Monday, February 23, 2015

"Jerry Lee Lewis" by Rick Bragg (2014)

The first time I ever saw Jerry Lee Lewis was in Virginia Beach. It was about 1980; just after the “Killer” had been stricken with bleeding ulcers. It was at a small venue; a place with tables. I had one only a few feet from the small stage. He did a short set with the band and then dismissed them from the stage and offered to take requests.

I was quick to call out for some Webb Pierce. Just as quickly he looked at me and said, “You’re too young to know Webb Pierce!” It was like an accusation on his part, but then he grew thoughtful; fingers roaming the keys of the piano; and said, “I can’t drink anymore, but I sure do love to sing about it!” Then he launched into a wonderful barrel house piano version of “There Stands the Glass.” When he was through playing it he looked at me and asked, “How’d I do, son?” I do not recall my reply; probably because I was speechless.

Now, author Rick Bragg has written a biography of Mr. Lewis which most likely will serve as his oral autobiography; much in the same way that Merle Miller’s “Plain Speaking” serves as Harry Truman’s. Mr. Bragg spent 2 years with Mr. Lewis while writing this book; sometimes in the entertainer’s bedroom; which is equipped with a locking metal gate. The author doesn’t tell us whether or not the gate is there to keep the imaginary demons out; or the real ones inside. At any rate, this is where Mr. Lewis spends some of his time when not touring. (He was still performing on a limited basis until a year or so ago.)

Along with Jerry Lee’s own story; and the demons which haunt him; Mr. Bragg has given a good history of Ferriday and Louisiana in general. He describes it as a hard place; and as a southern boy himself he recognizes the dichotomy between religion and reality. He understands why Jerry Lee worries that playing rock and roll may exclude him from Heaven. It is only through his strong belief in the forgiveness of Jesus Christ that he manages to hold on these days.  He is; after all is said and done; the cousin of Jimmy Swaggart; an evangelist of note, if not an entertainer in his own right.

The book has a surprising humanity to it, given all that one associates with Jerry Lee Lewis and the Devil’s music. And Rick Bragg is just the right person to put it all done on paper. The conflict he feels with the talent God gave him to play rock and roll; or what just may be “the devils music” after all; worries him. It is plainly apparent that he comes from a place of ghosts, some of which haunt him. But at the same time he makes no apologies for who he has been and what he has done. He would; he believes; have done it differently now, but acknowledges freely that he probably wouldn’t. He’s a walking contradiction.

Rick Bragg does an excellent job in conveying the true essence of Jerry Lee Lewis; the original “bad boy” of rock and roll. He was there at the beginning and is still around today; at a time when most of his colleagues, and rivals, are gone. He is; as they say; the last man standing. He’s had health troubles; women troubles; financial troubles; you name it. He’s buried wives and children; been to the top of the pops and then down to playing cheap bars and clubs; then back up again, several times.

He’s been counted out as many times as Keith Richards; yet he’s always bounced back.  At 79 years of age; his body is ravaged by pain and he can only sit or stand in any one position for a few minutes at a time. But, recently married in 2012 to his longtime friend and recent caregiver; Judith Ann Coghlan; 14 years his junior, he is still rocking his life away.

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