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The Devil and Jerry Lee Lewis

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Gilley looked slick and well-fed in his tailored Western attire, especially next to Lewis, who is still lean and was wearing slacks and a knit T-shirt. "Siddown, boy," the Killer commanded. Gilley eyed the rapidly disappearing Scotch. "Have a drink." Lewis personally mixed a stiff one with Coca-Cola and passed it over. "Well now," said Gilley after he'd had a taste, "don't you agree with me that if God made anything better than a woman, he kept it for himself?" It was a decent enough opener, but Lewis wasn't buying it. "You got that from me," he said, "just like you got your music." "You agree with it, don't you?" asked Gilley, holding his ground. Lewis just smiled. "I know it. But I keep tryin' to get away from these women. They just won't let you."

Gilley chuckled. "The reason these women won't let you alone," he asserted, "is that they're sinful."

Lewis set down his paper cup. He suddenly looked very serious. "It's the man's fault," he said, "not the woman's."

"You don't really believe that, do you?" asked Gilley.

"Why, naturally. The man is stronger."

"Well, yeah, but . . . . " Gilley was momentarily at a loss for words. "But who enticed him with the apple?"

"The demons," Lewis said, his eyes clouding. "The Devil did."

"Now wait a minute. In the Garden of Eden, Eve's the one that got . . . "

Lewis snapped forward in his seat. "The snake done it," he said decisively.

"Welll," said Gilley, pondering the idea. "I ain't gonna fuck no snake." The dressing room exploded with laughter; Lewis was chortling so hard he was crying. Then, abruptly, he was serious again. "Now I'm gonna tell you something," he said, addressing us all with the declamatory emphasis of a country preacher. "The snake was the most beautiful creature. He walked and talked and he was just like a man. He got Eve and she was weak. Enticed her into eating this apple." He whirled in his seat, turning toward his cousin. "Can you tell me what the last scripture of the Revelations says?" Gilley was caught off guard. "I . . . I don't read the Bible much," he muttered glumly, like a kid caught playing hooky from Sunday school. "Used to . . . . "

"We both used to," Lewis trumpeted scornfully. "I'll tell you what it says: 'Do not add or take away from these words, for if you do, you're taking away your part out of the book of life."'

"I never read that," said Gilley, now genuinely defensive. "I'll take your word for it."

"Well study it," Lewis thundered. He looked his cousin up and down, brow furrowed, eyes flaring. "Boy, you're weak. That's where it's at. Got that damn club down there in Texas . . . . "

"I get letters from churches," Gilley said. "They say they heard Jimmy Swaggart talk about me on television, about how I used to go to the Assembly of God church in Louisiana and now I've got this club." His voice rose to a ministerial stridency in imitation of their cousin, the Reverend Jimmy Swaggart, who along with Lewis and Gilley used to get shooed away from the back door of Haney's Big House when they were all children and who is now a phenomenally successful television and radio evangelist. "And these letters say, 'My . . . my daughter, she went out and got a divorce, and now she's goin' to Gilley's!"'

Lewis took a swig of Scotch. "What the hell are you takin'?" he asked. Again, the room was convulsed with laughter. "But it's the truth," he added. "That's what makes us so bad: Jimmy's fans." He grinned wickedly.

"That's right," Gilley said. "They hear him preachin' about how sinful we are and then they come to us wantin' to get screwed."

"That's the truth," Lewis bellowed, kicking at the door with his boot heel, "the damn truth."

Eventually the hilarity wound down. It occurred to Gilley that he was going to have to make some announcements and open some envelopes a little later on, so he left after a cordial parting exchange. "I didn't know Swaggart was your cousin," I said. "He came down and pulled me off the fuckin' stage," said Lewis. "I had 5000 people at my show. This was in Baton Rouge, must've been three or four months ago. I was strung out on pills, and I don't know how, but he knows everything I do. I was singin' 'I'm the meat man, ya oughta see me eat, man,' gettin' to where I was really rockin', the place packed, and all of a sudden there stands Jimmy Lee, right on the stage. I said, 'Heeey, Jimmy, how you doin'? Nice lookin' shirt you got on.' It looked like a damn pajama top. He said, 'Boy, you're comin' with me.' I said, 'Well, let's go.' I was feelin' good, I didn't care."

Lewis poured himself another drink. "The promoter came runnin' up and Jimmy said, 'Just talk to my lawyers.' He took me home, poured all my whiskey down the sink and all my pills down the commode. I sat down in a chair and we talked for a while About four o'clock in the mornin' I was ready to fight. No good, though. Jimmy just come and put his arm around me and said, 'You'll be all right, pal. Have some more malted milk and shrimp.' That's all I got for a week! I guess it saved my life. Nobody else had sense enough to say anything to me about it. They'd say, 'Boy, you're doin' great.' And I was strung out like a wild Comanche."

"I read awhile back that you believe you're a sinner and going to hell for playing rock & roll," I said. "Is that true?" Lewis looked me right in the eye. "Yep," he said. "I know the right way. I was raised a good Christian. But I couldn't make it . . . . Too weak, I guess." But, I argued, why would playing rock & roll damn you to hell? Lewis looked at me as if I'd just asked an impossibly stupid question. "I can't picture Jesus Christ," he said evenly, "doin' a whole lotta shakin'."

When you get down to it, that's the source of Jerry Lee Lewis' formidable authority, the tension that powers his personal transformation of rockin' from a black euphemism for sex into a numinous, supercharged mojo word that defines not just his music but his entire life. Jerry Lee Lewis knew from the very first that he was going to hell for playing rock & roll, and he went ahead and rocked anyway.

Lewis was born September 29th, 1935, on a farm outside Ferriday, Louisiana, a little town a few miles from Natchez, Mississippi. When he was three a truck hit his brother, Elmo Lewis Jr., in front of the house, killing the child instantly. Until the arrival of the first of his younger sisters several years later, Jerry Lee was raised as an only child, and his mother and father doted on him. Except for the fact that his ears stuck out, he was a strikingly handsome boy, a real charmer who usually got his way.

His mother, whose death in the early Seventies sent Lewis into a tailspin of depression, practically worshiped the early country star Jimmy Rodgers, but there were all kinds of popular music in the house, including swing and Bing Crosby. When Jerry Lee was in his early teens he would spend Saturday afternoons sitting transfixed in the alley behind the Ferriday movie house. "I would listen to Gene Autry sing," he told me one night. "It only cost a dime to get in, but you could hear the sound back there. Gene Autry was my idol." But Lewis also heard music more powerful than Autry's: rocking music, both in local black joints like Haney's and in the Assembly of God church, where rhythmic hymns were sung and people getting the spirit and speaking in tongues weren't uncommon occurrences.

When he was eight years old or thereabouts, Lewis spotted a piano in the home of an aunt. He'd never played one before, but he sat down and knocked off a recognizable version of "Silent Night." "All black keys," he remembered with a grin, "but my mother said, 'He's a natural-born piano player.' They mortgaged the house to buy me my first piano, and I've still got it. There's no more ivory on the keys; I wore 'em down to the wood." In 1949, around the time of his fourteenth birthday, Lewis made an initial public appearance in the parking lot of the Ferriday Ford dealership to celebrate their new line of cars. He sat in with a local country & western band, but the showstopper of his set was "Drinkin' Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee," a black rhythm & blues hit of that year. He must have rocked the place, because the crowd came up with thirteen dollars for him. Elmo Lewis, who barely supported his family with carpentry work and produce from the farm, began driving his son and the piano around in the back of a truck; they'd stop, play, take up a collection and move on.

Soon, Jerry Lee Lewis started working in a Natchez nightclub, playing drums and occasional piano. He landed his own twenty-minute radio show on WNAT, which often featured his cousins Mickey and Jimmy Lee. When he was fifteen he married seventeen-year-old Dorothy Barton; before long the marriage fell apart and he was running around with Jane Mitcham. Jane got pregnant, her brothers came after Lewis, and soon he was married again. He named their son Jerry Lee Lewis Jr.

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