In 2010/11 I was working with Ron Athey as the production manager for his large scale group performance Gifts of the Spirt(2010). At some point, either during the development of the piece or just after, I read Nick Tosches’ biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, Hellfire (1982). It’s an incredible book that details Lewis’s religious upbringing in the Assembly of God as much as his music, and having spent a lot of time with Athey discussing his upbringing in the Pentecostal Church, I tried to write something that compared the two performers on the level of their shared religious upbringing. Both have an enormously charismatic presence, and an ability to captivate a room that verges on religious at times. I didn’t ever finish it, but I have a document that has one paragraph that made it beyond note form.
by Lewis Church
It can’t be hard to see why the circus-tent revivalism and Pentecostalism provide such a ferocious performance school. Within the church the Bible is infallible and sacrosanct, the literal word of God and within it all the power of his voice. Within the church the preacher commands with the word, summoning an elemental noise that forces its way from the pit of a supplicant’s shoes and through his gritted teeth to explode in an unintelligible burst. It is a Gift of the Spirit, a mark of devotion and belief.
Athey’s group performance, Gifts of the Spirit: Automatic Writing, places a vast machine of automatic writers; another gift and one Athey himself struggled with in his adolescence, alongside a table of vocalists. Seated around a séance table, blending spiritualism and Christianity in the best traditions of the Pentecostal church, placed under hypnosis and infused with the power of the occasion, they regularly erupt in a chorus of tongues, interspersing Athey’s reading of his unfinished memoirs. To watch from afar is to watch the audience shrink back from the power of the noise, the raw intensity overriding any sense of ridiculousness and unifying the audience in a sense of power. In the work of Athey and Jerry Lee Lewis words and guttural noises are come tumbling out, stumbling over each other in the passion of delivery. From the storefront and tent churches of their childhood, speaking in tongues has left neither performer. Lewis, who replaces lyrics lost to his beer-dulled mind with yelps, howls and hammering piano, is overcome with a different fervor, music not God. Athey breaks his own text, memories of a painful childhood, with shouts and noise in the same way. Both are estranged from the church (although Lewis returns occasionally) but they draw on its form, passion and spirit as expressed through explosive and sudden babbling.