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He worked a steady string of one-nighters through the '60s, playing his old hits, drawing energy from hecklers and taunting them in turn. He graduated from bubblegum and comic books to whiskey and cigars, but he didn't lose his swagger. Or his leer.
Sex, and a sickness with sex, has always been at the heart of his dualistic enterprise. Someone aptly titled two of Tosches' Village Voice articles on Jerry Lee "Pentecostals in Heat" and "The Short-Shorts of Satan"; and more than one listener has supposed the lyrics to "Whole Lotta Shakin'" were "Come all over baby." The sheet music says "Come on over baby," but for all intents and purposes, the casual listener probably gets it right the first time. There's a glorious tawdriness to almost everything Lewis touches.
By 1988, Jimmy Swaggart had become the Assembly of God's star evangelist; he had long damned his famous cousin's truck with the Devil, but when it was revealed that Swaggart had lain (and lain, and lain) with a prostitute, he was defrocked. Jerry Lee, on the other hand, positively pranced in the lake of fire, with nowhere to go but up.
What may have been his finest hour never officially made it to record bins. In 1968, he snagged a role in Los Angeles as Iago in Catch My Soul, a rock 'n' roll production of Othello. It was brilliant casting: Iago is the slitheriest of the slithery, a sly, sex-obsessed, mutably vicious orderly in the Venetian army. Jerry Lee was decked out for the part in a black goatee to match his darkened hair, and played a green piano that belched red smoke. He ladled his oily cracker bonhomie over the Elizabethan verse and made the show's trained actors sound like furniture.
Before the play could move to Broadway, Lewis had his first comeback hit on the country charts. His producers pushed him into the field, but they didn't have to nudge him much before Jerry Lee was home again.
"I knew that we had to make a move, it was right there under my nose the whole time," he told author Peter Guralnick. "I been singing this kind of music ever since I was a kid, I just got hung up on rock and it seemed like a big thing to do." Note that he doesn't say it seemed like a good thing to do, or even a fun or lucrative one--just "big," as though there are no subtle distinctions in his world.
"It's like a farmer sitting out on a 300-acre farm," he continued, "and all the time oil's flowing under him, and he ain't got enough sense to get at it. Well, one day he finally hit, and then he's a smart man."
With such songs as "Another Place, Another Time," Jerry Lee proved as fine a honky-tonk player as a rock 'n' roller.
®MDNM¯He's been known by the nickname "Killer" since the Sun days in the '50s, but it's a sobriquet he uses interchangeably with other people's names, so that all people become "Killer" to him; he's an indefatigable cynic, and that, as much as the amphetamines, Scotch or Demerol, seems to have kept him itching and running all these years. Others in his life have been less fortunate: His 2-year-old son Steve drowned in his backyard pool in 1962. Another son, Jerry Lee Lewis Jr., perished in a 1973 car crash. His fourth, estranged wife, Jaren Pate Lewis, also drowned in a pool in 1982, and his fifth wife died at home under suspicious circumstances.
Lewis claimed she died in her sleep, but a police officer who later arrived at the scene said she was bruised and had blood under her fingernails. Jerry Lee was never charged in her death, and his myth was fueled by dark suggestions that he had grown into his childhood nickname.
Now pushing 60, Lewis keeps rocking in his live shows when the mood hits, and he keeps bragging of his prowess. It's a rare case of justified egomania. His piano playing, both sparkling and raw, incorporates bits of boogie-woogie, but in the end seems wholly original. Less often mentioned is his voice, a supple, reedy tenor capable of expressing all there is to know in rock 'n' roll--keening exhortations to twist, strip and moan.
And, while it seems almost heretical to say so, his voice has actually improved with age. On the 1989 Great Balls of Fire soundtrack, he recut his earlier hits with all the fire he had 30 years before, but with a stiffened edge that makes a song like "Whole Lotta Shakin'" sound even more defiant than it did on the original Sun session.
All the more reason, then, that Young Blood disappoints. His topnotch pianistics and pickled voice get lost in subpar arrangements: On most of the cuts, producer Andy Paley has drowned Jerry Lee's tribal thump in echo, reeds and strings, like a bird dog with a tin can tied to his tail. Still, buried beneath the layers of jivey studio goo, there's a man who can summon the ages of rock with one hand tied behind his back. Young Blood mostly succeeds as a place-marker, until the next, real Jerry Lee album comes along, or he comes all over your town.