There are still compelling reasons to drop $85 for a ticket to see Jerry Lee Lewis. After all, even at age 70, the Killer still plays a mean piano and his solos are all grace and vested power.
On classic rockers like “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee”, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”, and “Great Balls of Fire,” his right hand pounds out elemental boogie woogie that falls in a dazzling cascade over his relentlessly rolling left-hand bass. On his country hits—“You Win Again”, “She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye”—the lightning pace slows to the lilting cadence of pure midnight honky-tonk, and his playing becomes a thing of aged, rueful beauty.
Through it all, Jerry Lee—dressed casually in jeans and a plain striped button-up shirt—sits perfectly upright, singing his songs in a resonant voice that has been burnished by more than 50 years in the business.
But, as he plays, the singer stares off with narrow, vacant eyes at some distant vision only he can see. Aside from his arms, hands, and mouth, his body remains motionless. While he was once more animated, now he’s frail and expends energy with extreme frugality. At times he seems more a chiseled monument than a living performer. In fact, insofar as American popular culture is concerned, he is a monument to some bygone and largely forgotten era.
There is something profoundly sad in seeing such a supremely talented and colorful man reduced to a mere oldies act. In his prime—say, 1957 through to the late 1970s—Jerry Lee Lewis was a feral, primal force, a dark and menacing creature that had emerged fully formed from the swampy mists of upstate Louisiana. He began recording for Sun Records in Memphis in 1956. In ‘57, with Sun founder Sam Phillips manning the dials, Jerry Lee recorded “Whole Lotta Shakin’” which eventually rose to the top of the country and R&B charts. Later that year, he cut “Great Balls of Fire”, a rumbling, crudely suggestive rock ditty penned by black tunesmith Otis Blackwell. The song, in all its immortal stomping glory, still sounds wondrous today. And the title itself pretty much encapsulates the whole of Jerry Lee’s public existence.
Jerry Lee’s skyrocketing career was grounded in scandal in 1958 when the press got wind of his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin—the infamous Myra Gale Brown. It didn’t help matters when the press learned the singer was still married to another woman when he and Myra Gale exchanged vows. Branded as an incestuous bigamist, Jerry Lee was essentially blacklisted. He quickly went from commanding $10,000 a night in prime venues to taking $250 gigs at any backwoods joint that would have him.
And so, the Killer’s career went on for the better part of the next decade. In ‘67, his stock rose dramatically when he began recording a long string of hit country albums and singles for Mercury. By the late ‘70s, however, Jerry Lee was done recording hits. At that point, his career as a popular entertainer began to wane even as his status as a legend continued to grow.
Today he records rarely—the DreamWorks Nashville label will soon release his first studio album since 1995’s lackluster Young Blood—and his infrequent concerts in the United States are attended mostly by an elderly base of diehard fans who were raised on Jerry Lee’s vintage fare. In Europe, where ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll still holds currency among the younger set, the Killer remains immensely popular. On both sides of the Atlantic, his fans seem unbothered by his obvious physical deterioration. He is, after all, 70, and can hardly be expected to deliver the same explosive energy that he unleashed with seemingly effortless élan 50 or 30 or even 20 years ago.
I too would have been unbothered—or at least less bothered—by his lack of energy, if only I could see or sense some of his old, belligerent fire. But he has become an oddly vacant performer, not even an amusing parody of his former self. He reminded me of Muhammad Ali. Which is to say he reminded me of a champion badass who had taken a few too many blows to the head back in his fighting days, and now, finally, is paying a steep price for not keeping a better guard against age.
Of all the seminal rockers, Jerry Lee was the wildest, the most unbending, always closest to the edge. He popped pills, drank whiskey, and broke the law with perpetually sneering abandon. A man of lesser constitution would be long dead by now. But Jerry Lee is indomitable—or so it seemed to me until I saw what he has become with my own eyes. I don’t think he has the will to be indomitable anymore. And why should he? That’s a tough cross to bear over the course of a long life and, more to the point, he’s already proved everything he ever needed or wanted to prove a thousand times over. Now he seems a sickly old man, fully prepared to meet his maker. To criticize him for that would not only be insulting, it would be unbecoming.