This fireball has raged for decades

Times Staff Writer

Think everything mellows with age? Drop in on Jerry Lee Lewis sometime.

No one expects a guy nicknamed “the Killer” to go gentle into that good night. Still, a little softening wouldn’t be all that alarming for one who, at 68, is the most unlikely last surviving member of the Sun Records stable of seminal roots rockers that also included Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison.

Yet Wednesday at the Viper Room, in a star-dotted showcase for a packed house that included musicians Tom Petty and Robbie Robertson, producer Rick Rubin and actors Harry Dean Stanton and Daryl Hannah, the man also known as the “Ferriday Fireball” showed his flame hasn’t cooled one degree.

In fact, while he has lost a lot of the athleticism of his younger days, the white-hot gaze and explosive temperament remain everything they once were. Just ask the inattentive front-row onlooker whom Lewis clocked alongside the head with his mike stand when Lewis felt he wasn’t exhibiting sufficient respect.


One of the most obstinate, uncompromising rockers ever, Lewis -- who’s reportedly working on a new album -- turns in performances that represent no less than unfettered id, artistic instinct unrestrained by conscious thought. His monstrous talent at the keyboard and in vocal phrasing erupted like fiery spurts from an active volcano Wednesday. Often the blast would sustain long enough to complete a whole song, but frequently it would be just a flash resulting in a snippet anywhere from five to 30 seconds of a number before he shut it down and his next impulse took over.

His two-hour set -- his first in the L.A. area in several years -- ran the usual gamut from his early rock hits “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” and “High School Confidential” to his ‘60s and ‘70s country period with “What Made Milwaukee Famous” and “39 and Holding.” This remarkable human jukebox, backed by a responsive five-man band led by Lewis’ longtime guitarist Kenneth Lovelace, also touched on a wide range of 20th century American popular music (“Over the Rainbow,” “That Lucky Old Sun”).

In summing up the rock ‘n’ roll career arc, Neil Young famously observed: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” Jerry Lee Lewis is living proof that there’s a third option: Just keep burning.