Whole Lot of Life Left in ‘Killer’ : Pop music: Jerry Lee Lewis--appearing in Cerritos--has been described as erratic, violent, even <i> dead.</i> He hopes new album shifts focus from his legend to his talents.
It has pretty much all been said about Jerry Lee Lewis, in rock histories, biographies, tabloids and film, not to mention police reports.
By all accounts his is a mythic life, consonant with the nearly biblical tone taken in “Hellfire,” Nick Tosches’ monstrously readable 1982 biography and perhaps the strangest book ever penned about a living human.
That and other sources paint him as a true fury, divided to extremes: either thrilling audiences or cursing them; either being saved or declaring that he was dragging his audience to hell with him.
It was he who was arrested waving a gun outside Graceland, howling in the night. Stories abound of him consuming every confounded thing to astounding excess. He’s been hospitalized and operated on so many times that his belly reportedly looks like a road map. During one hospitalization, family members even reported to the press that he had died. Others seem to die just from being in close proximity to him. Meanwhile, the Killer just goes on and on, and these days spends his mornings Jet Skiing on his private lake at his home in Nesbit, Miss.
Whether the wild tales are true or not, none match up to the wild genius of his music.
Lewis was one of the initial rock giants who--along with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash--started a musical revolution in the ‘50s with the wickedly rocking songs they waxed on those yellow-label Sun records from Memphis.
With the possible exception of Little Richard, Lewis rocked harder and wilder than any of them.
Along with the utterly salacious delivery he gave to titles like “Great Balls of Fire,” “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” and “Breathless,” Lewis’ piano playing was like a primal world unto itself. It was held together by the Titanic will of his pumping left hand, and kept interesting, to say the least, by the right-hand embellishments he tossed off like a god casually chucking thunderbolts at the citizens below.
He is, as record producer Andy Paley puts it, an American treasure, an utterly unique, unfettered talent. With idiocies like the 1989 “Great Balls of Fire” movie around, some may have forgotten that Lewis’ music overrides his legend.
Lewis, who plays tonight and Saturday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, is hoping to put that balance aright with a new album, “Memphis,” due to be released in late February. Remarkably, it’s his first studio album in 12 years.
“I really didn’t realize it had been so long,” Lewis, 59, declared, speaking from home by phone last week in that famous thick, swampy voice. “I thought it had been seven or eight years at the most, but you know how time goes by.”
Lewis has usually seemed to roll along irrespective of what notice the music world took of him, but he claims that “Memphis” is close to his heart, its success as important to him as his groundbreaking Sun sides of the ‘50s or his revivified assault on the country charts of the late ‘60s.
He certainly sounds like he means business on the album, singing and playing with the same unpredictable energy and irrepressible personality that established his legend four decades ago. He’s backed by a host of musicians, including his touring band--Elvis Presley veteran James Burton is with him again--plus members of NRBQ, ex-Cars guitarist Elliot Easton and producer Paley on guitar and drums.
He and Paley began discussing doing an album together when they worked on the soundtrack to Warren Beatty’s 1990 film “Dick Tracy.” Lewis was very pleased with the result of that collaboration, “It Was the Whiskey Talking, Not Me.”
“I was really looking forward to doing an album with Andy,” Lewis said. “In fact, he was the only person I was interested in doing an album with. And I think it really came off.”
It’s a mutual admiration society. Paley--whose past collaborations have included work with Madonna, Brian Wilson, k.d. lang, Patti Smith and Jonathan Richman (with whom he is drumming Saturday at Long Beach’s Que Sera Sera club)--is a lifelong Lewis fan.
“I only like to work with people I’m a huge fan of, given a choice, and I’m a huge, huge Jerry Lee fan,” Paley said. “I think he’s the most brilliant entertainer in the Al Jolson tradition I’ve ever seen.
“It’s not just personality--which you know he’s got a lot of--but because his abilities and gifts on the piano and his singing are without equal,” he said. “When you get this big of a ham with this big of a talent in one package, how can you beat it? Elvis Presley was a singer, a great dancer and a good-looking guy, but I think Jerry Lee Lewis is a mega-talent.”
Lewis, in his own humble estimation, believes he is one of the four singular stylists of American popular music, along with Jolson, Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers.
“Whether that’s true or not, I don’t have any idea,” Lewis said. “But I kinda figured it that way. We’re the stylists. I think that Al Jolson, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and Jerry Lee Lewis can sing any type song that they want to sing, and they can do it their way, or any way that they want to do it. They can do it slow blues, they can do it rock-pop, they can do it country, they can do it gospel. They can go in any direction they want to go.”
Lewis’ renditions of Williams’ “Never Get Out of This World Alive” and Rodgers’ “Miss the Mississippi” are on the new album, along with Chuck Berry’s “Down the Road a Piece” and other rock and R & B standards. In addition, there are a couple of songs that Paley wrote, including one custom written to match Lewis’ penchant for rare cars, “Crown Victoria Custom ’51.”
Lewis said that initially he was daunted by studio technology that’s now in use.
“Oh lord, it was completely different, nothing like how we used to record. They have so much equipment now that they can just do anything that they want to do. If you hit a flat note, these machines they have with buttons on them . . . red and, uh, green kinda lights that will pull those notes up on you and make it come out right. I don’t know whether I like that or not,” he said, laughing.
Heaps of technology don’t necessarily lend themselves to the spontaneity that is Lewis’ forte.
“I don’t like doing things the same way twice. I’m there to entertain the audience when I play, but I like to entertain myself too. If I done it the same time every time mechanically, I think I’d go crazy,” Lewis said, adding he’d had doubts about modern recording processes allowing him enough leeway.
“That’s what I was wondering about when I went in, but I think it came off spontaneous,” he said. “Andy didn’t stop until he got it spontaneous.”
Along with the album, Lewis is also getting his version of himself across with an autobiography, “Killer,” to be published in England in February (a U.S. deal is still being worked out) and through taped reminiscences accessible on a 900 number.
Dialing the latter is a cultural experience that can’t be recommended highly enough. Call (900) 988-FIRE and for $2.75 a minute you get more than 1 1/2 minutes of a shouting disc jockey voice hawking Jerry Lee trinkets (that’s right, you’ve just paid $4.25 to listen to a commercial).
Then the Killer comes on. As his wife, Kerry (that’s wife No. 8, for those keeping track), explained to us, “You never know what you’re going to get. He may talk about the second grade today, or tomorrow his 45th birthday.”
Even after you’ve listened you may not know what you’ve gotten. On the day we called, it sounded like Lewis was speaking in his own private language, rather like Jodie Foster in “Nell.” It was rambling. It was indecipherable. It should probably be required listening for anyone considering a career as a bartender.
Initially the 900 number was set up to raise funds to help defray a huge bill owed to the IRS, which on more than one occasion has hauled away most of his possessions to recover unpaid taxes. He even briefly was letting fans tour his house for a fee, though that didn’t work out very well, since he was trying to live in it at the time.
“It’s pretty stupid to do, isn’t it? Man likes his privacy in his home--at least I do,” he said. The fans weren’t getting much enjoyment out of it either.
“The tour was only letting them in just one room of the house, and people don’t like that, so I put a stop to it. I’m figuring on maybe turning the home into a museum later on, the whole place. But like it is now, it’s not right to charge people money to come into a place where there’s nothing here to see.”
He says he’s finally satisfied the IRS, and is hoping he’s seen the last of it.
“You know, you just can’t be nice to those guys,” he mused. “I don’t know. Once they get on your case they seem to want to stay on it. They just seem to get it in for ya.
“They’re guys who make $250 a week or something and they just like to take advantage of somebody and they just keep twistin’ it, twistin’ it, twistin’ it. And they bring out a bunch of U.S. marshals with them, people that will blow you away and junk like that. And I think it’s unfair . But that’s the so-called American way, I guess.”
The life he’s lived has left a lot in its wake for accountants, attorneys and reporters to wade through. With as much fuss as others have made over his ways, one gets the impression it’s a tough job being Jerry Lee Lewis. “I guess people would think that. I don’t know. It’s not very bad on me. I’ve got a little boy 8 years old here and he’s just fantastic. I’ve got a daughter 31 years old and she’s just tremendous. And I’ve got a good wife--she’s 31 years old. I’m doing fine, Killer, nothing wrong with me. I’m having a good time enjoying life very much,” he said.
He’s hoping the more human side of him will come through when people read his autobiography (as told to writer Charles White).
“I think the understanding will be a lot better, because it comes from me. The other books and things were just a bunch of malarkey because they wasn’t true. How writers came out with these books was just something else because I never had anything to do with them. And any I read or anything I read about them, I just got mad and threw them down, because it wasn’t true, and the movie was done wrong, too, I’m sorry to say” (though he said he thinks that Dennis Quaid “did the best he could with it”).
“My book is very honest. I made them call it back in three times to make sure some things they got wrong in it were got right. They was using a lot of curse words in it that I don’t use. I’m not a goody-goody boy, but I don’t talk exactly the way they was phrasing some things and I had them take it out,” he said.
So what about the quote in Tosches’ “Hellfire” that has Lewis saying he’s going to hell and dragging his audience with him?
“That I’m going to hell? Bull----! That’s ridiculous. If I thought something like that, I’d do something about it quick,” he snapped.
According to his biographers, colorful language was the least of Lewis’ faults. They cite him as having torched pianos, committed bigamy, abused wives, shot at least one person and otherwise been less than an upstanding citizen.
There’s a tape of him arguing with Sun Records owner Sam Phillips that “Great Balls of Fire” was the devil’s music, and he is quoted in interviews as agonizing over the divergence in paths taken by his preacher cousin Jimmy Swaggart and himself.
He’s been described as erratic, violent, self-destructive, even dead. Is any of that true?
“No, I don’t think so. I think it’s all been blown out of proportion, whatever you’re talking about there. I don’t really understand what you mean. I don’t know what it is. I think they want to hear about you being a bad person, a gunslinger or something. I’m a piano player and a singer, and I am what I am.”
* Jerry Lee Lewis and blues harpist Charlie Musselwhite play tonight and Saturday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. 8 p.m. $22 to $40. (800) 300-4345. Hear Jerry Lee Lewis
To hear the song “Rockin’ My Life Away,” call TimesLine at 808-8463 and press c,11,pb *5580.
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