Jerry Lee Lewis
So reads the epigraph of Nick Tosches’s incandescent study of the Great Fire Baller, Hellfire. Much like hell’s most famous resident, Jerry Lee seems similarly deathless in the 21st century. Last year, the Killer released an album called Last Man Standing, where the septuagenarian made young’uns like Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Kid Rock, John Fogerty, Bruce Springsteen, and Jimmy Page sound winded. But what else would you expect from the only extant member of Sun Records’s infamous Million Dollar Quartet (which included Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins)?
The banner outside of Town Hall from the recently resuscitated WCBS claims Jerry Lee Lewis as “oldies,” but that cremaster -melting masterwork that is “Great Balls of Fire” remains raunchy and uncouth half a century on. Bereft of all metaphor, innuendo, tongue-in-cheekness, sophistication, and tact that clutters songs like Snoop Dogg’s “Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None)” or the R.’s “Sex Planet,” “Balls” is forever young, dumb, and full of cum.
“Watch,” I lean over to my date to wax Nostradamus, “Boppin’ Bob from the Morning Zoo Crew or some such is gonna come out to MC this show.” I’m close, in that “Broadway Bill” Lee, on WCBS from 3-7pm every weekday, introduces the Memphis backing band. Once my other prediction that each pallbearer-black band member will sing a warm-up tune comes to pass (capped by the bassist bellowing out “Wooly Bully”), I shut my trap as the Killer shuffles out.
Slouched, shirt untucked, his mortal flesh the color of ghost tan, Jerry Lee looks no-necked up on stage, his collar up to his ears. Age has never been anything but a number to Jerry Lee Lewis though and his God-given, Devil-serving skills remain undiminished. Nearly half a lifetime ago, his career as a rock originator already dashed amid cousin-fucking scandal—and about to chuck his rebirth as a country chart-topper too—he sang about being “39 and Holding.” With an evil, but benign, glint in his eye, he prefaces this number tonight by reminding the audience that “I know what you want. And I’m the man to deliver it to you. Even at my age.” No Viagra necessary.
Much like a grandfather’s finger-snapping handshake though, Lewis remains deceptively strong. His un-arched fingers (a la Thelonious Monk) attack the highest registers of the Steinway piano with the force of natural disasters. And yet, it’s only at the highest frequency that his piano notes come out sharp and forceful; otherwise he gets lost in the house mix. Similarly, Lewis’s between song banter is all but indecipherable, with only the hard twang of his accented vowels clarion and clear.
When the Killer can escape the oppressive and overloud sound of his backing band, as on his rendition of Hank Williams’s “You Win Again,” Jerry Lee’s solos are (aside from the showman’s flash and filigree) lyrical and poignant. He is an adept at not just rock’n’roll, but tear-in-beer country, raucous barrelhouse and boogie-woogie. Alas, as he charges through “End of the Road,” “Drinkin’ Wine Spoo-Dee-O-Dee” and “Sweet Little Sixteen,” it’s only the right-handed flourishes that reach our orchestra seats. Barely past the half-hour mark, Lewis chucks “Great Balls” and “Whole Lotta Shaking going’ On” at the audience and creeps back off-stage, thus ending that brief and pricey tour of hell.