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Chapter 9: Let the Jukebox Keep On Playing
Don't have the inclination to look back on any mistake;
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break.
In the fury of the moment I can see the Master's hand;
In every leap that trembles, in every grain of sand. -- Bob Dylan, "Every Grain of Sand"
Giants sometimes rise from their slumbers invigorated. Onstage, the only place of work that consistently matters to him, Jerry Lee is still capable of virtually anything. Many of his performances verge on sleepwalks; but the Killer, even as he inches out of his fifth decade, still has few peers when it comes to live performance if one catches him on a night when he gives a damn. He can rock more ferociously than most heavy metal kids; he makes groups like Poison and Motley Crue sound like the pathetic comic book characters they are, all show and no threat. He can lay into country ballads with more intensity than Nashville's New Traditionalists; only Dwight Yoakam shares his all-encompassing dread. He can plow through intoxicating blues harder than a young practitioner like Robert Cray. If he wants to, Jerry Lee can cut anybody on anything. The problem is getting him to make an attempt. When something is at stake, he usually still delivers, as the riveting soundtrack to Great Balls of Fire evidences.
What makes seeing Jerry Lee perform nowadays such a frustrating experience is the knowledge in every fan's mind that if Jerry Lee happens to be inspired he will put on a great show, but the likelihood is that Jerry Lee himself will not know if he will commit to the evening's show until he is onstage. He may toss off a few rockers, often the monotonic "Rockin' Jerry Lee" or a tentative version of one of his lesser Sun hits. But he will follow them with stately ballad performances, such as "Over the Rainbow" and the timeless "You Win Again," in which every syllable matters to him. Not surprisingly, ballads of emotional and spiritual devastation are the performances closest to Jerry Lee's heart. That has been the case at least as far back as "Crazy Arms." Sister Linda Gail reports that Jerry Lee recently told her, "I've done everything. I've got nothing left to do."
Jerry Lee's original intentions were modest and honorable enough: he wanted to make a living playing piano, enough so that he could live a more comfortable life than his parents had, and he wanted to serve his Lord. On the face of it, those aspirations should have been accomplished and maintained simply and cleanly by someone of Jerry Lee's genius. But it was clear even when he was a teenager that his talents were so mammoth and so malleable that they could conquer the world if he wanted them to, and matters became wildly complicated. Jerry Lee tried to live a double life for a time--family man and preacher by day, showman and sinner by night--and to this day he still feels the pull of both sides. One night he performs a steamy, gin-soaked set at some Memphis club; the next day he may be announcing to a local paper that he has finally been saved and will devote the rest of his life to his Savior and his family. Both times his sincerity is transparent.
These are not callous flip-flops. Just as Jerry Lee has never recovered from the shock of the 1958 scandal and his subsequent fishbowl existence, he has never escaped the fierce ambivalence regarding his career choice fostered in him by his mother. Instead of perceiving the fundamental incongruities of his life as a shortcoming of other people's expectations, he sees them as representative of deficiencies within himself. So he continues to punish himself for not conforming to the mores of a hypocritical world.
The culture that Jerry Lee loves and exploits is far different from what it was when he and Elmo embarked on their first fateful trip to Memphis. Jerry Lee's boyhood dream of becoming an all-encompassing performer, one who could do anything, makes no sense to all but the most ambitious kids now growing up in the many Ferridays that dot the South. Popular culture in the United States becomes more compartmentalized each year. As the market for leisure grows, so does the gradual narrowing of what one can find at any time. As a Ferriday child, Jerry Lee could track down perhaps a dozen stations on his uncle's radio. Now, even in Ferriday, he can turn on cable television and have access to more than one hundred channels, most of them extremely specialized. The sports channels show only sporting events, the pop-music channels show only music-videos from some limited part of the pop field, and so on. If you want something different, you usually have to change the channel. Nearly all the cable channels seek to show one small slice of the world; few of them even hint that there is anything out there beyond their provincial offerings.
Today's record company head is most likely someone who has excelled in selling or promoting product, not someone with experience in discovering or generating music. That makes for an industry with vastly altered priorities. The narrowing of individual cultural offerings has been accompanied by a consolidation of power in the music industry among five major multinational companies. The days of someone like Sam Phillips, who was able to pump out consistent national hits without major-label support, are gone, the occasional one-shot from a rap entrepreneur notwithstanding. To be truly heard, a performer has to hook up with a major label. And these major labels have departments within themselves, such as pop, rock, country, black, and dance, that further pigeonhole music. Then there are different "boutique" sublabels with specific agendas. When someone like Michael Jackson or Prince succeeds across multiple artificial formats, it is a shock; for prime performers, it once was the rule.
These conglomerates are not geared for someone like Jerry Lee, who belongs on a label that recognizes no market-influenced limits on creativity. Jerry Lee transcended small-minded ideas like genres virtually from the moment he started performing, and that is one of the reasons why he does not have a major-label deal. These people want clinical specialists, not wide-eyed generalists. They want people who show facility at regurgitating past triumphs, either their own or those of others, which is the reason why so many films, books, and records produced nowadays end with a number. Sequels and reunions are easy money. Cultural retreads are not merely accepted by the powers that be, they are encouraged.
Pop culture has become extremely compartmentalized, perhaps irrevocably so, since Jerry Lee left Ferriday. The present boom in compact-disc reissues of classic blues, country-and-western, and early rock-and-roll records is at least partly fueled by a sophisticated audience's inability to relate to current performers who have more to do with demographic research than music. If a Ferriday kid, a potential Jerry Lee, is going to be inspired to begin a career in music by what he or she hears on the radio, it is likely that he or she is listening to an oldies station. There is much magnificent music being recorded these days, although as the market expands, less of it gets heard by a mass audience. Some of the greatest pop music of the eighties was recorded by the Los Angeles-based punk band, X. However, none of their many unrelenting performances, among them a movie-soundtrack cover of Jerry Lee's "Breathless," spent much time on commercial radio. It is no accident that one of their most durable compositions is called "The Unheard Music."
Through all this Jerry Lee endures, even if contemporary culture has fragmented to the point that it can not produce another like Jerry Lee. Sometimes his concerts resemble dramatizations of internal monologues. He plays a dirty "Big Legged Woman" and scolds himself; he lays into a gorgeous "You Win Again" and offers up a dirty joke; he philosophizes on the dangers of drugs and sings "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee. He still exemplifies nearly all the major dilemmas that Southerners have faced in this century, and his inability to resolve them says more about the unresolved problems of the nation than the unsettled state of the man.
Yet the man cannot be the primary issue. We care about Jerry Lee for what he says through his work. That is the voice that we will care about a generation from now, just as his music from a generation ago rings true in today's world. The true spirit of Jerry Lee and what he still represents showed up most clearly in the sparkling "It Was the Whiskey Talkin' (Not Me)" session. Touchstone Pictures, the company bankrolling Dick Tracy, had already pumped untold millions into the film by the time Jerry Lee got his call from Andy Paley. Several of those Touchstone millions had been tossed in the direction of costar Madonna, whose preeminence as a pop star made her the Elvis of her time. If any music from Dick Tracy was going to get the corporate push (the soundtrack was being recorded for Madonna's record label), it was going to be that of sure-thing Madonna.
So Jerry Lee was recording a pretty-good tune that he surely must have been told would not capture the ears of the masses. He was playing second fiddle to a woman young enough to be his daughter, a bold woman who had taken up his mantle of shocking the audience into considering new ideas. But he played the song hard, as if by sheer will he could beat out the newcomer. Back at the Memphis Recording Service, looking up at a massive photograph of himself in his mid-fifties prime, he knew. And for one blessed moment, he felt vindicated.