“Sure, it was an act. They all had an act,” says Robbie Robertson, who was playing guitar for Ronnie Hawkins at the age of sixteen and contributed his song “Twilight” to Jerry’s latest album. “But with Jerry, there was a genuine feeling of danger about him, and that was part of the excitement. I’m not saying he was on all the time, just that he carried some shit around with him that you went, ‘Wooooooo.’ You never knew if something was going to make him laugh or cry or get angry. But the important thing was the music. I used to watch him in those little honky-tonks, and there was music coming out of his every pore. Everything he did was musical. Everything he did was in time.”
Or maybe Jerry was just hiding himself. “There’s a lot of strange stories about me, too,” says George Jones, another huge talent who had his own struggle with the bottle. “But they build stuff up like that so much. I bet sixty or seventy percent of those tales about Jerry got stretched into much bigger stories than they really were. When you’re in this business, it’s easy to go down that path. Jerry was mostly sober when I was around him. He was a bashful type of person. Most artists who are raised up in the country, they’re bashful. And you start out playing clubs where the crowd expects you to come out for a drink during intermission, and you got to deal with the halitosis, and they’re spitting in your face. They don’t mean to be, but they are, ’cause they’re drunk. Things like that get you to drinking when you otherwise might not be. I know Jerry’s a much happier person now that he’s quit. I am. I had a bunch of wasted years, like he did, in which I thought I was having fun. They tell me I did, but I can’t remember. It’s a damn shame it takes so long for some of us to grow up, but Jerry and I are among the very few who lived long enough to get the extra chance to enjoy life for the first time.”
In 2002, Steve Bing, the movie producer and one of the largest donors to the Democratic party, wanted Jerry to record a couple of songs for a sound-track. The movie never got made, but Bing’s collaborator Jimmy Rip dropped his normal role as guitarist-bandleader-producer and did some detective work to track down the Killer, who had no Web page, no manager, no nothing. After a couple of months of searching and a few weeks of phone negotiations, Rip and Bing went to Mississippi. Jerry was barely functioning physically after many years on methadone, which he took to get off Talwin, a painkiller he got addicted to after tearing his stomach in 1981.
“The meeting went well, but he’s been burned so many times that he’s a little suspicious of people,” says Rip. “Plus, his last marriage had fallen apart, and it just wasn’t nice at all. He had pretty much gone to bed, and we had to pry him out. Finally, we came to an agreement about money, cash upfront. He’s an incredibly smart man and totally aware. If there are ten conversations going on in a room, he can keep up on all of them. He was just very sad at the time, which happens a lot to older musicians. Just a reaction to getting treated like shit. Either you’re not getting your due, or you’re getting ripped off. It’s just frustrating when you’re talented and you know it. But as soon as we started recording, we started laughing. And we’ve been laughing for five years now.”
So Jerry, Jimmy and Steve hit it off, and the soundtrack quickly morphed into an album. It was all financed by Bing and released independently, so they could do whatever they wanted for however long they wanted.
“People were very suspicious of it being just another celebrity rat-fuck record, where it’s just a basic track with a glopped-on big name,” says Rip. “That’s what they thought until they heard it, and everyone loved it and wanted to be a part of it. Bruce Springsteen sent me such a sweet letter after we recorded ‘Pink Cadillac.’ It said, ‘Thank you for fulfilling a rock & roller’s dream: Jerry Lee Lewis recording one of my songs. This is my favorite version of one of my songs that anyone has ever done.’ “
The most astonishing cut is probably “That Kind of Fool,” with Keith Richards singing up high, like he did on “You Got the Silver.” Most charming is a tie between “Don’t Be Ashamed of Your Age,” with George Jones, and “Just A-Bummin’ Around,” with Merle Haggard.
“The greatest joy was seeing what happens to a song once it gets in Jerry’s head and comes back out again his way,” says Rip. “He’s always humble about it, says, ‘If a man writes a song, he should hear it the way he wrote it. I don’t want to mess it up too much.’ And then he turns around and just destroys the thing and reconstructs it eight times better, and you go, ‘Damn, we didn’t need those extra chords at all.’ Before we’d go into the studio, I’d write out song charts for the other musicians, and we’d just throw the paper up in the air. I’d always tell him, ‘Jerry, all these guys grew up wanting to be you. Mick. Keith. Bruce. So however you do it, it’s going to be right, because they were thinking of you in the first place.’ “