The Hates, the 1970s Gas Crisis, and "Do the Caryl Chessman"
Alan Alda as Caryl Chessmen in Kill Me If You Can
Not to brag, but I've got a copy of the new Hates album, People's Temple, and it is (as usual) a fantastic little CD that every punk fan in Houston should own. We're still waiting on a confirmed release party at Cactus, but before that happens there's a song on the disc we want to talk about, "Do the Caryl Chessmen."
Today marks the anniversary of the execution of Caryl Chessman, who expired in the gas chamber even as his stay of execution was being sent over the phone in 1960. Chessman had spent most of his life in and out of prison before being convicted for 17 counts of robbery, kidnapping, and rape in 1948.
Note that murder isn't on that list. Chessman ended up with the death penalty due to a quirk in California's kidnapping law that said if a person dragged his or her victim a sufficient enough distance it counted as kidnapping, a capital crime. In Chessman's case he dragged a rape victim only 17 feet. The courts found that sufficient.
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Chessman spent the next 12 years on death row appealing his sentence in a variety of ways, and became something of a central figure and celebrity in the anti-death penalty movement as he claimed coercion, conspiracy, and other circumstances that he said made him innocent.
"During the energy crisis of the late '70s, as I sat waiting in long lines for gas, I had a lot of time to just listen to music and let my imagination run where it would," says Christian Kidd of The Hates vial email about the song. "We all were angry back then about the way that we were having to deal with high prices and gas rationing, and for what -- for the rich oil barons to get richer?"
In the midst of all this turmoil a made-for-TV movie, called Kill Me if You Can, aired, and it was about Caryl Chessman. Alan Alda played Caryl, and I remember they put this weird putty stuff on his face so he wouldn't look like Alan Alda.
The movie itself was terrible, but it lit a spark. Sitting for about two and a half hours waiting for gas on the odd day, because back then the last number of your license plate determined whether you could get gas on odd or even days, I imagined Alan Alda as Caryl Chessman defending himself in court.
In my mind, I crafted him as an anti-hero; a Robin Hood kind of guy. Robbing only rich people at red lights and giving back to the poor so they could afford to buy gas. Maybe one day he would've gone to the boardroom of Gulf Oil (where I worked by day, can you appreciate the irony?) with a vest full of dynamite to threaten the fat cats into lowering gas prices. I know that wasn't who he really was, but my imagination just ran all over the idea. That's how the song was born.
Kidd himself is against the death penalty, and believes it does nothing to reform criminals or reduce crime. You can hear the cut from People's Temple below.
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