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Louis Jordan, Forefather of Rock ‘N’ Roll

Do riots have soundtracks? Is there mood music for civil unrest? Should we draw a line from Los Angeles, 1992, and the bleak ve­hemence of Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” back a quarter of a century to Newark, 1967, and the buoyant pride of Aretha Franklin’s “Re­spect”? If so — and why the fuck not? This is the way introductory paragraphs get started — then what do we find when we go back yet another quarter of a century, to 1942 and the Sojourner Truth Homes riots, the Detroit confla­gration that foreshadowed even greater rioting in Detroit and New York the following year?

That trouble in Detroit 50 years ago began on the morning of Feb­ruary 28, when a group of black families, attempting to enter the new Sojourner Truth Homes housing project as instructed by the Detroit Housing Commission, was met by an angry white mob standing hard against the project’s decreed integration. It was, to be sure, a conflict precipitated by white aggression. But when trou­ble rose anew in Detroit on the morning of June 20, 1943 — the same month the so-called zoot­suit riots broke out in Los Ange­les — it began with a spree of rob­beries and assaults by blacks against whites. And when rioting erupted in Harlem several weeks later, on August 1, the violence and looting was confined to the black community itself.

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The Justice Department’s 1943 observation that “large segments of the Negro community hate the police” came as a surprise to no one in Detroit. “Those police are murderers,” one 20-year-old black man in Detroit was quoted as say­ing, “I hate ’em, oh God, how I hate ’em.” The sentiment was there. But there was no Body Count to take it to market.

Things were different. Billboard had continued to publish a “Min­strelsy” column until 1939, only three years before the Sojourner Truth Homes riots. But by Octo­ber 1942, midway between those riots and the riots of the following summer, the trade weekly was publishing a new chart, the “Har­lem Hit Parade.” Soon there would be a riot going on in more ways than one. Something — in time, it would come to be known as rock ‘n’ roll — was gathering in the wind.

Louis Jordan’s first hit, “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town,” came in early 1942, con­current with the first Detroit riot­ing. Jordan by then was 33 years old, and he had been performing since he was 12, when he found summer work with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels in his native Ar­kansas. From Little Rock, where he studied music at Arkansas Bap­tist College and played alto saxo­phone with Jimmy Pryor’s Impe­rial Serenaders, he made his roundabout way to New York. There, in June 1929, in a group led by drummer Chick Webb, Jor­dan made his first recordings. Joining the Philadelphia-based Charlie Gaines Orchestra, Jordan made his next recordings in December 1932, when the Gaines group accompanied Louis Arm­strong at the Victor studio in Camden, New Jersey. In March and September of 1934, again with Gaines, Jordan played at two Clarence Williams sessions for Vocalion. At the first session, on a song called “I Can’t Dance, I Got Ants in My Pants,” Jordan was featured as a vocalist for the first time on record. In the fall of 1936, after working awhile in drummer Kaiser Marshall’s band at the Ubangi Club in Harlem, he rejoined Chick Webb, whose or­chestra, by then featuring Webb’s teenage singing discovery, Ella Fitzgerald, was the rage of the Sa­voy Ballroom. From that autumn through the spring of 1938, Jordan made 31 recordings with Webb and Fitzgerald, for Decca.

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Jesse Stone, who would go on to write “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and other rock ‘n’ roll classics, and who Ahmet Ertegun would say “did more to develop the ba­sic rock ‘n’ roll sound than anybody else,” was working at the Apollo Theatre in 1938.

“This was right after it had been turned over from being a white burlesque house. I worked for Leonard Harper, staging shows, composing songs,” Stone told me in the summer of 1983. “I also played with my band at the Club Renaissance in Harlem on weekends. That’s where Louis Jor­dan picked up on my style of sing­ing. I was doin’ arrangements for Chick Webb at the time, and Lou­is was playin’ third alto in Chick’s band. He asked Chick could he sing, and Chick said yeah. Louis said, ‘Well, Jesse’s gonna make a couple arrangements for me.’ So I made the arrangements. He tried ’em out one night and he went over great. Chick didn’t like that. He wouldn’t call the tunes again after that. So Louis quit. I encour­aged him, told him that if he wanted to sing, he should get away from Chick. He took my band, and they became the Elks Rendezvous Band.”

Named for the Lenox Avenue nightclub where they found their first steady work, Jordan’s band made its first recordings, for Dec­ca, five days before Christmas of 1938. Changing the band’s name soon after to Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five — a name he would never forsake, no matter how many musicians he brought onstage or into the studio — Jordan remained with Decca for more than 15 years. He became the biggest-selling black act of the ’40s with four of that decade’s 10 biggest r&b hits. More important, he made some of the greatest music that has ever been made; if any one man is to be given credit for siring rock ‘n’ roll, it is he.

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Let the Good Times Roll: The Complete Decca Recordings, 1938-1954 (Bear Family, PO Box 1154, 2864 Vollersode, Germany) is a magnificent collection: eight compact discs and one long-play vinyl album (Jordan’s duets with Ella Fitzgerald could not be li­censed for CD release here) com­prising and presenting the full de­velopment, breadth, and flow of Jordan’s main body of work in all its glory. Inspired in part by the popularity of the current stage re­vue Five Guys Named Moe, there has been renewed interest in Jor­dan of late. The recordings that he made, 1929-38, as a sideman and sometime singer, are now available on several compact discs in the Classics Chronological series from France. The Vintage Jazz Classics CD Five Guys Named Moe: The Best of Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five brings to­gether V-Disc and radio-pilot re­cordings from 1943-46. Jordan’s work after leaving Decca can be heard on the Capitol CD One Guy Named Louis: The Complete Alla­din Sessions and the new Verve CD No Moe! Even Jordan’s penul­timate session, done in Paris in late 1973, is now a CD, I Believe In Music, from Evidence. And there are videos as well — three compilations and a featurette. But know it: the Bear Family set rep­resents the heart of the Jordan corpus.

Jordan’s first number-one hit, “What’s the Use of Gettin’ So­ber,” recorded in New York City in the summer of 1942, 10 days before the Harlem riots, was a breezy piece of hokum, complete with an introductory comical col­loquy, that was little more than a jive-age rendering of an old-fash­ioned minstrelsy turn. The hits continued to come, and by the summer of 1944, when his “G.I. Jive” crossed over to the pop charts, Jordan’s commercial suc­cess was such that Decca brought him together in the studio with Bing Crosby, the golden idol of mainstream pop.

From 1938 through the Crosby duets, Jordan’s music remained essentially a captivating blend of swing, sweet, and jive. By 1945, however, the jive aspect — that elusive protopathic something that Jesse Stone called “my style”; that nascent poetry of hepcat ni­hilism set to the obliterating rhythm of the century’s rising pulse — began to bound forward with a rushing force that soon left swing and sweet in the dust. It can be heard, lush and wild, in the opening waves of “Buzz Me”; in the fierce, truncated saxophone breaks of “They Raided the House”; in the blare and squeal of “Caldonia Boogie” — all recorded on the same glorious day in Janu­ary 1945. Both “Caldonia Boo­gie” and “Buzz Me” became num­ber-one r&b hits and crossed over to the pop charts, impelling and forever imbuing the sound of things to come.

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Jordan by then had moved to Los Angeles. Back in New York, other reed-men — they had come out of the same sort of jazz bands as he — were brewing a strange new sound. By 1946, when Dizzy Gillespie and his All-Star Quintet released a record called “Be-Bop,” that strange new brew had a name; and by the summer of that year, when Charlie Parker record­ed “Lover Man,” jazz was as much about mystique as about music. Those musicians who culti­vated that mystique, that aura of the serious artist, would define jazz and the concept of hip in the decades to come. But the summer of alto-saxophonist Charlie Parker’s “Lover Man” was also the summer of alto-saxophonist Louis Jordan’s “Choo-Choo Ch’Boogie,” the biggest r&b hit of the year and a resounding smack to the face of all self-serious art and a smack as well on the ass of that newborn baby, conceived in rhythm and baptized in wine, called rock ‘n’ roll. It was a sundering smack, leaving the para­digm of hep forever cleft in twain. From here on in, one either sat squirming to the fingerfuck of ex­istentialism or one danced on the grave of pretensions.

The electric guitar had become a part of Jordan’s evolving sound in 1945, and by 1946 its presence was often as important as that of the saxophones. The electric-gui­tar licks that kick off “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman,” recorded in January of that year, would be recycled 12 years later by Chuck Berry in “Johnny B. Goode.” By the end of 1946, Jordan was at his musical peak, having arrived at a unique and consummate sound that was both a continuation of the old — he had not so much for­saken big-band swing as trans­formed its essentials into a driving force for new rhythms — and a foreshadowing of things to come. That peak can be heard in “Let the Good Times Roll,” the rau­cous birth-cry of a new era and the song that still best sums up the sound and style and achievement of Louis Jordan.

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Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” came out nine months after “Let the Good Times Roll” hit the charts, and by the summer of the following year, Wynonie Harris’s cover of Brown’s song was a number-one hit. Jordan continued to make fine music — “Saturday Night Fish Fry” in that summer of 1949, “Blue Light Boogie” in the summer of 1950 — but, in 1951, the hits stopped coming. The two compact discs here that cover the years 1950 to 1954 contain more than a few splendid surprises — the previous­ly unissued blues “If You’ve Got Someplace to Go”; the luxuriant, forth-bursting “If You’re So Smart, How Come You Ain’t Rich?”; the lowdown “I Gotta Move” — but they exude the lassi­tude of a man whose music was being eclipsed by others’, a man reverting more and more to the rote familiarity of past idioms, as if seeking refuge from a world whose sound was changing too fast and too deliriously. Just six months, a breath in time, sepa­rates Jordan’s last Decca session from Elvis’s first Sun session; but that breath is immense, one of expiration and of inspiration both.

As early as 1941, Downbeat, the voice of the hep status quo, damned Jordan’s music as “crap.” Since then, anything that takes a swipe at that status quo has been similarly damned, from Elvis to the Rolling Stones to Body Count. In the end, it is not the music that defines rock ‘n’ roll — the current that connects “Caldonia Boogie” to “Jailhouse Rock” to “Cop Kill­er” runs deep beneath the surface of the cultural waves — it is the damnation it evokes in its myriad disparate emanations.

Though more danceable than damnable, more conducive to ro­mancing than rioting, the blast of Louis Jordan’s music was the in­vocation that started it all. As his­tory — more important, as fun­ — this magnificent set brings that blast to life anew. ❖

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Outlaws as Oligarchs: Waylon and Willie Outsell ’Em All

Last month RCA’s Outlaws, an anthology of cuts by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser, and Jessi Colter, outsold Bob Dylan’s Desire, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Gimme Back My Bullets, and various other pop heavyweights; it also outsold every country album on the market.

Irony flourishes in an industry of schemes. For more than 50 years, country music has had a thirst for the pop charts, a thirst that has been satisfied by such men as Vernon Dalhart in the 1920s, Gene Autry in the 1930s, Eddy Arnold in the 1940s, Elvis Presley in the 1950s, and Johnny Cash in the 1960s. But in recent years that thirst became a spectacle of gaudy desperation, as country music devolved shamelessly into Easy Listening. When Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors,” the classic middle-of-the-road country song, crossed over to the pop market, country music rushed to imitate its success. The ensuing kitsch did little but alienate much of the existing country market, and things got so bad, so hideously bland that Chet Atkins, one of the people guilty of changing the music to middle-of-the-road mush, did gentle penance by apologizing publicly for what he had done.

Enter Willie Nelson and his first Columbia album, Red Headed Stranger. Made at an out-of-the-way studio in Garland, Texas, at a cost of only $3000, Red Headed Stranger was all that country music had ceased to be: hard edges and inner graces. There were people at the company whose brains puked at the thought of releasing such a record, but Willie won out by agreeing to cut his next two albums in the accepted fashion if Red Headed Stranger failed to make money. The album was released in October 1975. It hit the top of the country charts, then it went high on the pop charts, as a single from the album, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (which Elton Britt had recorded in 1945), became the biggest crossover hit since “Behind Closed Doors.” And that’s how Willie Nelson, after 17 years of moiling against the country music industry’s grain, finally took the wheel.

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Willie and others whom the industry had considered freakish growths upon its Dresden-doll skin were now given credence and respect. Teeth went tight with wrath in 1970 when Kristofferson showed up in street clothes to accept his CMA award for “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” but at the 1975 awards ceremony similarly unorthodox behavior by Waylon Jennings was loudly applauded. The day of the outlaws had come.

There are true tales about many of the old-line country singers, tales of gunplay and whisky and dunes and dunes of Benzedrine and high-heeled caravans of open-mouthed girl-things, garish Iliads of honky-tonk excesses that are rarely encountered except in Don Siegel movies. But these men were never considered outlaws, for they never allowed their personal lives to tint their public images. You either stayed in the closet or you repented publicly, as Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard did. If you fucked up, the consequences were grave, as Hank Williams discovered when he was thrown off the Opry. These were the grievous angels Gram Parsons spoke of.

Nothing those old-timers did pissed off the industry as Kristofferson had in 1970 with his sins against decorum. There he stood, the most successful songwriter of the season, and he just didn’t seem to give a fuck. This surly yanking at the paternal dewlap, this was outlawry of a kind that none of the old-timers would have dared. But you can’t throw someone off the Opry if he’s never cared about being on it. Within a year, Kris had become a star beyond reprehension. His “Me and Bobby McGee,” which had been a country hit for Roger Miller, became a pop hit for Janis Joplin in the summer of 1971, and when Kris’s second album, The Silver-Tongued Devil and I, was released that same summer, it crossed over to the top of the pops.

Five years earlier that could not have happened, but by 1971 the cultural paradigm was changing. White suburban punkdom pushed aside its pretensions of social conscience as one would a copy of “Raised Skirts and Bare Buns” after jerking off. The ’60s were an embarrassing diary in the eyes of the ’70s, and Black Sabbath and Lou Reed were the sound of that diary burning. In a way, Kristofferson was also. Kids who a few years before had affected a vicarious identification with the culture of colored folk now began adopting the ways of the redneck eidos.

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When Willie Nelson started performing with younger, rock-bred people on their mutual Austin turf in 1972, the thrill of benediction was felt. Willie convinced his friends, such as Waylon Jennings and Tompall Glaser, that these long-haired kids were a great country audience, and they too began performing for the kids. Austin became to country music of the ’70s what San Francisco was to rock of the ’60s, a college town turned secondary music capital, and in Michael Murphey’s “Cosmic Cowboy” the scene found its anthem. Willie and Waylon started making music as they had rarely done before; albums such as Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes and Willie’s Phases and Stages ooh’d and yelled with freedom.

Staring plainly if numbly at the overwhelming success of Willie’s Red Headed Stranger, the country music corpus could no longer ignore the weird beast that had grown within its stomach, so it accepted it as it has always accepted success. Industry people looked back on Kristofferson without anger and told anyone who would listen that they knew Willie way back when and what a good old boy he was.

These guys are oligarchs now, not outlaws, and to consider them outlaws in 1976 is silly except as nostalgia. A battle was fought and the good guys won, it’s as simple as that. The effects of the victory are many and glorious. Willie Nelson, the William Carlos Williams of neon, hadn’t had a Top Ten country record since 1962, and now he’s the most popular country singer in America. Waylon Jennings, who had always had hits but had never really let loose, is now making the best country music the world has heard since the ’50s. Tompall Glaser, the most innovative and knowing country artist of recent years, is finally getting some of the recognition due him. And, perhaps most important, a lot of the older artists who had been seduced into a more middle-of-the-road sound are easing back toward the source. George Jones told me last month that his next album will be done without orchestral frills or any other sweetening, and I think when he and producer Billy Sherrill make that album, more people will become aware of what George Jones is: the greatest singer alive.

But the romance that has replaced the reality of the outlaws is starting to give off an ominous, electric odor. An outlaw establishment threatens. Texas Music, a slick Dallas monthly which published its first issue this month, will not publish any negative comments about the outlaws, a policy that reeks of the ways of such established fluff-rags as Country Song Roundup and Music City News. During the early months of 1976, industry people cased out Austin, and it is more than probable that a less manicured extension of the music establishment will be seeping into Texas before too long. I shuddered when RCA mailed out plastic, made-in-Korea vests with the Waylon logo stenciled on their backs. Will personae of outlawry be affected like so many Nudie suits? Will new teeth gnash when Ernest Tubb shows up in suit and tie to accept his award of recognition from the Outlaw Music Association?

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It’s depressing to hear kids in Austin, kids supposedly swept away with interest in western swing, tell about how great the Light Crust Doughboys were. The Light Crust Doughboys were an awful band, sort of like the Archies of western swing, and none of those kids have ever heard a Light Crust Doughboys record or they’d know it. The mystique for them is more important than the music. They say they love western swing, but sitting totally ignored in a Houston apartment, playing his fiddle for an audience of furniture and wallpaper, is 61-year-old Cliff Bruner, the greatest western swing veteran alive.

Some came out of the outlaw scuffle empty-handed. Bobby Bare tried his best to fit in with the desperados, but made the mistake of loading his pistols with Shel Silverstein songs. Billy Joe Shaver, one of the most gifted songwriters involved in the scene, went berserk with his own image and his recent music resembles a large, bragging saddle sore. Tom T. Hall, in the midst of it all, went and recorded a song that included the line, “I love little baby ducks.” David Allan Coe, the Joey Gallo of Country Music, remains an acquired taste, like Carstairs and Coke.

Willie, Waylon, Tompall, and the others who fought and won the war against blandness love country music as much as Hank Williams did, and they make country music better than Hank did. That’s why I hope they don’t end up heading down the wrong highway, or find themselves like John Lee Hooker, totemized on a stage before a mass of ceremonially appreciative trails.

Besides, there is work still to be done. I suggest that all pardoned outlaws unite to wreak God’s will: Amnesty for Jerry Lee Lewis!

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Yukking in the 70s: Dean Martin Roasted Celebrities as He Got Fried

While guest-hosting a TV variety show in 1964, Dean Martin ridiculed a hot new rock ’n’ roll act with his trademark blend of cocksure innuendo, aw-shucks buffoonery, and inebriated syntax: “Now, something for the youngsters — five singing boys from England. . . . They’re called the Rollin’ Stones. I been rolled while I was stoned myself, so [pause, audience laughter] I don’t know what they’re singing about, but here they are at.” After the lads performed Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” Dino ushered them offstage, quipping, “They’re gonna leave right after the show for London — they’re challenging the Beatles to a hair-pullin’ contest.” Years later, bassist Bill Wyman, still miffed, recalled another zinger from that day, when Martin described a trampoline acrobat as “the father of the Rolling Stones. He’s been trying to kill himself ever since.”

Imagine: A band that made its bones by being offensive taking offense at a disrespectful elder. Perhaps they consoled themselves by imagining that the crooner was whistling past the graveyard of musical obsolescence; actually, they were just too young to appreciate a kindred spirit, a performer whom no less an expert than Elvis Presley had dubbed “The King of Cool.” With the release of The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts Collectors Edition (StarVista, six DVDs, $59.95), you can judge anew whether the tall, dark, and handsome baritone born Dino Paul Crocetti in Steubenville, Ohio, still deserved his crown as he and his cronies yukked it up during the twilight of an improbable, uniquely American, career.

In his magisterial biography Dino, author Nick Tosches describes Martin (1917–1995) as a natural-born singer who expanded effortlessly into nightclub comedy and a wide variety of roles on the silver screen. But despite his fabulous wealth and perennial popularity, Martin, according to Tosches, found little solace and even less meaning in his boundless success, maturing into what Dino’s hoodlum pals termed a menefreghista, Italian for someone “who simply did not give a fuck.” In his early singing career Martin was serendipitously teamed with a rubber-faced comic named Jerry Lewis, and their ad-libbed mayhem was an instant smash on the high-rolling nightclub circuit. In 1948, Dean began landing his songs on the pop charts; during the next year, he and Lewis embarked on a lucrative string of ludicrous comedies on the big screen. Lewis once said, with little financial exaggeration, “Can you pay two men $9 million to say ‘Did you take a bath this morning?’ ‘Why, is there one missing?’ — Do you dare contemplate such a fuck and duck? Yet that’s what we did.”

The act broke up acrimoniously in 1956, but by then Dean already had a bundle of top-10 songs, and there were plenty of solo roles awaiting him in Hollywood. Although Martin’s performances received decidedly mixed reviews, he was vindicated by boffo box office. The star was laconic about his acting style; later in his career, one director told Look magazine, “Dean doesn’t like acting, really. We set scenes up so that he only has to work in short spurts.” In the same article Dean dismissed method acting: “Motivation is a lotta crap.”

In 1965, when NBC introduced The Dean Martin Show, Dean found his true metier: indifference. The crooner opened with his mega-hit “Everybody Loves Somebody,” which the year before had knocked “A Hard Day’s Night” out of Billboard’s No. 1 slot and remained there for eight weeks. For his premiere, however, Dean warbled only a few bars, quipping, “No point in singing the whole song; you might not buy the record.” Next up: Dean and his guests cracking wise around a set built to look like a bar, a duet with old pal Frank Sinatra, and plenty of jiggling cleavage and high-stepping gams.

In its review, the Christian Science Monitor sniffed that if Dean “were anymore relaxed, he’d fall on his face,” adding, “One wondered, watching Dean, whether this man cared whether his show went over or not.” But, as Tosches relates in his filigreed prose, “the Dean Martin Show was an immense and immediate success. His uncaring manner and good-natured boorishness endeared him to the millions who were sick of sincerity, relevance, and pseudosophistication. Dean was a man whose success and fortune no man begrudged him. He seemed somehow kindred, one of them but blessed beyond them by the Fates. In him, for one late hour before the final day of every workweek, the multitudes, tired and half-drunk and onward-slouching, found something of their own: lullaby and vindication, justification and inspiration, a bit of boozy song and a glimpse of gal-meat.”

In 1973, producers brought the format of the New York Friars Club roast to the show, relieving Dean of any preparation at all save donning a tux and keeping his glasses handy for reading cue cards. Between that year and 1984, Dean hosted more than 50 roasts, 12 of which appear on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts Collectors Edition DVDs, and they offer a time capsule of comedy spanning from vaudeville throwbacks Jack Benny and George Burns right up through some of the era’s hottest comics, including Flip Wilson, Rowan and Martin, and Freddie Prinze. The formula is simple: An announcer welcomes a bevy of roasters — some of whom, such as standup comics Don Rickles, Phyllis Diller, and Nipsey Russell, and impressionist Rich Little, were basically regulars — followed by host Dino and the Man or Woman of the Week. The gang chortles amid a haze of cigarette smoke and everyone hoists drinks like it’s the fall of Rome, but what really redlines the Wayback Machine are the jokes. For the Sammy Davis Jr. roast, Dino’s opening quip imagines the NBC peacock wearing an afro, the first salvo in a barrage of cracks about the Klan, riding in the back of the bus, and Davis’s copious jewelry. There are also digs about Sammy’s obsequiousness toward Sinatra, a spectral presence in these 12 roasts, notable for his atrophied sense of humor. Comedian Jan Murray emphasized Ol’ Blue Eyes’s vindictiveness by warning Davis that if he kept closing his Vegas act with “My Way,” Sinatra’s signature tune, “You’ll wake up tomorrow morning with the head of a watermelon on your bed.”

Everyone on the dais was hip enough to acknowledge the malevolence of racism while also accepting it as an ongoing way of life in these United States, a sort of “use those ignorant rednecks for material” attitude. Occasionally, African-American performers inverted the formula, as when Sanford and Son’s Demond Wilson pretended to forget roastee Jack Benny’s name, saying, “You’re that nice Jewish boy who used to be on Rochester’s show.” Wilson added, with an exaggerated stage smile, that Benny had done much for black people in America: “Before Jack came along, everybody thought blacks were only fit to be shoeshine boys and railway porters. The Jack Benny program proved to America that they could also be chauffeurs, dishwashers, and houseboys.” Finally, pointing out that the black characters on the old Amos ’n’ Andy radio show were played by whites, Wilson called Benny a visionary, who’d hired a black actor to play Rochester on his radio show because “he knew that television was coming and it would’ve cost him a fortune in burnt cork.”

One repeated Rickles shtick is shouting gibberish in the cadences of an African-American preacher; he would then face the camera with an “I don’t understand what they’re saying either” shoulder shrug. But when Rickles heckled Muhammad Ali during a 1976 roast, the heavyweight champ rounded his gaze upon the comedian, who immediately turned subservient: “I drive the school bus and you go to school.”

Ali replied, “You’re not as dumb as you look, boy.”

Some jokes reveal the inroads of gay lib on the nation’s consciousness, as in Orson Welles’s louche surprise as he performs a dramatic reading of Dean’s hit song “That’s Amore”: “‘Like a GAY tarantella’? Apparently Dean has a side we know nothing about.” But the proceedings become more antediluvian when Rickles, in the same roast, professes, “I love my wife. [Pause] But my wife is ill,” and then introduces blonde Police Woman star Angie Dickinson with “I’d like to bring on this girl. And when we bring her on, let’s have the whole dais attack her.”

You know we are in the age before MADD when Gabe Kaplan, of Welcome Back, Kotter fame, jokes that he was going to enter Dean in the Drunken Olympics Decathlon: “Ten drunks trying to find their cars.” And woe to the comic who had to follow any of Foster Brooks’s inebriated alter egos, including Jack Benny’s accountant, Martin’s Boy Scout master, Jackie Gleason’s personal physician, or, most uproariously, the illicit lover of Rickles’s wife: “Don, I really must compliment you on your spouse, Missus [burp] Missus Pickles. I say that because she’s a real dilly. And I must also admit you have a very lovely home. Incidentally, you’re out of scotch.” It is great fun to watch Brooks stumble into character as he approaches the podium, and then, when his crapulous bit ends, straighten up and stride back to his seat, suave in his neatly trimmed beard and silvery mane, looking like the prototype for the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” ad campaign. The other comics simply shake their heads in admiration.

For political junkies, there are plenty of Watergate jokes in earlier episodes, such as a 1974 introduction of Rickles as “the only civilian that was ever impeached,” or Rowan and Martin, in the Bicentennial year, mocking our nation’s only appointed Commander in Chief: “John Wayne has never run for president.” “Well, neither has Gerald Ford.” The shows often seem edited with Ginsu knives — occasionally, a roaster is welcomed to the dais but never makes it to the lectern. During the Davis roast, the diminutive song-and-dance man explodes twice in exactly the same gatemouth roar, 30 minutes apart, his hands flailing, a duplicate reaction shot meant to ensure that no viewer misses Sammy’s double-fisted bling collection.

In his Dino biography, Tosches is cruelly melancholy on the Celebrity Roast sunset of Martin’s career, noting that some segments were taped at the NBC studio in Burbank and others at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, which meant that “guests often delivered their lines to empty chairs or pretended spontaneous laughter at words that had been uttered in another state.” Lamenting the “ten-writer assembly line” that cranked out “canned happiness,” which he felt imbued the show with “the quality of a relentlessly monotonous and vaguely disquieting dream,” Tosches renders his ultimate judgment: “It was a dais of despair. They sat at banquet tables at either side of the podium: the undead of dreamland and the fleeting stars of the television seasons.”

But as critics sometimes do, Tosches was substituting his own expectations and disappointments for those of the fans. Sure, to a bare-knuckled Virgil of the shadowlands like himself, a nightclub bruiser such as Gleason was old hat. But for millions of viewers who knew Gleason best as the hard-luck Brooklyn bus driver with a heart of gold, it was a revelation to see his calmly menacing bulk lounging at the lectern with gold pinkie ring, gold cigarette case, gold lighter, and gold cufflinks all glittering. When he says to Russell, “Just think, if you were white, you coulda been Sammy Davis Jr.,” we glimpse the standup heavyweight as captured in “Pafko at the Wall,” Don DeLillo’s rip-roaring opener to his novel Underworld: “Gleason got his start doing insult comedy in blood buckets all over Jersey and is still an eager table comic — does it for free, does it for fun, and leaves shattered lives behind.”

Bingeing on the discs’ 12 episodes as opposed to viewing them spread out as they were over their original air dates reveals some lazy bits. A favorite Rickles routine runs, “I know [fill in name of celebrity on the dais] is a great [singer, comedian, athlete, etc]. How do I know this? Because ([he/she] told me so backstage just before the show.” But for the most part, despite repetition, Mr. Warmth’s delivery, expressions, and gestures all kill, whereas Rich Little’s imitations of Jimmy Stewart’s fractured speech quickly grow stale. And, love or disdain them, 1970s roastees like Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, and Lucille Ball are shining stars for the ages; by 1984, Joan Collins seems pretty low-wattage.

And so we are left with a final question: Was Dino really as smashed as he always appeared to be onstage? Among the scores of drunk jokes directed at the master of ceremonies, one from Brooks pretty much sums it up: “The last time you and I were side by side, somebody [hiccup] stepped on my tongue.” But after Martin’s death, on Christmas Day, 1995, his old friend and colleague Joey Bishop swore that there had never been any drinking during working hours. “He had, in his J&B bottle, apple cider.” If so, Martin’s drunkard persona was worthy of the Oscar he was never nominated for.

Martin’s enduring charm resided in his insouciant indifference. If the ultimate joke asks, “What is the meaning of life?” Dino’s style embodied the punchline “Who cares?”

So give him the last word, from the close of his very own roast. “I’ll remember this night,” [squint at cue card, smile] “until I get to my car.”

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Pentecostals in Heat

“Pentecostals in Heat”
May 12, 1987

Sex as a Last Rite

“It is good for a man not to touch a woman,” St. Paul said. But, if men cannot be pure, “let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.”

Jerry Lee Lewis, who knew those New Testament words well, found that the solution was not so simple. A bigamist at the age of 17 and later twice-wed to his teenage cousin, Jerry Lee had been marrying and burning, burning and marrying for most of his life.

He had been pumping piano and sing­ing for even longer: pumping and singing and burning and marrying. In the sum­mer of 1957, when he was 21, his record­ing of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” brought him fortune and fame. That for­tune and that fame seemed to be bound­less. In December “Great Balls of Fire” rose high on the pop, country, r&b, and British charts, and it was believed that Jerry Lee was destined to seize the throne of Elvis, who soon would be shorn and shipped to Germany. But, that same December, Jerry Lee took as his third wife his cousin Myra Gale Brown, age 13. A few months later, at the start of a British tour, which was to give England its first shot of living rock ’n’ roll, that marriage, hushed until then, was made into a public outrage by the slavering British press. After two shows, the tour was aborted — “BABY-SNATCHER QUITS,” the London Daily Herald gloated — and Jerry Lee returned to America, which had seen him off in glory but which now, with prurient glee, threw stones of revilement and scorn. So it came to pass, in those distant days when impropriety was to popular idolatry a poison rather than a perfume, that Jerry Lee Lewis, less than a year after he had risen, fell.

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He rose again a decade later — this time a country star — and, a decade after that, once again fell. There were no more big hits, country or otherwise. Fame became abject notoriety; his life, a tattered side­show attraction. People no longer much followed his music. Instead, they followed his careening, downward rampage. It wasn’t his records they heard on the ra­dio; it was news of his shooting his bass player in the chest (“Look down the bar­rel of this,” Jerry Lee had told him), of his being arrested outside Graceland for waving a pistol and drunkenly calling for Elvis, of the IRS seizing his property to satisfy liens exceeding his worth, of his lying near death in a Memphis hospital, his guts eaten away by whiskey and pills.

But always, throughout it all, he pumped and sang, burned and married. His cousin, “that bitch” Myra Gale, divorced him in 1971, claiming in her bill of complaint that she had been the victim of “every type of physical and mental abuse imaginable” and that her husband had threatened to “hire people to throw com­plainant in the river and to throw acid in her face.”

Later that year, Jerry Lee married Jaren Gunn Pate, a Memphis divorcé pregnant with his child. They separated, reconciled, sued each other for divorce, reconciled, separated, sued again. In the spring of 1979, a few weeks after Jaren charged him with “cruel and inhuman treatment, adultery, habitual drunkenness, and habitual use of drugs,” Jerry Lee was asked if he knew any more about women now than he had known two decades earlier? “Yeah. Pussy is pussy.”

Awaiting her final settlement, Jaren testified that when she called Jerry Lee to discuss money, he told her not to wor­ry, because “you are not going to be around very long anyway.” Her final set­tlement never came — at least not the one she sought from the court. On June 8, 1982, she was found dead in a Memphis backyard swimming pool.

Almost a year later, on June 7, Jerry Lee married Shawn Michelle Stephens, a 25-year-old cocktail waitress from Gar­den City, Michigan. The marriage lasted 78 days. On August 24, Shawn’s mother got a call from one of Jerry Lee’s min­ions. “Shawn didn’t wake up this morn­ing,” the caller said.

There was blood on Shawn’s hand, in her hair, on her bra, on a lamp, on the carpet; bruises on her arms and hip. There appeared to be dried blood beneath her nails; and the ambulance man saw bright red claw-marks on the back of Jerry Lee’s hand that morning. But the autopsy report, which made no mention of blood or bruises, attributed Shawn’s death to an overdose of methadone, one of the sundry drugs kept in plenty at the Lewis mansion. Jerry Lee said that, yes, he and Shawn had bickered, but it was not serious. “I was in no mood to argue. All I wanted to do was watch Twilight Zone,” he told the Enquirer.

The night after Shawn’s body was found, her sister Denise telephoned Jerry Lee from Michigan. “Your sister’s dead,” he slurred. “Your sister’s dead, and she was a bad girl.”

That same night of mourning, Jerry Lee made a call to a local bar in search of hypodermic needles. “Goddamn cops cleaned me out,” he griped.

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Shawn’s remains were laid into the dirt in the Lewis family cemetery near Ferri­day, Louisiana, where Jerry Lee was raised. It is the cemetery where his mother and his father lie, along with the brother he never knew, killed by a drunk­en driver when Jerry Lee was two. It is the cemetery where his two sons lie: Steve Allen, drowned at the age of three in Jerry Lee’s Memphis swimming pool on Easter, 1962, and Jerry Lee Jr., killed on a Mississippi highway in the Jeep his father had given him in 1973 for his 19th birthday. (A third son, Ronnie Guy, born in 1955 of Jerry Lee’s second wife, had been long ago forsaken as the bastard of her adultery.)

Eight months later, 0n April 24, 1984, Jerry Lee got married for the seventh time. He was pushing 49. His new bride, Kerrie McCarver, was 22. “JERRY LEE LEWIS’ BRIDE REFUSES TO LIVE IN HOUSE OF DEATH” was the headline of the May 8 issue of Rupert Murdoch’s Star. Jerry Lee’s sister Frankie Jean was quoted as saying that Linda Gail, the youngest Lewis sibling, “told me she saw demons at the house.” Frankie Jean told the Star, “There’s something wrong there. I’m going to take a Catholic priest there — I believe God can do anything.”

Jerry Lee perceived the satanic that year, too. As he saw it, Devon Gosnel, the U.S. attorney prosecuting him for federal tax evasion, was a “demon-possessed lady.”

Then again, all his life, there had been demons. Always, everywhere, demons.

He had been raised up believing in God and the Devil, in salvation and damna­tion. God, he believed, had blessed him with a talent most rare. (“There’s only been four of us,” he would say, again and again. “Al Jolson, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and Jerry Lee Lewis. That’s your only four fuckin’ stylists that ever lived.”) But the Adversary, he believed, had claimed him along with that talent.

“Man, I got the Devil in me!” he had howled in the Sun studio that summer of his ascent, 1957, bemoaning the sinful­ness of the music he was making.

That howling never ceased, but only grew more miserable with the passing of years. “I’m draggin’ the audience to hell with me,” he would say. “I’m a sinner, I know it. Soon I’m gonna have to reckon with the chillin’ hands of death.” Through drinking and drugs and graveyard darkness, he seemed intent on deliv­ering himself to those chilling hands, but it was as if he bore the curse alluded to in Revelation: “And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.” So, more and more, he made his hell on earth, and his music and his life, what was left of them, became a de profundis wailing — abandon and guilt, self-damning joy and lamentation — from the hellfire deep within him.

A Curse on the Kennedys 

Ask Jimmy Lee Swaggart, and he would tell you, too: Jerry Lee is damned.

They are cousins — born the same year, baptized into the same Assembly of God church, brought up together in Ferriday. They share a middle name in honor of the parish patri­arch, their uncle Lee Calhoun, on whose piano they both learned to play. But one of them followed God. He spoke in tongues and preached the gospel. The other followed Satan. He pumped and sang, married and burned.

Jimmy Lee, too, was tempted to make the Devil’s music, but he was strong. In that year of his cousin’s ascent, Jimmy Lee was approached by a beast. “He had the body of a bear,” Jimmy Lee recalled, “and the face of a man. The expression on his face was the grisliest I had ever seen. The beast was the picture of evil.” Invoking the name of Jesus, Jimmy Lee vanquished it. On the first day of the next year, 1958, he became a full-time evangelist. “Glory! Praise the Lord!” he cried. “Jerry Lee can go to Sun Records in Memphis, I’m on my way to heaven.”

As his cousin’s name passed from fame to infamy, Jimmy Lee seemed to find that preaching about Jerry Lee was a good draw, and he continued to do so for many years to come. He, too, felt that Jerry Lee was dragging his audiences to hell. Just look at “Jerry Lee Lewis’s mother,” he exhorted in a 1969 sermon LP called What Shall the End Be? (Sub­title: “Is There Really a Curse on the Kennedy Family?” Answer: Yes). She was “lost, away from God, goin’ to rock ’n’ roll shows and drinkin’ her cocktails, and she used to be saved and filled with the Holy Ghost.”

While Jerry Lee fell and rose and fell again, Jimmy Lee rose and rose and rose. His gospel albums sold in the millions. (The second, God Took Away My Yester­days, was made at Sun Records with the help of Jerry Lee and with Scotty Moore engineering.) It got to where he had to work out royalties with the Almighty.

“Now about these record albums,” the Lord said to him.

“Father,” he bargained, “would you take 90 per cent and let me have 10 per cent?”

Or so it is written in Swaggart’s 1977 autobiography, To Cross a River.

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In 1969, he began broadcasting his syn­dicated radio show, The Camp Meeting Hour — “I want you on the radio,” the Lord had told him — and, in 1973, he made his move to television, again at the behest of the Lord. Eventually, he be­came the most popular evangelist on TV. His weekly show attracted more than a million households, and, by 1986, Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, based at his 270-acre headquarters in Baton Rouge, was bringing in $140 million a year.

As Jerry Lee descended further and further from grace to perdition, Jimmy Lee made televised pleas for the salvation of his soul, dedicated hymns to him, peered into the TV camera and cried out, “Why do you drink? Why do you take the pills? Why, Jerry, why?” And Jerry Lee, all the while, would attest to the truth of Jimmy Lee’s words. “That man is a powerhouse for God,” he would say. “Jerry Lee Lewis,” on the other hand, he would say of himself, “is a sinner, lost and undone, without God or His Son.”

“I made a promise for Jerry Lee,” Swaggart says near the end of To Cross a River. “I will not be satisfied until I know he has entered the Kingdom of God.”

A third cousin, Mickey Gilley, born in Ferriday the year after the other two, also found fame and fortune pumping piano and singing. Mickey, however, seemed to be obsessed neither by God nor by Satan; and, unlike his cousins, he never gave the impression that he was here as an ad­vance-man for the Beast of Revelation. Mickey said that after reading Swaggart’s autobiography, he called him up to congratulate him and to compliment him on its sincerity. “Thank you,” his cousin told him. “I really haven’t had a chance to read it myself yet.” (Swaggart and arch­rival Jim Bakker of the PTL shared a common coauthor, Robert Paul Lamb of Charlotte.)

But when Swaggart preaches, his sin­cerity is what raises him above the rest of the TV evangelists. He believes in the palpable everlasting flames of hell. Fur­thermore, he will tell you who’s going there — Mother Teresa, the Kennedys, this uncle, that cousin — as no other mass-media preacher will. He sells the Holy Ghost in his sermons the way Jerry Lee sold it in his music: as something to fear and surrender to. To be sure, both of them — the self-sanctified and the self-­damned — share the same terrifying es­chatology, the same fulminous vision of good and evil embattled in darkness and light. The only difference is that they preach it from opposite shores of the river they call salvation: Lord and Lucifer unto themselves.

Yodels From Hell

As last year neared its end­ — Swaggart’s most prosperous year yet — Jerry Lee was checking himself into the Betty Ford Clinic in Palm Springs. It was, he said, a final resolute attempt to save himself. Then, little more than a day lat­er, there came the news that he had fled the joint. As to where he had fled, it can be said with surety that the American recording industry did not much care. After 30 years in the business, he no longer even had a label. He was a ghost. He had once said that it troubled him to be called a legend, because he had always figured that to be a legend you had to be dead. Of course, he had been right; and he was a legend now for sure.

The world was ga-ga for Springsteen’s box. Rock ’n’ roll, or something like it, was now the official music of our debtor republic; and Bruce, the apotheosis of fruit-and-fiber soulfulness, was its Lee Iacocca Jr. “Born in the U.S.A.” and Chrysler’s “The Pride Is Back/Born in America” campaign were as one. Even President Reagan’s sixth State of the Union Address, January 27 (the night before Jerry Lee’s latest bride gave birth to Jerry Lee Lewis III), seemed to be inspired by the Boss. It was like a Springsteen concert, with Ron declaiming the political equivalent of “I wanna know if love is real” and his idolators swaying and cheering in mooncalf unison, red ties round all their necks instead of rags round their noggins.

Maybe the truth of the matter was that rock ’n’ roll is impossible in an age of safe sex.

Then, through rain and snow and gloom of night, from Bremen, West Ger­many, there arrived a parcel of consider­able weight. I opened it and beheld what was in it. Now here was a box. Soon, there came a second box, and then, in time, a third and final box. With each box covering a span of years — 1963-68, 1969-72, and 1973-77 — this collection from Richard Weize’s Bear Family, called simply Jerry Lee Lewis: The Killer, com­prises all that Jerry Lee recorded in his 14 years with Smash/Mercury, with the exceptions of The Complete London Sessions of 1973, available on two separate Bear Family albums, and the Memphis Southern Roots sessions of the same year, forthcoming. The boxes’ 31 LPs contain close to 500 tracks, some hun­dred of which are released here for the first time, and all of them digitally repro­duced from the original masters. Each box includes a book by Colin Escott, de­tailing the years covered, with a discogra­phy and a lot of pictures. Each box retails for more than a hundred dollars (avail­able from Down Home Music, 10341 San Pavlo Avenue, El Cerrito, CA 94530). But this is not only the most ambitious, com­prehensive, and expensive collection of its kind. If you like rock ’n’ roll or coun­try music — or, for that matter, drunken yodeling or the Holy Ghost or the Devil or whatever — it’s also the best of its kind.

Jerry Lee devoured everything that came his way and transmuted it into something that was — just ask him — irre­futably his own. Others in his family spoke in Pentecostal tongues, but his was a musical glossolalia. Al Jolson’s slick vo­cal audacities, Jimmie Rodgers’s blue-yo­deling, Freddie Slack’s boogie-woogie, Hank Williams’s stark gutbucket ulula­tions, a myriad hymns and sinful blues — ­it all came together inside him where the Devil and the Ghost were, and it all came back out, in a storm.

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One of the best instances of that storm is his performance at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany, in the spring of 1964. Whether or not these are the most remarkable live recordings in rock ’n’ roll, as has been said, they are doubtless the most manic. To hear the band behind him trying to keep up with him as he jolts and rushes like a rat on fire, to hear them become more and more confused in the wake of his headlong frenzy, until finally, lost and flustered, the multifarious noise of their own bewilderment becomes a frazzled din as he bursts off alone toward what more resembles a Methedrine sei­zure than a song — to hear this is to un­derstand the difference between rock ’n’ roll and a Chrysler commercial. To hear him halt in the middle of it all to croon “Your Cheatin’ Heart” to the screaming German crowd is to understand the dif­ference between rock ’n’ roll and Jerry Lee. Just as prodigious (and far better musically — he has his regular, American band with him) is his performance later that year in Birmingham, Alabama. In­dicative of his contrariness, here, in Hank’s home state, he doesn’t sing “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” but instead premieres his version of “Hi-Heel Sneakers.” Back in the studio in January 1965, he goes from a speeded-up rendition of the Mid­nighters’ “Sexy Ways” (which somehow ends as “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”) to the classic honky-tonk weeper “The Wild Side of Life,” and from there to Big Joe Turner’s “Flip, Flop and Fly.”

He released his first all-country album that year, Country Songs for City Folks, but it was not until 1968 that he began to veer noticeably away from rock ’n’ roll toward country — at least in his record­ings. “Another Place, Another Time,” the first of the long series of country hits that were Jerry Lee’s resurrection, sounds as fine now as it did almost 20 years ago, a barroom lament in the classic tradition that knifed through the soft Nashville music of its day. The same is true of most of his other country hits; and his versions of “Born to Lose,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “There Stands the Glass,” and “Waitin’ for a Train,” though not hits, are among the best recordings of his career.

During this time, the late ’60s and early ’70s, when he was in his thirties, his voice was at its peak. The youthful tenor of the Sun days was completely gone. But then, slowly, his voice began to show the rav­ages of 20 years of one-nighters and heavy drinking. “He sounds like Beelze­bub,” a friend said after talking with him one night back then. But that ravaged voice somehow suited him, for his music itself was beginning to sound like Beelzebub’s basement tapes. More and more, as his singing came to embrace the less-­exalted vocal arts of croaking, cackling, calling out one’s own name, groaning, whistling and yodeling off-key, his piano­-playing grew evocative of that old upright that plays by itself in the haunted house. Except that Jerry Lee himself began to look like he could haunt houses for a living, this later phase of his music was quite nearly as captivating — though not nearly as salable — as what had come before, especially in the context of country music, where originality is measured by the cut of one’s bluejeans. His suppressed 1975 version of Billy Swan’s “I Can Help,” with its mumbled taunting of El­vis, is a good example of the Beelzebub phase. The effect of his voice and piano playing, both shot to hell, was as creepy as it was funny. It was also why produc­ers and record companies backed off.

Of all the music here that has not been heard before, the most intriguing and the best is the album of spirituals and preaching that Jerry Lee recorded at a Memphis church in December 1970, the month after Myra Gale sued him for divorce. Not only is it far better than his previous gospel album, In Loving Memo­ries (which sold only 43,000 copies — the reason Mercury never released this one), it also affirms that Jerry Lee, as he had always claimed, could have been a first­-class fire-and-brimstone pulpit man him­self. As far as I know, it also includes the only recorded instance of his avowing “I’m goin’ to heaven!” rather than to that more familiar place.

He jumped off that heaven-bound train a few months later. “Satan,” he would say, “is the man that has power next to God… power more than Jesus. He tempted Him for 40 days and 40 nights,” he would reflect aloud — “and he nearly got ’im!”

The Big Vagina

“Ubique daemon!” Salvian the priest had cried a long, long-time ago, and it still was true: The Devil is everywhere.

Tammy Faye Bakker saw him: “I put my hands out and said, ‘In the name of Jesus, you have no power over me, Satan.’ And it was like Satan was trying to kill me.” Then Tammy Faye checked into the Betty Ford Clinic, not long after Jerry Lee slipped out, and she saw Satan no more.

Her husband, Jim Bakker, the head of the PTL empire, was himself no stranger to the Serpent. Questioned by the IRS about unaccounted revenues of $14 mil­lion, his defense was that “the Devil got into the computer.” He ended up beating the rap. But, this past March, when it became known that the Devil had gotten into his britches as well, Reverend Bakker did not get off so easy.

“HOTEL ORGY — FORCED INTO SEX WITH TWO EVANGELISTS,” swooned the New York Post, its day made.

On December 5, 1980, the story went, Jessica Hahn, a 21-year-old Pentecostal church secretary, was lured from her New York home to Room 538 of the Sheraton Sand Key Hotel in Clearwater Beach, Florida. The man who brought her there was Bakker’s PTL cohort and fellow evangelist John Wesley Fletcher, whom Jessica had known since she was 14, when she had baby-sat his son. Fletcher told her he and Bakker were doing a telethon in Clearwater, and they’d both like her in the audience.

In the hotel room, Fletcher gave her a glass of wine — drugged, she later claimed — and brought Reverend Bakker to her, then left them alone. “I didn’t know women from New York were so beautiful,” Bakker said, standing there, all five feet four inches of him, a WASP Froggy the Gremlin in a white bathing suit.

“Tammy is very big,” he told Jessica. The look in his eyes conveyed the woe in his heart. Verily, spake those eyes, it is a terrible thing when a man’s wienie and the asphodel of his wife’s earthly beauty were as a lone plug nickel in a great collection basket, deep and wide. “She has made me feel very belittled. I don’t know how I will come out of it. I don’t feel like a man.”

Then his Song of Songs began. He shed his terrycloth suit, baring his belittled loins, and he was naked before her; and he undid her brassiere, beholding her breasts, which were like two young roes that were twins, which fed among the lilies, heh heh heh.

“He started almost from the top of my head and didn’t stop for what seemed like an hour and a half… he just did every­thing he could do to a woman… and he wouldn’t stop.… He had to keep finding new things to do. I just couldn’t stand him. I just wanted to pull out his hair.”

Then Bakker was gone and Fletcher was back: “You’re not just going to give it to Jim, you’re going to give it to me, too.” And the seeds of the two preachers were as one within her.

A few hours after her ordeal was over, Jessica turned on the TV. The flickering images of Bakker and Fletcher came to the screen.

“You had a good rest today,” Fletcher was saying to Bakker. “Yeah, I need more rest like that,” Bakker grinned. “The Lord really ministered to us today,” Fletcher went on. “We need more minis­try like that.”

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It was said that Reverend Bakker had been driven by jealousy, suspecting his beloved wife and coauthor (How We Lost Weight and Kept It Off, 1979) of fornicat­ing with her producer, forgotten pop star Gary Paxton, who had not much been heard of since his “Monster Mash” faded from the charts 24 years before.

“Did Tammy ever put her hand on your organ while you were driving?” Bakker reportedly had asked him.

Paxton would not comment to the press. “I’ll sue for slander” was all he said, then added: “My pastor said not to talk right now.”

Meanwhile, Tammy Faye’s philosophy gained currency: “l think every woman ought to wear eyelashes,” she asserted. “Jim has very seldom seen me without makeup and hardly ever without eyelashes.”

Bakker, joining his wife at the Betty Ford Clinic, maintained that he had been “wickedly manipulated” in a “diabolical plot” to take over his PTL ministry. He charged that the culprit of that plot was his fellow Assemblies of God minister Reverend Jimmy Lee Swaggart.

Swaggart, denying the accusation, denounced the Bakkers in his own inimita­ble way. They were, he declared, “a can­cer that needed to be excised from the body of Christ.” They had brought “terri­ble reproach to the Kingdom of God.” He referred to Bakker’s attorney, Norman Roy Grutman (who also represents Bob Guccione and Jerry Falwell), as a “porno lawyer.”

And if there was one thing that Jimmy Lee hated, it was porno. In his 1985 tract Pornography: America’s Dark Stain, he described publications that “offer advice to child molesters on how youngsters can most easily and safely be lured from play­grounds. Others discuss the joys of incest, and still others instruct fathers on how to clip locks on the labias of their little girls to ‘keep them all for you.’ ” But, to Jim­my Lee, pornography encompassed far more than the wicked lore of labial lock-smithing. Pornography was many things. It was “the chic California woman” in “a pair of short shorts, with several inches of derriere showing in the back and pulled up very tight in the front.” Rock ’n’ roll, too, was “nothing more than por­nography set to music.” And, surely, what went on in Room 538 of the Sheraton Sand Key Hotel was what Swaggart calls “pornography in the flesh.”

“Satan is, of course, the fundamental author of all pornographic material.” Thus, it was the Prince of Darkness him­self, not Jimmy Lee, who was to blame for Jim Bakker’s downfall.

On March 31, The New York Times concurred, sort of. On its front page that day, the results of a special Times/CBS News Poll were announced. Of those sur­veyed, “Forty-three percent said the devil was responsible” for the trouble of the Bakkers, “and 43 percent said he was not.” It was added that “the margin for sampling error for this group was plus or minus four percentage points.”

But, as Jimmy Lee and Jerry tee sure­ly knew, you couldn’t render the Devil fit to print no matter how many decimal points you rattled and rolled.

Author Nick Tosches (r.) and subject Jerry Lee Lewis (l.)

Cocksucker for Christ

By the time the third and final Jerry Lee box arrived from Ger­many, around Easter, Jim Bakker and his million-dollar racket were down the drain, all for a shot of sperm. They were yester­day’s news. In late April, there were new accusations: Reverend Bakker had sung his Song of Songs not only to Jessica but to sundry whores as well, and he had — ­with or without makeup, it is not clear — ­lain with his fellow man, contra naturam, a cocksucker for Christ. Here in the U.S.A., where the pride was back, even our pharisees, even our Borgias were bland little men. Ronald Reagan — or Bruce Springsteen, one or the other­ — declared May 7 to be National Prayer Day and appointed as prayermaster Jerry Falwell, the smiling superstar Baptist now heading the PTL. Praise the Lord, pass the lubricant, Endust to Endust, re­bate to rebate. Selah, Selah.

But Jerry Lee, in the music and the madness in that box, was still kicking, even if he was dead to the world, the world dead to him. And that kicking, I’m sure, will prevail after the Swaggarts and the Bakkers and the Falwells have faded and been forgotten. There is more of the Devil and of salvation — of the power of the eternal idea of those forces — implicit in that kicking than in all their crying unto heaven combined. And in this age of safe sex and safe rock ’n’ roll, the fire in that power seems hotter than ever before.

It is hotter, certainly, than any fire in the soul or in the crotch of Reverend Bakker or Tammy Faye, the likes of whom threw stones that springtime long ago; and it is still hot enough, after all these years, to frighten and scorch them all — raving, demon-grappling Swaggart and fawn-eyed Falwell, too. They are the ones who have offered themselves to God, in public, like whores. But what God would want them? One that wears a moneybelt, false eyelashes, and does the monster mash? The Bible, in a verse such preachers rarely quote, damns priests who “teach for hire,” prophets who “di­vine for money.” Burnt offerings, not prayers or cash, were what the Lord told Moses to give. Jerry Lee’s burnt offer­ing — himself — may in the end get him a lot closer to heaven than either he or those on the other side of the river might imagine. Then again, heaven may turn out to be Room 538 of the Sheraton Sand Key Hotel. In the words of Isaiah: Who the fuck knows?

If there is something to be learned from all of this, other than that virgins should keep their “labias” locked in the company of evangelists, it is that Jerry Lee and the Devil have succeeded where Jerry Lee and his wives have failed, in making pretty music together, and that pretty music, at any price, is pretty music all the same. Whether love is real has nothing much to do with anything. It’s whether the Snake is real that matters. That and royalties. ■

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BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Nick Tosches’s Great Book of Fire

Great Book of Fire
July 6, 1982

As the world’s biggest rock criticism fan, I have no doubt that rock and roll inspires lots of good writing, but as an English major who married a novelist I have to acknowledge that it hasn’t pro­duced much good literature, by which I simply mean good books. Admittedly, this is only fitting: I love rock and roll because, unlike literature, it’s not caught in the cerebral, self-referential, and ultimately defeatist cul-de-sac of highbrow modern­ism. Physical and popular, it points the way out of (or at least waves at) a cultural dilemma in which only prodigious feats of deep feeling can achieve the political and economic equality the world depends on. And though it’s much narrower than film, which is also physical and popular, its spe­cial connections to Africa and to evangel­ical (i.e., democratic) religion provide an­gles of attack that movies just don’t com­mand. Yet the good books about movies far outnumber those about rock and roll, or even American music in general.

Admittedly, this too, may only be fit­ting: movies are more like literature than rock and roll is. But that doesn’t satisfy me. Just because I don’t regard the book as the definitive cultural form doesn’t mean I buy any hokum about electronic villages. We need prodigious feats of literacy, too — ­of extended analysis and narrative com­mitment — and I see no reason why rock and roll shouldn’t be where some of them start. Yet if you’ll pardon the litany, only Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train (dissenting criticism far more authoritative and for­mally original then, say, Parker Tyler’s), and Geoffrey Stokes’s Star-Making Ma­chinery (a less cynical version of Lillian Ross’s Picture) and maybe Simon Frith’s Sound Effects (more far-reaching ideas than Andrew Sarris’s more dauntingly ex­pressed) qualify. No highbrow modernist myself, I’m not above seeking out gems among drugstore cheapies and trade paperback pictorials. But as an apologist for pop culture I’m chagrined to admit that pickings are even slimmer and more pre­dictable in trashy contexts. And since no rockbooks disappoint more consistently than rockstar bios, I’m especially pleased to add one to the genre’s tiny pantheon: Nick Tosches’s Hellfire.

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I can’t claim to be a real expert on rockstar bios, and I pity anyone who can. Not that there are no handy homilies, es­pecially regarding the rewards of fame itself, to be garnered from the experiences of celebrities. But rock stars rarely inspire good literature, good self-help, or even good trash, because rock biographers are rarely good hacks, much less good writers or (heaven forfend) good critics. Given a dearth of as-told-tos and ghosted or genu­ine memoirs, all juicier forms, semi-pros whose main interest is the rest of their advance glut the racks with official and unofficial life stories. A certain quantum of candid revelation is de rigueur, but the emphasis is always on sex and drugs rather than love and money — that is, on epiphenomena. Deep thinkers need not apply.

Nevertheless, in this individualistic cul­ture (and this existential world) we’re in the forgivable habit of criticizing art via artists, and so rockstar bios constitute the largest subclass of rockbooks. As such, they’ve engendered critical hierarchies of their own. In my view, it’s mainly the abysmal competition that accounts for the inside reputations of John Goldrosen’s authoritative but staid The Buddy Holly Story, David Henderson’s inspired but wildly uneven Jimi Hendrix, Dave Marsh’s comradely but adulatory and rather sloppy Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, and Lester Bangs’s eloquent but wrongheaded Blondie. At least these authors cared enough for their subjects to try and write good books about them, and except for Goldrosen all had something to say about the art as well as the artist. The results in each case are admirable and useful. But while the music involved is most certainly up to the stan­dard of The Wizard of Oz or The Thief of Bagdad or Some Like It Hot, not one of the books is within two leagues of John Lahr’s portrait of his father Bert or Rich­ard Schickel’s analysis of Douglas Fair­banks or even Norman Mailer’s rumina­tions on Marilyn. And neither are such profitable tomes as Jerry Hopkins and Daniel Sugerman’s No One Here Gets Out Alive (which claims Jim Morrison as a god and then describes him as a jerk) or Albert Goldman’s Elvis (the hepster calling the bopcat square), though both are more solid than Dave Marsh or Greil Marcus would have you believe. In fact, it’s not im­possible to understand why Myra Friedman’s priggish, condescending Buried Alive is regarded by the ignorant as the best biography in the field — in terms of sheer craft, it is. Or rather, it was.

Blame money first: most rock bio­graphies, and indeed most rockbooks, are written fast because they’re written cheap — big-advance subjects like Janis and Jimi are rare. But they’re also written fast because they’re sold fast — editors who assume all rock stars are headed for in­stant oblivion press for instant copy. So Marsh and Bangs executed variations on the quickie, turning out their 40,000 or so words (cut from 85,000 in Bangs’s case) with the alacrity of craftsmen confident of their right to a decent hourly wage. And thus they managed to get cherished ideas about rock and roll into Books in Print if not between hard covers, while most of the best rock writing remains buried in yester­day’s papers. Their quickies were also la­bors of love — Marsh’s love of Springsteen, Bangs’s love of spouting off. They were rockstar bios as exemplary/expedient rockbooks.

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Both Tosches and Robert Palmer, au­thor of another current Jerry Lee Lewis bio, have taken a different route to the rockbook in the past: the pop text. Not surprisingly, neither elected to cover rock and roll per se — unless you count Sound Effects. Nik Cohn’s Rock from the Begin­ning, a history published more than half the music’s lifetime ago, remains the only honorable attempt at that sisyphean undertaking ever essayed by an individual acting alone. Tosches’s 1977 Country: The Biggest Music in America is pure gonzo scholarship, so outrageous that I felt let down when jacket copy that began “If you’re looking for a cogent, comprehensive history of America’s most popular music…” didn’t continue “…then steal Bill C. Malone from the library, sucker.” Alter­nating garish anecdotes, many apocryphal and several completely made up, with the kind of catalogue-number fanaticism only record collectors can read without artificial stimulants, Country attempts to prove that America’s most conservative popular music is in fact its most radical. Where Marxist George Lipsitz makes a similar case by doggedly documenting the music’s class origins and consciousness, Tosches’s book is all fucking and fighting and getting high. As history, it’s partial and absurdly distorted. But as vision, it’s hilarious and instructive, a perfect rockbook combo; it’s not the key to country music, but it breaks down some doors.

Palmer’s Deep Blues, published in 1981 and just out in paper from Penguin, is something else entirely — the best book available on a subject that’s always in­spired passionate erudition. Although I’m not enough of a blues scholar to attest unequivocally to its originality or ac­curacy, I guarantee its scope, coherence, and grace. Tracing the blues back to Will Dockery’s plantation in northwestern Mis­sissippi, where in the 1890s guitarist Henry Sloane (teacher of Charley Patton, student of ??????) was heard to play something damn similar, Palmer follows the tradition to its international present with an admirable sense of proportion (except when he overplays his good source Robert Junior Lockwood). Because Delta blues is his sub­ject, he barely touches on the East Texas strain, but that’s regrettable only because he would have made such a good job of it. He completes his self-appointed task su­perbly, especially the stopover in Chicago with Muddy Waters and his numerous nephews. This is a pop text, yes, but it’s also where to start exploring the source of all rock and roll. A rockbook and then some.

Palmer’s critical virtues have always been on the ethnomusicological side — he appreciates madness, style, and sleaze, but he’s never shown any inclination to in­corporate them into his writing. So for the same reason that the star lecturer isn’t always the life of the faculty party, it’s no surprise that Palmer brings off a history with more pizzazz than a quickie. His Jerry Lee Lewis Rocks! began its life in 1980 as a memorable Rolling Stone profile, but stretched out for the rockstar bio people at Delilah, it’s little more than the usual excuse for photographs (many of which are wonderful). Sure the facts are here, as well as a lot of historical back­ground and a few authorial reminiscences that Bangs always made a specialty­ — Palmer grew up in Little Rock and had his life changed, he says, by “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On.” But he doesn’t seem to put a whole lot of thought, or heart, into his thesis that “maybe rock and roll can save souls as well as destroy them.” And while in Deep Blues he applies his musical expertise to one of the key enterprises of all rock criticism — establishing the techni­cal brilliance of inspired primitives — he never does the same for Jerry Lee’s pump­ing piano, surely one of the great instrumental signatures. Too bad — I would have liked him to parse those boogie rolls.

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Hellfire feels like it was written fast, too — but not ground out like a quickie, really written, in what I envision as a month or two of icy lyric fury. Even at the end, when what begins as heroic narrative breaks down into a string of clipped little items that might just as well have been lifted whole from the trades, the police blotter, and the secret diary of Oral Rob­erts Jr., the book has the kind of trancelike coherence that has overtaken every writer at the dawn of a specially blessed all­-nighter. Basically the tale of the archetypal Southern backslider, it’s been described as Biblical and Faulknerian, and it should be. But Tosches, who has lots of just-the-facts hack in him, sustains a page­-turning pace that intensifies its of-a-piece­ness. And his tone partakes of the grand, inexorable distance of a genuine epic as well.

Such things cannot be, of course — the epic is of the past. All the oral tradition south of the Mason-Dixon line can’t bring it back unspoiled, and anybody who thinks different is ignorant, pretentious, or both. So Hellfire can only succeed as some kind of mock epic, the chronicle of a would-be hero in an antiheroic age. And indeed, Tosches does cut King James’s English with journalese; he does mix straight re­porting and bent faction with the stuff of legend; he does disfigure his story with the mean details of Lewis’s vanity, cruelty, and crazed sense of humor. But Hellfire isn’t mock anything. Without hewing foolishly to the usages of a dead form or trying to write like someone he isn’t, and without presenting Lewis’s excesses as merely cool, colorful, or demidivine, Tosches limns the life of a doomed hero as if that hero deserved our respect, and his. As a dedicated classicist who is also a former snake hunter and a contributing editor to Penthouse, he rejects the notion that there’s something debased or devalued about the mongrel rhetoric he exploits. It’s just there, with all it’s peculiar virtues and drawbacks, and it’s Jerry Lee Lewis’s mother tongue.

Not that this avowed Pindar fan doesn’t respect the past — not even that he doesn’t believe there-were-giants-in-those-days. Like most rock critics with a specialty in roots music, he disdains most of today’s pop, and his Jerry Lee is driven by his heritage as “the final wild son” (Tosches’s phrase) of a family with “a big history” (Lewis’s). Nor is Hellfire at all solemn — in fact, it’s very funny indeed. Lewis’s excesses aren’t merely cool or colorful, but they’re at least that — this wild son has done a lot of exorbitant things in his life, and he’s some interview: “ ‘I mean Elvis this, Elvis that. What the shit did Elvis do except take dope that I couldn’t git ahold of? That’s very discouraging, anybody that had that much power to git ahold of that much dope.’ ” Furthermore, Tosches does play his story for laughs, often finding punch lines in the grand rhythms of his rhetoric itself: “She caressed Jerry Lee and soon told him that she was pregnant. He told her that it was no seed of his that had rendered her so. They lifted their hands in anger anew.” Nevertheless, Tosches never makes fun. There is a humor not of derision of of delight.

I’m making big claims for Tosches’s complexity of tone, and I’m sure not everyone will read him that way. His elevated periods can be dismissed as rodomontade, his jokes a sarcasm, his compact narrative and penchant for interior monologue as proof that he didn’t do his homework. Then again, you can also dismiss Jerry Lee Lewis as one more unholy roller, or pigeonhole his achievement as a couple of classic rock and roll songs, a piano insignia, and a fling as a country star. But I would argue — having listened long and hard, I would swear — that there’s a lot more there. Lewis’s offhand arrogance, candid insincerity, and unshakable sense of des­tiny are not qualities commonly found in any artist. He’s very much a modern, set apart not so much by the elementary truth and transcendent power of his singing and playing as by his self-consciousness itself. His distance from his own show of fervor can seem positively eerie upon reflection, yet it in no way diminishes that fervor — if anything, the distance helps the fervor penetrate and endure. Tosches has absorbed this sensibility if he didn’t share it all along. In Country, he avers (pace Bird and JB) that Jerry Lee Lewis’s mastery of 20th century rhythm is rivaled only by Faulkner’s, but what author has learned from subject hardly stops there, and where it ends is with that same synthesis of distance and fervor. This is why Albert Goldman’s half-truths about rock’s attitudinal roots in “the put-on and the take-off” are so irrelevant — it’s radically unlike “Mad or the routines of Sid Caesar” because its formal roots are in the ecstatic, vernacular music of the American South, just as Tosches, who is touched with the spirit, is radically unlike Goldman, who has all the largesse of an unemployed gagwriter.

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Lewis believes that the source of his fervor is beyond question. “I got the Devil in me,” he told Sam Phillips just before cutting “Great Balls of Fire.” “If I didn’t have, I’d be a Christian.” And while he’s hardly the first Southerner possessed by such a notion, no one else has ever had the genius to dramatize Christ’s defeat so graphically. Not only is Jerry Lee a sinner, he’s a proud sinner, and not only is he a proud sinner, he’s a bored sinner; he’s al­ways interpreted the breakup songs, for instance, as if no suffering would ever bring him around. You win again, he seemed to say — and you’ll win again after that. And what does it matter? I’m still the Killer. Grrrrrr.

What Tosches believes is harder to know. I suspect, however, that the source of his own fervor isn’t second-hand — isn’t just his passion for Jerry Lee Lewis. Tosches’s account of Pentecostal fundamentalism maintains an objective if not skeptical tone. But like everything else in this terse, intense book, it never gets theoretical, never socializes, and though nothing else would be formally appropriate I’m left wondering. Not only does it seem that Tosches envies Lewis the simplicity of his Manichaeism, which is bad enough, but it also seems that in a less literal way he counts himself in thrall to the same dichotomies. Tosches makes no bones about the wages of this belief, always linked so intimately with romantic agony in extremis — he leaves Lewis unloved and without male issue, his career and his IRS account in tatters. His judgement, however, is muted. If Lewis has traded an eternity in hellfire for some great music, you can’t help but feel that Tosches has gotten a fairly great book at similar cost.

As a skeptic in the matter of eternity, I don’t really believe that myself, of course, and Hellfire is fairly great indeed — the finest rockstar bio ever and up with Mystery Train among all rockbooks. But as such it raises philosophical questions, for it reminds us that even the much more reflective Mystery Train is rooted in — and perhaps limited by — the Puritan tradition and/or the Great Awakening, which between them sometimes seem to ground all American culture. Because Nick Tosches, Greil Marcus, and Jerry Lee Lewis each takes this heritage seriously, each creates worth that isn’t mock anything, that connects us with an epic, heroic, deeply felt past. But in escaping modernism’s cul-de-sac they don’t escape modernity, which is why it’s worth remembering that in the end both Hellfire and Mystery Train aren’t epic at all. They’re tragedies of damnation. I’m not lodging a complaint — these aren’t just fine rockbooks, they’re fine books, a lot finer and more durable than most of what passes for literature and criticism these days. But one reason for that is that neither of them is content with such achievements. To the either-or — and beyond!