As his five Chihuahuas yowl inside the house, Jerry Lee Lewis shuffles out the kitchen door and rummages around the line of doghouses he keeps in his carport for the five gentle mutts who lie around outside in the yard. He is wearing only his underpants — bikini briefs, not boxers — and it appears that the most rock & roll of all rock & rollers might be having a senior moment.
“Go back in the house, Daddy!” says Phoebe Lewis, alpha female of his inner circle.
Jerry mumbles something unintelligible. Even in Nesbit, Mississippi (“Home of Jerry Lee Lewis: The Killer”), nobody talks quite like him. He’s the Mount Vesuvius of vowels, which erupt deep under the surface and spew pure and unalloyed by consonants into the upper atmosphere. It’s like the guy decided in 1957 to enunciate song lyrics and otherwise use his tongue exclusively for swallowing food.
“Go back inside,” Phoebe says, “and put on your clothes!”
“Izza mah hlay, innih? Ah ih wah rou ih mah orz ih ah wah oo,” says Jerry, which means: “This is my place, isn’t it? I can walk around in my shorts if I want to.”
“The man here in the driveway is a writer!” says Phoebe.
“Aho eeha riyer! Ah ellina hroo!” (“I know he’s a writer. I’m telling the truth.”)
“This is the truth? Your underpants are the truth?”
Jerry makes a sound that defies both his daughter and phonetic spelling. “Well, go ahead, then!” says Phoebe. “Make a fool out of yourself! See if I care! Go ahead and put on a show for all those cars on the highway, too!”
Jerry glares at his sole living descendant and marches to the middle of the driveway, which goes up a short rise from Malone Road. Over the white fence that surrounds his forty acres and pond, the headlights of the passing cars seem to be gaping at the Killer, who is illuminated by the garage lights as if onstage. Hunched but unbowed, after six decades over the piano, he flaps his arms, he jumps up and down, he screams vowel sounds at the cars, daring them to gaze upon his nakedness in the humid night air.
“Lehm ri ah!” (“Let him write that”), Jerry snarls, stomping back into the house.
So it isn’t a senior moment. It is a Jerry Lee Lewis moment, which could have happened pretty much any time since he was born on September 29th, 1935, the same year Elvis Presley arrived in this world of woe. The last of the original Sun Records pioneers of rock & roll, and by far the least likely to be walking around in the twenty-first century, the only guy in all of music who makes Keith Richards look about as dangerous as Jessica Simpson, the Killer continues to rage into the night . . . well, no. Let’s say he’s resumed raging. The Nineties were a really bad decade for the Killer, and that would be after the public-relations nightmare of the Fifties, the smoking ruin of the Sixties, the unprecedented string of calamities in the Seventies, and then in 1981 his stomach exploded, and it’s been all downhill from there. Who could blame a guy for taking a little time off to get depressed?
The Lewis Ranch, as it is called, or Disgraceland, as it is also called, is a racquetball court, two jet planes and a graveyard short of Elvis’ former mansion, which is about twenty-five miles away, in Memphis. All the rooms are on one floor, all the rooms are piled high with swag from fifty years in the music business, and large portions of it have been painted gold. Jerry’s sixth wife in his seventh marriage, Kerrie Lynn McCarver Lewis, blew through the place like King Midas. Painted the walls, painted the floors, painted the grand piano, painted the cupboards, painted her Cadillac Fleetwood — all of it gold, gold and more gold. Except the kitchen, which she covered with Coca-Cola wallpaper.
“She was a horrible bitch who was possessed by the devil and only shopped at Wal-Mart — we’ve just now begun stripping the walls,” says Phoebe at the kitchen counter in late afternoon. Born to Jerry and his third wife, Myra, in 1963, she grew up tall and blond and has the Lewis vibe in all ways. After singing blues and rock around Memphis for a number of years, she moved back in with her father to help him through an arduous divorce. “Kerrie told me she was leaving him, but I was going to run her ass off anyway,” she says. “I was born to take care of my daddy. I never married, don’t want to have kids. I’m not going to steal his money or give him drugs.”