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Chapter 8: Fragments of Autumn
The thing is dead ... Everything is dead
Except the future. -- Wallace Stevens, "Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue"
"History is history. The future is perfect." -- Orel Hershiser
By the end of 1978, Jerry Lee had found a new recording sponsor, the Nashville arm of Elektra Records. When he signed, representatives of his new label promptly told Jerry Lee that they would not be recording him in Nashville. Fans cheered. During a four-day blowout in the Filmway/Heider Recording Studio in Hollywood, California, Jerry Lee recorded what will likely be his last stable album, titled simply Jerry Lee Lewis, perhaps as a hopeful gesture that this was the beginning of something new. Bones Howe, who had worked with Jerry Lee's arch-enemy, Elvis Presley, assembled a tight, responsive band around James Burton, a guitarist whose terse rockabilly elaborations had enlivened work by everyone from Rick Nelson to Elvis himself. Other key players included Jerry Lee's tenacious friend and occasional in-law, Kenneth Lovelace, on fiddle and guitar, and ace West Coast session drummer Hal Blaine. Some Nashville sins were repeated--background choruses, strings, and horns--but the informality of the sessions made them rock in spite of such extraneousness.
"We're going to have to do the record in four days," Howe told Jerry Lee before recording began, afraid that the Killer would go tense under the pressure of having to complete an LP so quickly.
Jerry Lee was nonchalant. "What are we going to do the other two days?" he asked.
The need to work quickly and the simple excitement of working with new people in novel settings without the usual bevy of cronies and sycophants liberated Jerry Lee to work way beyond the monotone to which he had confined himself since 1974. Here the theory that delayed attention to his broken nose restored his voice carries some weight. "Don't Let Go," a Jesse Stone song he had recorded at Mercury, started the party, and its ebullient tempo carried Jerry Lee past even the obligatory "think about it." The backing vocalists aped the sound of early rock-and-roll choruses, and for the most part did not get in the way. Only a step below was "Number One Lovin' Man," a jumpy rocker that gave the chorus a bit too much room and James Burton not nearly enough room to maneuver his outbursts.
Part of what made the Bones Howe sessions so successful was the idiosyncratic choice of material. Howe introduced Jerry Lee to a charming uptempo tune called "Rita May," and the Killer burned his way through it in a few feverish takes. It was a fine, guileless rock-and-roll song, Jerry Lee thought, different from what he was used to hearing.
"Who wrote that song?" Jerry Lee inquired.
"Bob Dylan," Bones Howe said and smiled. He thought he had delivered a punch line, but Jerry Lee showed no recognition.
"That boy's good," Jerry Lee said. "I'll do anything by him."
The possibility that Jerry Lee was putting Howe on can not be overestimated, but it was not much of a stretch of the imagination to believe that the Ferriday Fireball's musical tastes were so insular that he had not heard of Bob Dylan.
Jerry Lee was a country-blues-rockin' Midas those four January days and nights. He recast Arthur Alexander's classic "Every Day I Have to Cry" as a mainstream country ballad, not as pure as it would have sounded twenty years previously, but not overwrought either. Chris Kenner's "I Like It Like That" was executed with the same organ-heavy sprightly fun of "Just a Little Bit" from Southern Roots. Sonny Throckmorton's "I Wish I Was Eighteen Again" was the type of I'm-aging-and-nostalgic country ballad at which a committed Jerry Lee could excel.
The retro move in the session that worked most successfully was a soulful strut through Charlie Rich's "Who Will the Next Fool Be" that showed off the band, especially Burton, without turning into a mere showing-off, which Jerry Lee was still doing between takes. The key to the session was a customized Mack Vickery song, "Rockin' My Life Away," a wonderful autumnal rocker that immediately became Jerry Lee's statement of intention and all-purpose theme song. Jerry Lee had always counted on Vickery to articulate for him, and here his Cyrano outdid himself. The sparkling lyrics vacillated between the complete obscure and the completely bizarre, but the feel was right.
What did those words mean? The first line of the song was "Fourteen, twenty-five, forty, ninety-eight," and the lines rolled out of Jerry Lee's mouth as if they had some deep meaning. In fact, Vickery had conceived of the song as a Specialty-era-Little-Richard-style rocker, with the first line scooping up tension like a quarterback calling signals before a play. But in popular music how something is said is far more important than what is said, and that was why the adventure of "Rockin' My Life Away" was so intense and enjoyable. Performance was more important than composition. "Watch me now," Jerry Lee shouted before his solo, and in a few seconds he erased five years of bad memories. Artistically, Jerry Lee Lewis was a completely successful comeback. The combination of a Number Twenty country-and-western hit and the appearance that he was lucid again made Jerry Lee a more lucrative, that is, safer, draw on the road.
The triumph did not last long. In February agents from the Internal Revenue Service showed up at his ranch to claim everything there. Jerry Lee's approach to paying taxes had been extremely passive. In July his father, Elmo, died. A second session with Bones Howe was more erratic than his predecessor, with a terrible version of Bog Seger's kneejerk-nostalgic "Old Time Rock and Roll" standing beside the finest "C.C. Rider" of his career. The album was shelved and never released; one song, "(Hot Damn!) I'm a One Woman-Man," appeared on the soundtrack LP to a film about a roadie.
Nashville sessions in 1979 and 1980 were produced by Eddie Kilroy, the former used-car salesman and promo man at Mercury whose idea a dozen years previously to cut Jerry Lee country had saved the Killer's career. The dates were not as overblown as Jerry Lee's last in hillbilly heaven, but there were still too many people on every song. The fact that none of them was James Burton hurt the record when compared to Jerry Lee Lewis. Two albums were culled from the sessions, When Two Worlds Collide and Killer Country. Each was halfway successful; together they add up to one fine record. At least five terrific performances were spread over the LPs, and some of them were hits, like "When Two Worlds Collide," a deep country ballad sung with great intensity. "Alabama Jubilee" and "Toot-Toot-Tootsie Goodbye" stand as Jerry Lee's most blatant Jolson-derived vocals. Even better was "Thirty-nine and Holding," an autobiographical tale of both Jerry Lee's imagined self and the audience that stuck and aged with him. It earned its Number Four placing on the country list. "I'd Do It All Again" covered similar territory almost as well, but did not chart as highly. Jerry Lee's chart success in the eighties was as random as it had always been.
The one performance from the Kilroy Nashville sessions that cut the deepest by far was a phenomenally gorgeous excavation of the pop standard, "Over the Rainbow." There had been several hit versions of the song by the likes of Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Larry Clinton, and Glenn Miller (all in 1939, the year The Wizard of Oz came out), but they were all versions by people who sounded young, alive, and possessing the fortitude to track down the metaphorical pot of gold. In Jerry Lee's version, the narrator was an old man. His voice showed its cracks, hinted at its long-ago triumphs, sounded bitter, and searched for a reason to hope. Jerry Lee was only forty-five years old when he recorded this song, but he looked and sang at least a decade beyond that. If Jerry Lee had retired after he recorded "Over the Rainbow," one could have stated that his mission had been complete. He started at the end of the road, traveled places no one had ever seen before, and was now wise enough to accept that the rainbow was unattainable.
* * *
One of the problems with real life is that it does not provide the sense of closure that one can get from great art. Jerry Lee did not stop rocking after his inconsistent behavior led to his departure from Elektra. His two albums for MCA, My Fingers Do the Talkin' and I Am What I Am, and two subsequent ones for the independent label SCR, Six of One, Half Dozen of the Other and Get Out Your Big Roll Daddy, repeated many of the same songs and performances. They were tired, listless paydays. Other sessions, run by long-time collaborators like Roland Janes, Eddie Kilroy, and Bob Moore, were somewhat more successful, but none of them led to the goal of a major-label signing. Jerry Lee had burned too many bridges.
The Killer still had life in him, especially onstage. One night in Sweden in the middle of the breakdown of"Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On," he cautioned his paramour, "Don't have an epileptic fit or nothin'/Just stand in one place." Moments like that happened all the time. But a recorded-live album with Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash called The Survivors (one imagines the irony was unintentional) was a dud. Still, throughout the eighties it became clear to all that the Sun experience now meant something new to these men who knew Elvis, all the King's men.
In the years since Elvis Presley died, dozens of rock and country performers have striven either to understand what set Elvis apart or to take unto themselves part of his triumph, which cannot be shared because it's both unprecedented and unrepeatable. Some, like Buck Brody Mozingo in novelist William Price Fox's Dixiana Moon, have been content to stand back as Elvis shoots by and to listen for the deafening ricochet. Some, like Bruce Springsteen in his dark update of Chuck Berry's Elvis parable, "Bye Bye Johnny," have sought to champion Presley's boldest stroke, the (temporary) destruction of nearly all American musical and cultural barriers. But most merely join in chorus to praise the King, without probing below the glittering surface that hid the ugliness and deterioration beneath.
Class of '55, released in 1986, fit in the latter, cluttered category. It was one of the most eccentric of the Elvis tribute records, partly because it never announced that as its intention. In September 1985 Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and a precomeback Roy Orbison returned to the site of their earliest triumphs and attempted to rekindle some of the period's exuberance. The press releases claimed the members of the "class of 1955" were united by the Sun origins and their friendship with Elvis, but that was superficial. Orbison, for one, did his most lasting work after he left Sun, and it's safe to assume that none of these men were drinking buddies of Elvis.
Instead, what pervaded and undermined this reunion was the burning wish, on the part of each man, that it had been he who had descended from Sun and established a kingdom. Class of '55 was subtitled Memphis Rock & Roll Homecoming, almost identical to the subtitle of Southern Roots. Like all class reunions, this was a bittersweet reflection on salad years. The awkward song titles, such as "Birth of Rock and Roll" and "We Remember the King," underlined the concept. In spite of all the we're-rockin'-tonight rhetoric in the lyrics, Class of '55 shook down to a country album with spots of spunk and a tentative, start-and-stop mood. Producer Chips Moman's slightly overwrought settings were just cushy enough to keep the featured vets going without emphasizing the way they were propped up.
On three tracks the grizzled, marked-down quartet emerged from its reverent opportunism, making this a worthwhile musical document as well as an inevitable historical one. Lewis's slow, leering cover of the Crests's "Sixteen Candles" was as slyly lecherous as the adolescent-marriage specialist could make it. Even he had stopped counting how many times he had said "I do." (The recent overdose death of his fifth wife had led to allegations that Jerry Lee was somehow responsible.) Orbison's light-rockabilly "Coming Home" underscored the warmth of the get-together.
The clincher was the eight-minute dive into "Big Train (From Memphis)," the John Fogerty song based on Elvis's cover of Junior Parker's "Mystery Train." Here, all the participants switched off the cruise control and floored it. They glided into the track as if it were a standard, which it may yet become, repeating verses, drawing strength from every easy breath. They were accompanied by Fogerty, June Carter Cash, Jack Clement, Sam Phillips, and, in his last recorded performance, Rick Nelson. "Big Train (From Memphis)" was a meeting ground for the members of the class, the intersection at which their differences disappeared. The song repeated its near-gospel chanting chorus like a soothing prayer: "Big train/From Memphis/Now it's gone, gone, gone/Gone, gone, gone." Fogerty's song was both a celebration of Presley's life and a tersely phrased lament for what was lost with his death. The conductor was gone, but the train kept on moving. And if there was pleasure in hearing its echo, imagine how it must have felt to have been, like the members of the class of '55, privileged passengers. Jerry Lee, of course, lightened the proceedings by yelling his name and whatever else came to mind over the fade.
The eighties were an up-and-down decade for Jerry Lee, all fits and starts, no coherence. He recorded at least half a dozen albums after he left the major labels, none of them distinguished, and he blew several deals that could have put him back on a major. His songs were used in all sorts of awful movies, like Breathless, Tremors, and Loverboy, as well as in television commercials. But some chronic problems had not been solved. As late as 1990, Jerry Lee was still a patient of Dr. George Nichopolous, best-known as Elvis's private physician and all-around procurer.
Perhaps Jerry Lee's last big chance came at the end of the decade when a movie was made of Myra Lewis and Murray Silver's Great Balls of Fire. He received a great deal of money, said to be in the mid-six figures, to rerecord his hits and--more important to the producers--to keep his mouth shut when people asked him why the film version bore little relation to the true life it belittled. The filmmakers were monumentally cynical. One said to Jerry Lee as he prepared to cut the soundtrack, "We know you can't match the original. That's OK. Just try to get close."
Jerry Lee snapped back, "Then why the hell did you fly me out there?"
Jerry Lee justified the airfare. He believed he could beat the original versions. Whether he did or not is immaterial. The simple fact that he thought he could, that he insisted he must, screams loud and clear in his rerecordings with a band led by usually sharp producer T. Bone Burnett. And once, on a thundering "That Lucky Old Sun" that made bitterness sound like love, he managed a truly definitive version of a Sun-era standard. Challenged, the Killer delivered. Perhaps one day he will deliver again.
Today Jerry Lee does not play live much and hardly records at all. He is said to feel betrayed by the Great Balls of Fire film experience. He has risen and fallen many times, never in the way expected. In early 1990 he booked a British tour but blew it off, apparently as a result of a battle with sixth wife, Kerrie. His promoter sued him and badmouthed him to the Fleet Street press that was now in its second generation of bothering Jerry Lee. The Ferriday Fireball wanted to tell his side of the story, so he wrote a letter to the British rock-enthusiast magazine Now Dig This. The letter starts off as an apology to fans, wanders through an explanation of the events that conspired against him, and climaxes in an all-capital-letters payoff boast. Anyone cynical enough to believe that Jerry Lee is incapable of further great moments has only to read the conviction behind "THE KILLER WILL RETURN!" to become at least temporarily converted. The Killer is not at the controls all the time, but when he is you had better watch out. Think about it.