Remembering Elvis: The Vigil
Multitides of forever-faithful lift candles, ‘transend time’
They love him tender. They love him sweet. And because he said so, they haven’t let him go.
They may never.
The faithful began settling the boulevard that bears his name a full 24 hours before the 1997 Elvis Week vigil began Friday night at Graceland.
As many as 30,000 to 40,000 fans of the snarling king of rock and roll passed by his grave and the eternal flame that lights it to observe the 20th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death.
“We the fraternity of fans have continued to do it his way,” said Mike Elliott, a member of the Elvis Country Fan Club of Austin, Texas. Of Elvis’s music: “It crosses all barriers and transcends time.”
Like George Washington and Jesus Christ, Elvis looms larger now than he ever did in life. The thousands of fans raised their 12-inch hand-dipped candles when the 9:04 p.m. vigil ceremony began. The boulevard looked like the stars on a clear night at sea.
“This is beautiful,” said Todd Morgan, creative services director for Graceland.
After a 17-second silent prayer and a sing-along to Can’t Help Falling in Love, the first pilgrims made the 290-step way to the grave.
Helicopters thumped overhead. Fly-by-vigil-night vendors hawked hokey T-shirts, long-stemmed roses and something called an Elvis “eulogy album.”
Television lights washed the crowd in white. All Shook Up roared from a beer truck parked at a gas station.
Bonnie Lathram, 20, of Memphis examined the scene from outside the vigil line.
“Memphis in May” she said. “But a lot calmer. And more serious. There’s more of a purpose here than listening to music and getting drunk.”
Anticipation crackled all the day long at Elvis Presley Boulevard and the gates of his Memphis estate.
Teeming with visitors from lands near and far, Graceland prepared for a vigil procession some veterans of Elvis Week expected to last until dawn today. Hundreds of flower arrangements and other memorials lined Graceland’s Meditation Garden and long, shady drive by late afternoon.
The memorials stood in every shape and size, color and configuration, every language.
Blue and white carnations made the flag of Scottish. A guitar crafted of flowers stood tall near Elvis’s pool.
Somebody, probably many bodies, had come from Florida; a memorial in the shape of the state was planted in the soft dirt of the garden.
“Only one man in the world could do this,” said Linda Fizer.
Fizer, 44, and 10 siblings and other relatives drove their RVs from West Virginia to Memphis nine days ago to honor Elvis and celebrate their first family reunion.
From across the street, she, an older sister and a niece watched the vigil line swell like a balloon filling with water.
Police stopped traffic about 5 p.m. on Elvis Presley Boulevard, and the scene in front of the mansion took on a silence that seemed an ideal segue into the evening’s events.
It was the first time in many hours that Bill Rowe could hear himself breathe.
Rowe was the first to camp at Graceland’s gates for the vigil, as he has been many years.
He sat down on the graffiti-cluttered sidewalk at 9 p.m. Thursday and never left.
Part of the “Gates of Graceland Entourage” from Ohio, Rowe, 47, have come to Memphis at least once a year since 1977, when Presley died in the bathroom and left the music world - and so many fans of his music, his presence and his legend - much emptier.
Rowe bears a striking resemblance to Elvis: the sideburns, the oil-black hair, the sneer. But he is no impersonator.
“A very involved fan,” Rowe said.
He, the Graceland guards and a handful of other vigil pilgrims spent Thursday night and the predawn hours of Friday watching the momentum build.
Graceland officials said 60 radio stations, 114 television stations and more than 150 newspapers and magazines covered this year’s vigil.
Journalists from all continents but Africa and Antarctica flocked to one of the bigger anniversary stories this year.
Rowe said one reporter asked him if he believed Elvis was truly dead.
Rowe said he had to stifle his frustration.
Truly dead? If Elvis weren’t, Rowe wouldn’t have been wasting his time in front of Graceland’s gates.
“And even if I’m proved wrong, could I stay mad at a guy I’ve idolized? Nah. Not even for a nanosecond.”
Hours later, the vigil unfolded in solemn reverence to the king of rock and a prince of pop culture, dead at 42.
Twenty years later, thousands of faithful. Elvis is bigger now than ever. Friday’s vigil proved that.
Not for a moment - not even a nanosecond - was he lonely tonight.
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