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The Killer Inside Me
Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart: American Jekyll and Hyde
One possible goal of a life is to leave an obituary that makes for really good reading. I knew Jerry Lee Lewis’s would not disappoint, but it exceeded my expectations. His life was a crazed collage of scandal, addiction and disaster: he was married seven times—once, infamously, to his thirteen-year-old cousin; he had an impetuous habit of remarrying before he had 100% legally divorced the preceding wife; two of his wives died under circumstances that aroused the interest of the authorities. He (literally) crashed the gates of Graceland with a gun on his dashboard, demanding to see Elvis. He shot his bass player in the chest after saying, quote: “I’m gonna shoot that Coke bottle or my name ain’t Jerry Lee Lewis.” Although his name remained Jerry Lee Lewis, he was often called “The Killer” because that’s what he called anyone whose name he couldn’t remember. Which was a lot of people.
But I’m embarrassed to admit that, until reading Lewis’s obit, I was ignorant of what is to me the most astonishing fact about him: he was a first cousin to Jimmy Swaggart, the televangelist whose crocodilian-tear-streaked face, belatedly confessing his freshly-exposed sins, became iconic in the Eighties. It’s almost too perfect a metaphor: one face snarling in wanton rapture, the other maudlin with ersatz repentance—an American Jekyll and Hyde. They were also a yin/yang, each harboring a germ of the other: Lewis performed a rowdy sexuality, both onstage and in his public life, but always remained a closet Pentecostalist, sitting in scourging judgment of himself; Swaggart performed a treacly piety onstage but was a closet dirtbag, meeting up with hookers in cheap motels. Lewis, at least, had a redemptive talent, and made something joyful and enduring; Swaggart was just another scammer.
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I’m not holding Jerry Lee Lewis up as any kind of exemplar; he was by no one’s account, or any definition, a good person. But the conformity of the Eisenhower Fifties was aching, straining at its gray-flannel pants for something like Lewis, like a flatulent court jester or ribald Hopi clown, to shake postwar America out of its Puritan stupor—and that person couldn’t be acting. He couldn’t be faking it. What was needed was not just a performer but an authentically Bad Man. Lewis was a performer, but he wasn’t just performing; he was a wild man, utterly undomesticable, one of those infamous characters like Jim Thompson or Tallulah Bankhead, Dennis Hopper or Timothy Carey. Even if you can’t admire or approve of them, we need these unacceptable people; they serve a crucial function in society, even if they can’t be comfortably integrated into it, like our spies and assassins.
The schizoid dissonance between prurience and repression that‘s always riven the Puritan soul is one of the defining contradictions of American history, maybe as defining as race. It’s in the Salem witch trials and The Scarlet Letter, the day-care hysterias and Lewinski scandal. If you’ve ever been on a cross-country road trip, you know that once you get deep enough into the heartland, the billboards start to alternate between exhortations to REPENT and ads for XXX PORN. (The puerile slogan “Let’s Go Brandon” is typical of this red-state repression—grown men sniggering like second-graders who’ve come up with an ingenious code to get away with alluding to a dirty word right in front of the teacher. In the grownup states, you’re just allowed to say “Fuck Trump.”) This furtive, guilty cutting off of a part of oneself and then loudly denouncing it is the mechanism behind the by-now 100% reliable rule of conservative projection: any politician who loudly rails against homosexuality is inevitably caught giving blowjobs in a public restroom; any preacher who sounds the alarm about homosexuals “grooming” schoolchildren is cuffed for raping parishoners’ kids; a right-wing blogger who claims to have “proof” that Hillary Clinton sacrifices children to Satan is exposed as a sex offender. There have been no more dogged persecutors of deviance in America than the closeted J. Edgar Hoover and Roy Cohn. Maybe if all those bearded guys cosplaying Army Man with semiautomatic weapons slung across their beer bellies to shut down drag shows just tried on some nice frocks or wraps or strapless gowns with sweetheart necklines they might find they feel a lot less like shooting anybody.
It's with us still, this schism; our history keeps spasming between libertinism and repression. The sexual revolution of the late Sixties and Seventies—women’s lib and the Pill, Stonewall and swinging—were followed by the Reagan Eighties, with the advent of the priggish Moral Majority and boner-killing cocaine; the Obama era’s recognition of gay marriage and the coming out of trans America was followed by the hysterical, bigoted backlash of Trumpism—“Don’t Say Gay,” governors bullying trans kids, the repeal of Roe v. Wade by a Supreme Court stacked with fanatics. A sex education program in Virginia was just shut down by the champions of decency using their favored tactics, harassment and death threats. The sexually stunted and mutilated, their psyches grotesque as bound feet or flagellants’ backs, always want to govern and punish saner, more integrated adults.
The anti-abortion movement is all about the fear and hatred of sex—which, per the law of projection, means the fear and hatred of women. American evangelicals are on a continuum with their spiritual brethren in Afghanistan and Iran, who won’t allow girls in school and will jail, rape, and murder women for wearing the wrong hat. Psychologist Wilhelm Reich argued there was a deep alliance between sexual repression and authoritarianism—crushing children’s sexual impulses makes them ashamed, anxious, and docile, redirecting libido into more outlets more beneficial to the state, like aggression. It’s true Reich also tried to harness the power of orgasms and control the weather but it’s hard to ignore the correlation between cruel, authoritarian ideologies and the fear and hatred of women and sex.
Not long after Jerry Lee Lewis died, I spent part of an evening with a friend watching old footage of The Killer in concert, ca. late 50s – early 60s. I’d no idea how insane his hair was—a wavy platinum pageboy that flops into a wild mop when he really gets going. He kicks the piano bench away, hammers the upper notes with his foot, stands on top of the piano and makes out with the mic. But at least as interesting to me as Lewis himself is the crowd: I’ve always been fascinated by footage of the audiences at early rock ‘n’ roll concerts, young people who had never heard sounds like this before, whose parents’ headiest music had been Benny Goodman. Their faces are ecstatic, agonized; they scream and clutch their faces; they stamp and writhe. (I love the scene in La Dolce Vita, made in 1960, when some partygoers clamor for “Rock and roll! Rock and roll!” and when the band, which has been playing a cha-cha, strikes up a Chuck Berry-type number they go berserk, faces feral with joy.) Something primal, scary and thrilling is happening there—an authentic Dionysian frenzy, like the dancing epidemics of the Dark Ages. The return of the repressed. Sexuality, like Satan, only grows stronger when it’s locked up.
This was the cultural discontinuity that sheared the postwar era in two; in a lot of ways, 2022 still feels closer to the 1960s than the ‘60s do to the ‘40s. It’s that “more innocent” prewar era that cultural conservatives want to drag us all back and shackle us to, back before the Devil’s music seduced the children and the coloreds and dames and gays got so uppity—what Thomas Pynchon, in Vineland, calls “a timeless, defectively imagined future of zero-tolerance drug-free Americans all pulling their weight and all locked into the official economy, inoffensive music, endless family specials on the Tube, church all week long, and, on special days, for extra-good behavior, maybe a cookie.” Like most conservative dreams, it’s a regressive fantasy—forcing the whole country back to the Edenic days of having to marry the first person you knocked up in the back seat of the car, when girls who got pregnant outside of wedlock were shamed and sent away.
Tom Wolfe wrote an essay at the height (or nadir) or the sexual revolution, arguing, contra the popular wisdom of the era, that the Freudian metaphor of the psyche as steam engine, with pressure that built up and needed to be released, was less accurate than the neuroscientific model of the brain as computer, with feedback loops that could be reinforced to the point of running away and overloading the whole system—leading to what’s now called sex or porn addiction. It’s true that subsequent history has not entirely been a Reichian utopia of eros unbound. Even if the libido doesn’t run amok into pathology, people who make their sexuality their whole identity—fetishizing their welts, proselytizing about polyamory—tend to be boring at best. Ideally you’re able to integrate your sexuality into the rest of your personality, rather than trying to “lock her up” or “build that wall.” What’s so poisonous to the soul is neither piety nor lewdness, but the divide, the enmity between the two.
There’s always been a hidden kinship between these two strains of American culture. Rock ‘n’ roll is the unacknowledged bastard child of gospel music, less a secular rebellion than a heretical sect. The shrieks and writhing of teenage bacchanates at an Elvis concert aren’t so different from the galvanic convulsions and gibbering of Pentecostalists “dancing in the spirit” or “speaking in tongues.” The two cousins, Lewis and Swaggart, were both monsters of a sort—products of that mutant American strain of Christianity that cripples and disfigures all its children. Have you ever read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? It’s not a cautionary fable about the danger of unloosing your baser nature, but of trying to indulge it by denying it, foisting it off onto something that is definitely Not You. The real evil is the fornicators, whores and pornographers, the “groomers” and abusers, Hillary Clinton presiding at a Democrat orgy, praising Satan with her mouth smeared with infants’ blood—not you, home at your computer, furtively slipping once more into Incognito Mode. By the story’s end, Hyde finds he can’t disappear back into his guise as upstanding citizen; he’s become imprisoned in himself, exposed to the world as the fiend he’s become. The fatal mistake is to forsake that other, denounce it as something alien and hateful, instead of acknowledging them as your own blood.
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