Fred: Did Jerry Lee Lewis kick ass?
He was a musical and performance genius for the ages and his gifts will stand the test of time. However, he was also a hellion, a devout believer, an addict, and quite possibly a lunatic…all rolled up into one.
As I write this summation of a man’s life, do I think he should be given a pass by the world for some of his personal conduct due to his immense talent and musical influence?
Of course not.
Fortunately, that’s not my job, that’s up to God.
Once again, did Jerry Lee Lewis kick ass?
The story of his initially rapid rise and equally rapid fall from grace is well documented in music history. The tenacity that it took for him to (almost literally) claw his way back to the top of the music world in the early 1970s can only be attributed to a searing inner will to power. Sometimes it takes an extreme personality to show the possibilities of mankind, both positive and negative. This man leaves many examples behind of his musical talent for anyone to savor. But as the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Case in point: Along with all the hits many of us know and love, one of my favorite albums of all time is Jerry Lee playing live in Hamburg, Germany in 1964. This album was recorded in a small, dumpy club somewhere in Europe long after the quick demise of his international stardom during a seemingly endless string of tour dates with Jerry Lee backed by a one-night-only pickup band from England that he did not even bother to rehearse with.
And yet, the entire show borders on sublime: The performance is fury personified in that this man who lost everything through his own actions turns his dark rage and raw alchemy into something almost triumphant that brings ecstatic amounts of joy to the evening’s packed audience and still manages to create awe in the listener almost 60 years later. This is the human spirit at its most musically visceral; It is defiant, vibrant, and explosive - almost punk rock long before Johnny Ramone ever picked up a guitar.
I’m sure that Jerry Lee’s obituaries will be filled with countless stories of his many adventures and misadventures, of which there were plenty. The touring life of a rock ‘n’ roll musician is a life bristling with mental, physical, and emotional extremes bringing many a vulnerable soul to the edges of their own existence. I hesitate to point any finger of judgment, lest those fingers being pointed back at me. We are all the sum total of our life’s choices, adventures, and mistakes.
Earlier today while driving through rural Louisiana I found myself in the small town of Ferriday where Jerry Lee and his family were originally from, including his cousins and boyhood pals, future televangelist Jimmy Swaggart and urban cowboy country singer Mickey Gilley. The story goes that when they were all of early grammar-school age, the three boys would sit outside of and sometimes sneak into Haney‘s Big House, a juke joint on the ‘other side of the tracks’ that was well known by the locals for its violence, vice, raucous blues music and steamy barrelhouse piano. This was apparently where all three boys (but mostly Jerry Lee) had their imaginations set on fire to the possibilities of a world beyond the soul crushing poverty they all were living through at the time.
Amazingly Haney’s is still there today, although its glory days are long past. It's more like a small-town convention center trying to monetize its past association with Jerry Lee, as well as its former status as a legendary music venue of a bygone era. It sits in the middle of a field a few blocks off of the main road that runs through town. I half-expected there to be some sort of a sign or tribute to Jerry Lee on the building since it is so much a part of his career legend. But there was nothing, just a small empty building in an open field on a cloudy day.
With the passing of Jerry Lee, most – if not all - of the major original 1950s rock n rollers have gone to their greater reward. Jerry Lee Lewis definitely hung on as long as he could, probably excited and afraid in equal measure at what awaited him on the other side. Still, sitting outside of Haney’s I couldn’t help but let my own imagination run wild at the thought of a young boy soaking in all the energy and vibrance from this place and using those tools to make his unique mark on a completely unsuspecting and unprepared world.
Godspeed, Jerry Lee.