A Moral Crisis
In late February and early March I went from London to Dublin to Amsterdam to talk about a book on the culture that's grown up around Elvis Presley since he diedyou can say promote, or flog, but most of the time that's not what it felt like. Newsbreaks included the National Enquirer's Dee Presley explosion: HIS OWN STEPMOM REVEALS SHOCKING TRUTH AT LASTELVIS AND HIS MOM WERE LOVERS. The U.S. Postal Service announced a primary-season vote to decide which of two artist's-rendering Elvis head shots (more or less '56 vs. '73, both looking fine) would be chosen for the long-awaited Elvis stamp. (With George Bush singing Presley's praises on a campaign stop in Memphis and Molly Ivins rating Paul Tsongas "minus-zero on the Elvis scale"despite, or because of, his win over Bill Clinton in the New Hampshire Democratic primarythe timing of this election was sublime.) Meanwhile, an Irish high court judge refused to allow a fourteen-year-old girl who, her family told police, had been raped and impregnated by her best friend's father, to travel to England for an abortion.
The theme I carried in my head was "That's Someone You Never Forget," a 1961 Elvis number I'd heard for the first time a week before, on the radioa ghostly, passionate, infinitely more personal version of his 1955 "Blue Moon." The disc jockey announced the performance as a previously unreleased take from the latest RCA grave robbery, a.k.a. a three-CD box called Collectors Gold (the budget apparently didn't allow for an apostrophe). The number wasn'tthere, but the set did include something just as far away: a moment of studio dialogue worth more than the rest of the music. It's 1968: "PAPA OO MAU MAU papa oo mau mau," Elvis announces to his assembled musicians. "Be talkin' in unknown tongues here in a minute." Before the band can stop him, he slides into a distant second of "I Got a Woman," and you can imagine he is going to take the song all the way home, all the way back to the glossolalia from which both he and the song came, to the primal swamp of deliverance and revelation. Well, of course not: there's work to do, they've got a typically throwaway ballad called "Going Home" to cut. But there is a reach for that deliverance in "That's Someone You Never Forget."
"It's credited to Elvis and Red Westyou know, one of his bodyguards," said Ger Rijff, former head of the Dutch Elvis Society, in Amsterdam. "Elvis came to Red West with the title and asked him to write a song from it. About his mother, it's said"Gladys Presley, who died in 1958, at forty-six, after, if Dee Presley is right, years of bliss with Elvis in her bed, or she in his.
"It makes sense," said Adrian Sibley of the BBC's The Late Show. "America has brought Elvis up to date: now he needs therapy just like everybody else. Don't they have twelve-step programs for incest survivors?" "It makes sense," said Jip Golsteijn, pop critic for the Amsterdam Telegraaf. "It's what I heard again and again in Tupelo, years ago. Nobody meant it as a condemnation. Given the way Elvis and Gladys were about each other, it was simply the conclusion everyone drew."
In Dublin, Joe Jackson of Hot Press looked over the Elvis stamp choices, noted that Elvis was still being shot from the waist up, and mentioned that among Irish intellectuals, it was only the revelation that Elvis, too, was a drug addict, like Charlie Parker or Chet Baker, that made him cool. The day before, Sinéad O'Connor had told a Dublin abortion-rights rally that as a mother she herself had had two abortionsand that if there were to be a new referendum on Ireland's nearly absolute ban on abortions, passed by a two-to-one vote of the populace in 1983, only women of childbearing age should be allowed to take part.
Just as in Amsterdam it was strange to be in a great city without people sleeping in doorways or begging on every corner, in Dublin it was strange, after months of listening to presidential candidates evade the political crisis that is turning the U.S.A. into a nation of scapegoaters, to be in a city in the grip of a moral crisis, where it really made no sense to talk about anything else. People everywhere had their radios on for bulletins on the Irish Supreme Court's hearing on the fourteen-year-old's appeal; as the government spoke of possible exceptions for this "special case," one heard the story of another raped teenager, who had hidden her pregnancy from her family, and who died along with the baby, giving birth in a churchyard, alone.
The papers read tensely. The Irish Times alternated hard news with a series of riveting editorials, superbly reasoned, carefully worded. The tabloid press played up accusations by anti-abortion leaders that the raped girl had almost certainly seduced whoever got her pregnant, while a Catholic priest claimed that abortion-rights groups had conspired with the girl to create a "test case" to overturn the abortion law. There were marches in the street, and biting satire on television. RAPED? read a cut-in on Nighthawks, an interview show filmed in a studio made over into a crowded Dublin pub: PREGNANT? DISTRESSED? IRISH? FORGET IT. With a cut back to the pub, a woman spoke into a pay phone: "Yeah, this is Sinéad O'Connor," she said, in a good imitation of O'Connor's thick snarl. "You tell the prime minister I'm hangin' on this line until he picks it upI don't care if I stay here all week." O'Connor was taking a lot of heat in Dublinfor pop-star arrogance, for "divisiveness"but people missed the point. Singing or talking, she stands up to say what she thinks, to piss people off. Like Madonna, she means to make everyone uncomfortable in their turn. She's a punk, not a politician.
So was Elvis, in a different wayin the clothes he wore, the way he moved, not what he said. No, you can't imagine him in O'Connor's shoes, even if he helped put her in hers; that's why it remains so easy to write him off. "American history doesn't look the slightest bit different for the presence, or the art, of Elvis Presley," I read in the London Review of Books as I arrived in the U.K. "Presley is a distraction, a placebo," the writer went onunlike, he said, the "feral" Howlin' Wolf. The pictures of Elvis in almost every London newspaper and magazine, marking a William Eggleston retrospective at the Barbican Art Gallery"Colour Photographs Ancient and Modern"were not an answer. Every publication used the same shot from Memphian Eggleston's Graceland portfolio: the only one that included a portrait of Elvis himself. But the reference was to nothing. In the service of publicity, this Elvis was less a recognizable symbol than a symbol of recognizability.
So I tried to talk around such ciphers, and I was lucky to get back more than I gave. Ger Rijff had been at one of Elvis's winter 1976 concerts, and remembered it with horror: "I knew it couldn't go on." Jip Golsteijn had met Presley after being ushered up to his Las Vegas suite with presidents of various international fan clubs. "I got his ear somehow," Golsteijn said. "I said, 'Was this your ambition? Did you ever think you'd get so far?' He just looked at me. 'If I had any ambition,' he said, 'it was to be as good as Arthur Crudup'"the bluesman who wrote "That's All Right," Elvis's first record. "'I wanted to be as good as Arthur Crudup when I saw him, back in '49. Arthur Crudupyou know that name?'"
Yeah, he knew it.
Interview, May 1992
Contribution to LA Weekly Advice to Bill Clinton Symposium
The next church is Union Missionary Baptist on Chicago's Westside ... with a congregation that is black working class and poor and that practices religious rituals not far removed from its members' Mississippi roots. The music, though, is pure Chicago: organ, piano, electric guitar, drum kit ... "The church is not a place for saints, but for sinners," [Clinton] begins, "but all of us are called to do the Lord's work." Amens echo againand the organ and drums, too; apparently, they will accompany Clinton throughout ... He omits his statistics on rising income inequality and conveys their sense in short rhythmical sentences: "It is honestly true, more people are working harder for less." He cites experiments in tenant-managed projects, model schools, community development banks. After each, he says "If it can be so, why can't it be so everywhere else?" The drums roll, the guitar and organ riff for a second, the amens rise. "We are tired of being divided by race!" (Music and amens.) "We are tired of being divided by gender!" (Music and amens.) "We are tired of being divided by income!" (Music and amens.) And then, raising his voice, he closes with scriptural passages about faith and redemption; he shouts it over the music and the congregation's own shouts, and he leaves the crowd in ecstasy.
Harold Meyerson, LA Weekly, March 20-26, 1992
At this stage Perot is irrelevant. You can't hit what you can't see, what isn't there. Two things need to be done now, and through the conventions: make yourself real and Bush unreal.
The second is easier. Bush in New Hampshire: "Message: I care." He doesn't care, and people know this, just as they know he is not a leader. Your job is to hammer away at these truths, again and again. In every locality, with local details, and then at the convention, with national scope and national examples, bring forth what the caring leader who does not care and will not lead has to offer: when faced with a disaster, sell something. L.A. riots? Sell the airport. Hurricane in Florida? Sell the waterways. Sell roads, parks, fire departments ... the list is endless. This, you say, is the politics of the future under George Bush. Behind these easy answers, you say, is a familiar slogan: "BUY NOW! GOING OUT OF BUSINESS!" It's just that the name on the store didn't always read "U.S.A."
You cannot ignore the fact that there remain powerful reasons to vote for Bush. He is a demagogue and none of us are immune to his demagoguery. He is the national guardian of certain hates, fears, divisions, and privileges. People know this as surely as they know he truly believes in only one thing: cutting the capital gains tax. Never forget why people will vote for Bush, but throw bad words and good against him, incessantly, with carefully increasing disbelief and outrage, so that voting for Bush becomes not the act of patriotism that voting for Reagan was made to seem in 1984, but an act of shame, cowardice, and self-hatred. Bad and good words from everywhere (always credited!), from the daily papers (San Francisco Chronicle, May 21: UPROAR OVER QUAYLE COMMENTS"MURPHY BROWN" DEFENDERS FIRE BACKBUSH NEUTRAL) to the whole of our past ("The things that will destroy America are prosperity at any price, peace at any price, safety first instead of duty first, and love of soft living and the get rich quick theory of life"Theodore Roosevelt, 1917).
Making yourself real is another story. You have to take a leaf from Jesse Jackson's book (this time uncreditedthis is politicsand in your own words): you must present yourself as an unfinished man, as in "God is not finished with me yet." If you don't confront the doubts people have about your actions, behavior, and truthfulness the other side will do it for you, until all you can do is apologize. Be frank: you are not perfect, you have done things you would like to undo, and if you are elected you will do more of them. The difference, you say, is this: I will take responsibility for what I do, and let you, the people, be the judge. You will not find me, you say, blaming the future on long-dead presidents or TV stars. If you elect me, you say, and you don't like what I do, then don't vote for me again. If you don't like what I'm saying today, don't vote for me now.
As for what you stand forwell, who knows, really? There are vague intimations, in your campaign talks, in your old letter about the draft, in a few speeches you've made in churches, of decency, thoughtfulness, and the capacity to learn, change, and decide. If you can make the prospect of voting for you the prospect of a venture into an unknown but nevertheless real future, you might win.
LA Weekly, May 29-June 4, 1992