I'm the toughest son of a bitch that ever shat out of a meat ass," Jerry Lee Lewis said, deliberately. Having just done a show, he was sweating, stripped to the waist and balancing precariously on a rickety wooden chair in the wine cellar of a would-be honky-tonk on New York's Upper East Side. Some well-meaning but inexperienced promoters had commandeered the place, a former German restaurant, and paid Lewis a considerable sum to open it. Unfortunately, the lights didn't work, the sound was tinny, the piano was atrocious, and the surly mob that had descended on the place from heaven knows where to hear the Killer pound the eighty-eights was packed in so tightly he had to wade through it to get on and off the stage. The wine cellar, the best the club could do for a dressing room, adjoined the urinal; any fans, male or female, waiting for an audience with Lewis had to watch hapless customers pissing their beer away.
Despite the primitive working conditions and Lewis' consumption of what was reported by the club's staff to be an unbelievable amount of whiskey ("It wasn't nothin'," he later countered. "I used to have to drink a fifth of tequila to sober up and do my shows"), the first set was spectacular. The Killer (his nickname since high school) roared through "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and his other rock & roll hits, sang a "Big Legged Woman" that was slow, throbbing and utterly lascivious, and mixed country ballads and pop tunes with rhythm & blues and spirituals, giving all of them everything he had. He interrupted the show only twice, once to tell the audience, "This piano ain't worth shit," and again to muse that "I've seen so many friends and loved ones die away, I just thank God I'm still here." His father, Elmo Lewis, a champion drinker and hell raiser who'd always given Jerry Lee's musical career his unstinting support, had died three weeks earlier.
Once the show was over and Lewis was back downstairs, it was evident that the sleazy club and, especially, his father's death were weighing heavily. He glared moodily at no one in particular, swigged from a bottle of Scotch and tossed an empty glass higher and higher in the air, catching it and muttering to himself, "I'm the meat man," a litany that seemed to take on metaphysical implications. At one point the glass he was tossing ricocheted off his palm and sailed across the room, missing J.W Whitten, his wiry, capable road manager, by inches. Whitten, who's used to far worse, didn't even blink. Then the Killer began to amuse himself by throwing punches at various friends and well-wishers, stopping his fist about a millimeter from their faces. "Did you ever hit anybody doing that?" I asked him when he tried it on me and my wife. "I never hit anybody," Lewis said. He smiled wickedly and added, "unless I want to."
Lewis' teenage daughter Phoebe appeared and blessed him with a wet kiss on the cheek, and his mood began to lighten. He stopped muttering and started singing snatches of songs – "Ramblin' Rose," one went, "ramblin" Rose/Where she rambles, Jerry Lee goes" – and talking about his music "I had to leave Mercury," he said, referring to the company he recorded for from the mid-Sixties until 1978, when he signed with Elektra. "They were tryin' to put me in a bag, strings and all that shit I play rock & roll! Don't ever call me a hillbilly. I'm a rocker." When Whitten told him it was time for the second show, he bounded up and into a clean shirt and went out the door singing: "Give my regards to Bro-o-oadway/And tell 'em they can kiss my ass . . . . "
A few months earlier, I had checked into a North Hollywood motel, where the Killer, his manager, Bob Porter, and Whitten were staying while they prepared for the Los Angeles Country Music Awards show. First Porter, a young, Alabama business-school graduate, checked me out. Then I sat down in the motel coffee shop with Whitten, and we discovered we were both from around Memphis, both the same age, and both Jerry Lee Lewis fans from the first. "Jerry has a heart as big as this building," Whitten said. "He's not the mean rounder people think. We played a benefit for the St. Jude Children's Hospital in Memphis last month, canceled $30,000 worth of shows to do it for nothing. Now he is a hell raiser, that's a fact But man, that's rock & roll."
That afternoon a limo pulled up to take Lewis, Whitten and Porter to a CMA rehearsal. "I've told Jerry you're all right," Whitten advised me. "You just come in the car with us." I got in and there was the Killer, steel blue eyes flashing behind a grin that looked a little silly and more than a little shy. "How're you?" I asked. I couldn't understand a single word he said in response. I'm Southern, but his accent was impenetrable. Before long I grew more accustomed to it, but I found that the only way to really track it was to down a few drinks. "Well, uh, how are things in Memphis?" I offered. "Memphis?" He fixed me with those intense eyes, "I live in Mississippi now, got a big spread, a lake. Memphis is a ridiculous place. They have lost their minds. Naked women dancin' on every corner." He chuckled softly to himself. "Really?" I said. "You sure? Which corners?" This time Lewis laughed out loud. "This is gonna be all right. Let's stop and get us a fifth. Naw, better make that two fifths."
We pulled up to the parking lot behind the theater around two p.m. and found our way to the Killer's dressing room, which was in a trailer like everybody else's. The first bottle of Scotch was already open and Lewis was feeling expansive. "Who's next door?" he asked as we all crowded into the tiny room. "Priscilla Presley?" He leaned over in the direction of the ventilator and began crooning the Conway Twitty hit "Hello Darlin'." "Uh, Jerry," said Porter, "she can hear everything you say if you talk into that, man. It's just like an intercom." Lewis cackled. "Intercome," he said. He eyed my tape recorder and added, "She's a wonderful person, really. A lady." That's Lewis' highest accolade for members of the opposite sex.
"Go on," said Whitten, "ask him some questions. This is as close as you're gonna get." I had a notebook full of carefully considered lines of inquiry, but suddenly it didn't seem very relevant. "Is it true about you setting that piano on fire?" I asked. The story goes that during the Fifties, the Killer, who never opens for anybody, was somehow made to go on before Chuck Berry. So he climaxed a scorching performance by setting the piano ablaze in the middle of "Great Balls of Fire" and pounding the keys while it flamed.
"Burned it to the ground," Lewis said. "They forced me to do it, tellin' me I had to go on before Chuck. I was supposed to be the star of the show." "How did you do it?" I wondered. "Lighter fluid and a lighter?" "Naw, gasoline. Took a Coke bottle full of it onstage with me. I once pushed another piano in the ocean. They tried to give me a busted piano that wouldn't play. I pushed it off the stage, across the dance floor, out the door, and then I played it on the sidewalk and pushed it into the ocean."
There was a knock at the door. It was Mickey Gilley, a cousin of Lewis' who grew up with him in Ferriday, Louisiana, and began making records in the late Fifties that sounded exactly like him. He has blossomed in recent years into a major country star, with a string of hits and his own celebrated Houston honky-tonk, Gilley's, where John Travolta and company had been filming Urban Cowboy. "Mickey and me used to go around together in Ferriday," Lewis said by way of introducing us. "Used to go down and hear the music, at Haney's Big House, a colored place. They were rockin'." He pronounced the word with spirit and reverence, the way some people say "heaven" or "Jesus." "Best music in the world," he added. "Wilder than my music."
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