years before she married Elvis, recognised that he was the one who made the decisions on colour and style, admitting, ‘All I did was to change the drapes from season to season.’

For Elvis this activity was a form of Home–making, a mode of establishing the (fictive) security of social order (figure two). Elvis had always intended that the house would be a home for his unified family, but with the death of his mother, Gladys Presley (in 1958), what had been highly implausible, became physically impossible. The strong identification that Elvis had with Graceland stemmed from this unhealthy association with his mother. ‘Gladys,’ as Priscilla Beaulieu Presley, Elvis’s only wife wrote candidly in her autobiography, ‘was the love of his life. She had died on August 14, 1958, at the age of forty–two, of heart failure … He had expressed how deeply he loved and missed her and how in many ways he dreaded returning to Graceland without her there. It has been his gift to her, a private estate that he’d purchased a year before she died.’

This dread of returning to Graceland, mourning the loss of it’s inhabitant fictions, continues to haunt it’s interiors. These rooms retain a sense of emptiness; inspite of their aesthetic loudness, they are quietened by a funereal absence. This radical emptiness, repressed by the exterior, was initially covered over by the exuberant expansion of these facades. Elvis frequently altered the environment surrounding Graceland, not merely because constant change alleviated his terminal boredom, but because such an activity convinced him that Graceland was an environment – which if not ever–changing – was able to satiate his desires without leaving the property (and eventually the house itself).

In order to accommodate these disparate activities (over the two decades he owned Graceland), Elvis undertook the initial planning for a variety of enclosed structures, all of which – with the exception of the Trophy Room and the Raquetball Court – were scrupulously planned, only to be abandoned for the next project. These alterations variously included; an underground shooting range to replace the old wooden shed where target practice was held (following a neighbour’s complaints of stray high–calibre munitions); a circular movie theatre; an octagonal twin–level recording studio and music centre; a snaking asphalted go–cart track; and a fully–operational helicopter pad and hanger.

The only permanent structure built was the Raquetball court; the prototype for a network of courts Elvis developed in a speculative and financially–disastrous venture with his doctor George Nichopoulis. Needless to say, a series of 70’s era Elvis Presley Raquetball and Health Clubs didn’t eventuate, and the court wasn’t used for many activities independent of its extensive mini–bar and medical cabinet.

Clearly none of these schemes were undertaken with studied consideration and one notable incident illustrates the architectural impatience of a bored Elvis (a shown in figures three – six). Deciding ‘that he didn’t like the looks of an old house located on the grounds in back of the mansion,’ as Priscillia Presley wrote, ‘Elvis took a long look at it, called his father and told him to get a bulldozer over there right away and get rid of it. When the bulldozer arrived, Elvis insisted that he was going to do the local honours, convincing his father – and the local fire and demolition departments – that he could handle the job himself. Wearing his football helmet and his big furry Eskimo coat, Elvis proceeded, his entourage cheering him on, to bring it down and set it on fire.’ Even at the controls of a bulldozer, Elvis needed to maintain an appearance of control.

For the few activities that Graceland couldn’t accommodate, he would drive into Memphis and hire the full–sized equivalent – like the Fairground Amusement park or the Rainbow Skating–Rink, or any of the local movie theatres (insisting the concession stand remain open). However one hobby did briefly outgrow the confines of Graceland. In 1967 Elvis brought a 163 hectare ranch in Mississippi, renaming it the ‘Circle–G’ (inventively after his house), in order to provide space for his interest in horseback riding after ‘the hobby had outgrown the pasture at Graceland.’ However, suffering from the increasing financial strains of sustaining this hobby – and feeling homesick for his mansion (which was twenty minutes drive away) – Elvis sold this property.

Moving the horses back to Graceland, Elvis contented himself with riding the exhaust–fogged ranges – alongside the six–lane Elvis Presley Boulevard (figure seven) – of the front lawn. The provision of an interior content (to the exterior legend) found expression initially during the sixties renovations of the Trophy Room. In the ‘Hall of Gold,’ amongst the film costumes and hundreds of Gold albums – representing the more than 800 million albums he had sold – Elvis was able to closet himself away as another object among the emblems of his immortal career. The effect of the trophy room, as Albert Goldman has noted with due–incredulity, ‘is less that of a trophy case than the display case of a trophy manufacturer.’

Originally the shed had been constructed to allow Elvis and his entourage to race expensive toy slot–cars around a giant track. An indulgence, which like several others, had grown from a Xmas gift into something grander and – like the majority of Elvis’s hobbies – was a distraction from tedium which soon became fatuous itself. The empty shed offered him a large space to house the records, clothes and momentos compiled throughout his career. ‘Elvis never allowed anything to be cast out of Graceland,’ as Albert Goldman acerbicly noted, ‘except for human beings. Once an object, no matter how trivial, came into his possession, it remained with him for the rest of his life.’

It is no coincidence that after their spontaneous wedding and reception in the banquet room of the Las Vegas Hilton, Priscilla and Elvis returned for a second ceremony, including extended family and hangers–on, staged in the Trophy Room. In the midst of his career trophies Elvis proudly presented his new bride, an irony which wasn’t lost on the furious bride herself. An ordered domestic interior was regime and as Priscillia, who eventually resisted the petrification of being turned into an object in Graceland, observed: ‘Elvis Presley created his own world; only in his own environment did he feel secure, comfortable and protected. A genuine camaraderie was created at Graceland.’ However such an environment, despite it’s apparent comfort, is nothing other than the temporary redecoration of an illusion. What requires such a degree of interest in the preservation of this fiction, as Susan Buck–Morss has written, is the individual’s naive belief that they can be created – and perpetually re–created – out of the inventive material of their own imagination. Such a delusion of ‘auto–genesis’ maintains a ‘narcissistic illusion of total control.’ (6.)

Graceland was sacrosanct for Elvis Presley and the external maintenance of an illusion of total control over it’s exterior and interior contents – as illustrated in Priscilla’s lacquered makeup and fantastically unstable Sixties Beehive – was essential (figure eight). However if Graceland is a fiction, one maintained for the waning interest of its Regent, then it was an external and hallucinatory one. As Priscilla recalled nostalgically of her first arrival at the white mansion, as she was chauffeured melodramatically up the driveway in an open–top Cadillac: ‘Graceland was everything that Elvis had said it would be.

The front lawn was adorned with a nativity scene and the white columns of the mansion were ablaze with holiday lights. It was one of the most beautiful sights I’d ever laid eyes on.’ If the beauty of its exterior was virtually unimaginable, then the possibilities of interiors were for the still–virginal Priscilla, intoxicating (figure nine). Graceland was a seductive interior which was not only bereft of the moral instruction of fairytales, but of any tangible content whatsoever. As Siegfried Giedion has written, although not admittedly of Graceland, the agency of the interior decorator is the production of artifice: the work of one who through the ‘embellishment of furniture and artistic hangings, sets up a fairyland to enchant the drabness.’ (7.)

This charming of the mundane is the attempt to cover–over the inevitable return of a domesticated boredom, and it was with the historic emergence of the decorated private room, painstakingly arranged with lavish coverings and plush furnishings, that the ‘devaluation of space’ began. As the room’s decor subsumed the architecture housing it, an un–easy tension was created between the contents of the room and their container. While the opulent coverings of the carpet attempted to cover over this dis–ease, the furniture becomes merely a means to fill the room.

Apparently, the furnishings of the Jungle Room – which seems to express an incoherent faux–Hawaii beach party theme – resulted from an impatient 25 minute redecorating spree at McDonald’s Furniture store in Memphis in 1974, during which Elvis brought the entire shop display and relocated it to the old sun porch in Graceland. There it complemented an existing fake brick waterfall (vaguely reminiscent of the haute–decor living room of Elvis’s wealthy parents in Blue Hawaii), illuminated by an idiosyncratic series of fairy–lights, along with the luxuriant lurid green shag–pile carpet which already covered the floor – and ceiling – of the room. However this room, despite it’s opulence, is emptied out – of not only any tangible content, but of space itself. ‘Space itself doesn’t enter the interior, it is only a boundary.’ (8.)

The contents of the interior are a ‘mere decoration’ and as one commentator has written, they are ‘alienated from the purposes they represent … engendered solely by the isolated apartment that is created in the first place by their juxtaposition.’ (9.)

The realm of the interior is created through the juxtaposition of these objects, however it remains – paradoxically – empty; literally without space. Conceived in such a manner the interior is a mirror, reflecting the inhabitant who dwells – nestled – within it. This self–reflection of the inhabitant appears to be echoed by not only the underlying desire, but the very materiality of Graceland’s architecture; juxtaposing the formlessness of the shag–pile carpet are the sharpened reflections of the mirrors which are spread throughout Graceland. This use of mirrors had an interesting history, originating in 1960, when Elvis relocated to Hollywood to resume his film career, following the conclusion of his military service, where he had already brought a house at 565 Perugia Way in Bel Air.

Constructed in a faux–Oriental style with an elaborate garden and waterfall, this circular mansion was perfect for the self–indulgences of stardom and had required only minimal redecoration, mainly consisting of the installation of white shag–piling, pool tables and a jukebox. However, one very significant alteration was made: a two–way mirror would also be installed, to accommodate Elvis’s growing attraction to voyeurism. This mirror was installed in a hand–dug crawl–space, running alongside the pool–house, overlooking changing guests.

However the physical discomfort of using it impelled Elvis to relocate it to the interior of the house, renovating the internal layout to construct a wall between one of the bedrooms and a small concealed room with this viewing glass. From the privacy of this closet, Elvis would watch the sexual antics he encouraged between members of his entourage and unsuspecting female guests. However, Elvis became frustrated by the technical crudity of the perennially steaming mirror–wall, and his inability to orchestrate the performance from behind it, and soon began deploying a primitive video camera.

The technological detachment of this device allowed Elvis to tape his favourite scenarios, then endlessly replay them. When Elvis eventually moved out of Perugia Way his nostalgic attachment to this mirror–wall compelled him to freight it to Graceland, where it was too large to ever be installed, remaining stored in the attic amongst other unknown treasures. In the extensive renovations to Graceland in 1974, several other mirrors or highly reflective surfaces were installed throughout a number of the mansion’s interiors. A continued attention to detail meant materials were installed in strange locations; small swatches of red shag were used as cabinetry infill panels on the first floor and mirrors were installed on the ceilings of stairs and a basement room, in which Elvis ‘could lie back in splendid repose and upon a bank of velvet cushions and, from underneath one heavy, half–closed eyelid, watch himself.’ (10.)

The preponderance of reflective surfaces is never more apparent than in the interiors of this basement room: the television room (figure ten). Designed and executed in 1974 by the Memphis decorator Bill Eubanks, the blue–and–white television room – with its mirrored fireplace surrounds, podiums, tables, plant–pots and ceiling – is possibly the most breathtaking of all the mansion’s rooms open to public view. The deco–inspired op–art super–graphic motif, from which the room takes its cue, spews out a potentially–nauseating profusion of forms and colours, surfaces and reflections. And nestled into the plush blue velvet and yellow formica rear wall, between the stereophonic hi–fi system and the primitive video, are the rooms three small television sets. The idea of watching several televisions originated in a visit to the Whitehouse of President Lyndon Johnson, who had installed 3 sets to simultaneously watch the network news broadcasts. Elvis, in turn, watched a ‘limited variety of shows ranging from sporting events to sitcoms.’

Strangely the main orientation of the room turns toward the formal fireplace, away from the television sets, and despite the padding of the custom designed and upholstered sofa and ottomans, the surfaces of the television room remain uncomfortably hard. As Karal Ann Marling has written of the formality of this room – coupled with adjoining games room (also designed by Eubanks) – ‘form a unity based on the range of possibilities in high end decor of the 1970’s … the studied disposition of parts suggests public or quasi–public spaces, like cocktail lounges and hotel rooms these spaces remain impersonal and lifeless.’

The unyielding hardness of these furnishings and coverings is reflected – literally – in the uncomfortable profusion of images flickering across the television room. Elvis rarely relaxed into watching television here, consigning to use it as a more formal entertainment room (due to the exceedingly generous size of its built–in bar). In contrast, as Lynn Spigel has written, ‘the ideal home theater was precisely ‘the room’ which one need never leave, a perfectly controlled environment of wall–to–wall mechanised pleasures.’ (11.)

The ‘ideal home theater’ of Graceland was a room – resplendent with mechanical pleasures – in which the inhabitant was more often likelier to be the protagonist than the spectator. What is more, it is within the inescapable comfort of the Jungle Room that the most–domesticated incidents of his pathological behaviour took place: the infamous execution of television sets during of the 1970’s. While Elvis had undoubtably shot–out a number of other television sets in a similar manner, most probably in the penthouse suite of the Las Vegas Hilton, where he regularly stayed while performing and habitually shot at the imitation crystal chandeliers, the Jungle Room remains the site of the definitive – undeniable – incident.

As the story goes – late one afternoon in 1974, Elvis Presley was sitting in his faux–Hawaiian driftwood throne breakfasting while watching television. Finding a Robert Goulet entertainment special particularly objectionable, and pausing only briefly to put down a forkful of crispy bacon, Elvis – barefoot on his dangerously lurid 5" green shag–pile carpet – reached for his even more dangerously loaded and ever–present silver plated pearl–handled .357 Magnum to register his ratings disapproval, reputedly whilst muttering under his breath and through a mouth of half–chewed bacon, ‘get that shit out of my house.’

Considering that he had withdrawn so deliberately from a world exterior to the walls of Graceland, it is pertinent that Elvis not only treated his furniture with such contempt but choose to sever so violently the only connection he had with the outside world. That he would splutter ‘get that shit out of my house,’ is telling and rather ironic considering Elvis Presley died attempting to do precisely that, (sufferering a massive heart–attack‘whilst straining at stool’ to quote the Memphis Coroner’s report).

Of course his father Vernon, or one of the boys, just wheeled in another television between mouthfuls and, assumedly, got additional ammunition if required. This metaphoric self–blinding is further exaggerated given that Elvis was physically losing his sight. In March 1971, he had complained of acute pain and inflammation in his left eye during a difficult recording session in Nashville and had been rushed to a local hospital. There he was diagnosed with glaucoma in both eyes, a diagnosis which was subsequently confirmed by his private physician, Dr Nichopoulos.

This disease had originated in years of chronic drug–abuse and continued to bother him for the remaining years of his life, ironically the anti–glaucoma medication contributing to his narcotic addiction. Therefore it may be suggested that another reason for the constantly draped windows and extravagant dark glasses of the Seventies, aside from the obvious allure of their costumed eccentricity, was a growing sensitivity to light. A sensitivity – however conducive to his nocturnal lifestyle – that forced Elvis to diligently avoid bright, even natural, light. Only an insanely heightened sense of vanity prevented him from wearing sunglasses on–stage, believing that the audience made eye contact during the performance, oblivious to the fact that these eyes were regularly obscured by a reddened veil of drug abuse.

Given that Elvis was physically blinded, and metaphorically short–sighted (through the severance of his televisual ‘window’), it is significant that he preferred the tactile environment of the Jungle Room over the infinite self–reflections of the Television or Trophy rooms. Instead of the mansion’s interiors acting as a mirror to reflect it’s inhabitant, there is no visible reflection on these polished surfaces whatsovever – it is in the merging between the 5" shag–pile carpeting of the Jungle Room and an equally blurred Elvis that is the point at which ‘he was Graceland, Graceland was Elvis.’ Elvis didn’t need – nor did he want – to see himself in Graceland, as some commentators have suggested, rather he wanted to feel himself inside of Graceland.

And it is evident that it was only within the privacy of his den that he felt such a tangible sense of comfort. Yet ‘there is no indication that Elvis meant the Jungle Room to be preserved intact for posterity,’ as Marling has written. However with Elvis’ death in the en suite bathroom on the 16th August 1977, that is exactly what happened to the most personally encoded of the mansion’s rooms. At this moment Graceland shifted from being a private house to a museum – or perhaps more appropriately – to a mausoleum. In her chapter on the furnishing of the Den, ‘Elvis Exoticism: the Jungle Room, from her wonderful book Graceland: Going Home with Elvis, Karel Ann Marling defines the Jungle Room as kitsch, writing; ‘lets face it … the Jungle Room is stunningly, staggeringly, tacky.’


This is a strange disjuncture given that Marling had been empathetic in not reducing Elvis to a caricature via the aesthetic sensibilities of ‘bad taste.’ And given that even a sympathetic critic such as Marling should flounder – undisguisably nauseated – in the interior of the jungle room is significant. As the ‘tasteful’ architect, Vittorio Gregotti has written of such a floundering, ‘Nothing is more ludicrous than the retreat … from the concept of design to one of ‘furnishing’ … [or] … the concept of the ‘anti–house’ which is conceived from the inside and demonstrates at best a lack of cohesion between the interior and the exterior or at worst a deplorable falsity of architectural conception.’ (12.)

An elision between the exterior and the interior of architecture which is for Gregotti the virtually unimaginable conception of the ‘anti–house.’ Such a discomfort with the decor of the Jungle Room – a ‘deplorable falsity of architectural conception’ – is not atypical; indeed is it the source of its nomenclature: ‘The Den became the Jungle Room when the house tours began because the decor embarrassed the staff. Giving it a name made the excruciating lava–lamp, semi–hipness of the place seem meaningful.’ (13.)

At the point that the private interior of the house became openly public, it’s interior – and all it’s vestiges – were subsumed by the ‘exterior’ myth that surrounded it’s inhabitant. As Marling herself notes: ‘The Graceland tour is careful to avoid anecdotes that might lend support to the unbeliever’s mental image of a bulging besotted King who was fatally out of control or dying in his very excessiveness.’

In contrast to the fatal excessiveness of the Jungle Room, Marling places the deliberate architectural campiness of Elvis’s friend, Liberace, whose ‘tastes’ are seen as a form of ‘connoisseurship,’ an ironic indulgence in the aesthetic sensibilities of bad taste and obsolescence. ‘I love the fake,’ as Liberace told an interviewer, ‘As long as it looks real, I’ll go for it.’ Marling’s opposing of the Jungle Room with Liberace’s various Las Vegas mansions agrees with a conventional definition of camp as precisely a ‘cultivated bad taste – as a form of superior refinement.’ Or, as Susan Sontag puts it simply, ‘it is beautiful because it is ugly.’ The Jungle Room, rather than being an interesting – or defining – moment in the architecture of Graceland, is reduced to being read as mere aesthetic inadequacy, just plain bad taste: ‘There is no similar irony in Elvis’s Krakatoa-style den. Only a rush of pleasure enhanced by the awareness that there were more jokes to come, more wacky stuff from Donald’s to buy some day, more Saturday matinee fantasies to be lived out in the privacy of Graceland.’

For Marling the decoration of the Den is an ‘act of serial novelty,’ an impermanent and ever changing joke to be renewed as soon as its architectural punchline became worn-out. The interior of the Jungle Room was never meant to be permanent and ‘Elvis had the great misfortune to die before his den.’ While the relationship between the ‘serial novelty’ of the joke and a notion of the aesthetic may not at first appear to be an obvious one, it elicits a tensing out here in order to provide an alternative to reducing the Jungle Room’s interior to a dismissive reading as merely the ‘bad taste’ of an uncultivated aesthetic sensibility.

Aesthetics was originally conceived of as a discourse of the body. And in this original form it refers, not to the artistic, but (as Terry Eagleton has written) to the ‘whole region of human perception and sensation, in contrast to the more rarefied domain of conceptual thought. The distinction which the term ‘aesthetic’ initially enforces in the mid-eighteenth century is not one between ‘art’ and ‘life,’ but between the material and the immaterial: between things and thoughts, sensations and ideas.’ (14.)

Thought of in this manner the aesthetic distinguishes between the material and the immaterial (form and content). Writing on the restorative psychical action of humour, in a paper appropriately titled ‘Humour,’ Sigmund Freud regarded humour as ‘a kind of triumph of narcissism, whereby the ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality in a victorious assertion of its invulnerability. Humour transmutes a threatening world into an occasion for pleasure.’ As such, the agency of humour transfers the reality into something less serious and assimilable into the experience of the subject as pleasurable – this is the classic articulation of the ‘pleasure-principle,’ which actively transfers the unpleasureable into the pleasurable.

To the extent that humour operates, through this narcissistic transference, in the provision of a technicoloured version of reality – within which the subject is inviolate – humour is sublime: ‘It resembles nothing as much as the classical sublime, which similarly permits us to reap gratification from our senses of imperviousness to the terrors around us.’ The humorous can be tangibly aesthetic then – as the aesthetic is the mediation between the material and the immaterial, the sensation and the idea, the real and the fictive.

Moreover, this liminal oscillation between these states is not only a condition of aesthetic existence – but is in itself traumatic. ‘Human life is aesthetic for Freud in so far as it is all about intense bodily sensations and baroque imaginings, inherently significatory and symbolic, inseparable from figure and fantasy,’ as Eagleton writes, but as he adds cautiously, ‘for Freud this is at least as much catastrophe as triumph.’

An aestheticised insulation from trauma, as Freud famously stated, is more fundamental than the positive reception of experience: ‘Protection against stimuli is an almost more important function for the living organism than the reception of stimuli.’ Such a form of protection, literally a Self-protection, mediating between pleasure and displeasure, comfort and discomfort, takes place on the site of the body.

The pleasure principle constructs itself as a shield at the extremities of the body in its attempt to shield the subject from the potentially fatal excess of reception. The subject, ‘suspended in the middle of an external world charged with ‘the most powerful energies,’ would be mortally injured if it wasn’t protected form these forces by a protective layer.’ Elvis’s need to protect himself from a physical exteriority had increased dramatically during the drug-fuelled paranoia of the Seventies, as is graphically illustrated in the Jumpsuits worn to perform in during the final years of his life (not to mention his insistence on ‘packing heat’).

The evolution of these costumes, as at least one commentator has pointed out, had exceeded the practical demands of performance – transforming into a kind of rampant symbolism. From the arguably pragmatic leathers of the 68’ Singer-Special, they evolved into the classic jumpsuits of the early Seventies, clothes which not only had names, but personas: like the Mad Tiger, the Pre-Historic Bird, the Mexican Sundial, and the most famous of all – worn only during the 73’ Satellite Special – the American Eagle. Resplendent – with cape unfolded to ascend to the heavens – the jewelled, studded, fringed, and laced ‘jumpsuit Elvis is a different creature, the Vegas Elvis, a legend armoured in a caraplace of sheer, radiant glory.’ These were more than clothes, they were a liturgy, ‘Elvis the icon was cosmic, mysterious, all-American, untouchable.’ (15.)

This ornamented invulnerability was an attempt to shield the self from the strains of being itself. As Elvis had entered his final decade, his personal fiction had became public property; ‘now the entire world was urging him to live his fantasy. He could now celebrate a career that included an evolution from a teen idol to movie star to worldwide cultural phenomena.’ (16.)

As his personal life imploded around him, Elvis Presley recorded a concert performance at the Honolulu International Center Arena on January 16, 1973: an event, which as his official Graceland biography succinctly puts it, was ‘the pinnacle of his superstardom.’ Broadcast in over forty countries, the ‘Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii – Via Satellite’ television special (made to raise funds for the USS Arizona War Memorial), is the most viewed event in human history.

Surpassing the Apollo 11 Moon landing, and was eventually seen by almost one and a half billion people (at the time over half of the world’s population). As a result of the enormous publicity this engendered, by the time of his death – only four years later – Elvis Presley had become the most photographed human figure in history. An image bearing his likeness had become the most recognisable representation around the globe.

This phenomenal success, as he himself was acutely aware, lay in this reduction to an image; a serial reproduction. As Elvis himself stated, ‘the image is one thing and the human being is another – it’s very hard to live up to being an image.’ Following such over-exposure there was no need for him ever to perform again, or – because he was available in so many different representations – even to exist at all. Furthermore, as so many contemporaries have noted, when he toured subsequently it was purely for financial reasons and Elvis had degenerated – or merely completed the natural evolution – into self-parody.

Describing a narcotically-hazed, slurred and generally incoherent performance in Houston’s Astrodome during August 1976, during which the performer forgot the lyrics to even his seventeen year-old standards, one reviewer wrote, ‘attending an Elvis Presley concert these days is like making a disappointing visit to a national shrine.’

This monumentalisation underscored the futility of continued renovations; within the proliferation of impersonators, each with a given time and era, Elvis had been petrified. This confrontation between imitations which were unable to recognise themselves (as figure eleven graphically illustrates) elides the distinction between the original and it’s serial imitations, drawing a pained attention to the redundancy of the original. This overwhelming of the individual by the serial – a loss of the interior to an exterior – is an incomprehensible shock to the system.

If the body is the site of the ego (as Freud postulated) – then the protective function of this body, the ‘synaesthetic system,’ breaks down with this overcoming. The attempts to neutralise this shock are numbing. ‘The cognitive system of synaesthetics has become one of anaesthetics,’ as Susan Buck-Morss has written, and ‘drug addiction is characteristic of modernity. It is the correlate and counterpart of shock.’

It isn’t necessary to over-state the well known extent of Elvis Presley’s drug abuse, suffice to say he ‘had become a connoisseur of recreational drugs and of the fine nuances of their euphoric affect’ and consumed narcotics with the physiological appettite of a small elephant. Such an appreciation of sensory-deprivation does illustrate the escalating extent to which Elvis felt (tangibly) affected by his image as the King and his inability to numb the sensations of boredom and exhaustion.

The correlate between the domestic site of drug-addiction and an unsatiated addiction for the domestic is found in the renovations of hotel rooms during the final concert years, renovations which were meant to imitate Graceland. This dependency on a ‘home away from home,’ coupled with the desire of Elvis’s Manager – Colonel Tom Parker – for unmitigated concealment, nearly had fatal consequences. In one virtually incomprehensible incident Elvis’s first overdose (of many) took place ‘behind the closed and guarded doors of the Las Vegas Hilton Suite 361’ on February 19, 1973.

Fearing the disastrous implications of a public scandal, a comatose King was left to recuperate amidst the luxury of the penthouse suite with a temporary hospital constructed around the bed. ‘If it had been anyone but Elvis Presley,’ as Peter Harry Brown dramatically described the scene, ‘an ambulance team would already have been en route to the Hilton. But Newman and Esposito [two prominent members of the entourage] were charged by Colonel Tom Parker with preventing just such a scandal. So they did the next best thing: they transported medical and oxygen equipment into the suite and built an intensive care unit around the silk-sheeted bed.’

On tour these hotel rooms were arranged with exacting instructions to duplicate the master suite at Graceland. All the furnishings were laid out in the same configuration and the windows – which were already concealed behind newly hung heavy-velvet drape – were sealed with insulation foil and duct-tape. In such an environment it was impossible to ever ascertain what time of day it was, or even whether it was day or night, and in such an artificial environment it was easy to imagine that the surroundings were Graceland. Elvis faded further and further into Graceland, eventually venturing outside infrequently.

With an escalating drug consumption and the loss of any reality external to the fictive world of Graceland, it can be argued that – aside from the ever-briefer moments he was on stage performing – an anaesthetised Elvis Presley never ventured outside Graceland. The quiet resignation of this final return to the mansion’s emptied rooms is apparent in the decor of the Jungle Room and the formless artificiality of it’s shag-pile. The synaesthetic system of the body has broken down, dissolved into the comfort of the surfaces that surround it; no longer mediating between the pleasurable and the un-pleasurable, or perhaps no longer wishing to distinguish between the fictive and the real.

The architecture of this room marks the final – vacated – moment of it’s inhabitation: a last attempt to give it a content which had become lost, like a stray toenail clipping, amidst the long synthetic fibers of the shag-pile. The final moments of Elvis’s recording career took place in the Jungle Room. From its inauspicious beginnings in the bleak hardness of the acoustically tiled walls and stained linoleum floors of Suns Studio’s cramped recording room, the recording career of the King – who had sold enough records to stretch around the globe twice – dissolved into the formlessness of the den’s carpet: a dissolute formlessness apparent in the album recorded there.

In February, 1976, his final studio album was recorded at Graceland, as a result of his refusal to leave the house. As one commentator has described this bizarre scene: ‘The musician’s equipment had to be lowered in through the windows of the Jungle Room den. But after everyone had assembled, Elvis refused to come downstairs. He said he was sick. Over the week that followed, Presley eventually recorded a dozen songs. As Elvis put it, that night, to producer Felton Jarvis, ‘I’m so tired.’ ‘You need a rest,’ replied Jarvis. ‘That’s not what I mean,’ said Elvis wearily. ‘I mean, I’m just so tired of being Elvis Presley.’ (17.)

This sense of fatigue was indefeasible and as the Chicago Sun-Times eulogised so succinctly in their obituary of August 18th 1977: ‘Decades of being ‘The King’ had affected him. The body failed the test of the reign. Apparently the spirit flagged too. Then the energy – and thus so much of the talent.’ And, as they concluded rather ungraciously, ‘At least the legend still lives.’ As the obituarist obviously thought; not only was the legend exhaustedly limping along without a body to bear it – but it was itself emptied out, interior-less. On the 18th of August, 1977, an inert Elvis Aaron Presley lay in a nine hundred pound casket, identical to the one he had buried his beloved mother Gladys, in state barely inside Graceland’s front door.

The solid-copper casket lay underneath an elaborately cut crystal chandelier (resembling a film prop), beside the stairs leading mysteriously to the upstairs bathroom where Elvis – straining under the pressure of being the King – had drawn his final breath. That afternoon, the body of Elvis Presley was carried through the entry of Graceland for the final time by members of the Memphis Mafia and driven to the local cemetery to be laid to rest beside his mother. Barely a month later, Vernon Presley – fearing further attempts of grave-robbing after two local men had been arrested at the graveside carrying shovels – exhumed both bodies and brought them to their final resting place, in the Garden of Contemplation beside the swimming pool, in full view of Graceland – literally in the back yard.

Graceland had exhumed the body of the King, drawing Elvis back into the uneasily domesticated realm of the interior, assuring they remain indivisible. It is difficult to think of one without the other and – in thinking of one without the other – either one is disembodied. If the impatient furnishing of the Jungle Room is a joke – from a however deluded and unquestionably naive sense of humour – then it is also the moment at which the body of the King, exhausted from representing itself, and the architecture of Graceland dissolve into one another.

If it is a punchline which has indeed worn thin, as one commentator has suggested, then its tragedy – which doesn’t preclude it from being hilarious – is this tangible sense of exhaustion: there are no more pranks, no more practical jokes, no more reassuringly narcissistic assertions, to follow. Instead of containing the lurid artificiality of the Jungle Room’s shag-pile carpeting, and its contents, within the conveniences of ‘aesthetic inadequacy’ – of being just ‘bad taste’ – perhaps we are left laughing, however awkwardly, at the hollowness of the joke itself.


1. Joni Mabe, ‘Everything Elvis,’ in John Chadwick ed., In Search of Elvis: Music, Race, Art, Religion (Boulder: Westview, 1997), p. 155.

2. Gottfried Semper, ‘Style in the Technical Arts or Practical Aesthetics,’ in The Four Elements of Architecture and Other Writings, trans. Harry Francis Mallgrove and Wolfgang Herman (New York: Cambridge UP, 1989), p. 235 (emphasis added).

3. Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command (New York: W. W. Norton, 1969), p. 260.

4. Ibid, p. 345.

5. Nickolaus Pevsner, Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius (Harmonsworth: Penguin, 1960), p. 41, as cited in, Christoph Asendorf, Batteries of Life: On the History of Things and Their Perception in Modernity, trans. Don Reneau (London: California UP, 1993), p. 125 (refer note 14, p. 232).

6. Susan Buck–Morss, ‘Aesthetics and Anaesthetics,’ in, October 62, (Cambridge: MIT Press, Fall 1992), p. 8.

7. Giedion, op cit, p. 365.

8. Theodor W. Adorno, Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic, trans. Robert Hullot–Keller, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p. 43.

9. Ibid, p. 43.

10. Karal Ann Marling, Graceland: Going Home with Elvis, (Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 219.

11. Lynn Spigel, ‘The Suburban Home Companion: Television and the Neighbourhood Ideal in Postwar America,’ in Beatriz Colomina ed., Sexuality and Space, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1992), p. 198.

12. Vittorio Gregotti, ‘Kitsch and Architecture,’ in Gillo Dorfles ed., Kitsch: The World of Bad Taste, (New York: Universe, 1969), p. 276.

13. Marling, op cit, p. 192.

14. Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, (London: Blackwell, 1990), p. 13.

15. Marling, op cit, p. 82–82.

16. Whitmer, op cit, p. 274.

17. Brown and Broeske, op cit, p. 400.





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