Book review: Jerry Lee Lewis by Rick Bragg

Jerry Lee Lewis performs on his 75th birthday in Pomona, California. Picture: Getty

Jerry Lee Lewis performs on his 75th birthday in Pomona, California. Picture: Getty

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IT’S BEEN 58 long years and many, many millions of dollars through the tills since Jerry Lee Lewis settled down by the piano in Sun Studio with the Million Dollar Quartet.

Jerry Lee Lewis: His own Story

Rick Bragg

Canongate, 512pp, £20

Elvis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins are long gone, too – leaving just one cussed 78-year-old with a glint in his eye that you wouldn’t want to try to stare down. The last man standing by more than a decade, Jerry Lee is still defiant, still working (a new, celebrity-studded album was released to coincide with this book), still mad on the music. And where on earth could you find a purer distillation of corn whiskey, Deep South, lust-and-hellfire rock & roll spirit? You’d think Jerry Lee would be an all-time hero. But posterity’s a fickle judge – and “Great Balls of Fire” or not, a man whose idea of life on the road was to trail his 13 year-old cousin/lover/bigamous wife on his first tour of Europe has simply been too strong medicine for most of us.

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You can imagine, by the way, Jerry Lee has few regrets about this. “It wasn’t nothing,” he tells his biographer, simply unable to fathom that long-ago fuss. “It wasn’t nothing.”

The misunderstanding sent the singer into a commercial exile that lasted a decade, and came to symbolise the death of rock & roll just as much as Buddy Holly’s plane crash and Elvis’s army haircut. Yet the fire still burned. You can see a clip of him from the years when he was Jerry-who?, thanking his Lord for the way the raucous young Beatles had taken on the cissy crooners of the 1960s. “Showed ‘em a trick,” he told an interviewer with a wicked snicker. “Cut ‘em down like wheat before a sickle!”

This is one of those horse’s mouth/set-the-record-straight books, which is plain funny when you discover how it catalogues every hare-brained, wilful mishap ever perpetrated by “The Killer” (a name that has stuck, we learn, since he all-but strangled his seventh grade teacher at Ferriday High School.) But I don’t think Jerry Lee’s claim to have been misrepresented is just petulance. Fame is a tricky game at the best of times, and the wild spirit that whipped up music of legend has cost the man dearly in the media grinder.

Simply put, Jerry Lee’s rollercoaster ride is a hell of a story. You might even say the story, when it comes to the crazed, infectious noise that erupted out of the Mississippi mud after the Second World War. And Rick Bragg – a Pulitzer-winning writer for the New York Times – gets his teeth into it like he knows he’s really onto something. The dirt and struggle of white-trash Louisiana is measured out in vivid, hard-punching prose and steeped in down-home vernacular: the snakes writhing in the rafters over the child Jerry Lee’s head, his father’s moonshine running in the ditches two feet deep, the fried fish and loose women and dirty blues of Haney’s Big House, where a dungaree’d Jerry Lee would listen to the coiffed stars of the chitlin’ circuit from under a table. There’s the incandescent young virtuoso himself, “eyes like the sun shining through a jar of dark honey,” trashing pianos from Mobile to Gatlinburg and forever wriggling on the barb of a style bred between the church and the whorehouse: really, can a man play rock & roll music and go to Heaven?

Sometimes the sense of portent is too much, the cliché too naked (BB King “sang with a voice filled with all the suffering in the wide, flat, dusty world,” Bragg chants.) But there is something elemental about the elegy for the hard lives of the American poor, and the tough, inward, intoxicated, horny mess which threw up a lifeline. The brio carries into the conventional motifs of the music, too: the dreams of stardom, the struggle for a hit, the hard touring, the groupies. For a while.

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In the end, though, just as Jerry Lee’s life becomes detached from the place and kin which make the early chapters so compelling – none of the many wives he settled back at home with his children would see much of their driven, absent husband – the narrative succumbs to the habits of rock biography: lists of recordings, musicians, venues, record labels, celebrities passing in a blur, choruses of “they ripped me off,” “should’ve been a hit.” And then, most jarringly, an extended account of Jerry Lee’s redemptive induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the Waldorf Astoria.

The corrective here should be character. For decades, Jerry Lee Lewis has stood for untamed genius, and this status is agreed by biographer and subject. But for all the depth of detail and strong flavours, what develops under the golden flop of this rocker’s hair is something cartoonish. Bragg knows there is more here than somebody who “just done what I wanted”; once, we glimpse “the ghost of a desperate, searching young man,” and more than once, we glean hints of deep depression. But at the crunch (like when he gets too close to the trail of human pain and damage Jerry Lee left behind him), the writer looks away. Listening to an old man in a darkened room, Rick Bragg honours his commission. And in a crowded field overshadowed by the book still described as the best of all rock biographies – Nick Tosches’ Hellfire – that isn’t enough.

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