From The Archives

Pentecostals in Heat

Jerry Lee Lewis is damned, says his cousin Jimmy Lee Swaggart, and so are the profane Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. O Jesus help us, the demons are everywhere — in the IRS and in the PTL, in the computer and in our crotches, and most certainly in the hellfire of rock ’n’ roll. Let us pray.

by

“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.

 

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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. ■

Archive Highlights