I’ve met a few murderers in my life. That doesn’t fit with the architecture of my current life, but there it is. I met a couple of Mafia hit men. I met some killers in recovery meetings. I met others playing biker bars, stripper joints, and even a Ku Klux Klan birthday party. (That’s a story for another time.)
Here’s the thing about murderers: they can be friendly, pleasant, great at parties, and then transform in an instant into something lethal. Their eyes turn dark, become vacant. There’s nothing in them anymore. You start wondering what you did or said that they didn’t like, and what consequences you may be about to face.
Which brings me to the man they called “The Killer.” Jerry Lee Lewis died this week at the age of 87. I can’t testify to his earthly deeds, but Jerry Lee Lewis — his music, his presence, his aura — was like a murderer’s eye: bright one moment and dark the next.
Here’s what I saw in 1971 when he played the London Palladium. The audience was almost evenly divided between young “Rockers” who wanted him to play his hits and older working-class Brits who had come to hear songs like “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye,” recorded after his mid-career conversion to country music.
The Rockers were an unruly lot in their giant pompadours and leather jackets. One couple kept running down the aisle during every country song screaming, “Jerry, play ‘Milkshake Mademoiselle!” Finally, a squat middle-aged man blocked their way down the aisle, said “That’s Mr. Lewis to you!” and knocked the male rocker unconscious.
It was on. The theater was filled with brawling patrons as country fans fought rockers for control of star’s repertoire. They tore up seats and punched the hell out of one another until dozens of club-swinging bobbies burst through the doors, indiscriminately bashing heads right and left as an unfazed Jerry Lee kept playing the piano with one hand while waving the pinky of his other hand in the air and shouting, “That’s right, honey, ol’ Jerry Lee says wiggle it around just a little bit!”
Lewis generated a vortex of chaotic energy that night, with himself at the center, and not for the first time. He kept on playing as the centrifugal force whirled around him. Even I threw a punch, at a Rocker who manhandled a woman. Such was the power of Jerry Lee Lewis.
A death is harder to write about when, by most reports, the departed was not considered a “good person” in any normal sense. People say Jerry Lee was violent, abusive, egomaniacal, and maybe something far worse. “The Killer” was a high school nickname that stayed with him his whole life, and not for no reason.
His biographer, Nick Tosches, made much of a song that, unless most of Jerry Lee’s work, was credited to the piano player himself. “The way is dark, the night is long, I don’t care if I never get home, I’m waiting at the end of the road.”
Maybe the song tells us something about Jerry Lee. Or, maybe it’s just a bunch of thrown-together phrases he picked up in Bible school and honky-tonks. Or, maybe he didn’t write it at all. It was common practice back then to buy somebody’s song for $25 or so and put your own name on it.
But “the stars may not shine, neither the moon” does sound a little like Judgement Day as they taught it in old-time Sunday school. To which he adds, “What the heck, we don’t want no moon.”
Who doesn’t want the moon? Is that depravity talking, or soul-deep spiritual despair? Or both? “I don’t care if I never get home …”
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“It says MAKE MERRY with THE JOY OF GOD!” Jerry Lee’s voice rises in cadences he surely learned in Bible college. “But when it comes to worldly music – rock ‘n’ roll or anything like that – you’ve just brought yourself into the world, and you haven’t come out of the world, and you’re still a sinner …”
He gathers speed. “You’ve got to WALK AND TALK WITH GOD!”
Phillips tries to reason with him, telling Jerry Lee can save souls through his music.
No, no, NOOOO!” Jerry Lee yells. “HOW CAN I SAVE SOULS WHEN I’VE GOT THE DEVIL IN ME?!”
Jerry Lee tried to become a preacher like his cousin Jimmy Swaggart but was kicked out of Bible college, supposedly for playing hymns in a boogie-woogie style. Then he took the path that led to fame. He could have been a terrifying preacher, as these few seconds show.
“Now I’m gonna tell you something,” he once told Rolling Stone. “The snake (in the Garden of Eden) was the most beautiful creature. He walked and talked and he was just like a man.”
If Jerry Lee was walking and talking, who was with him? If he was running, what was he running from? Whatever it was, it was shaped like a man.
There is a passage from the Gnostic Gospels that says, “If you bring forth that which is within you, that which is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth that which is within you, that which is within you will destroy you.”
Which of these sentences describes Jerry Lee Lewis? True, he was steeped in sin. But he was not destroyed, not for 87 years. Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins: he outlived them all.
In my teens and early twenties I would go through periods of obsessively playing his records and singing his songs. My favorites were the lesser-known Sun tracks and some of the country hits. But a moment would always come when the sound of his music suddenly felt heavy and cold, like the dark in a killer’s eye. For a while, I couldn’t bear to listen to him. Then I’d start again.
In the binary cosmology of his faith, an up-or-down verdict has now been rendered on the man from Faraday, Louisiana. He’s gone home, as they say down South. But where is that, exactly? We only know what Jerry Lee himself believed, at least in his darker moments: that with every note he sang, every key he pounded, he took one step closer to Hell.