Monday, August 26, 2013

Rebel Hell

It's worth noting that in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision that took a wrecking ball to one of the pillars of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, new voter identification laws have spread throughout the south like kudzu. Certain states whose past actions indicated voter suppression, and were thus obliged to pre-clear any changes in election laws with the federal government, were freed to harness-up the old partisan mules and plow that rotted field. The surge in states voting to make major changes in voting laws looks like a map of the old Confederacy, including the recent additions of  Alabama, Virginia, and North Carolina. Every week, another rebel state makes a symbolic secession from the union, in defiance of the federal government's desire to uphold the right to vote. Only hours after the court's decision. Gov. Rick Perry announced that the strictest Voter ID law in the country, which had been previously blocked by the government, would become effective "immediately." In turn, last week the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the State of Texas. Attorney General Eric Holder stated, "We will not allow the Supreme Court's recent decision to be interpreted as open season for states to pursue measures that suppress voting rights."

So, you may ask, "What's the big deal? You need a photo ID to do everything from cashing a check to buying cigarettes. Besides, I've always presented my identification at the polls." The facts are that before the 2006 mid-term elections, no state ever required a voter to produce a government issued photo ID as a condition of voting. In the past, a driver's license, a student ID, a utility bill, or any other proof of address was sufficient. The new Voter ID laws sweeping the south require that voters obtain a special photo ID, given either for free or with a fee to recipients by the government to combat "voter fraud." Critics say the laws disproportionately affect minorities, the elderly, and lower-income groups because it's a hassle to get. Obtaining the new, official, Flash Gordon, state-approved voter ID card can be a costly burden to those without transportation. Even free, state-issued ID requires a birth certificate, which costs twenty-five dollars per copy and is often difficult for the elderly to locate. Many states eliminate the right of college students to vote on their own campuses, forcing a trip home to see Mom and Pop in order to exercise their franchise. For the poor and minority voters, it's the return of the poll tax, plain and simple.

A New York Times study, done in 2007, found that in the previous five years, there were a total of eighty six convictions of voter fraud. The new, state ID is an antidote looking for an illness. Voter fraud today isn't committed by some ward hack trying to register the dead, it's done by voting machine irregularities and tampering by election officials. We've all seen it. In previous presidential elections dating back to Clinton, there have been proven incidences of the miscounting of absentee ballots or the wholesale discarding of provisional votes, not to mention a little thing called Bush v. Gore, the Superbowl of vote tampering. Do you remember way back to the last election when a state legislator in Pennsylvania bragged on camera that the Commonwealth's new Voter ID law would deliver the state to what's-his-name Romney? Minority voters turned out in droves. Out of the thirty states recently enacting changes in Voter ID laws, all of them, with the exception of Rhode Island, have been introduced by Republican-led state legislatures. That includes the distinguished statesmen in the Tennessee House as well- the same ones who thought it was a good idea to allow guns in bars. If you don't believe the intention of these laws is voter suppression, just watch the zeal of the GOP officials announcing the changes. And it's not just Voter ID laws that have been altered. States under Republican control face cuts in early voting days, and the elimination of Sunday voting, the day that African-American church-goers traditionally go to the polls.

The Tea Party sticklers for fiscal responsibility conveniently discard that philosophy when it comes to disenfranchising black voters and resurrecting a new type of Jim Crow. In their favor, a huge, new government bureaucracy dealing with the creation and distribution of state approved voter ID cards would certainly be a job creator, and a stimulus of sorts. Of the estimated twenty-one million citizens without any government issued ID, the great majority are Hispanics, African-Americans, and the poor. That's enough to alter an election. In 2012, a Federal Court found Texas' Voter ID law and redistricting plans to be discriminatory against particular racial and language groups- in other words, Democrats. After the recent Supreme Court decisions, the rulings of the Federal Court were thrown out. So, now Texas Republicans are free at last. Recalling the long lines of people determined to cast their votes in the last election, regardless of restrictions, the foolish, Limbaugh-listening fundamentalists facing extinction who are attempting to hold on to their dwindling political power by rigging the game will probably ignore the warnings of Colin Powell. The former Secretary said, "These kind of procedures (which) make it likely that fewer Hispanics and African-Americans might vote...are going to backfire." There just aren't enough angry white men to go around anymore. Of course, the Supreme Court's decision leaves it up to the legislative branch to determine which states are to be covered by the Voting Rights Act in the future. Considering the current, do-nothing Congress, any bets on who makes the list?


Monday, August 12, 2013

Elvis Week 2013

I love Elvis. There, I've said it. Sure, over the years I've made some sardonic remarks, often over a microphone from the bandstand. But that was in my capacity as an entertainer, a role I've enjoyed for several decades. Truth be told, if there were no Elvis, there would be no me. I never would have picked up a guitar, or formed a band, or have been signed to Sun Records and produced by Sam Phillips: one of my life's proudest accomplishments. Like a million other children of the fifties, I went Elvis crazy as soon as I heard him on the radio. The difference was that I was at ground zero of the Elvis explosion. As soon as my fingers were strong enough to press the strings down on a guitar neck, I started playing. I didn't just want to be like Elvis, I wanted to be Elvis. Those who became Elvis fans after his death, or even after he returned from the army, will never know the joyous exuberance that accompanied the emergence of the "Hillbilly Cat," or the line of demarcation Elvis created between the Mouseketeer generation and their parents, who loathed him. After Elvis, nothing was the same. Like James Brown in the sixties, or the Beatles in their time, when it came to outshining his peers on the radio; there was Elvis, and then there was everything else.

I wish I were precocious enough to say I heard Elvis' Sun records on the radio, but I was only seven at the time. I do, however, distinctly remember the night in 1956 that Dewey Phillips introduced "Heartbreak Hotel" on his radio show. I listened to "Red, Hot, and Blue" every night, even if it meant putting the radio right next to my ear so my parents couldn't hear. I loved the voice before I saw the singer. The flip side, "I Was the One," sounded so different that I thought it was another of Dewey's favorite Doo Wop groups from the northeast until he proclaimed that it was Memphis' own Elvis Presley. Elvis' photograph appeared in the morning paper with his shirt collar up in the back and his hair formed into a shiny, immaculate pompadour. I had to inform my big sister that Elvis was a greaser. One night, my sister came home from a teenage party at the Hotel Chisca in a state of euphoric bliss. Elvis had been to the WHBQ radio studios visiting Dewey, and when asked by an enthusiastic chaperon, he strolled into the party of giggling girls just to say hello. Photographs were printed with my sister and a tousled Elvis. Years later, when I asked her about the photo, she said there were never any pictures taken. I was adamant that I had seen it. My sister had her hair in a tight curl and Elvis was standing next to her, looking cool and draping an arm loosely over her shoulder. Only then did I realize that the picture I had seen and carried with me had been developed in the darkroom of my imagination for my scrapbook of Elvis memories.

Where I differ with some devoted Elvis aficionados is that I think his earliest recordings, like Sam Cooke's, were his greatest. I've made a personal "E" mix-disc that I listen to frequently when I'm in need of cheering up, and the pure joy that exudes from Elvis in songs like "I Don't Care If the Sun Don't Shine" works every time. All the songs, however, are from 1955-1958. He recorded great songs after that, but instead of working with genius songwriters like Otis Blackwell or Leiber and Stoller, who had written his earliest hits, the weaselly Colonel Parker hooked him into making that series of pointless, silly movies where studio hacks and friends of the Colonel got first crack at Elvis with tunes like "He's Your Uncle, Not Your Dad," "Do the Clam," and "No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car." When Elvis lost his edge, I lost interest in him as a musical influence. During his spangled jumpsuit years, he never regained the infectious, gravel-throated vocal power that made him the King of Rock and Roll. Elvis had the world's greatest set list, yet in concert he would breeze through his greatest hits in a medley, often mocking the early material as if it were not consequential. The Colonel cheated us out of the best of Elvis. Rather than making musical progress with each album like the Beatles who idolized him, Elvis regressed with each half-hearted effort to fulfill his contractual obligations to his record label. It was a sad descent. It was sadder still to imagine what might have been.

My great regret was never getting to meet Elvis. I suppose I could have imposed upon someone like George Klein for an introduction, but that would have been very un-Elvis like of me. Sam Phillips might have finagled something, but I came to Sun ten years after Elvis and Sam didn't exactly pal around with him anymore. My dentist was Elvis' dentist, but I had to be satisfied with the tales of Elvis' after-hours visits. The single time I received an offer to go to Graceland was from Dewey Phillips, but Dewey was no longer on good terms with Elvis, and in an adventure that I recounted in an article for Memphis Magazine, Poor Dewey was turned away at the gate, and by proxy, so was I. Even in later years, I might have crashed Elvis' annual Christmas party by tagging along with a musical pal, but I didn't. There's one thing I always wondered, and it's total vanity on my part. When I was making records for Sun and having them played on the radio, and appearing on George Klein's Talent Party on Saturday afternoon TV, was Elvis ever aware of our little band? Probably not, but there's no one left to tell me. As an adult, I tried to write songs for Elvis, but I had no hope of reaching him. I always believed that he was one song away from recapturing the fire of his early career.

It was puzzling to me why Elvis felt it necessary to seclude himself inside Graceland. By the mid-seventies, you'd often see Jerry Lee Lewis on the town surrounded by his entourage to keep the nasty drunks away, and he seemed almost approachable. Jerry took a liking to a club in Overton Square called the Hot Air Balloon, where he could be found nights jamming after hours, and no one ever bothered him. I thought if Elvis would just get out a little, people in his own home town would give him a similar break. I retained that opinion until one day at the airport. I had come with my parents to greet the arrival of a relative back in the days when you could walk right up to the gate without being molested by strangers. Suddenly I was struck by the appearance of a man walking toward me and I was certain that he was an old friend whose name I couldn't recall. He was with a group of happy people having obviously just met an arriving passenger, and I was taken by his familiar look and unusually large facial pores. When I caught up with my mother, she asked cheerfully, "Did you see Elvis?" I immediately wheeled and sprinted the length of the terminal and through the double doors. He had just closed the passenger side door of a white Cadillac when he looked up at me. "Hey Elvis," I uttered lamely. He nodded and said, "How you doin' man?" and he was gone. I realized that if I had just chased after Elvis like a teenage girl, perhaps it was wise that he not go out in public after all. With due deference to Jerry Lee, the thousands of pilgrims who come to Memphis in August, year after year, prove that Elvis was never intended to be just one of the guys.