Jerry Lee Lewis’ 1957 television debut shatters the foundation of civilization

I know so much ink has been spilled on this three minutes of television but that doesn’t mean I can’t (at least try) to write about it too.

Jerry Lee Lewis made his TV debut in July 1957 on the Steve Allen Show. The performance is terrifying.

There’s a lot to say about this completely unhinged demonic performance. And for me, the first thing, is the TIMING of it and what it reveals.

It just goes to show you how much the world had changed in just one year, how much the mainstream world capitulated to what was rising from the South.

In July 1956, the young phenom Elvis appeared on the Steve Allen Show. He had already caused a lot of trouble for himself with his performance on The Milton Berle Show. Headlines declared him dangerous. Advertisers threatened to pull out of any program that broadcast him. He was denounced from pulpits and school boards across the land. He was under siege. Steve Allen wanted in on all this notoreity but he wanted to undercut it too, to save his skin. So he put Elvis in a tuxedo – introduced him as “the NEW Elvis Presley” – and had him sing “Hound Dog” to an actual hound dog which … first of all forced Elvis to stand still … and also completely removed Elvis’ sexual explosiveness – in connection with those lyrics, which are not, of course, about an actual dog.

(Side note: the song already didn’t make much sense in Elvis’ hands, because of the swapped-in line “You ain’t never caught a rabbit” … which … to be redundant … makes no sense. Listen to Big Mama Thornton’s original version to really get what the song is saying. It’s also CLEARLY a song written for a woman to sing about her low-down no-good man who keeps comin’ around, comin’ around – To complicate matters, the song was written by two Jewish men – but boy they understood that woman’s plight! Elvis kind of ironed out all of that – or at least obliterated any meaning possible – because the song was no longer a song, the song was just HIM).

Steve Allen didn’t care about any of this. He says it straight out in his introduction: “wW want to do a show the whole family can enjoy” (subtext: unlike MILTON BERLE. Also subtext: But we want in on Uncle Milty’s RATINGS) and so … here is Elvis, dressed up and neutered. We all good now?

Now listen I realize there’s been a lot of chatter about this and there have been some excellent articles providing in-depth context to everything that was going on and to Steve Allen in general and the important contributions he made to American culture – which can’t be denied. I GRANT that but I’m with Dave Marsh, sue me. Allen humiliated Elvis by putting him in a tuxedo so the audience could haw-haw at the sight of a hillbilly playing dress up. Allen’s show was for grown-ups pooh-poohing rock ‘n roll, it was a square man’s reaction to something he didn’t understand. (The reaction to this reaction was something no one could have predicted. Yet ANOTHER uproar ensued, this time from fans across the land criticizing Steve Allen for what he did. “Bring back the old Elvis!”) As I mentioned there are counter-arguments to all I have just said, and Steve Allen actually liked Elvis and spent the next 40 years defending himself for those 2 minutes of television, but this is outside the scope of what I’m really trying to say. (Elvis has a way of drawing me away from …. basically every other subject on the face of the planet.)

MY POINT IS. Steve Allen was tentative in 1956 about letting Elvis just go off and do his thing. In 1957 …. he’s thrown up his hands in surrender. Like: You DIDN’T accept Elvis and you accept … THIS?

Literally everything has changed.

It’s one measly year later, and Jerry Lee Lewis gives a performance far more threatening than anything Elvis ever did live on television. (Granted, they were different types of performers. I am just talking about the mainstream world of square variety show hosts accepting or not accepting these figures.) Jerry Lee Lewis makes Elvis look like a good boy. And … Elvis WAS a good boy. With a libido, yes, and one of his most subversive contributions to culture was to allow “good” boys and girls to admit how much they wanted to get naked with each other. Okay, fine. But Jerry Lee Lewis was not – never was – a good boy.

Imagine tuning in in 1957 and seeing THIS come out of your screen. What on earth … Jerry Lee Lewis is an Old Testament preacher, speaking in tongues. He’s a leering sex maniac. He’s a juke-joint boogie-woogie maestro. He’s also a cult leader, telling his audience what to do. He controls that crowd, bringing them up, bringing them back down. He’s a snake charmer. He’s testifying in a muddy field under a tent. He’s hollering from a pulpit. His hair has a mind of its own and appears to be a sentient being. He orders everyone around. And they LOVE it.

All of this is alarming enough.

But then he stands up all of a sudden, and kicks the stool off the stage behind him – and he is now standing and screaming – bellowing SHAKE – NOW SHAKE – and the shock waves still reverberate.

Miley Cyrus twerking during her performance of “Wrecking Ball” pales in comparison to what Jerry Lee Lewis did here (although her “scandalous” behavior is definitely in the same continuum, which I’m sure she knew – she is smart – and she too has had to deal with city snobs haw-hawing at her “white trash”-ness – and what they don’t get is she is aware of all of this and plays around with those stereotypes consciously – and the response to that one performance of Miley’s was – predictably – the same – same thing Elvis faced, same thing Jerry Lee faced. She is corrupting our children, etc. rinse, repeat, same as it ever was, don’t you people get sick of yourselves?).

It feels like the stool – or Jerry Lee Lewis himself – is going to crash through the screen. He is pulling down the very foundations of Western civilization, just by the way he kicks that stool. Goodbye Apollo. Hello Dionysus. My Paglia is showing.

I don’t care that we have more “license” to show more explicit stuff on television now. None of it holds a candle to the shock of this.

The Sex Pistols terrified people. But they came almost 20 years later.

Jerry Lee Lewis got there first.

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