Carnality 2: Sebastian Phoenix and the Dark Star
by Josiah Hesse
Writing isn’t sexy.
Some people may consider being a writer sexy, but no one ever voyeuristically peered onto a person lost in the act of typing and thought: Break me off a piece of that! Johnny Depp may have made writing look interesting when he played Hunter Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but even he couldn’t pull off making stenographic work a spectacle of arousal.
When filming Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Martin Scorsese and Ellen Burstyn discussed how to approach the first kiss between her and Kris Kristofferson. “Have him doing something with his hands,” she told Scorsese. “I’m always most turned on by a man when he’s working with his hands.” So they had Kristofferson mending a broken fence in the lead-up to their big smooch—and it was perfect.
Writing does require working with your hands, but it’s not like you’re building anything. At least not anything aesthetically stimulating. It’s just blocks of text. When playing the guitar, cooking a meal, or mending a fence, you’re at least creating something that can be admired in real time. With writing, you’re not even present when people are consuming your work. All of the magic is in their head — it’s not really even on the page.
Earlier today I was writing in a room on the fourth floor of the hotel when I caught my reflection in a mirror. It was a beautiful day on the island. Warm with a cool, humid breeze drifting in from the lake. The wall that once covered the south side of this burned-out hotel is still gone, offering me a view of the beach below, where my dog Gabriel was pleasantly napping under the sun, his furry legs twitching as he (I imagined) dreamed of chasing squirrels made of bacon.
When I first arrived on the island four years ago I was a beautiful young man, a perfectly manicured and moisturized specimen of mid-twenties glory. Today I am just a greasy ball of matted hair and scar-tissue, my lice-infested dreadlocks rooted into my slimy beard, my sunburned face ravaged by brambles, mosquitos and the ubiquitous ash and soot that covers every inch of the hotel. Even the mirror was stained by the smoke that filled this building more than a half-century ago, but I could still make out my reflection as I pounded away on this antique typewriter, and it was anything but sexy.
I walked across the room, plucked the mirror off the wall and frisbeed it into the lake, which startled Gabriel out of his nap.
I’m now on the roof the building, where I’m typing this very sentence. There are no reflective surfaces up here, but since I’m naked I can easily look down and witness the horror that nature has wrought upon my young body. Do I miss being sexy? Do I miss being an adored apparition of the stage, able to drive both men and women to orgasmic shudders of delight? Seeing as I haven’t encountered another human in four years, you’d think it wouldn’t matter what I look like. But I have to admit feeling some vague disappointment when I caught my reflection in that mirror. Some tragic loss.
I am no longer a sexy preacher.
I am just a lonely writer.
And writing isn’t sexy.
There is a reason so many pentecostal preachers find themselves entangled in sex
scandals. When you’re a pastor in a charismatic church, you’re more than just a cleric, you’re a stand-up comedian that kills with every joke, you’re a Shakespearean actor putting all you have into every syllable. You’re a singer and a sage. A fundamentalist fashionista. You are the physical embodiment of every fantasy and ambition your congregation has held since puberty.
And that congregation will laugh, cry, cheer and sign checks more readily than any other in the entertainment industry (and make no mistake, that’s exactly what church is).
A half-century before the American Revolution, a skinny, cross-eyed Anglican named George Whitefield was driving the souls of New Englander’s to religious madness with his previously unimagined style of theatrical preaching. While other preachers would script out their sermons, Whitefield memorized his, relying on primal improvisations of emotion, waving his hands, snapping his head, shouting to the sky “My Master! My Lord!” Audiences would weep, shriek, faint and scream, all at the sound of his pronunciation of the word “Mesopotamia.”
Whitefield bewitched his audiences, drawing them out of the churches and into the fields, where he would address crowds of up to 25,000—without the aid of a microphone. His handsome face and bestial gestures naturally frightened religious leaders at the time, but it was simply too late for them: Their European age of sober, antiseptic liturgies had passed. Whitefield had birthed what would come to be known as the first Great Awakening in America, the first pop-culture phenomenon in a country that hadn’t even been founded yet. And as much as religious leaders today would like to deny it, Whitefield’s phenomenon of tent revival church services—the cradle of Evangelical Christianity—were founded upon sexual tension.
When outsiders see a pentecostal preacher for the first time, the typical reaction is to describe him/her as a “rockstar.” But this is only half-right, at least when using that word in the post-sixties, stadium-rock show sense. By the time we saw Robert Plant’s pubic hair creeping out of his lowrise jeans, or the creamy brown thighs of Linda Ronstadt stretching out from under a mini-skirt, most of the erotic anxiety had been drained out of rock culture. It was all on the table by then. No shame. No repression. Which, on the surface, was a good thing. But it wasn’t rock and roll.
Because rock and roll can only exist at the intersection of God and Sex.
People tend to forget that rock music was birthed in pentecostal black churches. When we think of the term “Christian Rock,” most people imagine a xeroxed version of whatever sound is popular at the time. And while that’s been true for the last forty years, it was exactly the opposite when rock and roll was first created. Throughout the 1950s, pretty much all rock and roll songs were a cheap replication of music played for decades inside black churches for decades.
If you want to get technical about it, the gospel music structure of complex rhythms, call and response orations, improvised dancing and groups of people singing in hypnotic repetition, actually came out of Africa, and became a therapeutic ritual (and vehicle of coded messages) for slaves working in the fields of America. Though it was only when these rituals were combined with the fanatic theology of George Whitefield—which urgently longed to know God and solve His mysteries—that we find the recipe for gospel music.
It is the sound of unquenched yearning.
It is the rhythmic cry of an infant lying next to its dead mother.
It is the blind desire to be penetrated by God.
When confronted with something so powerful as a child, it’s only natural that, once infected by puberty, young men would use the same tools to express their hunger for women.
Think of any name in the early history of rock and roll (Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, James Brown) and you’re guaranteed to find that they spent their childhood in a pentecostal church. You don’t even need to read their biography to know this, simply listen to their music and it’s all there in front of you.
The simple trick of taking a gospel song and swapping out the name of your Lord for the name of a woman (ironically, the exact opposite of what Christian rockers would be accused of doing decades later) was first seen in the 1954 Ray Charles hit, “I Got A Woman.” The massively popular song about a woman who “gives me money, when I’m in need” was in actuality a nearly note-for-note replication of the famous gospel song “It Must Be Jesus,” which Charles had heard countless times in church throughout his childhood.
Sam Cooke played this game two years later when he wrote “Lovable,” a soulful tribute to his sweetheart of the time, which also happens to have the same melody and sentiment (albeit with a different object of affection) as the gospel song “Wonderful.” Cook had actually recorded “Wonderful” years earlier with his gospel group, The Soul Stirrers, before leaving them to become a secular artist.
Both Charles and Cooke defended themselves against widespread criticism that they stole the God-praising sounds of their youth and blasphemously twisted them into tools of sexual seduction. Though for other rock and rollers, the disgust felt toward this spiritual appropriation wasn’t only coming from the pulpit, but from within themselves.
Jerry Lee Lewis may be known to history as the shaman of pubescent lust, setting his piano and teenage hearts on fire with thinly veiled coitus carols with lyrics like “well open up, baby. . . I gotta get with you,” but throughout his years of singing about (and engaging in) sex with underage girls, Lewis was an internal wreck, certain that he was Hell-bound for playing The Devil’s Music. After growing up in an Assemblies of God church alongside his cousin Jimmy Swaggart (who would go on to become one of the most iconic Televangelists of the 1980s, before being caught with a prostitute in a cheap hotel), Lewis knew the Bible back-to-front, and would often engage in heated debates with Sun Records founder Sam Phillips about whether or not they were leading the youth of America into the arms of Satan.
Though few reached the levels of sexual self-hatred like the first dandy of rock, Little Richard.
Born Richard Wayne Penniman, the instinct to play with gender in lascivious ways had been with him from birth. As a child he would cross-dress and play with dolls, an activity that would eventually get him kicked out of the house by his preacher father. In his early twenties, Richard discovered the pleasure of voyeurism, keeping a charming lady on hand to lure pretty young men to have sex with her while Richard watched. He eventually cut out the middle-woman and got straight to the boys, though in the years to come he would change the narrative countless times as to whether this was a natural expression of his God-given homosexuality, or a corruption of his soul by older gay men predatorily seeking converts (similar to charges that landed Oscar Wilde in prison a century earlier).
Like his caucasian counterpart Jerry Lee, Richard took souped-up gospel rhythms and rewrote the lyrics to express his insatiable carnal desires. “Slippin’ and a slidin’/ Peepin’ and a hidin’ . . . I’ve been told/ Baby, you’ve been bold,” is a visceral trip through the wide eyes of a voyeur (as well as the lyrical progenitor of fellow-sodomite Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love”). While the lyrics were changed to skirt obscenity laws, Richard’s iconic “Tutti Frutti” was originally nothing but a tribute to anal sex: “Tutti Frutti, good booty/ If it don’t fit, don’t force it/ You can grease it, make it easy . . .”
During a 1957 performance in Australia, Richard was terrified by the burning bush-like apparition of a red fireball streaking across the night sky. Seeing this as an ominous sign from God, Richard was driven to renounce rock and roll and become an evangelical preacher (his vision was later discovered to be the launch of Sputnik, the Russian satellite). Five years later he would return to rock and roll at the behest of an up and coming British band (The Beatles), though in the decades ahead he would teeter-totter between a life of extreme drug abuse and sexual hedonism, to sober praise and proselytizing for his Lord and savior.
It is in this space, between Heaven and Hell, between desire and restraint, that Rock and Roll was created. It was born in the womb of God, yet breast-fed by The Devil. And whenever it drifts too completely into either camp, the essence is lost.
Rock and roll and pentecostal Christianity are warring soul-mates; they are rival brothers who deny they came from the same mother. The sexual energy of a pentecostal church service is not wildly different from the rapturous energy of a rock show: bBoth lead the audience away from consciousness, rejecting intellectualism and embracing a primal spirit that can only live in the now.
Little Richard’s skat gibberish of “wop bop a loo bop, a wop bam boom” wouldn’t sound out of place in a church service where audiences speak in tongues. Billy Graham’s emotional appeal for the audience to “feel the spirit within you” and be “touched by the hand of God” could easily be a companion lyric to Led Zeppelin’s “I’m gonna give you every inch of my love.”
The positive current that used to mix with a negative to create an electric charge may have gone out of rock music, but all over America you can still find tent-revival church services that are tapping into their aboriginal impulses and losing their minds in African rhythms. They usually occur at night, particularly in rural areas unaffected by the sobering influence of rationality. These gatherings can take on an orgiastic quality, with sweaty bodies huddled before the altar, the lights turned down low, the music pounding as they dance, cry, spit gibberish in each other’s faces, fall to the ground and convulse, discharging the fears of childhood and ceaseless desires of adult flesh.
And, alas, I have been excommunicated from this experience.
The expansion of my mind through drugs and books left no room for belief in God, and belief is the erection of a pentecostal experience. Without it, you’re just confused and overly self-aware..
This is why writing is not sexy.
It’s all cerebral, no heart.
Well, maybe that’s not completely true. There’s plenty of heart, but none of it is
externalized when you’re typing. As a teenage girl, my mother would release every desire, frustration and immediate impulse through her dancing, spitting a novel’s-worth of feeling into every flick of her wrist or kick of her heel. In those moments, she would transform into a glowing turbine of spiritual energy that would inspire gooseflesh across the skin of her audiences (that is, when she allowed people to watch her dance).
Writers just look bored or mildly constipated when they type.
Do I miss being sexy?
When I think of the horrors that befell me during my years as a teenage preacher, it seems odd that I would long for those days. All of that confusion, the unruly lust I felt for Sebastian Phoenix, the crushing weight of having tens of thousands of eyes on me every day, scanning my every move for an example of how they should live their lives. It was a beautifully miserable existence.
Today, on the island, I couldn’t ask for a lifestyle more suited to my personality.
No one tells me when to get up, what to eat, what drugs are forbidden and which are socially acceptable. Nobody censors my words, or tells me who I should or should not sleep with (not that there’s anyone on the island to fuck anyway, but still . . .) My life is whatever I make of it. I could abandon this very sentence and take a flying-squirrel leap off the roof of this hotel, landing face-first onto the stone patio and there would be no one to condemn my suicide—or mourn my passing.
Do I miss being sexy?
Yes. With every cell in my body, yes I do.
I’m not sure I would’ve admitted that when I first started writing my story. The bitterness I felt toward the people who manipulated me, who stole my youth to line their own pockets, was so blindingly red-hot I could never have admitted to myself that I actually longed to go back there. Just like how an ex-junkie will know his life was a bucket of piss before he got clean, and is now enjoying a stable life of love and ambition— , yet still silently weeps for his lost love of a needle and spoon— , I desperately miss the kinetic charge of the stage.
Not just any stage, but a stage that grinds together the desperate fears and supernatural longing of religious human beings. I miss it every day. So what am I doing here, alone in an abandoned hotel? Well, it’s not like I could just swim off this island and hitchhike my way to the nearest mega-church, because like I said before, my faith was murdered by rationality long ago.
My desire, my nightly dream, is to return to the body of sixteen-year-old Jacob Sloan. The soft, sexy skin I once inhabited. More than the skin, I long to revive the faith I once had. I moan for the days when I could hold both Sex and God in each hand, feeling the current of eternity zap itself through my bones. The days when I could ache for Sebastian Phoenix’s touch, yet equally yearn to be freed from such wicked carnality.
I’m happier now, but the addiction of evangelical lust is one that transcends happiness. In my twenty-eight years I’ve never known anything like it. There were plenty of years spent attempting to recreate that experience through drugs, orgies and profoundly loud music, but eventually I succumbed to the blunt reality that belief is everything—and if you no longer believe, there is no entrance into the holy of holies that is Sex and God.
I still have writing.
I can still tell my story.
I may not look sexy while I’m doing it, but at least I can momentarily forget my withered station in life and disappear into a world of belief and craving. A time when thoughts took a backseat to feelings, and nothing mattered except salvation and the homoerotic instincts that threatened salvation.
Here we go.