There are some artists I keep coming back to, assuming at some point I’ll get it.
This week, I think I finally got Jerry Lee Lewis.
Oh, I’ve listened to a lot of his music, from all eras, over the years. I count fourteen vinyl LPs on my shelf, several of which have seen heavy play at one time or another (I’m especially fond of the album he did with his sister). I owned the first Bear Family box set, a massive collection that runs to something like 8 CDs as I remember, until the great CD selloff of 2002. And I’ve never had any problem seeing him as an all timer in both rock and roll and country.
But, as with certain others–Ray Charles and Otis Redding come to mind–I could appreciate the greatness, and love a dozen or so songs unreservedly, without quite feeling him at the deepest, most unreserved, level.
Now, as with Ray Charles and Otis Redding of late, I think I finally really get him.
The box set pictured above is all the Killer I have on CD at present. It’s been kicking around for a couple of years and I had listened to it once through when I first got it.
But this time I actually went in the other room and let it drift through the house and it turned out that, straining just a bit to hear, being half-distracted by a work project-from-hell, was the ticket in.
I suddenly felt like I was standing outside a country church listening to somebody preach to the empty pews as if they were on fire and stomping on a piano was the only chance of putting them out. That’s kind of a melodramatic and hokey image, but it suits Jerry Lee’s insularity. I think maybe the reason I never quite “got” him was that he always sounded like he was singing mostly to himself.
In that respect, he really was the first true punk. The first, and maybe only, rock and roller sufficiently narcissistic to prophesy Johnny Rotten.
Like Johnny Rotten, Jerry Lee was born to be a Show Biz Lifer. Like Johnny Rotten, he will always be viewed by many as unrepentant, crude, the opposite of a sellout, no matter how artfully he represents himself or his art and no matter how many times he stands before some version of the man with his hat in his hand, begging for one more chance. Like Johnny Rotten, he’s completely full of himself, to the exclusion of all others, living or dead.
Unlike Johnny Rotten, he clearly believes that among the excluded are God and his own immortal soul. Hence the devil’s own assurance in every note sung or played. Hence the burden of genuine torment, eternally dancing around the edges, forever needing to be dodged or bucked.
Hence the famous argument with Sam Phillips, which occurs here at the end of the first disc.
I honestly never thought much about it before. I’d heard it maybe half an dozen times, here and there. There’s not really anything too startling about it….
Heck, in the Pentecostal South that’s just good dinner table conversation.
But by then that first disc had called up the image of the loner inside the empty church, confronted by his own demons, and the first twenty-three cuts had taken the story all the way up to 1963. The music and the man had traveled from “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” to “Carry Me Back to Ol’ Virginia,” from the eye of the good old rock ‘n’ roll hurricane to country so pure that when Nashville finally decided the unrepentant Killer’s half a decade of constant repentance was enough, half of it made the Top Ten six years after the fact.
The Country Top Ten that is.
Jerry Lee under wraps had his own kind of power and, if I always sort of knew it, it never came home quite so forcefully before.
Maybe because the first time I listened to this box I clearly wasn’t paying attention to the continuity of it all.
The Great Divide, the pure representation of the wife-beating gun nut beloved by the purest representatives of the Good Liberal intelligentsia everywhere, was there all along and I could always feel it, waiting to be bridged.
Nothing quite did it until this time around, when I went straight from the end of the first disc and Jerry Lee saying “If I believed that, I’d be a Christian!” (and applying a meaning to “Christian” that is unlikely to ever be spelled out in any dictionary unless we arrive in some strange future where a Southern Evangelical Mystic has taken over for Noah Webster, an event that is even less likely to occur than the Yankees believe) to the first cut of the second disc, which was only this…
..with Jerry Lee playing Mephistopheles in a preacher’s coat, the Big Bad Wolf, right up on stage, with the pulpit kicked aside, the pews no longer empty, the fire still burning, and every Little Red Riding Hood in Birmingham, Alabama clapping and stomping her feet.
Which was what I always wanted from him and never quite got before–something more than a sense he was putting on a show for the Yanks.
Now I think I get it.
He might not be the only hell raiser who ever sold his soul to the devil. But I can’t listen to those sides bumping into each other and believe he was anything but one of the very few who went in knowing the cost.
Suddenly, his whole career makes sense.
And I really got to find a way to get hold of that 8-disc Bear Family monster again.