Oregon Music News: Oregon’s all-genre music magazine since 2009

10/28/2022

End of the Road: Jerry Lee Lewis: Thoughts on the Killer from David Vest

By DAVID VEST // Alabama-born pianist and multiple Blues Maple Award winner David Vest writes about today's death of Jerry Lee Lewis

The way is dark
The night is long
I don't care
If I ever get home
I'm waiting
At the end of the road.
 
Jerry Lee Lewis, the unkillable Killer, is gone. 
 
Even his death was pure show-biz, with one publication (TMZ) rushing to scoop the pack, only to discover after retracting their premature report (and apologizing) that it had actually happened.
 
In the first place, Jerry Lee Lewis was a musician. He played the trumpet sometimes in his shows. He played the guitar, too -- played it onstage at the 1969 Toronto festival, played it live on his 1971 TV show [https://youtu.be/SgAVoPWujac], and played it again on his last album, which might have been his best, Rock And Roll Time. Go find it and listen to "Keep Me In Mind" and tell me if you've ever heard a better country vocal.
 
But nobody ever bought a ticket to see Jerry Lee Lewis play trumpet or guitar, although they did fork over money to see him play Iago in a rock and roll version of Othello. [https://youtu.be/BUtf6YRagOo]
 
Mainly, they bought tickets hoping to see him climb a piano, set fire to it, dance in the flames, kick furniture across the stage, and bring real rock and roll back to life, one more time, as if it had never died or become a clueless parody of itself.
 
If others saw him as a rocker or a wild man, Jerry Lee Lewis thought of himself as a "song stylist." 
 
"There's only four stylists," he told Nick Tosches, "and that's Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Williams, Al Jolson, and Jimmie Rodgers."
 
As the Killer might add, "Think about it, darlin'."
 
The media is full of stories about how he outlasted everybody, even himself. They all repeat the official myth that his career as a superstar basically ended when the British press discovered he had married his 11-year old cousin. (Most of the reports still say she was 13, because all the copy editors were laid off years ago.)
 
But is that really true about his career? His chart activity was already on a downward slope, from "Great Balls Of Fire" to "Breathless" to "High School Confidential," and his cameo appearance in a dreadful movie with the same title would have done him no good.
 
I was accused of trying to sound like him before I ever heard of him. (I've never tried to sound like anybody but myself, and none of Lewis's legion of imitators sound anything like him to my ears.) 
 
I saw him in 1958, not long after his return from England, where his parting words had been "England can kiss my ass."
 
Maybe it was trying to cash in on the "scandal" that really did him in. Sun Records rush-released a comedy fake-news single called "The Return Of Jerry Lee," [https://youtu.be/h3c_RmViTfw] cobbled together with brief clips from the Killer's hit singles, in the manner of the old Buchanan and Goodman mash-ups. [https://youtu.be/Z4Rbp29FDuI] It bombed.
 
Ten years later, he had his first major country hit, "Another Place, Another Time." It was to be the first of many. To my mind, the greatest of them is "There Must Be More To Love Than This." Typical of the Nashville production-line "Music City" mentality, his record company had him make several blenderized recordings where he didn't even play the piano, replacing him with a generic-sounding session player.
 
I saw him twice in the late Nineties, in Houston. The first time was transcendant, everything you would want it to be. It rocked, and the country songs were bone-chilling. When he sang "I can't feel at home in this world anymore," you believed him.
 
The second time, a year later in the same venue, was unspeakably lame. He begged people in the audience to give him a drink because "they won't let me have any backstage." He played "Great Balls Of Fire" as a square-dance number, and when someone in the crowd objected, the customer was instructed not to let the door hit him in the ass on the way out.
 
If you want to hear the real Jerry Lee Lewis, I recommend searching for The Complete Caribou Ranch Sessions, which no Nashville label was willing to release, probably because it contained no hit singles.
 
There are reports that before his death, Lewis was working on a gospel album with T-Bone Burnette. No word on whether that project was anywhere close to completion when Lewis died.
 
Jerry Lee Lewis did have one big "England can kiss my ass" moment in Nashville. In a live interview, Ralph Emery asked him to divulge the secret of his career longevity. Without a pause the Killer told him, on the air, "A big dick and a lot of money."
 
This last story I have from an eye-witness: Lewis was on tour in Louisiana, shortly after he shot his bass player. During a stop at a gas station, he picked up an entire display rack of cassette tapes and carried it out to the pumps. Seems he had spotted some pirated or bootlegged copies of his music on the rack. Surmising (correctly) that Lewis was going go pump some gas and set the whole rack on fire, the cashier ran outside crying, "Oh, my God! What am I supposed to tell the distributor?"
 
You already know the reply, don't you? 
 
"Tell him the Killer was here."

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