Elvis in Vegas

Forty years ago today, Elvis Presley performed before more than 2,000 screaming fans at the International Hotel in Las Vegas and, in so doing, began his “last comeback,” the final phase of his storied career in popular music and culture.

Elvis took to the stage on July 31, 1969 after an eight-year absence that saw him go from a cultural phenomenon to a movie star to a relic of a time long-since past. Music had changed, the culture had changed, and Elvis no longer appeared to be relevant.

His significance could not be denied. By 1969 a wide array of music superstars could draw their musical lineage back to the King. He had sold more than 250 million records and had the record for most gold albums and gold records (ten and forty-seven, respectively).

And then there was December 1968, when NBC aired a television special that became popularly-known as the “comeback special.” The middle-aged King, looking tan and lean, dressed in black leather from head to toe, stood before a small audience in the round and—without fancy lights, effects, or even electricity pulsing through the instruments—he and his band put his magic on display. It was simple and beautiful rock and roll: blues, country, gospel…Elvis.

Something began to stir in the King, as it did in his manager Col. Tom Parker, and mere months later, Elvis had been signed to be the inaugural act at the largest showroom in all of Las Vegas in the newest hotel on the strip.

A young music reporter at the Los Angeles Times by the name of Robert Hilburn was assigned the task of reporting on Elvis’ Vegas gig. Hilburn penned something of a love letter to the King, a piece titled “History Will Place Elvis in No.1 Spot.” In it, he wrote:

At the time of his initial success, those reviewing popular music didn’t appreciate or understand the sensual, driving, undisciplined music of the singer from Memphis. Having accepted Sinatra and the tradition of Tin Pan Alley as their standard, they couldn’t take the new sound seriously. When they did write about Presley, it was usually in tones of outrage or humor.

When younger writers, who had been moved by Presley’s music, reached an age where their articles would be accepted by editors, Presley was no longer a vital, moving musical force.

With the youthful exuberance of an avid fan of popular music, he cautioned: “But that is going to be corrected now. Elvis is back.”

In some ways, Elvis was back. The King played to sell out crowds for the remaining parts of the summer of 1969, the start of a series of live performances which would carry him through to his death in 1977. From 1969 to the early seventies, some of those performances deserve to be ranked among his best. Film footage provides testament to his sheer, human force, his musical power and raw electricity. Backed by a stellar band and vocal section, and a modern and visual production, Elvis’ Vegas shows were an event, to be sure.

Of course, addicted to drugs and hindered by a physical girth that would match his stardom, many of his live performances in the later era also provide evidence of his decline, both in physical health and performative ability. The famous rock analyst Lester Bangs said it bluntly in his eulogy to the King, “Where Were You When Elvis Died?” Accusing Presley of having “contempt for the audience,” he wrote: “I see him as being more like the Pentagon, a giant 
armored institution nobody knows anything about except that its power is 
legendary. Obviously we all liked Elvis more than the pentagon, but look at what a 
paltry statement that is.”

The “Vegas Elvis”—bloated, in studded jumpsuit, when the person on stage became more an imposter of the image he once embodied than the real thing—provided the last, and, hence, lingering, image we have of the King doing what made him famous. It’s a shame, of course, because there is some greatness in that time, too. But if it must be, then so be it, because there is even a grandeur in his tragic demise.

Forty years ago today, when Elvis began this, the last stage in his hallowed career, he also began writing the final chapter in the archetype he continues to define. Elvis was and remains the very definition of what we call “Rock ‘n’ Roll.” We revel in his house, one built with many a mighty voice and strum, but occupied by only one, then and now.

As the young Hilburn wrote back in 1969: “When all the applause is finished, the stage is cleared and the showroom at the International Hotel is emptied, one message remains: the rock generation was right after all. Elvis Presley was no false idol. He was, and remains, the most important of all.”

All photos came from the wonderful website “Elvis Presley Music” and their section on this special day in rock history.

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It’s getting hot in California

“No, I believe time wounds all heals.”
–John Lennon

The (very) tentative budget agreement between the California State Legislature and the Governor is a study in odd and tragic political realities infecting the Golden State.  You can easily find diatribes on the structural problems at hand, ones that make it difficult for a majority to pass a budget or make it easy for a rich minority to sponsor “voter” propositions.  Others might be more concerned with the political strategy of the whole thing.  Republicans in this State are largely misfits when compared to the voters who identify as members of their party, but mainstream Democrats in the State don’t know how to play their hand very well either, often falling before the minority’s charge.

All these and more are tragic, but they aren’t my concern today.

California is ground zero once again in its history as it provides terrain for the political debate of the early century: should government exist?  The Republican minority in this State are not just making an argument for a “lean” and “efficient” government; they want it starved and killed.  Their budget and their posturing suggests they are comfortable with the State locking people up for outrageously-long sentences, but not providing them an education; protecting them from starvation or disease; providing for their safety in daily life on the roads, on the bridges, in the oceans, and near the rivers; taking care of them when they can not take care of themselves; and protecting them from abusive homes.

They are saying it is okay for a child to go hungry in this, the world’s 8th largest economy.  They are saying it is okay for the number of elderly living in poverty to rise. They are saying that if you are born with a disease or a physical handicap of some sort then it is up to you, and you alone, to survive. They are suggesting that if you are a child living in an abusive home that your rights do not matter, and that the State will not step in to protect them for you.

This minority of zealots is a group of nihilists, and nothing more.  While they might defend every one of the actions I reference above, and complicate my casual accusation of their goals and interests, the only way they can do so is to support some simple-minded idealization of a world that does not exist and say that these things will be provided for in that Disney-esque schema.

This is a modern world, with modern problems.  The complex societies we require to participate in the global capitalist economy foster (and at times create) conditions that people on their own can not solve alone.  Economically, it is better and cheaper for us to address these situations in the immediate than in the long term.  Indeed, economically, addressing some of these in the immediate term IS economic investment.  The nearly free education provided ALL baby boomers (especially middle-class ones) in this State led directly to the economic success we have had for so long.

But they are nihilists. They pursue some ideologically fringe idea even when all the evidence in the world says it does not compute with their stated reasons for so doing. They are in the business of killing government for the sake of killing government no matter who it will hurt in the process.

This is a war.  And the “other side” is not about protecting flawed government systems and funds for special interests, it is about protecting our very right to be served by any government at all.  It is about protecting the rights of children and the poor.  It is about protecting the rights of us all to have a government that is strong enough and well-funded enough to act on our behalf.

Racism in the strawberry fields

Most people in the United States don’t think racism is a problem. While they’ll agree it was a “problem of the past,” the lack of formal segregation (the only kind of racism people were taught to understand) suggests to them not only have things gotten better, they’re pretty good overall.

This perspective is rooted in the post-Civil Right Era debates between the Left and the Right, a debate the latter largely won.  When Reagan seized the rhetoric of “personal responsibility,” he worked from the assumption that people were unencumbered by any formal structural kinds of impediments to their own progress and, so, if they were poor, it was their fault.

The lack of recognition of racism in our present-day is ultimately linked to our lack of understanding regarding how “race” actually operates in our society.  As I suggested above, that is not surprising considering the historic contest of the last thirty years over ideology and interpretation, a struggle of public policy and accountability as much as anything else.  But our condition is also expected when you consider the complexity with which race actually does operate in our present moment.

Take strawberries.

In 2007, over the objection of 50 medical and scientific experts, the Bush Administration’s EPA approved the use of the pesticide methyl iodide.  The chemical is promoted by the strawberry industry, despite the fact it “has been found to cause thyroid toxicity, neurological damage, and fetal loss in lab animals.”

The letter written by the group opposing its approval in 2007 said, in part, “We are concerned that pregnant women and the fetus, children, the elderly, farm workers, and other people living near application sites would be at serious risk.”  The EPA approved it anyway.

You and I and anybody else who might ever eat a strawberry is at risk because of this chemical.  Honestly, we have been for a long time.  Strawberry production is reliant on a host of chemicals, not to mention systemic labor abuses, some of which were detailed in Eric Schlosser’s 1995 exposé of the industry.  The long and short of it is, none of us should at strawberries, for both health and moral reasons.

The most disturbing part of this, however, is the way racism is at play.  Brown bodies toil in those fields, almost without exception. Those brown bodies are not valued by government or society as embodying the same kind of human being as do white bodies.  Their cancer rates are irrelevant; their wombs are collateral damage.  Their humanity is dismissed as an appropriate risk and loss in order for us to have big, red strawberries.

The use of methyl iodide has been banned by the State of New York. The decision on whether to scrutinize its use in California is currently in the governor’s hands. In the next two weeks, Schwarzeneggar will make his decision: to be a pawn of agribusiness or to recognize the humanity of poor, brown workers.  We will see.

A tremendous h/t goes to Barry Estabrook and his coverage of this issue on Gourmet.  Their “food politics” coverage is almost without rival.

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Racial hypocrisy in the Sotomayor hearings

Thus far, there are no surprises in the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings.  Unfortunately, that is the problem.

Two things are abundantly clear: many people remain ignorant on the historical legacy of race and racism in the United States; and many people continue to cling to the privilege of white supremacy by absolving themselves of personal, racial ideologies and ways of knowing while exercising the same.

Republicans don’t seem to have much when it comes to actual legal decisions she has made. In sum, she’s hardly a flaming liberal in the record of the court and, on top of that, she practices what is considered to be a fair and impartial method by legal standards.

So what do they do?

They try to make her out to be a racist and an “activist” judge because she once suggested people working in the law might think differently because of their ethnic background and life experience.

To deny that is not only ahistorical, it is also perfectly produced by history.  It is a denial rooted in white supremacy.

What else is it when a bunch of white men attack a Latina judge for being racist when they never questioned once the bold suggestion that a white man was the most qualified in all the nation the previous TWO times an open seat on the court was filled?

What else is it when a bunch of white men assume the uncontroverted final word on what racism is–the overt recognition that race exists–rather than the one grounded in historical experience and forged out of antiracist struggle?

White supremacy rarely acknowledged “whiteness” except when it was confronted with its “opposite.”  One of the features of “whiteness” is the very denial of its existence.  “White people” don’t have race, that’s what those colored folks have. “Whiteness” is naturalized, the norm, simply what is.  All other racial constructions are the aberration, the difference, the problem.

Like the system it produces, white supremacy centers “white” people as the source of what is important and valued.

And that’s exactly what is happening here.

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Mexicans after the U.S.-Mexican War

Beginning in spring 1846, after various diplomatic, informal economic, and unofficial militaristic attempts to take and occupy part of Mexico’s northern frontier, the U.S. declared war on its southern neighbor.  A decade after their politically unresolved dispute over Tejas, this war lasted for about one and a half years and resulted in the transfer of almost half of Mexico’s territory to the United States.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848 and ratified by both nations the subsequent spring, agreed to a payment of $15 million for the lost territory; settled the dispute over Texas in the favor of the United States; made stipulations about the land transfer; and detailed responsibilities and obligations regarding the actions of the Native Americans living on much of that land (many of whom never recognized a “foreign” power sovereignty over them and, accordingly, were hostile to Mexico and the United States).  The Treaty also detailed what was to become of the Mexicans living in the newly conquered territories.

Mexicans in the now occupied lands were to be protected under the laws of the United States and the Treaty.  They retained the right to their language, religion, and culture.  Their property and land was protected by the law.  As for citizenship, they were offered one of three options: 1) declare their intent to retain Mexican citizenship; 2) leave to Mexico; or 3) become U.S. citizens by declaration or by doing nothing.

This was the first time in U.S. history that citizenship was extended to a population that was not formally recognized as “white” by the federal government.

Two generations later, most Mexicans living in the U.S. no longer held title to their lands and found their cultural way of life increasingly under attack as U.S. white supremacy came to predominate.  In California, as land transferred from Mexican to Euro-American hands, a very racially-motivated Workingman’s Party dominated the call for a Constitutional Convention.  In 1879, that new Constitution not only made Chinese immigration illegal (the primary cause of the Party), but it also destroyed the legal protections Mexicans once enjoyed, rights promised to them in the 1848 Treaty.  California once required Spanish and English as the languages of it official business.  Now the new Constitution followed the already common practice of an English language state.

The “nation of laws” violated international and domestic laws in order to secure a democracy for some (white, European, male) at the expense of others (Mexican and nonwhite).

For more information, see:
Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California (Almaguer);
Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race (Gomez); and
Border Citizens: The Making of Indians, Mexicans, and Anglos in Arizona (Meeks)

For more details on life for Mexicans in California after the war, see the classic Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californias, 1846-1890 (Pitts).  The newer Negotiating Conquest: Gender and Power in California, 1770s to 1880s (Chavez-Garcia), which pays particular attention to issues of gender and sexuality, is also an excellent source.

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Feminism and the high court

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sonia Sotomayor’s statement about being a “wise Latina woman”:

I’m sure she meant no more than what I mean when I say: Yes, women bring a different life experience to the table. All of our differences make the conference better. That I’m a woman, that’s part of it, that I’m Jewish, that’s part of it, that I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and I went to summer camp in the Adirondacks, all these things are part of me.

In an amazingly candid interview with the New York Times, Ginsburg spoke out being the only woman on the court, the Sotomayor nomination, and a host of other related issues. It is a rare and illuminating opportunity to hear such talk from a sitting Justice. Check it out.

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All-Time Top Movies

As a lover of movies and all things “Hollywood” I have been obsessed with the motion picture box office ever since I was a kid.

As any Hollywood-file knows, however, the top earners list is not the same as the top earners adjusted for inflationThe Dark Knight might have kicked some box office butt last year, but that was largely due to the rise in the price of a ticket, not because more people paid to see the movie than, say, Star Wars.

So who are the All-Time Box Office Leaders when compensated for inflation? Well, here’s the “Top Ten” with their adjusted (and actual) box office totals, and, more importantly, what I think of them:

1. Gone With the Wind (1939): $1,450,680,400 ($198,676,459)
I didn’t see the whole thing until I was in my twenties, when it toured in the beautifully restored version. It was beautiful and grand, yes, but a very different creature than when it was released in 1939.  It was the most-eagerly awaited film in history at its release, a film of a best-selling and much-loved novel. By the late 1990s, Scarlett O’Hara seems like the devil going around fucking up everybody’s life.  Kind of like Showgirls for the Civil War.  Anyhoo, the numbers justify some sort of respect, if not for content and form than just for the sake of being such a monumental hit. And it hit it was.  Gone With the Wind ran in theaters for more than a decade.

2. Star Wars (1977): $1,278,898,700 ($460,998,007)
What can I say about the movie that turned every blanket into an Obi-Wan Kenobi costume and every broom stick into a light saber?  The only reason it isn’t number 1 is because people had more things to do in the 1970s than they did in the 1940s.

3. The Sound of Music (1965): $1,022,542,400 ($158,671,368)
Any movie that recasts nuns into active anti-fascists is one that was bound to be force-fed to me from a young age. All my Catholic recovery steps have done nothing to mitigate the sheer force of Maria and those damned singing kids. I love this movie.  It might be the last of the great musicals to ever be made.

4. E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial (1982): $1,018,514,100 ($435,110,554)
Two memories related to “E.T.” standout for me. First, seeing the movie for the second time, I decided to sit apart from my mom and sister because I thought I might cry. I tried hard to fight off the tears, but one might have snuck out. My other memory is of going to Tijuana to shop and buying a small “piggie bank” of E.T. made of plaster and paint. I chose it from a line of some 40 vendors all collectively selling somewhere between 100 and 150 of the same bank. I also bought an E.T. wallet that day. The movie remains “magical” upon reviewing in my jaded middle age.


5. The Ten Commandments (1956): $940,580,000 ($65,500,000)
I hate Charlton Heston.  And not for his politics, although those were stupid, too. Basic problem with him is that he can’t act.  That can work in film (like in Planet of the Apes) or brilliant people can combine to work around it (like in Ben Hur). Here, he just stinks in what is trite Hollywood Bible fare. That said, I have fond memories of the film growing up, since it was beaten into our minds as some sort of Easter tradition. But how in the hell did Edward G. Robinson get a role in this?

6. Titanic (1997): $921,523,500 ($600,788,188)
I remember walking out of this spectacle and thinking how damned talented James Cameron was to make a movie that had something for everybody. This is a “guy’s movie” and a “chick flick” all at once. I think the parts holdup better than the sum upon reviewing. I remain fond of the narrative structure and the story he weaves, familiar to fans of mainstream films yet unrelenting in its consistency with the project. Plus, its the first film on our list with boobs.

7. Jaws (1975): $919,605,900 ($260,000,000)
I was only three when it came out, so too young for the hoopla. But it had legs (or fins?), as they say. When it premiered on On-TV in the early 1980s, I couldn’t stand the tension! It remains one of my favorite Spielberg movies because he does what he needs to do so frickin’ well. Anytime you are in a pool with kids, don’t you start “the song”?

8. Doctor Zhivago (1965): $891,292,600 ($111,721,910)
This is the one on the list I haven’t seen. I suspect it is good, since Omar Sharif is cinematic coolness.

9. The Exorcist (1973): $793,883,100 ($232,671,011)
I’ve only seen the non-television version of this movie once, at least from beginning to end. I can see how folks thought it was scary but, geez, Nixon was president. Compared to him it’s like the number 10 movie on the list. At my one full viewing I felt it didn’t hold up, especially when compared to Psycho before,  Don’t Look Now! at the same time, and The Ring since.

10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937): $782,620,000 ($184,925,486)
Has hardcore mine labor ever sounded so good? You have to turn off the “political” analysis side of your brain to make sense of the good parts of Snow White. Then again, if you turn that academic brain on and do some sub-textual analysis it all gets a little kinky. Either way, it is a work of history and of art, looking and flowing better than most of the Disney work. The story works, too.

For the rest of the list, visit the kids at Box Office Mojo.

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