B y D a v e M c E l f r e s h
IT WAS A full 20 years ago that The Killer basically hung up his recording career. And yet, Jerry Lee Lewis has just released a new and very good album, Young Blood.
Not that anyone really cares.
Sales are just okay, and the amount of press it's receiving is average. Artists half his stature receive twice the attention. The problem: Lewis is so familiar a figure in American music we take him for granted. We forget that Jerry Lee Lewis was, and still is, the perfect personification of rock and roll, moreso than Chuck Berry, The Beatles or Elvis.
For a different perspective, try to envision the following story as the plot of a novel or film, as not true:
Two Louisiana sisters, eccentric and competitive holy rollers, in 1935 and 1936 give birth to sons born six months apart. Instead of playing cowboys and Indians, both boys at the age of eight don the role of preacher--and their prayers are not play-acting. Not surprisingly, both decide to enter the ministry.
One of them, though, has a wild streak, and three months into his classes at a Southern Bible college he's kicked out for sacreligiously turning the hymnal's songs into boogie woogie fare. The other walks the straight and narrow, and is seen as the more successful of the two. The wild one eventually snags a recording contract, hits the big time, and offers a chance to record to his tamer cousin. The latter first considers the offer a temptation of the devil, but later accepts, and begins a gospel music career in addition to his ministry.
The wild one never quite comes to grips with having forsaken the church for rock and roll, and remains adamant that his piano pounding career is literally going to land him in hell. Meanwhile, another Southern boy, born only a few hundred miles away from the two cousins, becomes the most famous entertainer the country has ever produced. Flashing his mother's competitive streak, the wild one admits his hatred of the star, even though the two are as similar as the cousins: Both were born the same year, had fathers who spent time in jail, grew up poor white trash in the South, and loved black music.
The latter goes into the service, leaving the wild one with a shot at the throne. The chance is immediately blown when he tours with his third wife, also his 13-year-old cousin and a full 10 years younger than the wild one. As had happened at Bible college, he is shamed, this time in headlines the world over.
The star returns and regains his popularity. The wild one never overcomes his jealousy and at one point stands drunk outside the mansion of the latter, screaming for a confrontation, gun in hand. It never happens.
Two children die, as do two later wives--many suspecting that the wild one may have murdered one of the women himself. Booze and pills take his gall bladder and most of his stomach, but he remains as tough as ever. His preacher cousin, however, is ruined when found with a prostitute not once, but twice, and disappears from the scene. The big star also becomes a victim of humiliation, dying a drug-related death while on the toilet. The wild one's career never rebounds from the shaming over his long-ago divorced, jailbait wife. He, however, never shows a lick of remorse. He remains as crazy and dangerous and talented as ever, eerily never looking older in spite of an outrageously self-destructive lifestyle, and lives out his days playing thousands of bars and state fairs.
End of story.
It's a true story, the life of Jerry Lee Lewis, and cousin Jimmy Swaggart and Elvis play major roles. An invented character could not more perfectly embody the essence of rock and roll: the roots in blues and country music, the balancing of gospel influence with overt sexuality, and, of course, the general fuck-you attitude. Add to his credentials that Lewis is also an unpredictable, dangerous drunk and pill-head, and a flashy musician who crams a century's worth of black music styles into a three-minute song. He's also cocky, beyond aging, uncompromising, seemingly indestructible, evil-looking--isn't there any rock and roll criteria he's been bested at? Actually, no. Lewis is beyond needing to fit the bill. He literally invented the persona.
No wonder Lewis' blood boiled when pretty-boy Elvis retained status as King of rock and roll while devolving into a music style only slightly more adventurous than that pursued by Dean Martin. Lewis' night of drunken gun-waving and Elvis-cursing at the gates of Graceland was certainly a justifiable musical protest. Again, not that anyone cared, or understood. Lewis was written off as a washed-up inferior. It wasn't true.
It's not true now, either. Young Blood is certainly no watered-down version of the old Jerry Lee, cut to broaden his audience. The almost 60-year-old Lewis continues to pump out better, gutsier stuff than that which a 25-year-old Elvis released following his stint in the Army. Gutsier, in fact, than most will care to hear.
A showcasing of Lewis' stylistic depth may not have been the intent of producer/drummer Andy Paley, but it's nonetheless blatantly evident. Nine of the 14 songs, those not written by Paley, cast lines in a lot of directions--and successfully, every one of them. Lewis jumps from the Depression era tune, "Miss The Mississippi And You" to an aggressive version of "Things," a lame '60s pop cut by Bobby Darin. Two classic Don Raye songs from the '40s are covered. Five of the tunes first surfaced in the '50s as country songs, folk music, rhythm and blues, or full-strength New Orleans fare.
All of the pieces sound as though The Killer had casually pounded out the pieces himself, music tablet held down care of Jim Beam. We shouldn't be surprised. When the patriarchal Lewis is not the chicken he's the egg: What little music he didn't influence up to now he sure as hell can interpret to advantage. His faltering voice on "Restless Heart" is as bad as Young Blood ever gets.
Unfortunately, his badass-rocker attitude is a stereotype now, so regularly feigned by new bands that the bite has become toothless. Wild and mean is an image needed for a music video, the bands know it and so do the fans. We forget that Jerry Lee defined, and still lives, an image most rockers wear as a costume. Young Blood will go nowhere because we're so bored with the counterfeiters we underappreciate the original.
Every Jerry Lee Lewis interview, every stab at stage banter, eventually turns into a monologue on his status as The One And Only. And everyone writes off the tirade as an outburst of his very real egomania. Our mistake. He may be crazy, but when the Killer rants about his permanent status as the real King of rock and roll, he's telling the truth.
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