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Chapter 1 -- A Jerry Lee Lewis Solo
"Some people call me an idiot, but I know who I am.
I am The Killer."--Jerry Lee Lewis
A third of a century later, he is back where he started, and he is holding court.
It is the first night of February 1990, and Jerry Lee Lewis is once again singing and shouting in the eighteen-by-thirty-foot studio at the Memphis Recording Service, 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee, a room that once functioned as his spiritual home. Fifty-four years old, Jerry Lee doesn't feel much like the kid from Ferriday, Louisiana, who barged into that building in September 1956, demanding that Sun Records label head Sam Phillips hear at that moment how great he was. It is not that he looks bad. He hasn't been renovated as undoubtedly as the studio, but he as presentable as he has ever been. Jerry Lee's wavy blond hair, newly cut, is packed tightly and neatly. It is nothing like the wild mop it was three decades ago, all flying curls and dangling strands. His defiant sneer has vanished. He has put on some weight, though certainly not the thirty-three years of girth one might expect of an entertainer in the late autumn of his career. Jerry Lee has looked far worse, as many friends, family, fans, and health-service professionals can vouch. Compared to what happened to some of his contemporaries, people like Elvis Presley--a man rarely far from Jerry Lee's thoughts--he is in good shape.
The most pronounced difference is in his eyes. Once they were as ferocious as a pair of fireballs. That was one of the nicknames he encouraged: the Ferriday Fireball. When Jerry Lee first looked for a place in Sam Phillips's dream, he was as singleminded as a kid who knew he was talented could be. He stared straight at the person he was addressing, certain that his God-given prowess could sway anyone. Indomitable, Jerry Lee employed false modesty if he thought it would help him, so the directness in his eyes could be misread as earnestness. He was powerful, he knew he was powerful, and his eyes were among the first weapons he employed. Now his gaze wavers, and not merely because he needs reading glasses. He looks down or looks away almost as frequently as he locks in with another's eyes. Jerry Lee can still size up or dress down someone if he so deigns. When he bothers to use them, his eyes are as unrelenting as they have ever been. Yet the decades have made them something they never were in his salad days: now they are unpitying. If Jerry Lee bothers to notice someone new crossing his path in a studio or a backstage somewhere, it usually is not to beget a friendship.
Friendly or not, Jerry Lee is intent on being a professional tonight, and that means appearing to be committed to his work and not in the condition that his legend often necessitates. But from the moment Jerry Lee first arrived in Memphis thirty-three autumns back, "good shape" for the Ferriday boy was always a relative term. How could a twenty-year-old kid about to careen into his third marriage of dubious legality be in good shape? How could a religious young man tortured by the suspicion that he was playing evil music and committing loathsome acts be in good shape? Jerry Lee's subsequent behavior, by turn destructive and self-destructive, was well-documented as it happened; many of his legions were sure that it was his honesty that brought him down so many times. His self-inflicted punishments went far beyond what any fair court or deity would mandate. (There could be no jury of his peers, of course, because he knew he had no equals.) Jerry Lee's death was reported once and expected several times more, but he laughed at how the public view of his life had led to such expectations. He was The Killer, he would tell anyone who came within earshot, and he would last as long as he damn well wanted. He was in charge.
But he is not a kid anymore. His most purposeful performances of the past decade and a half--songs like "Middle Age Crazy," "I Wish I Was Eighteen Again," "Thirty-nine and Holding," and "Rockin' My Life Away"--derive much of their considerable staying power from Jerry Lee's knowledge that his glory days, at least in terms of Billboard chart standings, are now mostly the stuff of myth and memory, and from his fear that his time as a top-rank performer has passed. Jerry Lee Lewis is not content to be a good singer and pianist who was once one of the greats. He wants only to be the best at this instant, and his terror is that of the aging competent who remembers.
Kids don't smoke custom pipes. Jerry Lee may have driven to the studio from his ranch in northern Mississippi in a flashy powder-blue-topped Jaguar that screams his idea of rock-star attitude, yet he reads the words to the tune he chooses to sing tonight, "It Was the Whiskey Talkin' (Not Me)," through the half-height reading glasses that edge down to the tip of his nose. He concentrates, tests phrasings, listens, lets his gaze glide up and down the room's eleven-foot-high walls, concentrates, swigs some of the song's namesake, and asserts himself at irregular intervals.
Although "It Was the Whiskey Talkin' (Not Me)" is as strong a new tune as any he has recorded in the past four years (skeptics may consider this faint praise), Jerry Lee's recording of the number is essentially a contrived event. Quite simply, he lucked into the gig. The producer, Andy Paley, wrote the song with Jerry Lee in mind more than a decade ago when he was a staff writer for Warner Publishing and Jerry Lee was one of the rulers of country radio. For reasons too obscure and random to recount, the song was not then presented to the Killer. Now Paley is supervising one element of the soundtrack for a film version of the Dick Tracy comic strip, following director and star Warren Beatty's directive that the movie's music should reflect his version of what Chicago radio might have sounded like in the 1930s. "It Was the Whiskey Talkin' (Not Me)" fits into that niche; it's a pleasant, if not spectacular, trot along the pep side of Bob Wills-style western swing. The blame-the-booze-not-the-boozer lyrics of the song are not particularly convincing, but they do appear custom-made for Jerry Lee's latter-day recording persona. "Think about it," he often says between takes, more as an ominous general warning than as a reference to anything specific.
Now in the fourth decade of his professional recording career, Jerry Lee is used to putting across songs custom-written for him. He is a stylist, he likes to say, not a writer. His own rare compositions tend to be slight and formulaic. One of his greatest gifts is to take a composition, even one associated with another performer, and redefine it in such a way that others' versions of the song no longer matter. Custom-written numbers don't show up in his mailbox as frequently as they did back when Paley wrote "It Was the Whiskey Talkin' (Not Me)," so Jerry Lee is luxuriating in the tune. He is also savoring the knowledge that this tune will appear in what will likely be a hit film. He has suffered bad luck with films lately: his contribution to the film K-9 Cop was a dog, and his own biopic, Great Balls of Fire, portrayed him as a grotesque somewhere between Gomer Pyle and the Disney dog Goofy. So he is working, extra hard, on "It Was the Whiskey Talkin' (Not Me)." He needs a hit. He wants a recording deal again.
A playback of the tune fills the studio, Jerry Lee's voice darting between horn blasts. The mood in the room is buoyant but professional. "I can't figure it out, but it sounds great," Jerry Lee hears someone, he's not sure who, tell him. "All of it sounds great. Awesome."
Jerry Lee pushes his glasses up his nose, grins, and points at the ingratiating speaker. 'He knows somethin', but he ain't saying' nothin'." Jerry Lee laughs and prepares to take control of the situation. It is the sort of thing he likes to say he can do in his sleep.
"I'm being serious," he hears.
"Well, I appreciate that."
"I am being honest," he hears.
"I appreciate you for saying that, young man," Jerry Lee says, in one of the trademark expressions of feigned deference that still charms fans and seduces producers and executives. Others think they are in charge, but Jerry Lee knows better. "I just want to know. I'm watching people in the room and I get real sensitive. I watch people's eyes. Now who is this guy here? Hey, who are you?
"That's James," producer Andy Paley pipes in.
"Come here, boy," Jerry Lee instructs and the young man walks toward him. "Who are you?"
"I'm James. I'm the studio manager."
"OK, James. What do you think?" Jerry Lee is insecure. His last single that crossed over from Billboard's country charts into its more lucrative pop list slipped off more than sixteen years ago. He needs a hit, but he also needs to play, and he appears more alert for this face-off than he was for some of the vocal overdubs he committed to tape earlier this evening and the night before.
James is nervous and, like many young men, southern U.S.A. and elsewhere, his discomfort summons up his manners. "I think it sounds real good," he says. "We got a lot of good vocals on there. Last night I liked everything that was on there. Tonight I love everything. And if Andy says he likes it--".
Jerry Lee interrupts James and points at him. "Do you love God?" he demands. Those looking carefully can discern a hint of the old spark behind his reading lenses.
James keeps talking, hoping that he can return Jerry Lee's attention to the tune "…it's gotta be good. He can't lie--"
"Do you love God?" Jerry Lee drawls again.
As he looks around, Jerry Lee takes in the large photographs on the wall, all taken during Sun's fifties heyday, a time label head Sam Phillips had moved on from his seminal blues productions--he was the first to record Chester Burnett (aka Howlin' Wolf), among many other top-rank bluesmen--to a blues-drenched form of country-and-western that, after some woodshedding, exploded into rock and roll. Phillips's grinning image is on the wall. Jerry Lee is there as well, along with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and several other white performers who helped make the Memphis Recording Service the center of the pop-music universe.
Once upon a time, Jerry Lee was the reddest, hottest core of that center, and he stretched it when he could. In October 1957, anxious to deliver a worthy follow-up to his million-selling Sun smash "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On," Lewis settled into the studio one evening to take a pass at "Great Balls of Fire," a submission from ace New York songwriter Otis Blackwell. Lewis was accompanied by guitarist Roland Janes and drummer J.V. Van Eaton, the core of his band, although Janes did not play on the released version. Missing was the fourth member of his stage quartet, Jerry Lee's cousin and future father-in-law, J.W. Brown. Another Sun regular, perhaps Billy Lee Riley, a star in his own right, toyed with an upright bass but went mostly unheard.
Jerry Lee, the only great rock and roller who also had been expelled from the Southwestern Bible Institute of Waxahachie, Texas, was exploring "Great Balls of Fire" before attempting to record it for a single when he noticed the frankly Pentecostal imagery of the song's title and he flipped out. Shouting "H-e-l-l!" he launched into a protracted argument with producer Phillips that was as brazen and enthusiastic as the song in question. The altercation exemplifies two of the great Jerry Lee Lewis dilemmas: his desire to be both the most profane pop performer and the purest purveyor of sacred music, and his demand for permission to hop from one to the other at whim. Never in the argument did he suggest that he wouldn't record "Great Balls of Fire." The dispute took in all sorts of Biblical quotations, some of which Jerry Lee made up, and its intensity was in no way compromised by the inebriation of the debaters. Jerry Lee demanded that Phillips accept Jesus Christ as his Savior; Phillips demanded that Jerry Lee interpret the Bible in a new way; the underpaid sidemen tapped their instruments and mumbled that they wanted to cut the song already and go home.
Jerry Lee and Phillips loved this kind of brawl, but this quarrel was not only amusement, even if they both were entertained by it. Jerry Lee had recorded a version of the song a few weeks earlier for the soundtrack of the film Jamboree, so undoubtedly he knew all the words before that evening. His testiness was replaced a few minutes later by expressions of desire that were far more worldly. They loved to face off, show off, and (although each was too proud to admit it) learn from the other.
Tonight at 706 Union there is no one with the authority to counter Jerry Lee, no one who can stand with him among the giants pictured on the walls. So tonight he will solo and see whom he can draw into his wake. Jerry Lee is playing a game.
His question to James, "Do you love God?", hangs in the air. This time James knows he cannot run away. 'Yes sir, I sure do," he says.
"Are you a Baptist?" Jerry Lee inquires. As with most of his recent solos, he has waited a moment before picking up steam.
"A Baptist Christian," James responds, stating his affiliation precisely in an attempt to ward off future questions. He is not smiling.
Jerry Lee smiles as he leans toward his punch line. "I knew you were fucked up."
"Uh oh," James says.
"You know the only thing wrong with Baptist folk?" Jerry Lee asks.
"What it is?" James plays along.
"They just need to get saved," Jerry Lee says. Sacred issues are as omnipresent in his mind as memories of Elvis, but that does not mean that he will address them in a sacred fashion. The half-dozen folks in the studio absorb the outburst and act as appalled as their jaded selves can be.
Alas, James makes the mistake of taking Jerry Lee seriously. "Oh! My grandfather was a preacher. I'm not gonna tell him--"
"Young man," Jerry Lee says, "I'm just putting you on."
"I know it." James swallows.
"Baptist folks are good," Jerry Lee continues. "They just don't preach the full gospel."
"I'm not as good a preacher as I ought to be," James admits.
Jerry Lee has his invitation. "Well, let me go back to where we started: the Book of Acts, second chapter. Read it. Pentecostal. You are what you are. You're realistic and you're real--or you're not." He looks toward the control room. "Now I'm watching you people in there and I know what you're thinking. I know what you're thinking, I know what you're looking at. You ain't fooling Jerry Lee Lewis for a minute."
"I'd never try to," James says, once again on the defensive. "You've been around long enough to read me the Book."
Jerry Lee chuckles. "Now that boy's got a little more sense than I thought he had. That's good."
James goes on, too nervous to stop now. "He's got us jumping in there so fast we ain't got time to think."
Distracted, Jerry Lee turns away from James for a moment and studies the oversize photograph of Elvis on the wall. "Now if I could just recall this dude back here for about fifteen minutes," he says, gesturing toward the larger-than-life king of rock and roll, "we could show you a trick." He nods, swigs, and continues. "Never be another Elvis Presley. He had that something. Dynamic, you know, something that would make you want to drive ten thousand miles to see him if you only had fifteen cents in your pocket. You'd get the money somewhere to go. Ain't nobody could outdraw Elvis Presley."
"I never had the honor of meeting him," Paley says.
"Really?" Jerry Lee fakes incredulity. "Well, we had some good times right here in this old studio out here. He told me, he said, 'Wh-what's goin' on?'" Jerry Lee stops for a moment, delighted that his Elvis imitation catches some of his dead peer's self-mocking mannerisms. "He said, 'Wh-why did you, you didn't have to go into the Army?' I said to him, 'Shit, I never was that crazy."
"He got a little upset about that," Jerry Lee says after he stops laughing. "But he was some man. He served his time, he done it. He was so far ahead of his time." He lowers his voice. "He was so great." He begins to sing a line from a tune associated with Presley--"Landlord ringing on the front door bell"--and then imitates Presley's Sun-period vocal stutter: "B-b-b-baby, baby, b-b-baby."
Again, he laughs. "Well, he had something different, didn't he? He was a real gentleman, son. I'll never forget--I know people don't want to hear this bullshit I'm talking about--he pulled out right here and parked, he had that 1956 Lincoln Mark I, I believe it was, I think it was. White one. When he got out of the damned car, I wanted to see what he looked like. He rolled out of that car and he walked in and he looked just exactly like he looked--dangerous. We had some times. But those days are going, aren't they?"
"Not completely," someone pipes up. "We got Jerry Lee."
"Well, ole Jerry Lee is really trying to get it together," he continues. "I know I haven't quite gotten there yet, like I really needed to get there, but I am really working on it with everything I've got to get it there. I've had a rough struggle. I got strung out for a couple of years on all kinds of drugs, junk, whiskey, and everything else. And you just got to back off, man, or you're not gonna make it. Record companies are not gonna buy you, they're not gonna produce you, they're not gonna release a record on you, they're not gonna back you up, if you don't back yourself up."
Caught up in his own preaching, his voice rises: "And they can spot you a mile off if you've got a shot of Demerol or something. They can detect it just like that." He snaps his fingers. "Whiskey's bad enough, but that other kind of stuff…man. Brother, I don't mean to be getting into that, it's just a pleasure talking to somebody. You're one of the sharpest people I've talked to."
"Well, that's a huge compliment coming from you."
By now, few in the room remember that they are here to help Jerry Lee finish the vocals to "It Was the Whiskey Talkin' (Not Me)." They are witnessing a performance. Jerry Lee loves it. Except for the informality, for him there is no difference between playing a sold-out thousand-seat hall or a studio with half a dozen professionals and hangers-on. He is still performing. "People talk to you somehow, they talk to me, they get so, I don't know, they just talk in circles. They think they're fooling me, they're trying to put something over on me and I can't hear a prayer."
Suddenly, he remembers what is really on his mind: "Weeds die and roses bloom, but I can't figure out what to do with that fucking wife."
Jerry Lee's laughter has become more hoarse as his mind wanders outside the studio to ponder his latest public argument with his wife, Kerrie, and her father, Jerry Lee's on-again/off-again manager. "She really made me mad this trip," he says. His phrasing owes much to his whiskey. "I told her she ought to go back to her daddy, her manager, Bob McCarver." He laughs loudly. "Well, I'm hotter than fresh-fucked sheep!" He laughs again. "Woo! That broke me out in a sweat. Lord, you're gonna pay for what you did wrong, you know that."
"It'll come back to you," Paley says.
"Don't it?" Jerry Lee continues. "What goes around comes around, what comes around goes around. Well, I'll tell you one thing, I'll never get married again if I live to be three thousand years old!" His voice rises the eleven feet to the ceiling. "I'll swear to God that's the truth! Mark my word on that! Jerry Lee's had his share of women, but they always seem to leave. Thank God for some favors." He chuckles. "Well, my life would make a damn good country song, son. I've been there. And I'm still a living, a living motherhumper."
He fingers the keys of his piano and keeps talking. "I know some things. I've learned some things. I've got to get with it." He talk-sings the first lines from his 1975 hit, "A Damn Good Country Song": "I took enough pills for the whole damn town/Jerry Lee Lewis, he done drunk enough whiskey to lift any ship off the ground." He chuckles, and pays more attention to his singing. "God knows, I've earned my reputation/But they'll never let me get my salvation/My God, Jerry Lee would make a damn good rock-and-roll song/I've had my share of women, son/But they always seem to leave."
Now he's singing full power. "I'll put me another quarter in that pinball machine/Yes, Jerry Lee's been wrong/Looks like the change that came over me took a little too long/My life would make a damn good country song/Jerry Lee Lewis's life, son/Would make a damn good country song." He ends with a flourish.
"There you go," he says as applause fills the room.
Having warmed up, Jerry Lee believes he is now prepared to cut the number he's there for; his announcement, "Let's cut it," throws the assembled off-guard. "Well, now that I've psychoanalyzed everybody and proved myself wrong again, I…thank you for talking with me, Killer." Call someone else by my most persistent nickname, he thinks, and he'll be loyal to me for life. "I…I need talk sometimes, I need help sometimes. Nobody wants to talk to me. They just look at me like I'm crazy or something. You're a good man. I'll tell you what, I think I might just start recording here."
Jerry Lee testifies to himself (so much for "Let's cut it"). "As a matter of fact, I swear to God, last night I…I, I laid in my bed this morning, about four-thirty, I said, 'That's where I'm gonna start doin' my records.' And nobody could tell me, but this is something I had to make up my mind to do. I don't know, I just made it up when I came in last night, I got to thinking about it. This is home!" Others in the room murmur their assent. "You gotta go back home, man, the prodigal son, man, you know. Hell, I done blowed and strowed and it's time to get back in the saddle. Open me with welcome arms, daddy."
Jerry Lee mumbles, pauses, and adds, "Well, now that I have disbursed all the ignorance of my great thoughts and thinking of my casual-type, nimble brain, let's record" After a verse and chorus from Ray Price's "For the Good Times," a longtime standard in Jerry Lee's stage show, he is indeed ready. "Hey man, this damn song could be the biggest thing. God, I wish I'd've gotten a hold of this thing with a band." Quickly, Jerry Lee remembers that he is at the Memphis Recording Service tonight to make Paley happy, so he changes his tune. "But then again, you're not going to beat the band you've got on there. But you see, Andy, I've got a bad hangup, a bad problem with overdubbing. I never thought I could overdub."
Paley encourages. "But somehow you could."
"Well, I did," Jerry Lee answers, his ego rising. "I went in and did the vocal on 'Middle Age Crazy' a month after I put the track down. I hadn't done it before."
"You'd never know," Paley says.
"No, and it was a big record," Jerry Lee reminds himself.
"Let's try it," Paley says. You're overdubbing good."
"This is a hit," Jerry Lee says. "Now I think I can cut a hit on this song. Let's get with it."
The next take is a strong one, Jerry Lee somehow finding new nuances in a number that he has by now sung dozens of times. "Boy, that song's something else," Jerry Lee says after he finishes. "Damn, that song excited me. Ain't nothin', son, got me out of bed, son, in the last ten years."
"I'm proud of that," Paley says. He has waited ten years for Jerry Lee to cut the track; he is not kidding. "Glad to be of service."
"Glad to be a servant," Jerry Lee mimics.
A few more passes at "It Was the Whiskey Talkin' (Not Me)" yield nothing special. By the third effort Jerry Lee is playing around, showing off, leading into sloppy solos with improvised couplets like "If you can find a stool high enough/You can kiss ole' Jerry's ass." He apologizes.
"It's all right with me," Paley says.
"No, I just want to get my voice opened up, Killer. It's taking me a little while. When my wife comes back, it'll close up again."
The next take deteriorates into more improvised couplets: "I guarantee you this/It was the whiskey that made me want to piss/It was the whiskey doing things like this."
"Sorry, Andy," Jerry Lee says. "Fuck, I ain't sorry. John Wayne said, 'Never apologize. It shows a sign of weakness.' I ain't apologizing; I'm just saying I was wrong."
By now, Paley is satisfied enough with the various takes to know that he can piece together a full performance from the many takes. He is almost home. He says, "This is the only line we need right here: 'Just lettin' off a little steam.'"
"Whoever wrote that is baaad," Jerry Lee says.
Andy repeats: "Just lettin' off a little steam."
"I'm just playin' with you, son," Jerry Lee says and belches as Paley repeats, "Just lettin' off a little steam."
Jerry Lee decides to comment on his expulsion. "Now that was the most ill-mannered, ridiculous, uncouth thing that I've ever done in my fucking life." He gestures toward the lyric sheet that has fallen to the floor. "Now hold that damn piece of paper up where I can see it and let's get to letting off some steam."
He sings the line and then decides it's not true. "Just lettin' off some steam/ Well, that's a bunch of shit. I'm the meanest motherfucker that ever shit through a meat ass." Paley laughs, Jerry Lee and Paley duet the verse in question, and Jerry Lee quickly loses interest.
I'm sounding worse all the time," Jerry Lee says after another aborted take. Now he yells. "I'll drink this whole fucking filth if I don't get mad in a minute and kill! I'm really getting upset. Call Sam." Then, quieter, "Please don't do that."
Paley feels the session getting away from him. "Please don't get upset," he implores.
"I'm as nervous as a queer at a weenie roast," Jerry Lee says. "I oughta married one o' them Rock Hudsons or somebody, I would've been better off."
Another overdub attempt is closer to what Paley wants, but Jerry Lee wants more. "Why don't we do the whole song?"
An alarmed Paley says, "Wh-wh…that was good, though. Let's get the ending."
"Yassuh," Jerry Lee says. "Yassuh boss."
More overdubs follow, and eventually Paley gets what he wants. Yet completing the song is anticlimatic. The show Jerry Lee is putting on tonight is greater than any movie-soundtrack tune. "Are we outta here?" Paley asks.
Jerry Lee sings and plays his response, improvising half-remembered words to a half-remembered melody:
"Are we outta here/I think we were before I came/I think I was in vain/A motherhumpin' man I used to be/I got news in 1990/Son, they're see/A different motherhumper by the name of Jerry Lee/'Cos I just am what I am and I just really don't give a damn."
By now Paley has joined in on drums and Jerry Lee is cruising, playing far harder than he was for take after take of 'It Was the Whiskey Talkin' (Not Me)." He sings: "'Cos people ain't gonna tell me what I can do/Doctor, lawyer, bum at a bar, a rockin' motherhumper or a movie star/There's a rockin' rollin' Jerry Lee Lewis from Tennessee/Memphis, Tennessee, is rock and roll, son/Nashville, Tennessee, is hillbilly heaven/I ain't got nothin' against ole' hillbilly heaven/My voice is leavin', that must mean I must have some of the devil/You demon-possessed mother, play your drums for Jerry Lee/Go back to your little girl in L.A. and tell her how true you've been/You/d screw up a two-car funeral with Sam Phillips in the lead/Ha ha/Thank God I'm perfect/Shine on, shine on, shine on, harvest moon up in the sky/Jerry Lee Lewis ain't had no lovin' since January, February, June, and July/There's no time, baby, ain't no time for stayin' out late to spoon/You oughta get down on your knees for me and shine on harvest moon."
Jerry Lee indulges himself in a brief upper-key solo and returns to his tale. "Well, Jerry Lee, he's been waiting for a wedding in June/Honey, I might be a little hoarse but pretty soon I'll come through/They're gonna put a coon on the moon in June or the jig is up they say/Probably be old Charley Pride I pray, pray, pray, and pray." He solos through the nervous laughter, plays another chorus, and resolves into a standard: "Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you." Paley's drums nearly swing and Jerry Lee's piano certainly does, until the Killer loses interest and complains, "Pick it up son, you're draggin' on Jerry Lee. You screwed me up."
"No I didn't," Paley protests as he drops his sticks.
"Jealousy. I have that problem everywhere I go." Jerry Lee chuckles. 'You're draggin' ass on me, too."
"I'm sorry, Jerry." Unlike James, Paley won't be drawn out.
Jerry Lee nods an acceptance to Paley's apology. He looks at the picture of himself and his fellow Sun artists on the wall, and he remembers once more. He looks around, taps the top of the piano, and he recalls the simple joys of discovering music in this room. That's what he does best and the vast majority of people who have heard his name don't know it. They know the dirt; they know defrocked televangelist Jimmy Lee Swaggart is his cousin; they know Jerry Lee is rumored to have murdered one of his half-dozen wives; blah blah blah. Jerry Lee knows he should be famous for only one thing: his more than thirty years of music. Instead he is famous to most because he enjoyed two early rock-and-roll hits with suggestive titles, because he ruined his career by marrying his thirteen-year-old cousin, and because he is one of the few early rock-and-roll titans who isn't dead.
He has suffered through years of indifference from a modern pop-music industry he helped build. He has endured books about him full of transparently made-up quotations. He has suffered through a flop film based on his life that treated him and the culture that formed him as a joke. He appears in the tabloids not for his records, but for business judgments so wrongheaded that they are matched only by his romantic miscalculations. People get so high on the myth of Jerry Lee that often many forget that the guy sings and plays piano.
Jerry Lee's true story is in his bold, unquenched music far more than in his ultimately common deeds. It is his music that speaks loudest; it is his music that tells the greatest truths. When you're listening to Jerry Lee Lewis, you're listening to him rocking his life away, listening to his music. Long after he passes on and the tabloids pick at his bones ("Killer's Ghost Disrupts Graceland Tour," the headlines will read), his music will remain. Long after his life story is supplanted in most people's minds by Dennis Quaid's incompetent impersonation of him in Great Balls of Fire, his greatest records will still reveal mystery after mystery. The records will tell a story that will sway even the most fervent critic of the man. Jerry Lee Lewis lived his life through his music; we can understand his life only through his music.