Based on his interviews, Jim seems to have had something of a conservative side, politically speaking. You yourself have even written and spoken of Jim as a “traditional Southerner.” How much of the South was in him?
A lot more than most people think. Maybe even more than Jim himself ever knew. It manifested itself in attitude more than anything else: the slow graceful consideredness of his speech and gait, his genuine courtliness and gentle chivalry–he’d open doors, walk on the outside and offer his arm when we walked down the street, rise when people entered the room, never flatly contradict (it was always “Yes, but…”, never just “No”), deal with fans with incredible patience and kindness. His mother may have raised a lonely, erratic, unreliable, alcoholic, pain-filled, desperation-driven, love-starved son, but she certainly didn’t raise an unmannerly one…
Of course, those courtly manners didn’t stop him from being, on occasion, spectacularly brutal. Jim could be the meanest person you ever met, because he was perceptive enough to see in a flash all your weaknesses, where you could be most successfully assailed; and if you loved him, as far as he was concerned that was both the most wonderful thing that he could imagine and the biggest weakness you could possibly have. And when it suited him, he’d turn it on you like a gun.
But that cruelty didn’t come out of viciousness or malice; rather, it came out of misguided defensiveness, out of his own pain, out of “I love you, but even though you say you love me you’ll just hurt me and leave me like everybody else my whole life, so I’ll hurt you and that’ll make you leave first and then I’ll be right.” It was nuts, but it was how he was–at least some of the time. But it certainly didn’t stop me loving him–and I don’t think it stopped him loving me.
Jim didn’t handle pain well; unusual for a Celt, since as a rule we know pain like a brother. But pain for Jim, as for so many artists, was a source of creativity. I think he thought if he stopped hurting he’d stop creating. That was a nonsense, of course, but I think he really believed it–or at least wanted to.
And, as I’ve said, he was hurtful to others because he was afraid of being hurt himself. He found it hard to accept love because he had never been given very much of it, or as much as he needed, or love of the right kind from the right people; he actually did not think himself worthy of love. I have letters from him that will tear your heart out, where he speaks about this to me as maybe he spoke about it to no one else in his life, and ends by saying amazedly how proud and humble he is that I could actually love him and does he really deserve me, even wonders if it’s somehow a mistake and maybe I really mean someone else, not him at all…
As for Jim’s conservative side, it was certainly there, in funny little ways. He was a war baby rather than a boomer, a few years older than we of the boomer vanguard, and he was to that extent a product of his pre-hippie time. People who think he was merely an avatar of libertinism are way off the mark; it’s a lot more complex than that. But more largely, Jim was soooo past politics. It didn’t interest him or concern him; he found it irrelevant to his own purposes, and he had as little use for liberals and Commies and pinko bleeding-hearts as for right-wingers and Birchers and Christian zealots–though I guess if he had to come down somewhere it would have been to the left of center on most matters, or on the side of individual freedoms, wherever that might fall. But politics weren’t really part of Jim’s world-picture: He was interested in the politics of the soul–a much bigger and more crucial picture.