The king is dead, long live the king

Twenty years ago today, Elvis Presley died at his home in Memphis. Anne Perret makes a pilgrimage to America's musical heartland

The sign on the hotel desk read: "Welcome Harley riders! Please don't use guest towels to polish your motorcycles." Our spirits sank. "This Harley convention sure makes me glad I'm not sleeping here tonight," the desk clerk chuckled. "Memphis is crawling with Hogs!" We shlepped our bags to our room. The traveller's hell loomed - a night spent tossing and turning, kept awake by rowdy revving from the parking lot and poolside partying. But first, dinner.

Corky's on Poplar Avenue is a Memphis institution: an old-style pit barbecue. Fragrant hickory smoke coils above the restaurant building. Inside, the decor is vintage down-home; nothing fancy, but the narrow corridor leading to the loos is covered floor to ceiling with awards.

We ate a rack of slowly grilled wet ribs set up for two, costing $16.99, and washed it down with Memphis Goldcrest 61 beer. The ribs were the most delicious I have tasted anywhere. Corky's is hugely popular, so if you go there, be prepared to wait.

Afterwards, we went to Beale Street. In the Twenties it was the heart of black Memphis. By night it was its blues centre, jammed with dozens of clubs. It still is. The music spills out on to the street - hot trumpets, electric blues guitars and saxophones. BB King's Blues Club is here. We went to Willie Cobb's - a large, crowded room with a small stage in one corner. Its deep mauve walls are covered with autographed sketches of famous black singers - and Tom Jones. Later we drank coffee at a pavement cafe, and within earshot in Handy Park a woman was singing "Memphis Blues".

Memphis is famous for the people who died there: Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King. It was Elvis Week in Memphis. Events included: touring Sun Studio, where Elvis recorded his first song, going to the Elvis Chicago Style Gospel Mass and Spaghetti Dinner and the "Life and Cuisine of Elvis" seminar. As far as I know, the culinary tenets the King followed were: if you can choke it down it's yours, and quantity is of no concern. But this was not for us. No, a true Presley pilgrim makes for the shrine in Elvis Week. So the next day we went to Graceland.

Graceland is in a neighbourhood of car lots, family restaurants and failing businesses. It's not a huge house; in fact it's modest as mansions go. Elvis was 22 when he bought it, and newly famous. It's a touching expression of his need for dignity: his choice resembles the home of, say, a wealthy doctor: sensible and symmetrical, with a long, curving drive and a portico with columns two storeys high. Once you're through the front door, though, it's kitsch heaven: mirrored ceilings, wall-to-wall TVs, a jungle den.

Elvis's grave is in the grounds, marked by an eternal flame, a statue of Christ and a vivid blue pool. At the grave's edge, someone had placed a dog-eared fan photograph worn thin by handling. The site is moving in its tackiness, and there was a lot of weeping going on. We visited a year ago, the day after the anniversary of Elvis's death on 16 August 1977. There were immense floral tributes raised on easels: red hearts, the American flag, a pink Cadillac, and one with a handwritten message: "His Love Still Lights the World".

Memphis does not have an imposing skyline, but it has the Mississippi. In the afternoon we rode the monorail - like Tom Cruise in The Firm - high above the river, to Mud Island. We strolled around the Memphis Belle - the famous Second World War B-17 bomber and movie star - and looked back at the city. On our left was an extraordinary, 32-storey steel pyramid glinting in the sun. To our right, paddlewheelers and flat-boats lay along the levee. Ahead, through a collage of freeway ramps and bridges, was Memphis stacked up on a bluff. In the old warehouses on Front Street, cotton was once king. Now they are overshadowed by the new skyscrapers of a city renewing itself, part of a South that is rising again.

In 1968 it was different. Then, had you walked southwards from Front Street along Main, you would have found each block more blighted than the last, with cheap rooming houses and ramshackle stores. Then Memphis was deeply segregated. When Martin Luther King arrived in that year to head a black workers' strike, he stayed in this poor neighbourhood at the Lorraine Motel.

It's still there. We walked into its parking lot, admired the sleek Sixties cars displayed there, and looked up to the balcony outside Room 306 where Dr King was assassinated. You may visit the new National Civil Rights Museum adjoining the motel. When we were in Memphis there was a young black woman who had slept 2,054 nights on a torn brown sofa on the sidewalk outside the motel. Jacqueline Smith - once the Lorraine's desk clerk - was flanked by handwritten signs: "Boycott civil rights wrong museum tourist trap". She is incensed that this spot, sacred to Dr King's memory, is a private profit-making museum and not part of a foundation benefiting poor blacks. She argues that Dr King would have wanted something selfless on the site: a hospital, maybe a school. If you agree with her you go to the parking lot and remember him, instead of to the museum.

And the Hog riders? Pussycats. Once they were rebels, with or without a cause. Now they are middle-aged and Buddha-bellied, their cause is comfort: to sit astride chrome magnificence, enthroned on pillowed bike seats. And what they wanted at the end of the day was a good night's sleep. We were not disturbed. It was no Heartbreak Hotel.

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