I Think Satan Done It

David Kirby Click to read more...

dkirbyDavid Kirby is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEA grant and has appeared in Best American Poetry four times. Known for his wit and Whitmanesque energy, Kirby is a music aficionado, poetry critic and popular culture encyclopedia. His books include The Ha-Ha (LSU, 2003), The Temple Gate Called Beautiful (Alice James, 2008) and Talking about Movies with Jesus (LSU, 2011).  The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems was a finalist for the National Book Award, and his new book is Get Up, Please (LSU, 2016).

Jerry Lee Lewis is the undead, only cooler – not even the undead
	just sit there staring and suddenly churn
barrelhouse piano as though the devil himself has his forked tail

up their butt, then dash through “Big Legged Woman” and “Breathless”
	and “Wile One,” pausing only to say, “I think Satan
done it!” when an amp goes out, all the while cheerfully interpolating

their name into virtually every song: “Other arms reach out for
	ol’ Jerry Lee, / other eyes smile tenderleee!,”
thus celebrating himself and singing himself as Whitman did,

that is, not as a “single, static marble statue elevated by a pedestal,”
	as Ronald Knowles notes in Shakespeare and Carnival:
After Bakhtin (London: Macmillan, 1998), but as one of the “sweaty

bodies of a living carnival crowd,” i.e., us, the 1500 or so who seem to be
	recruited mainly from Jacksonville shipyards and the ranches
that begin around there and go clear down through central Florida, lots

of sunburned, bowlegged guys with Popeye forearms and definitely
	the last generation to take men’s hair seriously enough
for me to look out over a sea of ducktails and pompadours anchored

by what appears to be gallons of melted yak butter not yet a single drop
	of irony, and when I ask a woman where she got her Killer
T-shirt because I want one for my wife, she says, “Here!” and starts

to peel it off as I say, “No, no!” for fear that Dean Don Foss
	of the FSU College of Arts and Sciences is, as Jerry Lee
works his way through “Once More With Feeling,” “Workin’ Man Blues”

and “Waiting for a Train,” leaning over the balcony at that very moment
	in gleeful anticipation of just such as misstep.
Now the week before the concert, two things happened, one global

and one not: first, Sir Johnny Cash died, and, sure enough,
	Jerry Lee begins his concert by saying, “Before
we start rockin’ and gettin’ it and throwin’ stuff and goin’ to jail,

I wanna sing a song for Johnny Cash,” the song being “I’m Going
	to Take My Vacation in Heaven,” which brings tears
to the eyes of many of the 1500 because of its aesthetics rather than

its expressed truth, for while the young may weep at circumstance,
	as a student’s father told her recently,
the old weep at beauty because they already know the world is sad.

The non-global thing is an editor at a big-city northern newspaper
	for which I write wrote me and said I hadn’t written
anything for her in a while, and did I have an idea, to which I said,

Do I have an idea! and told her I already had my Jerry Lee tix,
	so just hang in there and I’ll have 800 words
on your desk by the time you show up for work Monday morning.

Back comes her e-mail saying Wait, I don’t know, nobody around
	here thinks he’s all that important, and I reply,
N-not important?!? and tick off the facts on the fingers of my left hand,

which, even though she can’t see it, I’m holding in front
	of the computer screen in classic high-school
debater mode: in the forties and fifties, Sun Records founder

Sam Phillips (deceased) changed the world forever through the music
	of Elvis Presley (also deceased), Carl Perkins
(ditto), Johnny Cash (ditto as of two days ago), and Jerry Lee Lewis,

still smokin’, drinkin’ and rockin.’ And when I say “change the world
	forever,” I think of the time I was living in Paris
and walking past the Hotel Dieu on Christmas Eve, and the Hotel Dieu

is the oldest hospital in the city, dating back to the seventh century,
	if you can imagine, but, still, a working hospital –
people having babies and heart attacks don’t care if it’s Christmas Eve

or not. I mean, say “oldest hospital in Paris” to some pissed-off
	French woman in her 17th hour of labor and see
where it gets you! Anyway, as I walk past, just about frozen to death,

I hear “Great Balls of Fire” coming out of an open second-story window,
	and when I look up, I see doctors and nurses
in surgical scrubs, just dancing their hearts out. They’re swing-dancing,

complete with flash moves, and dripping with sweat and laughing
	and boogie-ing away all their stress and tension
and unhappiness over their inability to make people live longer,

just better, and that only for a while. The music was saving them,
	I told my editor; the music healed the doctors.
How about that, reader? How about those arguments for factual

irrefutability and rhetorical power, including but not limited
	to rodomontade, Hudibrastics and braggadocio,
the whole made palatable, even tasty, by a certain je-m’en-fichisme,

a subtle yet undeniable je ne sais quoi. You agree? Yes? Well,
	not that big-city editor! About an hour before
I get into my car to go to Jacksonville, she writes “David,

I’m afraid we’re just a little too snooty to commission a piece
	On what’s-his-name,” – okay, she didn’t say
“what’s his name,” though I can’t resist the substitution

because it conveys editorial indifference better than the truth would.
	And I’m not even talking about musicianship! 
For as he goes from “All night Long” to “Big Blond Baby”

and “Crazy Arms,” I am thinking how, in the late 18th century,
	Georg Cristoph Lichtenberg wrote in a notebook
that in the plays of Shakespeare, “you often find remarks doing

a kitchen-hand’s work in some remote corner of a sentence
	which would deserve the pride of place
in a disquisition by any other writer,” which would be just as true

if you substituted “Jerry Lee Lewis” for “Shakespeare,” “concerts’
	for “plays,” “piano playing” for “remarks,”
“song” for “sentence,” my name for Lichtenberg’s, our time period

for the earlier one, and “this poem” for “his notebook”!
	And then Jerry Lee says, “If God made
somethin’ better than a lady – umm! – he musta saved it for himself!”

And lest anyone accuse him of failing to practice what he preaches,
	let me remind you that Mr. Lewis married six times,
even if the majority of these unions followed the arc suggested by the titles

of such songs as “Let’s Talk About Us” but then “We Live
	in Two Different Worlds” and, finally,
“She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.” According to the program notes,

“he has never claimed to be a role model.” He’s not? Well, that’s news
	to the 1500! For he did exactly what he wanted,
and it worked, and when it didn’t work, he blamed the devil.

Jerry Lee Lewis, Jerry Lee Lewis, may you have as much fun
	in hel as you did getting there,
and if not, may the devil do as you do when you knock over a can of Sprite

and begin to laugh helplessly as you wipe it up and then hold the towel
	over your face bandanna-style and say “This is
a stickup!” and mug for the band as a heckler shouts “Play something!,”

and you swivel on your stool and look out as though seeing the audience
	for the first time and jerk your thumb toward
the back of the auditorium and say, “Them doors swing both ways.”
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