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.


Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

One of the things the world still likes about America is its larger than life characters. Aren't many larger than The Killer.

ib said...

I am heartily envious. Spine-tingling is a much ill-used term which seems to serve Jerry Lee's sweaty invocation of damnation and sneering defiance very well. Raw as fuck and - as you say - possibly EVIL. Your writing here took me closer to a live performance than I perhaps deserve. Shake. A fine piece.

Your driver said...

Ib, you deserve plenty, most of it good. I'm sure.

Nazz Nomad said...


great piece.

hcb said...

When I was going to school in Bloomington, in the mid-70's--I went down to Little Nashville several times to see Jerry Lee--how could you not?--but I recall one show--and I may be projecting backwards--but I seem to remember Jimmy Swaggart coming out on stage and leading Jerry Lee away in mid rant.
I wish I could say that I remember the show you're referring to, but I believe that the Jerry Lee shows I went to happened before he went into the hospital

Howdy said...

I have seen the Many Times, he played my Home Town Conway, Ar during this phase. He was wired as he could be and pretty much was the irresitable force in search of the imovable object. He pretty much put the southern baptists on their ear. In 1982 the Baldwin Piano folks built JLL a Grand piano at their factory here. The Killer showed up drunk and wild eyed and played a few songs and then proceeded to offend everyone to the point to of the town folk who worked on the line decided to tear through the crowd in hopes of teaching The Killer some respect. It Didn't work However.

Welcome to Rock n Roll

The Palomino Club Recordings will give someone a basic idea to Jerry's mindset of the time

Anonymous said...

Jon - Brilliant! When rock 'n' roll was dangerous! Best, Munz (Michael Simmons)

Your driver said...

Wow, this is more readers than I have had all year. Thanks for your comments.

Red, I have never been to Little Rock, but Neil Sealy of Acorn is an old Bloomington friend and I am the proud owner of a KABF t shirt.

Richard said...

The Killer is Not of This World. Please God more don't arrive from his home planet, we wouldn't stand a chance. God bless him and spare him what he's worked to achieve. Try his live in Hamburg at the Star Club album. Awesome.

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