Diehards gather for the Haj of the church of Elvis

Never mind that Geoff Cowley from Bradford lost his job as an international lorry driver just two months ago. He and his wife, Varna Marie, have had this trip booked for two years and nothing was going to stop them taking it. Mississippi, Memphis, Hawaii, Los Angeles and back to Yorkshire in just over three weeks.

This is not a holiday. It is a pilgrimage. It is the Haj of the Church of Elvis Presley - the King, the Cat, the Pelvis, the father of Rock 'n Roll. Tupelo, Mississippi, is where he was born, Hawaii and Hollywood are where he made his films, but Mecca is here: Graceland, the Presley mansion in Memphis.

Each year they come, the die-hards of the Elvis denomination, to this surprisingly unimposing stone home with its ridiculous pillared portico and its kitsch interior of velvet couches and mirrored ceilings, to observe the anniversary of their deity's passing.

This year is special - Saturday is the 20th anniversary of the day when the by-then bloated and drug-dependent performer collapsed in his bathroom and died aged 42.

The gospel according to his fans tells us that Elvis did not die, that he staged his demise to escape his fans or the Mafia or both. "Elvis Lives!" Geoff and Varna, who otherwise seem thoroughly normal folk, know that the body now lying in the Graceland "Meditation Garden", filled with ornaments and gifts from fans, is a fake.

The Second Coming, in fact, may be at hand. Perhaps, we ponder over an ice cream, Elvis might descend from a helicopter over the mansion tomorrow evening when tens of thousands of his followers will be gathered around the house for a candle-light vigil. "That would be nice," Geoff observes casually, as if such an event would no more surprising than some old friend dropping by the pub unexpectedly.

Al Zapp from New Jersey confides that Elvis is already in Memphis. "He is one of the impersonators," he says. "He will have changed his face some, but he is here". Zapp himself is one of the myriad look-alikes flocking to Memphis this week. And he is surely one of the sorriest ones, with his chipped aviator sunglasses and sweat-stained rayon shirt. An Elvis riff wafts out from the nearby Elvis Presley Memphis theme restaurant and Zapp instantly begins an Elvis leg-shake - like a dog having its tummy scratched.

Just in case the helicopter never shows, Elvis Presley Enterprises, the company that runs Graceland, will ensure fans get the next best thing at Saturday night's "Elvis in Concert '97" at the Memphis Colliseum. With the magic of hologram technology, an apparition of Presley will rise up before the congregation and perform his most famous songs accompanied by some of his still-living former band members.

The real mystery of this religion is its power over so many. What is it that induces Geoff and Varna Marie and 900 other members of the British Elvis Presley Fan Club to spend their savings to come here?

Why are all these people, from around the world, crowding at the crazy- stone wall at the front of Elvis's state scouring vainly for just one square-inch space of virgin rock to scrawl their message of worship? "Elvis, we can't cry hard enough", and, "Twenty years - twenty million tears", and, "Most wanted you, Many needed you and All loved you, Michelle 1997".

Why are these women pressing five-deep at the stage of the downtown Daisy Theater on Tuesday night gasping for Darrell Dunhill, a 33-year-old from Florida, who works full-time as an Elvis impersonator? Occasionally, Darrell takes a nylon scarf and, just as Elvis did, mops the sweat from his chest and wraps it around the neck of one of the women. Delirious, she takes it as if it were communion itself.

"I don't know how you explain it, "said Todd Morgan, a spokesman for Elvis Presley Enterprises, which, headed by Priscilla Presley, first opened Graceland to the public in 1982. The gate-tally of 350,000 fans who passed through in that first year has grown to three-quarters of a million fans now; of those more than half are under 35 years old.

Varna Marie's 18-month-old grand-daughter back in Bradford will only go to sleep at night if an Elvis song is played to her. She accepts that it is worship and that the cult of Elvis is a religion. "I believe in two men, Elvis and Jesus Christ," she offers. What about him beside her, Geoff? "Him? No."

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