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All Things Thriller

A Celebration of Thrillers, Noire and Black Comedy by Pamela Lowe Saldana

Mandy, a Film directed by Panos Cosmatos, 2018; Horror/Fantasy

 

If you are a fanboy or fangirl who likes to drop acid, read Heavy Metal magazine and jam out to–oh, let’s say– Dio in a black light basement, then Panos Cosmatos’ Horror/Fantasy Mandy is for you. If you don’t engage or dabble in any of the above, then I would suggest you stay away–like I wish I had.

The plot? Pure revenge yarn. I’ll get down to it.

Red (Nicolas Cage) is a lumberjack in the mountains of…Oregon?… Yeah, I’m going with Oregon, who lives an idyllic life with his wifey–yeah, you guessed it–Mandy (Andrea Risebrough). Mandy is very lithe and fairy-like in a Gothic Horror kind of way. She wears Motely Crue and Black Sabbath concert t-shirts. And she has really big expressive eyes. Weird eyes, actually.

Red and Mandy are deeply in love and, on this, I’m not being tongue in cheek. Their romance is touching. They’re simpatico.

Mandy had a horrible childhood. Her father is a demon. I’m not kidding. He is a real demon–quite possibly the demon. But she escaped him.

Then one day she’s walking down the idyllic road (well, it’s scenic but there are these weird howling sounds at night) where she is spied by demonic cult leader, Jeremiah, (Linus Roache) and his slovenly followers who are out cruising in their conversion van. Oh yeah, I forgot…it’s 1983–Soooo yes, there are mullets…And aviator glasses.

So Jeremiah summons his denizens from hell (yes, he has that power) and they are scary, (think Pinhead, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers if they were really oily and rode motorcycles) to kidnap Mandy. They do, but not before they ransack the couples tender lair and torture Red, leaving him tied up in barbwire and almost dead.

At the cult’s labyrinth lair, things don’t go well for Mandy when she encounters Jeremiah; he thinks he’s the son of Satan and she knows full well he is not. She is not impressed when he plays her his record and it has flute in it–and we’re not talking Jethro Tull. She laughs at him. (Yeah, I know. But she can’t help it. She knows demonic rock and this isn’t it.) This makes Jeremiah furious so he sets her on fire, though he does it with a wistful look in his eyes.

Meanwhile Red is tied up in barbwire with a very serious vendetta jones. He escapes the barbwire and forges a Medieval looking battle axe and goes to war with the denizens of hell.

And its bloody. Really bloody.

I didn’t like this movie. But that’s just me. From the dispassionate position of objectivity, Mandy meets, even exceeds its bold, grandiose and highly stylized ambitions. That said, Cosmatos could pick up the tempo a bit.

Visually, it is stunning. Cosmatos’ color palate is as vibrant and lush as it is dark and gritty. There were times I felt as though I was free falling into an abyss of shades of red.

The soundtrack by Icelandic composer, Johann Johannson is superb. I knew it was going to be special when, during the opening sequence, Red surveys his opulent forested surroundings as the gorgeous, haunting overture of King Crimson’s Starless plays. Best part of the whole movie, I thought.

Cage is good, particularly in the first half as he conveys his relationship with Mandy. It is a gentle, natural, seamless performance; one for which he will receive a lot of attention, perhaps even career saving attention. I hope so. I have an affection for him.

In the second half he goes predictably bonkers, albeit with a wink and a nod…And a leer. It’s effective, if you like that kind of thing.

Into The Vacuum

Normally I avoid being political, especially on my blog. The primary reason is practical. I want people to read my blog and to follow it no matter their political inclinations or affiliations.

Additionally, my blog is about cinema and literature; thematically it is about crime. And though I’ve been known to stretch the framework a bit, I like to keep it within this wheelhouse.

However, recently I heard something that scraped an exposed nerve so brazenly that I’m going to veer off course. So be forewarned.

Here is what I heard, verbatim:

“I will tell you that all the cable TV shows in the world, all the front pages of newspapers in the world, all the editorials, all the tweets in the world don’t matter a hill of beans when somebody you know walks up to you and says, ‘Let me tell you why I’m voting for Donald Trump. Everywhere I go in this country … I’m just telling people, go tell somebody. Because the sheer weight of you taking time to find somebody at work, at worship, outside the drug store, and just saying, put that great make America great hat on again, and just walk up to them and say, ‘For real, you know me, let me tell you why I’m so passionate about this.’ Because word of mouth is still the most powerful media in America, and it always will be.”–Mike Pence

This statement from our Vice President sounded an alarm with me because it is a variation of something that I have heard many times growing up from my late mother (a self employed hairstylist) and have said myself (as a small business owner):

“Word of mouth is the best advertising.”

So then, this is what it’s come to? It hasn’t happened overnight or in a vacuum, but here we are being encouraged by our Vice President, albeit it cleverly, almost subliminally–just like when we are coerced into to buying a bag of Oreo cookies or a SUV–to forgo professional journalistic reporting for word of mouth. Insidious. Ridiculous. But true.

Now before I go any further let me be clear, I do not revere the press, e.g., journalists, the mainstream media, etc. Hardly. In fact, I do not revere anything except God.

That said, I used to have a deep respect for journalists. No more. That’s because they’ve headed straight for the pile of excrement and not only stepped in it, but drug all of us through it in the process.

That’s right. They did it willingly.

They did it when they deluded one of the basic principals of their profession:

OBJECTIVITY

Journalists are expected to probe, to investigate, to gather information and report it objectively, in an equitable manner, so that we the people can make an informed decision. Hence we are not supposed to have stories presented from cherry picked facts and Republican and or Democrat news networks. We are not supposed to–but we do.

Little wonder that we are a divided nation touting our caste system of blue states and red states like the gang territories and colors of the Bloods and Crips. It has been said that we have entered a cold civil war. I believe it.

How did we get here? I think I have an idea.

You see, I come from a one television set family. Consequently, I watched more news than the average kid or teenager. From an early age I was aware that the news media leaned left. Notice that I have emphasized the word leaned.

So then, let’s look at the word lean. Let’s examine the contextual Merriam Webster definition: 

To tend or move toward in opinion, taste, or desire. “She leans toward the city life.”

Now let’s look at the word point and examine its definition contextually:

To show someone the direction in which they should go. “Could you point me in the direction of the lobby?”

Is there even anyone who denies that the mainstream news media has traditionally leaned toward the left? I dare say no.

The mainstream news media has not, however, traditionally pointed toward the left. This phenomenon has happened only within the last ten years when MSNBC took a blatant hard turn to the left, supposedly to counter and to compete with Fox News’ hard right reporting. Lately MSNBC has made some overtures at returning to more centrist based reporting style but their emphasis still decidedly points toward the left.

Ergo, the left leanings of the press have hardly been benign. They have irked and isolated those on the right and have given rise to Fox News which has become a virtual appendage of the Republican party and almost a rubber stamp for the Trump administration. Notice I have emphasized the word almost.

That’s because there has been some rumblings of late about President Trump on even this proud bastion of the right, namely from Fox News anchor and commentator Neil Cavuto. Cavuto has blasted Trump repeatedly, since May, on issues like his disastrous press conference with Vladimir Putin, on saying he knew nothing of payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal and then, finally, admitting that he paid them, and for threatening that the economy would tank and everybody would become poor if he is impeached.

This leads to the question, could it be a mere coincidence that in the midst of Cavuto’s subversion, Vice President Pence issues his pronouncement that the news media doesn’t really matter? That all we really need is word of mouth?

This possibility is profoundly chilling, for every dictator known to mankind has first undermined the free press before undermining anything else. But even more chilling is the hard cold fact that we the people are undermining our great country by dividing ourselves. And sadly, instead of holding fast to its ethical principals, the press, which is supposed to be a safety valve for our democracy, has followed us into our sectarianism.

But in this precarious, destructive environment does it really matter who started the decent into the vacuum? Isn’t it more important that we hit the brakes before we are not only divided but before we are conquered as well?

Tremors, a film directed by Ron Underwood, 1990; Creature Feature/ B Movie, Comedy

What would a film world without B movies be like? A bummer, that’s what. No Them! No Tarantula. No The Blob. No The Thing From Another World. Not a film world that I would want to live in, I’ll tell ya’ that.

It would be like a real world without soft serve ice cream. Without flamin’ hot Cheetos,  funnel cake or Krystals (the southern equivalent of White Castle sliders).

Some folks would be fine with that. Some might even think it would be a better place without these things. Not me. I’m a most–not all, but most— things in moderation person.

And that’s exactly why I like director Ron Underwood’s Tremors so much. It’s a straight up creature feature, a ‘Katy bar the door’ B movie and a comedy to boot–one that actually makes me laugh. And that’s a win, win, WIN in my book.

Ahem

Tremors begins irreverently and, under the circumstances, perfectly with Val (Kevin Bacon) relieving himself off a cliff into a canyon’s abyss. It’s funny. It shows us, in a tiny capsule, who Val is and what we are in store for.

While Val zips up, his older, chiseled pal Earl (Fred Ware) snores inside a sleeping bag in the back of his pickup. He shares the back of his pick up with lawn tools and junk. This shows us a lot about who Earl is.

From their boots and rugged but perfectly fitting Wrangler jeans, we gather that Val and Earl are cowboys–and they are. On good days. On most days they are handymen in a spot in the desert town of Perfection, Nevada.

Perfection is anything but perfection. And it’s not a town either. It’s a forlorn village (population 14) with not a single tree in sight, deteriorating trailers–not mobile homes–and a sprinkling of shotgun shacks. The center of town is Chang’s general store.

Understandably, Val and Earl long to leave Perfection for the greener pastures of Bixby, (Ahem…) a town some thirty miles down the road with roads that are actually paved, only every time they gather enough gumption they are waylaid by a local yokel with a chore, a fifty dollar bill and a twelve pack of beer. And so it goes until one day a very unpleasant encounter with a septic tank inspires them. They throw their belongings in Earl’s truck with plans to get the heck out of…Perfection.

On their way to Bixby they pass a transmission tower and notice ‘ole’ Fred, the village drunk, perched atop of it. Thinking ‘ole’ Fred must be on a hardcore bender, they play rock, paper, scissors to determine who will climb the tower and bring him down. Val looses and climbs, only to discover that ‘ole’ Fred isn’t on a bender after all. He’s dead.

They take Fred to the village doctor (yeah, I know, a town with pop. 14 that has a homeless drunk and a doctor… Ahem…). He tells them that Fred died of dehydration and most likely had been on the tower for about three days.

Something must have chased ‘ole’ Fred up the tower and kept him up there they surmise, but what? It doesn’t matter cause Val and Earl are still leaving. If anything, they are even more determined. But their escape is foiled when they are waylaid yet again at a sheep herder’s shack after discovering a pen full of mutilated sheep and the severed head of the herder in what looks to be a giant doodlebug hole.

Val and Earl may be beautiful losers, but they do have morals. Thinking a maniacal serial killer is on the loose, they put Bixby on the back burner and hightail it back to Perfection. On the way they stop to warn a road crew and in a panic–it appears–Val hangs up the back bumper of the truck, spinning the tires like crazy before he finally breaks free. This pisses Earl off.

Back at Perfection they round up the residents and hold an emergency town meeting at Chang’s. While the townsfolk are sorting out what to do, Melvin, the resident smart alec teenager, (Bobby Jacoby) discovers what appears to be a huge prehistoric snake attached to the axle of Earl’s truck. It has been pulled apart–that’s what caused the spinning tires–and it stinks to high heaven.

Obviously, it is also what has made waste of at least two of Perfection’s residents and several of its sheep–or so it seems. Only it’s worse.The huge prehistoric snake thing is just an appendage (one of three said appendages, actually) that flicks out of the mouth of a ginormous prehistoric earth worm thing that kind of resembles the flesh eating plant from Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors. 

But wait…It get’s worse. There are four of these ginormous prehistoric earth worms counting the one who lost an appendage on Earl’s axle. It’s still alive and Earl admiringly, if not begrudgingly, nicknames it Stubby.

Stubby and his cohorts have knocked down telephone lines and because of the geography, Val, Earl and company are incommunicado with the outside world even with  CB radios. (Before you go Ahem… remember it’s the early 90s.)

Tremors is a profoundly, unabashedly 100% pure B movie. And like any good B movie–or otherwise–it has it’s fair share of bloopers and blunders, e.g., exposed wires, cables and boom mics and visible crew members. There are also liberal continuity mistakes like the sky going from cloudy to cloudless in what is supposed to be an uninterrupted film sequence. According to http://www.moviemistakes.com there are a whopping 46 such errors in the film.

But hey, Tremors is an ambitious, special effect dependent project on a very modest budget. As such, director Ron Underwood relies on a great cast (Fred Ward is his usual, gruff, terrific self, Kevin Bacon wears his Wrangler’s really, really well and Michael Gross is wonderful as a lovable right wing gun nut) pulling off an affectionate, charming homage to the creature feature of yesteryear–and bodacious directors who do more than they should with more than they have. If that’s not Hollywood and the future of filmmaking, i.e., YouTube, I don’t know what is.

 

 

Noble Warrior

Today a warrior was laid to rest. He lived imperfectly, as we all do. He died with dignity and honor as we all hope to.

He insisted that he was a fortunate son. As such, he fought hard for his country, charging death’s door with a broad, wounded shoulder–but it stood fast. It gave him time to prepare before it opened. Within that preparation the warrior sought to heal with inclusion even as he used exclusion as a sword.

He fought a noble, courageous fight and did not, would not, capitulate to expediency. He was better than that. Yes, better than this.  He demanded better of himself.

And so should we.

God’s Mercy, John McCain.

Thank you.

The Night of the Hunter, a film directed by Charles Laughton, 1955; Cinematography by Stanley Cortez; Fantasy/Southern Gothic/Film Noir

It would be a mistake to view Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter through the lens of realism when it was created within the prism of a parable and filtered through the eyes and bad dreams of a child. Even so, its themes of sexual repression and “female hysteria”, misogyny, serial murder and gullibility are unmistakably adult. Accordingly it was ridiculed during its day just as it is now routinely lauded. But make no mistake, now as then, it isn’t a film for everybody–just those who are willing to watch and listen, humbly and discerningly.

Ben Harper (a disconcertingly young and un-gray Peter Graves) is a desperate family man, out of luck and short on money in the Great Depression south, who does the unthinkable–he commits double murder during a bank robbery and then runs home with the loot and the cops hot on his trail. There he hides the money inside his daughter’s favorite doll while she and her big brother forlornly watch. He tries to escape to no avail. He is pathetically chased down and apprehended in his own front yard, but not before managing to give his son frantic instructions: Take care of your mother and sister; don’t tell anyone about the money, including your mother.

Condemned to the hangman’s noose, Harper spends his last days with a seemingly ne’er-do-well preacher/car thief who is, in fact, much worse than that. The Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is a woman hating serial killer who knows Harper never divulged where he hid the money.

Wisely, Harper isn’t swayed by the reverend’s feigned concern or attempts at “counseling”; he has seen the switchblade Powell has smuggled in. He tells his cellmate where he can go. But Powell is privy to the condemned man’s fitful, nightmare induced murmurings and from them–and the grapevine–he puts two and two together.

Sadly, but–perhaps–fittingly, Ben Harper has his date with the hangman while the disproportionately evil and undetected serial killer is set free. Of course he heads straight for the Harper family home, but on the way he is sidetracked by a burlesque show. The reverend watches the cavorting with the raucous male crowd and becomes incensed as he is aroused. He triggers the switchblade and the blade thrusts menacingly through his jacket pocket.

Harry Powell shouldn’t fool anyone. He looks exactly like what he is. He even has jailhouse tattoos inked just below the knuckles of each hand. L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E.

Yes, he wears the garb of a preacher and carries a Bible wherever he goes but displays none of the virtues of Christianity or characteristics of it’s founder; he is all fire, brimstone and wrath. His mannerisms are those of a stage actor–broad and sweeping as if he is playing only to the cheap seats. When he cries for the lost souls it’s all sobs and no tears.

Still he is tall, square jawed and good looking, so there’s that. Plus he exudes a potent charisma and sensuality that attracts the very women he is so repulsed by–and then some. One of those women is the widow Willa Harper (Shelly Winters).

Willa Harper isn’t a bad woman. She loves her children and tries desperately to provide for them. But she’s weak. She is exactly the type of woman who would take up with the scoundrel Ben Harper and then feel so guilty about it–and so lonely for a sexual companion–that she allows herself to be seduced by a pious fraud much worse than her executed husband ever was.

Things move fast as they did during those times and Willa and Harry Powell are soon married. Everybody is happy, at least at first, except for the Harper boy, John.

John (Billy Chapin) is wise beyond his age which is about eight. He takes good care of his little sister, Pearl (Sally Jean Bruce) who doesn’t know any better than to be enamored with her “new daddy”. Her brother, though, is not impressed. He sees straight through the preacher and engages him in a war of wills.

Deducing that there is no way the boy will be seduced into telling where the money is, Powell resorts to threats and violence–behind Willa’s back of course.

At first Willa, aglow in the blush of being a new bride, is easily deceived. She soon finds out, however, that Harry Powell has a rather odd idea of the marital bed: it is for procuring children only. When she approaches him, he coldly asks her if she wants more children? “No,” she replies. “Good,” he says and then turns his back to her.

Disillusioned by her new husband’s lack of  interest and dismayed by his cruelty, Willa gradually allows herself to see Harry Powell as he really is. Though she has convinced herself that Ben threw the money into the river to avoid being caught with it, she overhears Powell trying to coerce Pearl into revealing where it is. When she confronts him with what she’s heard he accosts her with his switchblade. She does not resist. Instead she offers herself up as a lamb to his slaughter, leaving her children to fend off the fiend by themselves.

By the grace of God and some comical bungling, John and Pearl manage to escape into the night aboard a skiff, but not before Powell finds out that the money is in the doll. Passed out from exhaustion they are unaware that the skiff has beached, while the reverend doggedly peruses them on land. He is afraid of water.

Fortunately they are discovered by a kindly old woman (Lillian Gish) who takes in and cares for wandering, disaffected children of the Great Depression. She isn’t sure how she will feed an extra two mouths, only that she will.

Her name is Rachel Cooper. And while she is petite, angelic and truly Christian, she is no slouch with a switch, as John finds out, or a shotgun either, which is a good thing since the Reverend Harry Powell has tracked his quarry to her door.

The Night of the Hunter is a cinematic marvel to behold. It was lushly and curiously photographed in black and white at a time when studios were clamoring for technicolor films. Some sequences–the night time nature panorama in particular–have a strange phosphorescent quality that renders it utterly unique in cinematic history.

Cinematographer Stanley Cortez who also shot Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, was a bold and experimental artist. Honing his craft in 40s film noir where he worked with the legendary creator of the genre Fritz Lang, Cortez was able to pull out every forced perspective trick in the book and he used many of them on the economical and inventive The Night of the Hunter set.

Take the famous hayloft scene in which John and Pearl, perched in the loft of a barn, see the reverend’s tiny figure in the distance riding a horse, his distinctive hat silhouetted against the moonlight. The entire locale was constructed on a very small back-lit set, the depth and distance engineered by the height of the loft built almost to the roof of the stage, and the scale achieved by a dwarf riding on a miniature pony.

Although Cortez’s fingerprints are all over The Night of the Hunter, it is not his film. He is merely a commissioned–though highly prized–artist hired to orchestrate Director Charles Laughton’s idiosyncratic vision.

Laughton conceptualized and delivered an overtly stylized film, rife with symbolism and exaggerated angles that mimic the blade of Powell’s ever present switchblade. He used the fairy tale as a motif and was inspired by pen and ink illustrations that were popular in pulpy periodicals of the 1930’s.

Perhaps most impressively, due to his own prestigious acting career, he was able to assemble an A list cast on a 795,000.00 budget that, while not B list, was certainly well below the extravagant multi million dollar budgets of the musicals Guys and Dolls and Oklahoma! that premiered the same year. Fellow Brit thespian and movie star Laurence Olivier wanted the role of Harry Powell but Robert Mitchum won it when, during the audition, Laughton described the character as “a diabolical shit” whereupon “Old Rumple Eyes” raised his hand and said, “present.”

Likewise Laughton’s casting of silent screen legend Lillian Gish was fortuitous. Originally he wanted his wife Elsa Lanchester (who most famously portrayed “the bride” in The Bride of Frankenstien) to play Rachel Cooper but she turned down the part and suggested Gish instead.

Gish’s portrayal of Miss Rachel is nothing short of inspired. She is the light that contrasts the black expanse of the hole in the Reverend Powell’s soul. In the same way, her characterization emphasizes the chasm between gullibility and Christianity; between devotion and religiosity.

Sadly, Laughton’s masterpiece was a critical and commercial failure in 1955. Though American audiences were/are aware of duplicitous men of the cloth, they rejected the depiction of the perverted, murderous Reverend Powell none-the-less. European audiences, largely spared and, therefore, ignorant of this primarily American charlatan, resented the representation as well. Charles Laughton never directed another film. Reportedly he was deeply wounded by his film’s failure. He died of renal cancer in 1962.

But the Director Charles Laughton and his film, like many so many other famous examples of artist and masterpiece, would fare much, much better posthumously. In 1992, the United States Library of Congress signified The Night of the Hunter to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, and selected the film for preservation in its prestigious National Film Registry. It is just one of the many accolades heaped upon a provocative and beautiful film about the humble triumph of good over the seemingly overwhelming forces of evil.

 

 

 

 

Two Televangelist, a Prostitute and a Flat Tire; Part III, Conclusion

Recap of Part II–Pious televangelist mogul Jimmy Swaggart sets his sites on rivals Jim and Tammy Bakker’s PTL Network empire and their ally Reverend Marvin Gorman. A past infidelity with a fellow minister’s wife threatens Gorman’s influential and rapidly growing ministry.

“You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look fine on the outside but are full of bones and decaying corpses on the inside.”–Jesus Christ; Matthew 23:27

David Savage was eerily calm. If Marvin Gorman was afraid that the spurned husband would swing on him, his fear was relieved when Savage spoke.

“Brother Gorman, she told me that she confessed everything to another minister and right now he is waiting on a phone call from you. I’m so sorry she felt it necessary to bring someone else into this. If she had told only me, I know the three of us could have worked this thing out.” 

Gorman dutifully dialed the number Savage recited even as a tidal wave of panic threatened to take out his legs.  The “other minister” was Michael Indest, a fellow New Orleans pastor with close ties to Jimmy Swaggart. Swaggart’s long time attorney William Treeby, attended The First Assembly of God congregation in New Orleans where Indest preached.

Indest answered the phone. “Marvin, I’ve been expecting your call. We need to talk.”  Gorman reluctantly agreed. They set a meeting.

According to Gorman, Indest was inappropriately incensed during the meeting, even more so than Savage, who also attended. Indest demanded that they inform Jimmy Swaggart about the situation. Gorman, understandably, didn’t want to. He knew that Swaggart had been snooping around his friends, Jim and Tammy Bakker, looking for dirt on them and their extremely lucrative PTL Network.

Besides all that, it was none of Swaggart’s business.

“I would rather call the District Superintendent,” Gorman said. But Indest wouldn’t hear of it. “I don’t trust the Superintendent,” he said, knowing that Gorman was a member of the presbytery the superintendent presided over. Then he threatened to call Virginia, the preacher’s wife of thirty years, and members of his congregation’s board of ministry.

Gorman didn’t want his wife to hear the sordid details from Michael Indest. Plus, he held out hope–fleeting though it was–that maybe he could talk his way out of the whole sordid mess and still salvage his twenty million dollar bank loan that would secure his own television ministry. He was scheduled to sign the paperwork the very next day.

He decided to roll the dice on Swaggart.

What Gorman didn’t know was that Swaggart had been holding information about the Savage affair close to the vest for quite some time. In fact as soon as Lynda Savage confessed, Indest called William Treeby with the news. At the time, Swaggart was in Costa Rica on a mission trip. Treeby happily relayed the information to him. It was just what Swaggart had been waiting for. And this wasn’t the first time Swaggart had information about a sexual indiscretion of Marvin Gorman.

Lynette Goux was a close friend of Jimmy Swaggarts wife, Frances. Suffering from marital difficulties, Lynette had sought the counseling of Marvin Gorman. Despite the counseling Goux’s marriage failed. She moved in with the Swaggart’s during the divorce proceedings. During her stay, she confessed details of a sexual encounter with Marvin Gorman to the couple.

Jimmy Swaggart confronted Gorman with the accusation and he admitted to fondling Lynette Goux. He said the unhappy woman had thrown herself at him, going so far as removing her blouse and brassier. According to Gorman he was momentarily overcome with desire but stopped himself before things progressed any further. Swaggart and Gorman prayed about it and presumably put the matter to bed.

But Swaggart did not forgive and he certainly didn’t forget, even though he felt something of a kindred spirit, yes, even though he recognized a familiar vulnerability–one that had been rumored for quite some time. Swaggart knew of several women who had told friends, who in turn had told other friends and so forth and so on about disturbing encounters with Reverend Gorman during counseling sessions that resulted in groping and kissing.

Of course it was just hearsay and accusations alone wouldn’t sway the board of presbyters that Gorman was a member of and neither would the indiscretion with Lynette Goux. She was too close to him and Francis.

They wanted proof. And now he had it. Now he, Jimmy Swaggart–the fire and brimstone breathing evangelist from the bayou–had him, Marvin Gorman–the touchy-feely upstart with Italian loafers–exactly where he wanted him, between a rock and a very hard, lonely place.

The Travel Inn had seen better days. Back in the 60s when Airline Highway was the premier route linking the capital of Baton Rouge to New Orleans and the main corridor to the airport, the motel was upscale, catering primarily to the burgeoning executive. Its billboard boasted of: Swimming Pool, Air Conditioned Rooms, Tile Baths, TV, Carpeted Floors and Room Service.

The construction of Interstate 10 changed all that. By the time Debra Murphree set up shop there the pool was just a white washed sinkhole with a tad bit of black water so noxious mosquitoes avoided it. Still it was better than a lot of the motels on Airline Highway that had rooms so small you could barely fit a double bed in them.

In fact, by brothel standards, Murphree’s room wasn’t small at all. In addition to the bed, there was plenty of room for: Nightstand with Lamp, Chair, Side Table, TV and Chest of Drawers. On the nightstand and chest of drawers Murphree displayed pictures of her children, two boys and a girl. They lived with her mother in Indiana.

She had worked hard to build up a clientele so she didn’t have to walk the streets. She hated pulling tricks in the often sweltering, stinky, claustrophobic confines of a car. Plus it was dangerous. You never knew whose car you were getting into. But that’s what you had to do to get where you could work indoors. And that’s how she met him.

Despite what some would later say and write, Debra Murphree took pride in her appearance that, all things considered, was unremarkable except for two small homemade tattoos on either arm and a rather sexy little gap between her two front teeth. Yes, she had a taste for cocaine and a boyfriend who dealt it, but not to the extent that she didn’t bathe or comb her hair. She dressed relatively nice, deliberately low key, with just a trace of casual Friday. She was wearing slacks and sweater when he pulled over in his long tan Lincoln Continental.

“You looking for a date?” she asked. “Are you a cop?” he retorted. She raised up her sweater to prove she wasn’t.

He certainly wasn’t one. His jogging pants were cut at the inseam and he was playing with himself.

That’s how it started. For a whole year she saw him two or three times a month. He called himself “Billy” but she knew he was Jimmy Swaggart. At the London Lodge diner, where she took her meals, she initially bragged that the famous preacher was a client. Nobody was surprised. Or impressed. “He’s been cruising these streets a long time,” the cook said.

During that time he never admitted who he was. Nor did he betray the slightest empathy for her soul or circumstances. Some other johns did. Some talked to her about God, urging her to get out of town and to turn her life around. But not him. Not ever.

He was her cheapest trick. He never tipped.

At least he didn’t ask for much. He mostly just liked to watch. When he was done he pitched the money on the nightstand and dropped the tissue on the floor. He never stayed longer than twenty minutes and she was glad.

On the afternoon of October 17, 1987 their usually brief session was cut even shorter. Vice had been in the neighborhood and Murphree spotted an officer that she knew running across the Travel Inn parking lot. “Looks like we’re about to get busted,” she said.

Bam! He hit the door.

“You would have thought his pants was on fire,” she told private detective Reed Scott Bailey later. They both got a chuckle out of that. But it wasn’t so funny then. At least not at first.

On that day it was her turn to watch. And she did, through the peep hole of her door. He started up the Lincoln and started to back out. Lo and behold he had a flat.

Poor Jimmy. And he was in such a hurry. He hustled a spare and jack out of his trunk and started working on the lug nuts.

A blue four door barreled into the parking lot. A man got out and approached Swaggart as he struggled with the lug wrench. “Jimmy, what in the world are you doing here,” the man exclaimed. Swaggart rose and offered to shake the man’s hand. The man refused.

“Well, I’m changing a flat tire Marvin,” Swaggart replied.

The man shook his head. “No Jimmy. What are you doing here?” he asked gesturing toward her door. Swaggart didn’t answer. Instead he bent down and started messing with the flat again.

“I hope you know you’re in some serious trouble son,” she heard the man say.

There was some more stuff said between them that she couldn’t quite make out. Finally Swaggart got the spare on. “Can we go someplace else and talk?” she heard him ask.

“Fine by me. Let’s go,” the man said.

She watched as they got into separate cars and drove out of the parking lot. The man in the blue four door following Swaggart in his long tan Lincoln.

It was nice. As far as cars go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adaptation, a film directed by Spike Jonze, 2002. Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman; Comedy/Metacinema/Thriller

 

I live in a relatively small, inconspicuous ranch style house. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lovely, small inconspicuous ranch style house that I’m very thankful for. It’s quite comfortable and–although the kitchen is smaller than I would like–I have no desire to move.

My home’s signature design feature is its wide open living room with vaulted ceiling; that and a especially large master bedroom that we use as an office. So, yeah, there are those things…and our yard.

In fact, I would say that our yard–the backyard in particular–is the loveliest thing about our home. That’s because my husband has a fondness for flowers and a green thumb to go along with that fondness. It’s his hobby.

People take pictures of our yard. People that we don’t even know. (We also have security cameras. So…)

Anyway, despite my husband’s talented thumb, we’ve never had any luck with orchids. Every orchid we’ve ever had (five of them to be exact) has died. And that sucks.

Orchids are expensive. Even the ones you get at Home Depot.

The film Adaption is about orchids. It’s also about compulsion. And obsession. Lack of confidence. The attraction of opposites. Illegal drug manufacturing. Screenwriting. Filmmaking. Writer’s block and…Whew!

Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention twins. It’s about twins. So, yeah, back to Whew! And I’m just getting started.

Charlie Kaufman is a screenwriter. For real. He wrote the screenplay to Spike Jonez’s acclaimed 1999 film Being John Malkovich and to Michel Gondry’s 2004 comedy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for which he won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. He also directed the much lauded Synecdoche, New York.

Charlie Kaufman is also the protagonist (portrayed by Nicolas Cage) in his own screenplay Adaption. Confused? I’m just getting started.

The movie begins with Charlie, fresh off his success with Being John Malkovich, embroiled in the funk of…well, being Charlie Kaufman. Despite his obvious talent and intellect–or maybe because of it–Charlie has zero self-esteem. Compulsively analytical, he is pleased with nothing, and upset with everything.

But don’t misunderstand–he isn’t misanthropic. He longs for the companionship of a woman, for the sexual bond, to engage in the give and take of a relationship, but because he thinks of himself so hideously–he is paunchy, he slumps and his hair, what is left of it, is frizzy–he can’t imagine anyone of the female persuasion being attracted to him even though his smart and pretty friend Amelia (Cara Seymour) is clearly just that. She finds the disheveled writer fascinating and charming; she practically throws herself at him, albeit in a very ladylike way. He is oblivious to it.

Commissioned to write the screenplay adaption to writer Susan Orlean’s best selling non-fiction book about Florida orchid poacher John Laroche, (again, Laroche and Orlean are real people) Charlie suffers a debilitating case of writer’s block–in the movie and in real life.

In real life, try as he might, Kaufman could not figure out how to make a commercially successful and artistically viable adaption of Orlean’s book. So he wrote the screenplay Adaption inspired by his writer’s block instead. He used Orlean and Laroche as characters in the screenplay and wrote in appearances by actors John Malkovich, Catherine Keener and John Cusack who had starred in Being John Malkovich. To that stew he added real life screenwriting guru Robert McKee as a character and fictional twin brother, Donald Kaufman.

Johnathan Demme was slated to direct The Orchid Thief but bowed out of the project. His production partner Ed Saxon stayed on board as the producer and Spike Jonez agreed to team up with Kaufman again and direct. Likewise Susan Orlean and John Laroche agreed to Kaufman’s extreme embellishment of their biographies and, alas, Adaption was born.

In the movie, Charlie is none too happy that his congenial, happy-go-lucky twin brother Donald (also portrayed by Nicolas Cage, magnificently I might add) has moved in with him. Donald is paunchy too, and he has the same frizzy, thinning hair, but unlike Charlie, he is completely comfortable in his own skin so he dresses better, takes better care of himself, is friendlier and, consequently, has way better luck with the ladies. This baffles Charlie.

On top of that, Donald decides that he too wants to be a screenwriter and that pisses Charlie off. Donald is like Charlie’s irritating little brother who wants to copy everything big brother does only, of course, they are twins and Charlie can’t figure out why Donald likes him or why he likes himself, for that matter. Plus, Donald wants to churn out a cookie cutter thriller screenplay and “cash in on it”. To that end he buys some of Robert McKee’s ‘how to write a screenplay’ DVDs and signs up for his seminars. He suggests his brother check out the DVDs to help his writer’s block. This disgusts Charlie to no end.

Meanwhile, Charlie immerses himself in the book he is supposed to adapt, The Orchid Thief. True to his tendencies, he becomes obsessed with the book’s author, Susan Orlean  (gloriously portrayed by Meryl Streep). He convinces himself that if he could just meet her, his writer’s block would break.

To this gorgeous, convoluted mashup Kaufman adds a parallel story–actually more of a faux documentary–about Orlean and “the orchid thief” himself, John Laroche (Chris Cooper in an Academy Award winning performance).

In real life John Laroche is a tall, elegant horticulturist who managed to poach/pilfer an extremely rare and elusive species of orchid from a nature preserve in the Florida Everglades. In Adaption, he is a sweaty, scraggly, toothless (he is only missing his two front teeth, but you get the picture) swashbuckling, near vagrant, self taught horticulturist tooling around in a rickety cargo van who manages to poach/pilfer an extremely rare and elusive species of orchid…Whew! You get the picture.

In the movie, Orlean becomes enamored with Laroche’s passion and intoxicated by his curious sexual potency. They begin a passionate affair that is enhanced by a drug, illegally extracted from the orchids by Laroche and his Seminole Indian confederates.

Charlie and Donald become aware of this drug conspiracy because they have been following Orlean, ostensibly for research, and in reality because of Charlie’s compulsive infatuation. This knowledge puts the twins in the crosshairs of the clandestine lovers who are desperate and willing to do anything–yes, even commit murder–to keep their passion alive.

Adaption is the most original, creative film I have ever seen. For years I avoided it. I didn’t think I would like it. Too convoluted. Too gimmicky. Too cute, I thought. Then I saw it. And I was right. It is everything I thought it would be. And it is wonderful. It very well may replace Magnolia as my tenth favorite movie of all time.

And that’s high praise from me. I love Magnolia almost as much as I love my cat Stryper–and I think magnolias are much more beautiful than orchids.

 

Two Televangelists, a Prostitute and a Flat Tire; Part II

Recap of Part I: October, 1988–Powerful televangelist and right wing culture warrior Jimmy Swaggart is caught on camera in the company of known prostitute Debra Murphree at a dilapidated brothel motel in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, Louisiana. Fellow Pentecostal evangelist and Swaggart rival/enemy Marvin Gorman prompts the sting. Gorman confronts Swaggart outside Murphree’s motel room. Swaggart is delayed at the scene of the tryst by a staged flat tire. 

“No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”–Jesus Christ; Matthew 6:24

Ministers are not just preachers, they are counselors too, attending to congregations–and persons therein–that are not always inclined toward psychological counseling but in need of it nonetheless. Preachers wives have an especially difficult role in church life–moving often, always hosting and forever scrutinized they have very little privacy and precious little personal identity–so it isn’t surprising that Lynda Savage, the wife of Reverend David Savage sought Marvin Gorman’s counsel. Mrs. Savage was having marital problems, on that issue, her and Gorman’s account is compatible.

According to Gorman on December 28, 1978 Lynda Savage called him at his office. Alone at a local motel she said she was severely depressed. She threatend suicide. Reverend Gorman dropped everything and rushed to her side.

At the motel he found the door unlocked and, upon entry into the room, Mrs. Savage draped in a robe and sitting on the bed. An open bottle of pills was on the nightstand.

Afraid that she had taken the pills he rushed over to the bed and sat down with her.  That was when, he said, Mrs. Savage let the robe drop. She was naked.

They embraced and began to kiss. He unzipped his pants and attempted intercourse but was overcome by guilt and remorse. He stood up and composed himself. After apologizing to her profusely, Gorman told her that what they were doing was wrong, that he had to leave. And he did.

Naturally Mrs. Savage’s version of events differs considerably. According to her, she and Gorman had sex between eight and nine times during an affair that lasted two years. Savage claimed that the affair began during a counseling session when he diagnosed her with Anorgasmia (the inability for a woman to have an orgasm). He told her that he could show her how to achieve one. Mrs. Savage said she was the one who ended the affair because of conscience pangs and that Gorman tried on several occasions to reignite it.

As for threatening suicide, Savage denied it. “I did not threaten. I might have made a statement like, ‘I feel like the best thing might be if I just died.’ But I did not threaten.”

Both Gorman and Savage believed that only they knew about their “affair” even if they disagreed about the duration, intensity and number of indiscretions that comprised it. They were wrong.

The year 1986 was proving to be a good one for Marvin Gorman. Due to his good looks, impressive stature and genuine love of people and a willingness to meet them where they stood in life, (as well as his tolerance of, and outreach to, lapsed Catholics) the First Assemblies of God congregation in New Orleans that he pastored had grown from little more than 100 members to a jaw dropping 6,000 strong.

Not only that, Gorman had been elected to the national Executive Board of the Assemblies of God where he had a hand in the doctrinal and disciplinary matters within the denomination; and, perhaps most significantly, he was in the process of finalizing the purchase of two television stations with satilites. Additionally, he was about to break ground on a new building project only a few blocks away from his current church site.

Though things were clicking on all eight cylinders for Gorman in New Orleans, all was not quiet on the Pentecostal front from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to Charlotte, North Carolina. Just 80 miles north of New Orleans, Baton Rouge was the bastion of the Assemblies of God denomination and the home of its famous firebrand televangelist Jimmy Swaggart whose television show A Study in the Word was broadcast to over 3,000 stations at the time. Eight hundred miles northeast of Baton Rouge lies the major metropolitan area of Charlotte, North Carolina which in 1986 was the hub of Pentecostal televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL (Praise The Lord) Network empire. The Bakker’s and Swaggart did not see eye to eye.

Jimmy Swaggart buttered his bread with a more traditional, fundamentalist Pentecostalism. He railed against “Catholic apostasy”. He forbade dancing of any kind, even aerobics, and demanded that women be subservient to their husbands. He was particularly strict on sexual matters going so far to denounce oral sex between a husband and wife as perverted and berating young men and women for masturbating. Pornography was anathema.

Swaggart’s preaching style was dramatic, accusatory and physical. He would contort his face to demonstrate the horror and vileness of sin. He whooped and hollered. A tall, broad shouldered man, he lunged and swung at the demons of the air. He pleaded and cajoled. He captivated and entertained. He asked for money from his “faithful friends of the ministry” so he could save the prostitute. The pornographer. The adulterer. The apostate. And the money poured in.

Jim Bakker, on the other hand, was softer–in every sense of the word. He and his wife, Tammy Faye, modeled their television empire on the Johnny Carson Show. The PTL club was conspicuously wholesome–the hosts chatted up well known preachers of the day and gospel singers performed–while at the same time ostentatiously garish–there was a fetid vibe to Jim’s baby fat face and luxury casual wear and Tammy Faye’s spider webbed mascara, bejeweled fingers and extreme crying jags. In his “keys to success” self help books Bakker extoled the tenets of the “prosperity gospel”: God wants you to be happy. God wants you to be succesful. God wants you to be rich.

Of course, according to Jim Bakker, ‘God’s largess was contingent upon “you” being generous. Therefore “you” should demonstrate your generosity by donating “whatever you can” to the PTL Network. The more you give, the more you receive,’ so went the preamble of Jim and Tammy Bakker’s pitch. And it was successful. At the height of the PTL’s popularity it was worth well over a hundred million dollars.

Swaggart took umbrage with the prosperity gospel, outwardly because it was unbiblical and anti-Christ, inwardly because he was envious and threatened by Bakker’s success. When he went on one of his many televised tirades about “limp wristed preachers” few, if any, viewers doubted who he was fuming about. Jim Bakker canceled Swaggart’s scheduled appearances and his televised sermons on PTL Network.

Though Marvin Gorman tried to stay out of the feud, he was friends with Jim and Tammy Faye. That friendship and his rising star within the Assemblies of God circles put Gorman and his energized ministry in Swaggart’s crosshairs.

It had been an unremarkable but busy, summer day in New Orleans when the phone rang in Marvin Gorman’s office. He took the call.

“Marvin, this is David Savage,” the caller said. “Do you have time for me to stop by and see you today?” “Sure,” Gorman answered. “But the earliest I can see you is four o’clock this afternoon.”

“Very well. I’ll see you then,” Savage said.

Gorman hung up and went about his day as usual, noting that whatever it was that Savage wanted, it seemed a little urgent. Even so, he wasn’t the least bit alarmed. He knew Savage well, having mentored him in the ministry. It wasn’t unusual for the young preacher to ask Gorman’s advice about church matters. At four o’clock Savage was right on time.

As soon as Savage entered the room Gorman sensed something was wrong. His guest didn’t bother to sit down. Instead he turned and faced Gorman, looking him dead in the eyes.

“We know about you and my wife,” he said.

It was July 15, 1986. Marvin Gorman’s life would change dramatically that day. And as hot as it was, things were about to get even hotter.

 

 

 

 

Two Televangelists, a Prostitute and a Flat Tire; Part I

There is nothing covered that won’t be uncovered, nothing hidden that won’t be made known. Therefore, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in an ear in private rooms will be proclaimed on the housetops.–Jesus Christ; Luke 12:2-3

Back in the early 80s Nashville wasn’t nearly as cosmopolitan, or as expensive, as it is today. With a stable economy and a relatively low cost of living, it attracted many of the disenfranchised looking for a more glamorous place that, like the lyrics of a Country song, was sympathetic to their hardscrabble life.

Debra Murphree fit the bill to a T.  A high school drop out at the age of sixteen, married at seventeen, giving birth to three children in the span of five years, she was all of twenty-two years old when she wound up in Music City.

Of course, only she knows why she came here. Perhaps it was because she wanted to break into the music business; or, possibly, she was traveling and found herself at the intersection of I-40, I-65 and I-24 and felt it was as good a place as any. Then again, maybe she was afraid if she didn’t get out of Podunk Indiana she never would and Nashville was the place on the map she settled on.

For whatever reason she was low on funds and in need of a job when she arrived. A “friend” told her about an escort service. It was way better money than waiting tables or running a drive thru window. With a whole life ahead of her, she could make some quick cash and then get out. That’s what she thought, anyway.

That’s how she got into “the life”.

One of the main signatures of Bob Guccione’s Penthouse magazine was its sexually explicit, soft focus photography of the nude and near nude female form–that and its  superb in-depth journalism. Guccione was very particular about his models. He wanted them young and beautiful. And glamorous. The sex in Penthouse had a mysterious voyeuristic theme. It was gauzy, upscale porn for the sophisticated peeping tom.

Ninety percent of the July 1988 issue of Penthouse was within its distinctive perimeters, the remaining ten percent was dedicated to an article and photo spread of Debra Murphree. The article, full of salacious details of her encounters with a john who called himself “Billy” yielded to the photo spread, a collage of replicated “poses” that “Billy” liked to direct. There was nothing gauzy or soft focus about them.

While Murphree was a reasonably good looking young woman–unremarkable facial features with a hint of Native American ancestry, black wavy hair and long slender legs–street walking is hard on the mind, body and spirit. Guccione could have made her look attractive and alluring. He choose to do the opposite. He used her to shame “Billy”.

At one time, Reed Scott Bailey was a police officer. That was before he got fed up with all the red tape and politics involved in law enforcement and became a P.I. instead. As a private investigator Bailey worked for lawyers from time to time. One of those was Marvin Gorman’s lawyer Hunter Lundy.

Reverend Marvin Gorman’s son Randy was also a police officer. He interjected himself into his father’s private investigation whenever he could. It was only natural that he would. He loved his dad who had adopted him and reared him as a son when he married the boy’s mother, Virginia, some thirty years before. Randy called the elder Gorman, “the most compassionate, tender-hearted minister I’ve ever met.”

Likewise, it was only natural that Reed Scott Bailey and Randy Gorman got along and worked together. As cops, they both worked and knew Airline Highway well. Then again, everybody in the New Orleans area knew/knows Airline Highway.

As the name implies, Airline Drive–as it is known today–is a gateway to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. A chunk of it, the Metairie Parish blocks 3000 to 5000, respectively, comprises a notorious hookers stroll. Though the Parish has worked hard over the last decade to clean it up, razing many of the decaying motels that served as brothels and replacing them with new development, the area is still seedy. It is still a stroll.

One of those razed brothel motels was the Travel Inn. In 1987, Debra Murphree was living and working there. That’s how she came to know Officer Randy Gorman. According to Murphree, during an encounter with the police officer, he became one of her clients.

But Gorman was interested in more than just sex. He liked to quiz Murphree about her clientele. At the time she thought nothing of it. He was a cop after all. Her perception of his inquisitive nature changed considerably after October 17, 1987.

Nervous because of police stings the week before, Murphree, who had just finished up a session with “Billy”, peeked out her room’s window. That’s when she caught sight of Officer Gorman running into Room 12.

“Looks like we’re about to get busted,” she warned “Billy”.

“Billy” hustled out the door and fired up his Lincoln Continental, only to find that he had a flat. As he hauled the jack and spare out of the trunk, Murphree stood in the open doorway watching him. “If they stop you on the way out, don’t say anything,” she pleaded. She was low on money and making bail would cut things perilously close.

Nervously she glanced across the way at Room 12. In the window a camera lens wrapped in a black towel was visible to only the most discerning eye. Six years on the street had made Debra Murphree’s eyesight especially keen. She slammed her door shut and locked it.

Immediately afterward a blue car raced into the parking lot and parked next to “Billy’s Lincoln. A tall, handsome man got out of the drivers side. Peering through the peephole, Debra Murphree didn’t recognize him.

As he walked around the front end of his car he said something to “Billy” that Murphree couldn’t make out. “Billy” didn’t look up. He kept fiddling with the jack and tire.

The handsome man stood over “Billy” his hands on the fine leather of his belt. “Jimmy, what in the world do you think you’re doin’?” he asked.

Behind the locked door of her twenty dollar a night motel room Debra Murphree smirked. All along she had known who “Billy” really was.

“Are you Jimmy Swaggart,” she asked him when he first picked her up on Airline Highway. “No,” he answered. “A lot of people ask me that.”

But of course he was Jimmy Swaggart. And of course she recognized him despite his pitiful attempt at a disguise ( he brushed his bangs forward, wore a headband and a sloppy jogging suite with a hole in the inseam.) How could she not? Swaggart’s face was all over TV where he preached from his mega church in Baton Rouge against the apostasy of Catholics, the evil allure of pornography and the wrongfulness of oral sex, even among married couples. Next to Billy Graham, her “Billy” was probably the most famous preacher in the whole United States, if not the world.

What she didn’t know was Jimmy Swaggart’s handsome inquisitor was none other than Reverand Marvin Gorman, a big time Pentecostal preacher in his own right with a six thousand member mega church that he pastored less than a mile from the very spot where he stood. At least he did before Jimmy Swaggart uncovered a sexual indiscretion and then blasted it across the Pentecostal Church hierarchy, effectively getting him kicked out of the denomination, casting him into the purgatory of bankruptcy and stressing his marriage of over thirty years.

Even more shocking for Murphree–or at least that is what she claimed–was the identity of the police officer who she had been seeing as a client about as long as she had been “dating” Swaggart. “I had no idea who Marvin Gorman was,” she insisted. “And I didn’t even know Randy Gorman’s name.”

 

 

Jerry Lee Lewis, “the Killer” of Rock N Roll

It was just your average hot and sticky July evening in Nesbit, Mississippi. Nesbit’s usually pretty quiet–and it especially was back then, in 1981–though it’s only about twenty miles from Memphis. But of course nobody knows what goes on behind closed doors–average small town or big city, for that matter.

Behind closed doors at 1595 Malone Road, the Killer stumbled down the long hallway of his rambling ranch style home. He clutched his stomach and slid down a wall. Searing pain engulfed his abdomen. “K.K.!” he called to his then girlfriend. The Killer was lucky she heard him. His voice was little more than a harsh raspy whisper.

Mary Kathy Jones stopped dead in her tracks when she saw him. He was white as a sheet and coughing up blood.

Jones and long time road manager J.W. Whitten carried the Killer to his El Dorado Cadillac. Whitten floor boarded it all the way Methodist Hospital in Memphis while the Killer leaned against Jones, drifting in and out of consciousness, constantly moaning and thrashing. All three of them were in the front seat. Jones had wanted to call an ambulance but there was no time. Jerry Lee Lewis, one of the founding fathers of Rock and Roll, was dying from a ruptured stomach brought on by years of knocking back fistfuls of pills with countless shots of whiskey and, yes, even shooting dope into his gut.

Nine days later singer songwriter Kris Kristofferson sat at the bedside of his long time friend and mentor. Myra Brown Lewis, the Killer’s third wife and cousin–he married her when she thirteen years old, setting off international outrage while simultaneously (and temporarily, as it turned out) destroying his career–had called him in. The Killer was on a respirator but he was alert. His eyes were wide and blazingly intense. Kristofferson clasped Jerry Lee’s hand. “I’ve never seen someone so terrified,” the singer recalled. “That man willed himself to stay alive.”

The Killer had good reason to be afraid. He was deathly afraid of going to hell.

Jerry Lee Lewis was born in the small farming community of Ferriday, Louisiana to a good hearted, but hard-drinking, brawling father and a deeply religious–Assembly of God–mother. Inspired by the lively charismatic music of the Pentecostal church, Jerry Lee began playing the piano when he was five years old. His parents mortgaged their farm to buy him a used Stark upright.

Not much for school, Jerry Lee would rather slip away to Haney’s Big House, a juke joint frequented by African Americans where he would sit on the piano bench with famed blind bluesman Paul Whitehead.

 “Paul Whitehead done a lot. His lesson was worth a billion dollars to me…He taught me. I’d sit beside him, and say, ‘Mr. Paul, can you show me exactly how you do that?’ Mr. Paul was good to me.”

Mamie Lewis didn’t like her son listening to or playing the “devil’s music” so she sent him away to the Southwest Bible Institute of Waxahatchie, Texas with hopes that he would become a preacher. His sabbatical lasted all of three months. Jerry Lee got kicked out of the school for revving up a gospel song with R&B and country blues.

Back in Ferriday Jerry Lee’s mind was made up. Music was his calling, not gospel but the electric howling mashup of styles that he was on the cusp of. This was the music that drove teenagers to riot and their parents to despair. It was his music. He was a savant. A genius. His long fingers worked magic, flying up and down the keyboard with manic ferocity. There was nothing he couldn’t play. Hear it once and he could spin it, twist it, turn it inside out and make it his own.

On the Louisiana and Mississippi backroads Jerry Lee dove headlong into juke joints and night clubs where he passed the hat for dollars, honed his skills and developed his wildman stage antics. He grew his hair long on the top so that it flopped down into his eyes when he worked himself into a frenzy. He wore sports coats and slacks–and fancy shoes. He kicked over his bench, learned to hammer the keys with the heel of his foot and even set his piano on fire.

“I’m a stylist on songs. I do them my style, my way. And make them into whatever I want them to be. And that’s talent. Raw talent. It’s God-given talent.”

That talent took him to the mecca of the burgeoning rock and roll scene–Memphis Tennessee’s Sun Records and to producer Sam Philips. Philips had a stable of talented recording artists at Sun comprised of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Milton, BB King and Elvis Presley among others.

Cowboy Jack Clement–a successful singer and prolific songwriter in Country music before his death in 2013–was a studio engineer at Sun back in the 50s. He was at the front desk when Jerry Lee strutted into the studio asking for an audition. Philips was out of the country at the time but Clement decided to hear the cocky singer and pianist anyway. He was impressed and recorded the audition.

When Philips returned he agreed to give the tape a listen. Clement turned up the volume and the speakers came alive with Jerry Lee’s improvised intro to Ray Price’s Crazy Arms. Clement remembered Philips eyes being closed–as was his custom when listening to prospective talent–suddenly opening wide. A thin smile creased the producer’s lips. Philips reached across the console and switched off the recording listening to less than thirty seconds of the audition.

“I can sale that,” he told Clements.

Sam Philips tried to warn him. He knew it was going to be a disaster. It was a no brainer. But the kid wouldn’t listen. Jerry Lee was determined to take Myra to England. Myra was Jerry Lee’s second cousin.

She was also his wife. His third wife.

In 1958, nowhere–not even in the U.S. of A.–was Rock and Roll a hotter commodity than in Great Britain. Teenagers there stood in long lines to buy, clamor for and even fight over American records with that distinctive turbulent beat. And no recording artist rocked harder, played faster or shrieked louder than Jerry Lee Lewis. Only Elvis Presley caused more pandemonium– and he got drafted in ’58.

With Elvis in the Army, Jerry Lee was at the top of the heap with his huge singles Whole Lot a Shakin’ Going On and Great Balls of Fire. His twenty-seven confirmed concert dates in England was the biggest tour of any Rock and Roll artist of the time. Naturally the first stop on the tour was London.

Paul Tanfield of London’s The Daily Mail was just one of the many reporters and fans that awaited the plane carrying Jerry Lee Lewis at Heathrow airport. As Lewis and his entourage exited the plane, Tanfield noticed the exceptionally young looking woman on Jerry Lee’s arm. “Who do we have here?” he asked.

The young woman spoke right up. “I’m Myra. Jerry’s wife.”

Intrigued, Tanfield asked the most logical follow up question. “How old are you, Myra?”

This time Jerry Lee answered. “She’s fifteen,” he blurted out.

He lied. She was thirteen.

Other reporters began to shout out questions. One asked if fifteen wasn’t a little young to be married.

Again Myra piped up. “Oh, no, not at all. Age doesn’t matter back home. You can marry at ten if you can find a husband.”

Suffice to say the tour didn’t go well. Jerry Lee performed all of three concert dates where he was heckled and booed. Bottles and rotting fruit were thrown onto the stage. “Cradle robber!” “Baby Snatcher!” “Pervert!” When he ran a sparkling silver comb through his long, wavy blond locks, a move that usually drove the girls wild and piqued the guys admiration, the crowd was repulsed. “Sissy!” “Poof!” “Nancy!”  

The rest of the tour was abruptly canceled. Reporters and jeering protesters camped out at The Westbury Hotel where Jerry Lee and his entourage had reservations. The Westbury management asked them to leave.

They did. Then they left England.

“Get on the @#@#$$# phone,” a drunk-out-of-his-mind Jerry Lee hollered at Harold Lloyd who was on guard duty. “Call up there and tell Elvis I wanna visit with him. Who the hell does he think he is? Tell him the Killer’s here to see him.” 

Unbeknownst to Jerry Lee, Elvis was watching on his security monitor. “He crashed his car into the gates,” Lloyd said over the phone to his boss who also happened to be his cousin. “He’s waving a gun around.”

“Call the cops,” Elvis said.

When the cops got there Jerry Lee put up a fight. He swung, kicked and yelled, calling them all sorts names. They managed to get the cuffs on him. “What do you want us to do with him?”

“Lock him up,” Elvis said.

It was three o’clock in the morning, November 23, 1976. Eight months later Elvis Presley was dead of heart failure at age forty-two.

Two months before his arrest outside of Graceland, on September 29th, Jerry Lee had been celebrating his forty-first birthday with his bassist Butch Owens. He was drinking heavily and fooling around with his .357 Magnum.

“Look down the barrel of this. I’m gonna shoot that Coca-Cola bottle over there or my name ain’t Jerry Lee Lewis,” he boasted to Owens.

Then he fired. Twice.

The bullets plowed into Butch Owens chest. In shock, the bassist stumbled into the living room where Jerry Lee’s forth wife, Jaren Gunn Pate, was watching TV. The chest wound was pumping blood all over the place. Jaren screamed at him for bleeding on the carpet. It was brand new. And white.

Then on June, 8th, 1982 Jaren Gunn Pate was found at the bottom of her friend’s pool, mysteriously drown only weeks before divorce proceedings were to be finalized. It was an especially contentious divorce. Jaren and her attorneys were intent on taking Jerry Lee to the cleaners.

Your Plaintiff would further show that the Defendant has an extremely violent temper, especially when he becomes intoxicated on alcohol and/or drugs, and he has choked your Plaintiff on numerous occasions, has beaten her up, knocked her down the stairs, and threatened her very life.

Your Plaintiff would further show that approximately one (1) month ago when your Plaintiff called the Defendant for financial assistance for herself and the parties’ minor child, Defendant went into a rage and stated that she should not worry about any support because “you are not going to be around very long anyway, and if you don’t get off my back and leave me alone, you will end up in the bottom of the lake at the farm with chains on you.”

The following year, almost to the day of Jaren’s death, Jerry Lee married again. This time to a twenty-five year old beauty from Dearborn Michigan named Shawn Michelle Stephens. Shawn was a feisty young woman who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind to Jerry Lee or anyone else. Her friends and family described her as kind and loyal. The marriage lasted seventy-seven days.

On August 24, 1983 paramedics were called to 1595 Malone Road, not entirely unusual; they knew the address well. In one of the home’s bedrooms they found Shawn Michelle unresponsive under heavy blankets. There was blood in the web of her hand and bruises on her forearm. She was dead.

Lottie Jackson, Jerry Lee’s housekeeper of many years, knocked on Jerry Lee’s bedroom door. When he came into the room where Shawn lay, the paramedics noticed there were flecks of blood on his robe and deep scratches across his hand.

Shawn Michelle Stephens death was ruled a suicide by methadone overdose.

Jerry Lee began seeing Shawn Michele Stephens on the side in February of 1981. He was still married to Jaren Gunn Pate, but they had lived apart for years. He complained to Shawn about Jaren constantly. He told her he wanted to marry her as soon as he got Jaren out of the way.

Jerry Lee flew Shawn down to Nesbit Mississippi. Before long Shawn’s sister Shelly, their brother Thomas and friend Dave Lipke joined her at the Malone Road address.

Jerry Lee was consuming copious amounts of cocaine and amphetamines. At one point he stayed up for twelve days straight. Naturally he was paranoid. He thought Shelly had brought Dave down for Shawn to mess around with. And incredibly he still had the urge. Big time. He wanted Shawn and Shelly to participate in a threesome with him.

Shawn refused. She and her friends high tailed it out of Mississippi.

Though Shawn never thought too much of Jerry Lee, she was rather fond of his money. A few months went by and she called him. She told Shelly that the phone call didn’t go so well. Jerry Lee was pissed. He sounded like he was sick. That he was complaining about his stomach. A few weeks later he was in Memphis Methodist hospital with a ruptured stomach and a less than fifty percent chance of survival.

But Jerry Lee did survive. He promised the Lord that this time he would do better. That this time he really meant it.

It has been said that Jerry Lee Lewis earned his nickname the Killer with his onstage bravado and knock ’em dead piano style. It has also been said that “killer” is a term of camaraderie that boys from Northern Louisiana used back in the days of Jerry Lee’s youth. That he got the nickname from calling his friends and acquaintances “killer”.

In October, 2014 GQ reporter Chris Heath asked then seventy-eight year-old Jerry Lee if he thought the name suited him.

“I don’t know. Really don’t know. I couldn’t answer that. I’m scared to say yes and I’m scared to say no,” he said.

Shelly Stephens recalled Jerry Lee’s version of where the nickname came from. He and her sister were newly married and already having trouble. Jerry Lee didn’t like Shawn’s family hanging around. He wanted Shawn all to himself.

“You scared of me?” he once asked Shelly. “You should be. Why do you think they call me the Killer?”

Two months later Shawn Michelle Stephens was dead. She was the Killer’s fifth wife.

The Best Jerry Lee Lewis Albums

***** Live at the Star Club, Hamburg (with the Nashville Teens), Phillips (1964)

***** All Killer, No Filler, Rhino (1993)

***** Another Place Another Time, Smash (1968)

***** Jerry Lee Lewis’ Original Golden Hits Vol. 1 & 2, Sun (1969)

***** Jerry Lee Lewis’ Original Golden Hits Vol. 3, Sun (1971)

***** Jerry Lewis’ Ole Tyme Country Music, Sun (1970)

***** Killer Country, Elektra (1980)

 

 

 

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