This poem shares its title with the Louvin Brothers’
1958 record, a pivotal work
in country gospel with the most embarrassing-
ly bad album art in music history.
On the cover stand the Louvins midsong, smiling,
arms outstretched, apparently in Hell,
an awkward, naked, buck-toothed Satan looms behind.
He sure doesn’t look very real in the photo.
Carla punches me. “Shut up,” she says. “It’s okay
if it looks dumb. No one was arguing.” Today
I’m driving my friend Carla to South Dakota,
for the funeral of her Uncle Irving, who,
the newspaper said, suffered a fatal accident
while cleaning his shotgun, preceded by his wife
with liver problems. Her only friend who drives,
I got the job. While she’s in White Lake,
I’ll be in Rapid City with some people.
The reason for the title, among other things,
is that Carla knows the album from her girlhood
White Lake vacations. She’d find the record—
perhaps the goofy Satan allured her—and beg,
demand, to hear it again. We’re in Durango,
CO, one of those cheapass motels off
the interstate, you park the car outside your room
and pick up towels at the desk. The VACANCY
hums and flickers just like in cartoons, I hear it
even with the TV on. I’m tired—driven
in a rented car all day. Except for Carla’s
iPod–—a playlist she’d compiled for the trip
mercilessly labeled “Middle America”—
it was mostly silence. During the fourth time through
Satan Is Real, as four billboards with aborted
fetuses flew by–—like a Burma-Shave jingle,
except with fetuses—she turned to me and said,
“The farther you get from the ocean, this music
gets less fun,” clicking through the playlist for
something less specific. Now, we’re sinking
into our $29/night bed—
at any other time, this would be awkward—
emptying the cheapest bottle of red wine
from the all-night grocery, keeping an eye on
the religious channel. They’re showing that one guy
with the whiteboards, who knows Hebrew, Latin, Greek,
and runs across the stage, a different marker each.
He’s teaching on the shades of meaning of the word
“cleanse,” a toll-free number never leaves the screen,
in case the lecture stirs the need to pray. “What does
‘Selah’ mean?” Carla asks. I say, “Maybe nervous
laughter.” She says, “Maybe it means, ‘I guess.’” Silence.
“Cleaning his shotgun,” she almost laughs. “It’s okay,
I didn’t really know him. I mean I did…”
The professor switches pens, jogs from Hebrew back
to English. She fiddles with the volume, turns away
to see the show’s reflection in the window. “I don’t know,”
she says. “I guess I did.”
She tells me of his prayers at dinner, and the dirt
which sometimes hid, but never left his fingers,
how he seldom opened the church hymnal,
though he sang the real bass part, the printed one
that no one ever sings. Again she plays with the remote.
“What about after your aunt died?” I venture. She says,
“I think he was pretty lonely before she died, too.”
I pour the final drops into my stained red
plastic cup as the whiteboards
darken with variations of cleansing,
muted, and my friend brushes her teeth.
It was common, midway through his songs, for Ira Louvin to insert a prose block, a miniature sermon, though he never preached onstage.
The album’s title cut features such a monologue, in which an old man begs a preacher not to deny the existence of evil, because as wonderfully present as the Lord may be, Satan is real too. “For once I had a happy home,” Louvin recites. “I was loved and respected by my family. I was looked upon as a leader in my community. And then—Satan came into my life.”
It’s funny. It’s forced, and it’s hard not to laugh, at least a little. And perhaps it’s that awkwardness, that need to snicker, that’s caused the recent surge in popularity for the Louvins and acts like them.
In truth, is it even the same album it was when they recorded it? It’s a reprint, 2001, coastal, still in cellophane. Satan, a brighter shade of orange, protected by fluorescent bulbs in record shops Ira would have been embarrassed to enter, and vice versa.
It’s worth noting that Ira built Satan himself. He freehanded it on a piece of plywood. The burning rocks, the fire, they’re all real, staged in a junkyard outside of town. But the photograph seems so fake—so obviously photoshopped, not aspiring to be anything but photoshopped–that when you find out it isn’t, you might half wonder why he went through all the work. But then, you also know. Maybe you know.
There’s a jokiness in Ira’s music, or something like jokiness. Hesitating a bit behind the beat, as if to say, again and again, it’s just a song. It’s not a style of singing, exactly; it’s an affectation, one that could be applied to any genre. Stephin Merritt does it; so did Billie Holiday. Of course Johnny Cash sang like that, but only in the murder songs. Why would someone sing a God song that way?
Ira was Elvis Presley’s favorite songwriter. He said that the Louvins were his heroes, and that touring with them was the highlight of his career. After a show, Presley was backstage playing gospel on an old piano, as he had many times before. Ira could no longer take the contradiction—what seemed a contradiction in his mind, between the onstage Presley and this one—and he called Elvis a nigger.
That was how Ira worked. He ended his relationships all at once, like tearing off a Band-Aid. His wife, his brother Charlie (who still will play a gig or two of Ira’s songs), his other wife, himself.
It was good to drive the other way, in truth;
the unoffensive backsides of the billboards,
the green signs heralding familiar towns
we’ve slept on couches in. “You know what else they found?”
you said. “A shoebox full of swimsuit magazines.”
You shook your head in feigned embarrassment.
“He couldn’t even buy real porn.” I laughed,
though it was pretty dreary. The same roadside motel,
but a room across the hall and better booze,
religious channel only playing crappy music,
so I turned the dial to find better
crappy music. I didn’t listen at the time
to what you told me about the funeral.
I nodded, and I maybe even smiled,
but I didn’t hear it ‘til the next afternoon,
in the endlessness of Wyoming,
when you were fluctuating between sleep
and the gospel music book I’d gotten you
in Rapid, your skirt and fingernails the silly
red-orange color—but sexy—of fake Satans.
I thought of it then, how there was no sadness
at the service, the chubby crying aunts
you only know as chubby crying aunts.
It was the dinner afterward, you’d said,
the laughter that betrayed what it was meant to hide,
the grapes suspended in red jello, your stepmom
earnestly discussing gun safety. And you knew,
you’d told me, that you were one of the sad
smiling people. You knew that just like you, each line
they sang of Victory in Jesus without
flinching was a quiet victory. And you
were slightly less alone.
Wyoming just kept coming, one big deck
of mile markers, cracks in pavement the only sound.
One little out-of-place cloud in the sky, a truck
so far ahead of us it might not be there.
And then there’s that album. And perhaps,
it struck me as I zigzagged down I-80
fumbling to find it on your iPod,
this is the piece of evidence you wish
you hadn’t found, the dented car in the lot
you long to abandon. You want to
throw it back in the pile—cover it with
Cash Sings Gospel,
curse your childhood self for outing it. Not the gun,
not the medical report, not the bottles,
this proves it was that way for Irving too;
like all relationships with God or anyone,
his was a relationship with doubt,
each prayer fought, each stilted smile a victory.
The book was on your lap, open to the part
where Ira dies, drunk, driving, three bullets
in his chest remain from his wife a year ago,
and it’s not even a surprise. Hell, look at him,
smiling like he’s singing at the county fair
in Hell, the silly Satan in the background
begging to be a joke. Yeah, Satan is real.
He’s the only real thing in that photo. Utah:
Life Elevated, says the sign. “How long
was I asleep?” you whisper. I say, “I don’t know.”
You ask me to pull over at the rest stop,
so I lean against the car and watch a squirrel
barrel across the highway neither avoiding
nor hitting the trucks. A tourist family
haggles over seat arrangements, the young boy
fiddles with his shorts. It barely starts to rain,
the Canada geese far overhead shout
at themselves and each other. Cicadas.
I lie back on the hood—this last good night
of summer—and watch, listen, and slowly wait.