To the Coolest and Most Meaningful SOBs in Any Room

Following the passing of Jerry Lee Lewis, it might be appropriate to use conventional wisdom and make a comment like ” “Well, Keith Richards and Willie Nelson had better watch their backs now.” But lumping in Lewis with those other hard-living, seemingly indestructible musicians somehow feels cheap; like them, he was utterly, defiantly, brilliantly singular, from the first time he pounded the piano keys or kicked over a bench to the way Kris Kristofferson came to Lewis’ sickbed to deliver the Country Music Hall of Fame citation that was only overdue by about half a century.

In his glory days in the 1950s Jerry Lee Lewis was a mastermind behind a heinous racket. UnholyKey word was. He was raised in the fire-and brimstone church which also produced Jimmy Swaggart. He was attracted by rhythm and blues music but never felt that Jesus was okay with him playing this salacious music. He was a pianist, a dancer and a Christian who helped to create rock’s blueprint. ‘n’roll, who took the art of performing to insane extremes. His nickname, the Killer was apt in many different ways.  

You could take a single song of his – and if you do, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” is the one to take – and follow its live performances over the years for a master class in the art of lascivious vocalizing, one that Steven Tyler and Mick Jagger would be hard-pressed to approach. Ethan Coen actually based his Jerry Lee documentary on Ethan Coen. “Trouble in Mind”Live performances of the song were held around the world, with each performance being more bizarre than others.  

Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘Great Balls of Fire’ Singer, Dies at 87

And even when he slowed down – hey, losing your career because you married your 13-year-old cousin will slow a man down – Jerry Lee made it clear that he hadn’t really lost a step. Coen’s movie begins with a 1970 clip from the “Ed Sullivan Show”Lewis singing the Mickey Newbury country lament “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye” – and as I wrote in my review of the film at the Cannes film festival, the performance is nothing like the full-on assaults for which Lewis is best known. Lewis’s subdued performance was still a delight. His casual virtuosity allowed you to see that wild man he can still be, even if it is just a slight smirk or a raised hand that drops to the keyboard.

He carried himself as if he were the coolest and most meanest person in any room. It could have been intimidating. One of the most memorable encounters I had with Jerry Lee was among those that I have written about rock over the years. ‘n’ roll, and I can’t resist telling it one more time here.

It was December 1988. I spent a week reporting from Memphis for Rolling Stone about the Jerry Lee biopic. “Great Balls of Fire!” The Killer was sporadically on the set during that week, and he and the film’s star, Dennis Quaid, would eye each other warily, two strutting alpha males unaccustomed to yielding the upper hand to anybody.

As one point during that week, producer Adam Fields drove me to Lewis’ house outside Memphis for a sit-down interview. Jerry Lee waited for us to finish before unlocking the security gate in the hallway. Then he walked into the living area in a powder blue jumpsuit. I could smell the cologne before I saw him. He turned to Fields and looked at me. “I thought you said you were bringing a woman,”He said.

“No,” Fields said quickly. “This is Steve. He’s from Rolling Stone.”

Jerry Lee shook his heads. “No, you said you were bringin’ a woman.”

After such a positive start, Jerry Lee and Jerry settled into overstuffed couches in his Southern Baroque living space. (You can visit enough homes for early rock). ‘n’ rollers and you’ll realize that they’d all have had their own Gracelands if they had Elvis’ money.) He was quite a snarky interviewer, snapping at my face occasionally, never engaging with me and clearly harbouring suspicions about the movie they were making about his character.

As the interview progressed, he became more irritable, especially when I mentioned the possibility that he was torn about his career due to having once considered rock. ‘n’ roll the devil’s music.  

“Where’d you hear that?”He snapped. “There might have been some bulls— like that in Myra’s book, but that’s not true.” (Myra Gayle Brown, the cousin he’d married 31 years earlier and later divorced, had written a book and was played in the film by Winona Ryder.) “Now, for all I know the Lord of Darkness might have had something to do with it, but I don’t know where you got that s—.”

He was momentarily distracted and shouted at Kerry McCarver to get him his whiskey. Jerry Lee became increasingly angry as she searched the house for the Crown Royal, offering a few different bottles. He then suddenly turned his head and looked at me with a wide-eyed glare.

“So,”He said. “You from Rollin’ Stone magazine?”

Gulp. Gulp. I wasn’t terribly eager to discuss those stories with a cantankerous, cologne-drenched guy called the Killer whose favorite whiskey had gone missing. But I had no choice but to admit that yes, I was from Rollin’ Stone magazine.

“You like workin’ there?”He asked.

Well, I said cautiously, I enjoyed it, even if I didn’t always agree with things the magazine wrote. (I believe that this was a futile attempt to find an escape route for myself.

Jerry Lee smiled slowly, then he shrugged. “I admire people who can do what you do,”He said. “You travel around talkin’ to different people.” A pause. “You talk to crazy piano players … ”

He might have smiled a little at that moment.

His wife then found the Crown Royal, which was in his glove box.

He smiled and poured more. I took one shot and breathed a sigh relief.

And that was it.

The “Great Balls of Fire!”The movie was released the next summer. It was horrible. “They made it look like the Dukes of Hazzard invented rock ‘n’ roll,”T Bone Burnett (who was involved in the film’s production) would share his thoughts with me later. Dennis Quaid was a flat-out cartoon as Jerry Lee, his embarrassingly over-the-top performance only slightly redeemed by the fact that it wasn’t all that far off from the real guy.

Oh, and Jerry Lee Lewis insists on recording his own vocals on the soundtrack of that awful movie rather than letting Quaid perform his singing. The album that came out consisted of a bunch of new versions of old songs — Jerry Lee at 55 pretending to be Jerry Lee at 21 — none of which had much reason to exist. Then there was “That Lucky Old Son,” and by God it was magnificent – heartfelt, heartbreaking and as moving as anything he’d ever recorded.  “Show me that river, take me across / And wash all my troubles away,”He sang with wrenching authority. “Like that lucky old sun with nothin’ to do / But roll around heaven all day.”

After that, he made more music and some of it was quite good. But I’ll still go back to the Jerry Lee I met on that afternoon in 1988, cantankerous and fiery and then, all of a sudden, surprisingly self-aware. Jerry Lee still had stories to tell and songs to sing.

Goodness, gracious… You know the rest. 

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