Speaker to Speaker: Jerry Lee Lewis (04/87)

Jerry Lee Lewis emerged in 1957 with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” a piece of rock ’n’ roll as powerful and seductive as any made before or since. He was the Ferriday Flash with the pumping piano, and he was the new Elvis at Sun Records in Memphis, which in those days must have felt like the center of the universe. He was the wildest white rocker ever seen or imagined, king of excess and folly, glorying in the most intense fame possible. Then, when the scandal of his bigamous marriage to a 13-year-old cousin broke around the world, he was suddenly expelled from the light and banished to the oblivion of country charts and honky-tonks—an oblivion where, in Nick Tosches’s phrase, “fame repeats its own name.”

The Killer: 1963–68 is a ten-LP boxed set of music Lewis made for Nashville’s Smash label during those exile years, and it is fine stuff—raucous live albums, soulful ballads, idiosyncratic versions of classics, a great talent pursuing itself down whatever roads were open. But the bonus is what I want to talk about: “The Interview Album,” one long conversation taped in 1976. Toronto DJ Dave Booth is the interviewer, and immediately the mood is comfortable. Booth is so self-effacing, so casual, he seems less a music-business professional than someone who ran into a legend in a bar and bought his story for the price of a beer. Booth asks ordinary questions, the same obvious, cliched questions you or I might ask; then he shuts up and gets extraordinary answers, weary, bitter, defiant answers, not so much to his own questions as to questions Lewis—at once redeemed by history as a founder of rock, and self-damned as a sinner beyond salvation—is still asking himself. Sitting at a piano in his Toronto hotel room, Lewis is 40, and he sounds 60. His voice is thick, slurring with whiskey and melancholy as the conversation meanders over the years; he seems to be looking back over lifetimes, not decades. It isn’t a voice you hear in Lewis’s music—and even though he is the subject of the finest rock ’n’ roll biography, Tosches’s Hellfire, it isn’t a voice you hear there, either.

At one point, Booth asks Lewis about a famous story. Sometime in the ’50s, it’s said, Lewis and Chuck Berry were on the same show, and to Lewis’s shame and outrage, Berry got top billing. Lewis closed his set with “Great Balls of Fire,” and then poured lighter fluid on the piano and lit it. As the flames rose he strode past Berry in the wings and said to him, “Follow that, nigger!” Disgusted to hear this again, Lewis denies everything. It never happened, he says to Booth; nothing like it ever happened.Now, I’ve always believed this story, as I suspect most people who’ve heard it believe it, and not because I have any idea whether it’s true or not. (Of course, the story is too perfect: as a closer to this possibly mythical performance, “Great Balls of Fire” could only be topped by “Old Black Joe.”) I’ve believed the story because, given the grinning anarchy in Lewis’s music, and the anarchic rage of his life, the story, the fable, is metaphorically irresistible (as metaphor, the too-perfect combination of “Great Balls of Fire” and the burning piano is part of what makes the story “true”). I have been appalled by the story because of its irreducible racism (try to imagine the tale entering legend if Lewis had merely said, “Follow that, Chuck!”), but I have been attracted to the story, I like it, for a reciprocal reason: because the sudden eruption of racism, which seems to have no real parallels in Lewis’s career, confirms my sense, and I suspect that of many others, that behind the joy and release of Lewis’s great records lies a wilderness of bondage and fear. So the story can be an allegory of black and white, or a profound comment on contradictions in the American spirit, or just a cheap thrill, like watching a horror movie—and everyone knows how much fun that can be.

Realizing that he hasn’t convinced Booth that the Chuck Berry story is a lie—a slander, somehow, on both Berry and himself—Lewis offers another story: “Let me tell you something. I was talking to this reporter in Dallas, Texas, about three months ago, he says, ‘Mr. Lewis, is it true’—and this man was serious as cancer, that eats away—he says, ‘Did you push a piano off the stage, and it landed on this man, and as he was laying there and it was on top of him you leaped up on top of the piano and just kept playing “Great Balls of Fire” with your feet, as he died?’ I said, ‘Hell, yeah.’ If you’re stupid enough to ask such a question, I’m gonna be stupid enough to answer it like that.” Well, listening to “The Interview Album,” I believed that story too; wanting to believe such a story, being able to believe it, is what it means to be a fan.

As the record played on, though, I began to get confused. “The Interview Album” isn’t about “true” or “false”: it is about making contact with a legendary figure whose life has been joined to yours only by means of the distance of commerce and performance. Here that distance is collapsed, collapsed by the slow, mundane tones of the conversation, and the result is entrancing. A spell is cast: you can listen to “The Interview Album” over and over, not because it offers facts to glean, but as if it were the unheard music behind twenty, now thirty, years of hits and flops, celebrity and obscurity, hilarity and tragedy. You try to follow the shadings of Lewis’s voice, to figure out what they mean, to understand what he has never put into his music and why; sitting in your own home, listening, you can just about see his face, the eyelids drooping, then snapping up. You try to connect the familiar face and the unfamiliar voice that now goes with it to certain long-ago musical events, onetime incidents of craft and desire that were captured on tape, pressed into vinyl, put on the market, made public. Sitting at the piano as he talks, Lewis reprises fragments of those events, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and others, and the mood here is the spookiest of all: it’s as if he’s telling a tale only he remembers, taking it away from you and from the world, turning it back into a private story you had no business overhearing, disappearing the tale into himself. It is a challenge, as if Lewis is saying something very small, and very hard: just because you heard a story doesn’t mean you understand it. Maybe being able to believe that—to accept that there are places in the rock ’n’ roll story that fables cannot reach—is also what it means to be a fan. Fandom is constructed out of such fables; it may be time to take it apart. “The Interview Album” is a beginning. Finally, the question becomes not one of believing a famous, scandalous, metaphorically irresistible fable (for even if the Chuck Berry story could be documented, with sworn witnesses, tape recordings, film, it would still feel like a fable); the question is whether Lewis’s story says something about him or you. Chuck Berry is at work on his autobiography, and it’s hard to believe he won’t go much, much farther with the questions he asks.

Artforum, April 1987

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