Jerry Lee Lewis is talking into my tape recorder. He seems to think it’s a microphone and our interview is being broadcast live on the radio. Or does he? “Hello folks, this is Jerry Lee Lewis, The Killer! That’s K-I-L-L-E-R. I don’t take dope, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke—and that’s the damnedest lie I ever told. You talkin’ to The Real McCoy!”
We’re in his dressing room at The Lone Star Café, 13th Street & Fifth Avenue in New York City. The date is January 14, 1987. I swear I’m looking into the dark underbelly of rock’n’roll. When our eyes meet, I see madness. Danger. Yet he’s my hero. When he locked the door of his dressing room to sing a pornographic version of “My Bonny”…when he took my tape recorder and balanced it on his head…when he demanded to arm-wrestle as his manager was banging on the door to tell him to get on stage…I knew he wasn’t in his right mind. His back-up band had already played their three songs without him and the crowd was pumped up like a July 4 firecracker chanting his name. Yet he wanted to tell me nasty stories about his sister.
He had been among the very first class of legends to be inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall Of Fame a year earlier. (“I don’t give a shit about that,” he said.) He had also been publicly excoriated on national television by Geraldo Rivera during a segment of ABC-TV’s 20/20 when Rivera practically accused him of murdering his fifth wife, Shawn Michelle Stevens, three months into their marriage in 1983.
It’s not that The Killer hasn’t looked heartbreak and tragedy right in the eye. His fourth ex-wife drowned. A three-year old son drowned. A 20-year old son died in a car crash. A brother died in a car crash. He almost killed himself with drugs and alcohol. And he shot his bass player.
If rock’n’roll was meant as a slap in the face to authority, Jerry Lee Lewis is its living personification. From the time he first pumped a piano in Ferriday, Louisiana, Lewis has maintained his rebel stance of every mother’s nightmare. He is rock’n’roll . Shock value with a beat. Hell, rock’n’roll is supposed to be dangerous, not corporate. As long as Jerry Lee Lewis is still breathing, the true essence of rock’n’roll lives. Just don’t get in his way.
He’s 85 now: Married twice by 17, a daddy at 19, America’s biggest rock star at 22, when it came out in the press that the 23-year old Lewis had married a third wife—his 13-year old cousin Myra Gale while still married to Wife #2, he was hounded out of England during a tour. Upon his return home, the high-priced bookings stopped. His hits stopped. His records ceased to be heard on radio and jukeboxes. But he didn’t stop rocking. Reduced to reigning over backwoods bars and smoky honkytonks, he renounced his former pledge to only sing for God when studying for the seminary and teach the path of righteousness.
And that’s the thing!
He was a bona-fide religious fanatic who truly believed that turning his back on God to play this devil’s music called rock’n’roll would send him straight to hell. AND HE CHOSE ROCK’N’ROLL ANYWAY. “I’m going to hell and I’m taking my audiences with me,” is what he once said.
So he kept playing the devil’s music, but he’d intersperse a little “Amazing Grace” when the mood struck. He’d keep a bottle of Jack Daniels close to the piano as well as an extra piano leg nearby to bash over someone’s head if they got too unruly. Through it all, The Killer kept playing music: a hard-edged raw brand of rock’n’country that went totally against the grain of everything America was listening to in ’60 and ’61. It would be 1968 before he’d have another hit: “Another Place Another Time,” a country song, 10 full years after his last #1. That year also marked his theatrical debut in Catch My Soul, a rock opera derived from Shakespeare’s Othello. The play grossed half a mil and cast Lewis as Iago, the most evil of Shakespearean characters. By 1969, he was the hottest country singer in the South.
The Killer started the ‘70s commanding $10,000-a-night. He bought an airplane, hired a pilot, divorced his cousin Myra, and married wife #4, Jaren Elizabeth Gunn Pate. In 1971, he bought himself a bigger airplane, toured Europe again, separated from Jaren, reconciled with Myra, broke up with Myra, was rushed to the emergency war suffering from “respiratory distress” and left the hospital against doctor’s order to keep on rockin’.
Even when the United States government hauled off most of his worldly possessions—including five motorbikes, seven cars, a tractor, 22 guns, a stereo, a TV and jewelry—for non-payment of taxes, The Killer kept rockin’.
Wife #4, Jaren, died in a drowning accident. After divorcing wife #2 for the second time, he married wife #5, Shawn Michelle Stevens, in June of 1983. Two years later, wife #5 died under mysterious circumstances from an accidental methadone overdose. The Killer, in and out of rehab, kept rockin’. He even got arrested at the gates of Graceland brandishing a firearm totally drunk out of his mind demanding to see Elvis in the middle of the night.
But, to me, he will always represent everything I ever loved about rock’n’roll: its danger, its cutting edge, its balls-to-the-wall fuck-you attitude, its sense of rage and its rhythmic relationship to blues and country. Surgeons had to remove most of his stomach. Maybe there was a price to be paid for playing this music. Maybe the hellfire of rock’n’roll itself had truly infested his soul so much that it was eating him up alive from the inside out.
But he’s still alive.
He’ll probably outlive us all.