By Nicki Escudero
By Amy Silverman
By Brian Palmer
By Chris Parker
By Troy Farah
By Lauren Wise
By Lauren Wise
Alaskan journalist David Hulen saw Jerry Lee in Evansville, Indiana, in the early '80s on a country bill with another of his cousins, Mickey Gilley. Hulen counted it as one of the best concerts he'd ever seen.
Jerry Lee tore through a dozen songs in an hour, and the whole set, even "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," had an edge. The band swung tight and bluesy behind him, playing hard country--certainly not the kind of music the audience was used to hearing on the radio. People sat silently, some walked out, but the response just seemed to egg Jerry Lee on. "It was like he was trying to shock them, and the music got even rawer and louder and faster," Hulen said. "When he kicked the piano bench on 'Great Balls of Fire' like he always does, it didn't seem cheesy at all--he seemed truly pissed."
Sam Phillips once said that everything Jerry Lee does that works is spontaneous. Evidently, everything that doesn't work is spontaneous, too. Hulen saw Jerry Lee a second time, at an Indiana county fair a few months later. That show, he said, was one of the worst he'd seen:
"He seemed drunk or high or both. He hurled insult after insult at the crowd. He stopped songs midway through and berated the band for fucking up in ways that we couldn't hear. He said 'fuck' and 'motherfucker' a lot and told a filthy, nearly incomprehensible joke or two. He bitched about the sound and the way the piano was tuned, and talked with this arrogant sneer and seemed perfectly capable of shooting somebody. He was wearing black jeans, black cowboy boots and a black sleeveless tee shirt. He stormed off the stage after maybe 20 minutes, disappeared and never came back out."
It's odd, in a way, because as far as Jerry Lee ran from the back of that stage, there was only but so far he could get before he'd have to start over with a show the next night or the night after that. Where can he run to? Four tacky walls somewhere the tax man hasn't found yet? A sixth wife?
The stage is the only home Jerry Lee has, where he answers his own question, "Who will play this old piano?" He's still the best on a good night and still the first to say so; a 12-year-old in a beat-up old man's body, his own burnt offering; a bullying, pitiless, pitiful genius; possessed, quite likely mad, and as inevitable as that hand, scuttling like a singed crab over the rock of ages.