The Crazed Genius of Jerry Lee Lewis
The one and only left behind some great songs including one that could be this city's anthem.
When words like “giant” and “genius” get tossed around, I am among those who tend to be put off. But the giant who scared the other giants has left us and an acknowledgement of his great gifts, along with his troubling dark side is due. Jerry Lee Lewis died last week, and if you weren’t paying attention, I get it — fewer people than ever are interested in 1950’s artists. But this one is too important to overlook, a man as potent as the stuff he drank and a truly head-scratching example of American yin and yang.
First off, and always, even in his last few messages, there was his attitude. Jerry Lee truly believed in Jerry Lee. His conversion to the Church of The Killer (a nickname he picked up as a kid and fit him perfectly as an adult) happened early and never wavered. This confirmed narcissist once drove his Cadillac through the gates of Graceland, pulled out a pistol and fired rounds in the air, demanding that Elvis come down and bow before the true King of Rock and Roll. That famous incident kicks off Nick Tosches’ Hellfire, a great, disturbing biography from a while back. The gate crashing was mild compared to some of his other, more outrageous deeds. The list is long and starts with his infamous tour of England in 1958 — the one where he was mystified why everyone got so worked up about his 13-year-old bride.
The movie Amadeus reminded me just how much Mozart and Jerry Lee had in common. Talent doesn’t always land on the most likable people and when it touches someone capable of true nastiness, mayhem ensues. Now it’s Kanye West, burning bridges like a professional arsonist. It’s an interesting riddle that forces you to contemplate the contradictory impulses, from angelic to demonic, battling for control in the human mind.
When Jerry Lee hit it big at age 21, he was a full grown, utterly confident artist and in an instant he was among the top tier of rock’n’roll artists that included Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. He most resembled the last one with his legendary live show where havoc was the norm. Kicking his piano bench, raking the keys with his heels, there he was, buried in an avalanche of blonde hair playing what he called “the devil’s music” and enjoying every damn minute of it. He was dead certain he would burn in hell for doing so and somehow that made him even better.
Watch him perform “Whole Lotta Shakin” Goin’ On,” on “The Steve Allen Show” to gain a little context. Allen was no slouch himself, a solid jazz pianist, composer and comic innovator whose ad libbing and spontaneous antics inspired David Letterman. He also had an informed, sophisticated attitude, and was considered a cultured man. But the culture was swinging in a different direction, away from him. You can see he doesn’t know quite what to do with this wild man. He had tamed Elvis, having him cuddle a Basset Hound, when sang “Hound Dog.” But Jerry Lee wasn’t about to do anything cutesy, so Allen surrendered control and watched from the sidelines. If you think that song was suggestive, make way for “Great Balls Of Fire,” Those two songs were Exhibit A and B in the trial of Rock and Roll. Nothing was going to stop this disruptive performer, seemingly oblivious to the commotion he was stirring.
A few years after the child bride scandal, the Killer’s career blossomed again in Nashville. It was there he found success and the records he made were more thoughtful, not necessarily remorseful, but melancholy. He sang what should be our city’s anthem, “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous.” (My favorite moment occurs right around 1:13) On the surface, it’s a novelty, but his performance is so subtle you realize immediately it goes a whole lot deeper. This song was on his first Country record (the one I got signed when my band, The R&B Cadets, opened for him!) and it makes a credible case for him as one of the great country singers. In what is one of my favorites, he takes Merle Haggard’s Lonesome Fugitive (written by Casey and Liz Anderson), and absolutely smacks you with what has to be the saddest lyric ever penned: “My mama used to pray my crops would fail.”
Music is a kind of insanity; luckily it grows more benign as it rises to greatness. You really don’t want to mess with the bad stuff. When you reach the heights where Jerry Lee Lewis is, it’s heavenly. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that his tortured and blissful output was the result of a long battle between God and the devil for his immortal soul. That wouldn’t be easy for anyone — even the Killer. I hope he’s resting peacefully in a land beyond mayhem, the one devil who made it to paradise. If he gets anywhere near a harp, look out.
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