Sunday, March 1, 2009
Rockin' with Jerry Lee
I saw Jerry Lee Lewis once. It was at the Little Nashville Opry in Nashville, Indiana. It was the craziest show I've ever seen and I carried the ticket stub in my wallet for many years.
Jerry Lee had been in the hospital a few months before. He had pretty much torn up some internal organs with booze and meth. He was expected to die but instead he came back. When I saw him he was so wired that you could hear his teeth grinding over the PA and watch the muscles in his jaw working. His band consisted of his bass player, who was his band leader for many years, and two pick up musicians who didn't seem to know much about his music.
It was one of the cooler crowds I've ever seen. There were hillbillies in ballcaps that read, "I'm po' but I'm proud", suburban daddies who showed up in their RV's expecting an oldies review, and fair sized contingent of local punks. It was immediately apparent that Jerry Lee was completely out of his mind. A bunch of indignant looking family men with dependents in tow walked out when The Killer started raving about the size of Muddy Water's dick. I think the rest of us were slack jawed with astonishment at the depraved spectacle as it unfolded.
The bass player was so drunk that he kept falling flat on his face with accompanying noises when his bass hit the floor. The "band" would then stop playing to rush over and prop him up. Finally they raised the curtain behind the stage so he could lean on the cinder block wall. Classy. Once he managed to stay upright it became apparent that he was not paying attention to anything that Jerry Lee was doing. He bashed away at his bass as it happened to suit him at the moment. With no one to lead them the pick up guitarist and drummer watched Jerry Lee and tried to figure out what in the hell he was doing. They never managed to figure it out.
Jerry Lee chose to ignore all of this and present a musical stream of consciousness. He wandered in and out of songs, starting in the middle and ending suddenly, only to drift into another song. One second it was, "I Know That My God Is Real", followed by "Milk Shakin' Mademoiselle", then into "In a Little Shanty In Old Shanty Town."
Finally, he deigned to notice the pick up musicians, who were twitching feebly and aimlessly at their posts. "Shut up!" He yelled, "Shut the goddam hell up!" At which point he began a quiet variation on the classic Lewis Boogie. He leaned into the microphone and whispered/growled,
"Well, I rocked over Italy and I rocked over Spain
I rocked over France and it was all the same
I rocked into Africa and rolled off the ship
I seen them ladies doin' an odd looking step
I parted the weeds and looked over the swamp
I seen them cats doin' the Ubangi Stomp"
It was as pure and terrible an experience of Rock and Roll as I will ever know. I have known people who saw the Sex Pistols in 1976. I knew someone who saw Iggy Pop, covered in blood and peanut butter when he invented the stage dive in Cincinatti. I knew someone who claimed to have seen Elvis at the Louisiana Hayride, but I was there and I saw the thing with my own eyes, heard it with my own ears. The only thing that saved me was my own foolishness. Had I been anything less than a fool I would have shrieked to drown out the sound and torn out my eyes. Lucky for me, I was dumb as a bag of hair.
Look, I apologize for the bad Nick Tosches imitation, but it was an utterly cool moment. It may well be that Jerry Lee is EVIL. He has certainly proclaimed himself lost to the dark side. That night he did not seem so much evil as amoral; beyond my feeble understanding of right and wrong. He was like no one I will ever see again.
Posted by Your driver at 6:01 PM