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I Visit Graceland and Get Kurt Cobain's Autograph

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Back in the 1990s, I did a lot of traveling for my gig as an independent record promoter. My destination was always the same, a radio station. I'd fly into a market to either close a deal or maintain one. Having spent my whole life digging radio, these visits were always great fun. Typically, they'd start with the earliest possible flight out of New York, the better to avoid those legendary La Guardia delays. I often landed before lunch. So, I'd drive straight to the radio station and flirt with the receptionist(s) until my programming pal(s) could grab a bite.

The disparity between stations' style and offices can be stark.

I've been to radio stations perched on the highest floor of the tallest building in town, all immaculate chrome and leather, that sounded like a hot mess. I've been to ultra-slick sounding stations where every inch of wall space, chairs, doors, etc. were covered in rock band logo-stickers, scrawled autographs, gold/platinum plaques, guitars leaning against desks. I've been in stations that were literally shacks in fields. I recall a sweetheart of a guy with the soap opera name, Reid Paxton, running a Midwest station, his studio soundproofed with egg cartons.

One Spring, I booked a two-fer trip, visiting Jackson, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee. I rented a huge white Chevy Impala. This specific car came with an odd benefit that would become apparent soon enough.

I headed for my drop-in-and-hang with Jackson John, an "enlightened redneck," as he called himself. A witty and progressive guy, running the rock station in Jackson Mississippi. John had the most accentuated southern accent I'd ever heard, just barely decipherable. One day, he called me while he was on the air. John wanted to know what Kurt Cobain's autograph was worth..."What with him dead 'n' all..."

I knew of two stations that had auctioned off autographed Nirvana CDs at charity events for over $600 and told him so.

"Well, Bink, I got some doctor bills to pay. Overnight me a money order for $300, I'll overnight you one of them signed CDs."

That's how I got Krist's, Dave's, and Kurt Cobain's autographs.

Anyway, John, on the air, and on the phone with me, suddenly panicked. The song was over, he had to "do a break" (talk at the end of a song). He yelled, "Hold on, Binky..." and one second later... "Hey, that was Tom Petty's new one. He's coming to Jackson and, yes, Rock 106's giving away tickets. But, in the meantime, I'm feeling kinda... Hot... For... Teacher..."

The Van Halen track came on.

I was confused. The jock had that classic totally bland slightly over-enunciated from-nowhere accent.

"Who the hell's on the air, John? I thought this was your air-shift."

"That was me... ", he drrrrrawwwled. "You believe I went to school to learn how to sound that awful!"

After work, John took me out on (not small!) Mayes Lake in this tiny rickety "boat." It was basically a rectangular aluminum broiler tray, 6 feet wide, 10 long, with a dinky (and old) motor bolted on. I warned John that I was a scaredy-cat city-boy on water. He was years younger than me, yet had this wonderful paternal vibe that calmed me down, even as we bounced over the water fast and hard enough that the bottom of the boat was actually rippling. Oy!

On either side of us was wild unmolested marsh/forest. Almost Amazonian. There were several little islands ahead. We seemed to be the only boat on the water. I looked back to shore and saw we now had this enormous slate-gray thunderhead approaching us.

"Uh, John, maybe we should turn back. Look at that storm!"

"Now, doncha worry your pretty little head, Bink... We can outrun that..."

We were passing an island. There were three people on the sandy bank. A guy and a gal in bathing suits. Another woman was hastily covering up with a towel. They stood along side an extra-large floaty, an air mattress really, up on the tiny beach. We waved, they sheepishly waved back.

"John, did we just interrupt a three-way?"

"Oh, that crap happens all the time out here."

The storm veered away from us. We survived.

My next stop: Me'phis. Two words: El Vis! Totally psyched!

During my drive up I-55 to Tennessee the next day, I discovered the sweet little accidental advantage I had with my Impala. I'd been driving north for about 10 minutes when it dawned on me that every car I'd passed had slowed and ostentatiously pulled over to let me by. Odd. Maybe another 10 minutes later, two unmarked cop cars flew by me, sirens wailing. Both were the exact same model, year, and color of my rented Chevy. Everyone on I-55 thought I was a cop, too. Wheeeeeeee!

I'd set up my date so I'd get to my pals, Jim and Zakk's Memphis station in time to have an overpriced lunch and do the tour of Elvis' mythic domicile, Graceland. As I hit the edge of Memphis, I discovered my gas gauge was sitting on E. Holy crap!

I got off at the next exit, driving west. Somehow, I'd managed to find that one exit that led strictly to huge tracts of McMansion developments and nothing else. I'd driven almost 15 miles before I came to a Shell station. Sweating bullets, I filled up, turned around, and drove back to I-55, now officially late.

One mile further on I-55 was the exit to the radio station. D'oh!

As soon as I'd walked in to the reception area, tall, elegant, low key Jim, came out to greet me. I profusely apologized for my tardiness.

"Bink, we've got a problem. They've sprung a meeting on me. We have time for lunch or Graceland. But, sorry to say, not both."

Damn that gas gauge!

I suggested we stop at the McDonald's nearest Graceland for some quick cuisine. That'd work! We got Zakk out of his office and off we went.

Jim, I'd only known a few months. But, Zakk and I went back to his previous radio gig in Kentucky. I was already friends with Buzz, the program director, in Louisville when he elevated his afternoon show sidekick, Zakk, to music director. I'd had few calls with Zakk. He seemed indifferent. But, my trip to Kentucky enlightened me.

I arrived the same day that Buzz was announcing the line up of the station's big rock show. He'd been working hard on this for the past 90+ days. He'd made this 'festival' a very big deal on the air. I was in the studio when the moment arrived.

Buzz, who possesses "pipes from hell" (industry lingo for deep grainy voices), sonorously read off the bands' names booked to appear...

"We have... Great White... Meat Puppets... Everclear... Brother Cane... "

Buzz finished the announcement with note of smug triumph in his voice.

There was a two second pause, and then Zakk said in an insolent bored slacker voice...

"That's it?!"

Buzz shot him a shocked WTF?! look.

Wow! Zakk actually had just winged that at him. What balls! What a delivery!

I decided I needed to get to know this unassuming but clearly dangerously funny shag-haired NOT-a-nobody.

I'm happy to say, Buzz, Zakk, and Jim, all remain dear friends and successful radio guys.

Back to Memphis...

I outraged and amused Jim highly (oops, pun) by breaking out a joint in Graceland's parking lot. I told him...

"I've waited all my life to see this, Jim, and I am not about to waste the moment sober."

Zakk, with his air-shift still ahead of him that day, looked jealous.

It's true about Graceland ... It is small. By today's standard, the living room is the size of a McMansion's guest bedroom. Yes, it's tacky, too. But it's utterly retro-dazzling while being kinda godawful.

I am reminded of Dolly Parton's immortal stage line: "It takes a whole lotta time and money to look this cheap."

From the moment you walked through the front door, you were politely assaulted with small placards reminding us to Please Don't Touch. There had to be at least ten per room.

As if their presence and insistence was an affront, Zakk started touching everything.

In the dining room, he even picked up one of the chairs and looked underneath the seat to see where it was made. "Crap!" he declared.

If we walked by a couch, Zakk'd reach out and rearrange the pillows.

He removed and disposed of several Please Don't Touch cards.

He opened closed doors in corridors. "Ooops, sorry..."

Somehow, he did all this in such a way that Jim and I were his only audience and he never betrayed the slightest concern about getting caught. Easy going Jim was taking it in stride ... eyes occasionally rolled at me. I, however, was delightfully mind-blown by Zakk's sheer pointless audacity.

While Graceland has become a shrine, there was one area in that house where I could feel Elvis. The kitchen, all copper and dark wood, looked out and down into the sunken fabled Jungle Room. Elvis had passed a furniture store in Memphis that had decorated one of their windows with an entire room in Tiki-Extreme decor. E. bought the whole display. A mental image popped into my head of Elvis leaning against the Jungle Room-side of the kitchen counter, cajoling some big fat woman into making him another burnt bacon, banana, peanut butter, and tomato sandwich, while his Memphis Mafia lolly-gagged on the preposterous Polynesian-themed chairs and couches.

As we walked into yet another marvelously gaudy little room, Zakk muttered, "Man, Jesse Garon really did get the short end of the stick."

The tour was winding down. Zakk and I found ourselves at the very back of our group. Zakk poked me and pointed. We were at the foot of an unguarded and un-gated staircase. Without hesitation, Zakk took three steps up and turned to me with a "Let's go!"

To my eternal regret, instead of following him up to the toilet Elvis fell off of, I talked Zakk back down the stairs where Gentleman Jim was waiting with a whispered, "What the fuck?!"

As it turned out, that initial "That's it?!" in Louisville was Zakk's whole take on life.