Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Pat Boone and Prop. 8


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

One of the quirkier manifestations of the battle over Proposition 8 — in which the campaign against the measure after the voters passed it has been considerably more energetic, imaginative and committed than the one before the vote — came in an e-mail from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) alerting Queer folk and their straight allies to a bizarre pro-8 colum n comparing grass-roots defenders of same-sex marriage equality to the terrorists who attacked Mumbai, India. What made it even more odd was that the author of the column, a December 6 Web post on the Right-wing site worldnetdaily.com, was 1950’s singer and actor Pat Boone.

“Hate is hate, in India or America,” Boone’s World Net Daily screed was headlined. After four paragraphs (one of them only one sentence long) rehashing the Mumbai attack and blaming it on “one of many Islamic groups that feel directed by their religion to subjugate — or exterminate — ‘infidels’ like Hindus, Jews, Christians and even other Muslims who don’t hew to their extremist views” to whom “there is only one acceptable world view … and anyone who might disagree or obstruct their goals should be removed, violently if need be,” Boone gets to the nitty-gritty: “Thank God, it couldn’t happen here. Could it? Look around. Watch your evening news. Read your newspaper.”

Showing a level of emotion far more intense than anything he ever put on record in his days as (as his Web site boasts) the second-best record seller of the 1950’s, Boone asks, “Are you unaware of the raging demonstrations in our streets, in front of our churches and synagogues, even spilling into these places of worship, and many of those riots turning defamatory and violent? Have you not seen the angry, distorted faces of the rioters, seen their derogatory and threatening placards and signs, heard their vows to overturn the democratically expressed views of voters, no matter what it costs, no matter what was expressed at the polls? Twice?”

Boone goes on to write about “the well-oiled campaign to find out the names of every voter and business that contributed as much as $1,000, or even less, in support of Proposition 8 … the announced plans to boycott, demonstrate, intimidate and threaten each one,” with “prominent entertainers and even California Governor Schwarzenegger urging the demonstrators on, telling them they should ‘never give up’ until they get their way.” Then he writes the kicker: “Have you not seen the awful similarity between what happened in Mumbai and what’s happening right now in our cities?”

To his credit, Boone is sufficiently reality-based that he acknowledges that “the homosexual ‘rights’ demonstrations haven’t reached the same level of violence” as the terrorist attacks on Mumbai. He’s aware that Gay commandos didn’t charge the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego and start shooting guests at random as some kind of misguided vengeance against the hotel’s owner, Doug Manchester, for having given $125,000 in seed money to get Proposition 8 on the ballot in the first place. He even seems to acknowledge that Queer terrorists haven’t been surrounding Mormon churches and massacring both clergy and congregants inside the way the Mumbai fighters ambushed rabbis and members of the Jewish group Chabad.

“I’m referring to the anger, the vehemence, the total disregard for law and order and the supposed rights of their fellow citizens,” Boone sniffs. “I’m referring to the intolerance, the hate seething in the words, faces and actions of those who didn’t get their way in a democratic election, and who proclaim loudly that they will get their way, no matter what the electorate wants! Hate is hate, no matter where it erupts. And hate, unbridled, will eventually and inevitably boil into violence.”

Pat Boone is right about one thing: hate is hate. I daresay many of the people who voted for Proposition 8 weren’t aware of the hatred behind their actions and didn’t stop to think through that the only way to justify their vote was a sincere belief that men-loving men and women-loving women are a lower order of life from women-loving men and men-loving women. (One person who did realize that was San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, who backed away from his initial opposition to same-sex marriage when he decided he couldn’t tell his Lesbian daughter that her marriage was less important than his.) The people who voted for Proposition 8 gave all sorts of reasons, many of them echoed in Pat Boone’s column — from Biblical teachings to the need to protect “families” — but, whether they were aware of it or not, all of them boiled down to anti-Queer prejudice and hatred.

The campaign in favor of Proposition 8 was based on stoking fear — on getting people to believe that if Queer folk were allowed to marry their same-sex partners, schoolchildren would be taught about “Gay marriage,” ministers would be forced to perform them (which they wouldn’t, just as Roman Catholic priests are not forced under current law to marry people who’ve been divorced) and the entire fabric of morality would have been torn asunder. Indeed, Boone’s weird ravings are probably best read as an attempt to keep stoking the flames of fear that won them that victory at the polls and prepare World Net Daily’s readers for yet more campaigns against us — including the threatened recall at the polls of any California Supreme Court justice who dares vote to invalidate Proposition 8.

One of the ironies behind Pat Boone’s bizarre emergence as an impassioned spokesperson against the Queer community is that his open embrace of bigotry and prejudice is all too appropriate for a man who owes his entire career to bigotry and prejudice. Boone first hit the pop charts in 1955 with two classic rock ’n’ roll songs, “Tutti-Frutti” and “Ain’t That a Shame” — but he had nothing to do with creating either of them. They were the work of two African-American singer-songwriters of far greater passion, commitment and talent than Boone — Little Richard and Fats Domino, respectively — yet Boone’s pallid (in both senses) versions of their songs outsold their originals three-to-one.

That was one of the dirty little secrets of the music business at the time. White artists routinely listened to the Black community’s records for songs they could rip off (“cover”) and turn into hits. Sometimes a white singer of genuine artistry and imagination, like Peggy Lee, got hold of a Black song like Joe McCoy’s “Why Don’t You Do Right?” or Little Willie John’s “Fever,” put her own “spin” on it and came up with a version as good or better than the original. Mostly, though, the white artists merely duplicated the Black record — or came as close to it as they could — using the same arrangement, inflecting their vocals in the same places, but putting a white “sheen” on the song that made it acceptable to the whites running the major record companies, radio stations and TV networks.

“We had a real tough time getting our records played,” Atlantic Records co-founder Jerry Wexler told Arnold Shaw for his 1977 book Honkers and Shouters. “All the jocks had to see was the Atlantic label and the name of the artist — and we were dead. We’d say, ‘Just listen and give your listeners a chance to listen.’ But they had a set of stock excuses: ‘Too loud.’ ‘Too rough.’ ‘Doesn’t fit our format.’ They’d never say, ‘We don’t play Black artists.’ But then they’d turn around and play a record of the very same song that was a copy of our record, only it was by a white artist.”

That’s why most 1950’s listeners didn’t get to hear “Money Honey” or “White Christmas” by the brilliant African-American singer Clyde McPhatter and his group, The Drifters. They heard them in the uncannily exact copies recorded by Elvis Presley — and while Elvis at least had enough soul in him, and enough knowledge of Black music from listening to its greatest performers, to do a credible imitation, Pat Boone was totally clueless. The 1970’s TV documentary Heroes of Rock ’n’ Roll cruelly but accurately mocked Boone’s rock ’n’ roll pretensions when they cut in mid-song from a clip of Fats Domino performing “Ain’t That a Shame” to one of Boone singing it.

So it only adds to the irony that Pat Boone’s pro-8 column lambastes Brad Pitt because he “pledged $100,000 to his friend Ellen DeGeneris [sic] for some campaign to overturn Proposition 8,” just after he lauds Pitt as someone “who has done a lot for the displaced people of New Orleans.” One of the most prominent “displaced people of New Orleans” in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was Fats Domino, whose house was flooded and who lost all his belongings, including all the memorabilia of his career. I’d feel a bit better about Boone for ripping off Domino’s song 50 years earlier if he’d followed Pitt’s example and given Domino some money to rebuild. In fairness, I don’t know for a fact that Boone didn’t — but I certainly didn’t hear about it if he did.

Alluding to Boone’s once prissy image — in 1958, obliged by the script of his film April Love to kiss his leading lady, Shirley Jones, on camera, he publicly agonized about the morality of kissing anyone other than his wife and finally agreed to do the scene only if his wife were allowed on set to chaperone him — Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese said, “Most Americans would be shocked to see this level of vitriol coming from someone who presented himself as America’s sweetheart.” But it’s not such a shock that a man whose success was based on institutionalized racism — and whose career went downhill when the African-American civil rights movement abolished the barriers that had kept Black artists off radio and TV — should mount the moral barricades one final time and rail against the civil rights of a minority he obviously despises.