There was also the celebrated incident in November 1976 at Graceland, Elvis’ Memphis mansion. Lewis showed up at the front gate in the middle of the night, and when the guard wouldn’t let him drive in, he reportedly began waving a pistol. “Elvis had called and asked me to come over,” he insists. “Of course I was drunk as a skunk. I was so loaded that when I tried to roll the window down in that Lincoln I rolled the seat all the way back. So I threw a champagne bottle out the window, and boy, there were six squad cars, surroundin’ me. The next’ day Elvis drove out to my house and waited around for me for three hours. I was off somewhere, still drunk.” Lewis’ intense feeling of rivalry with Presley is no secret, but when he talks about that night, the missed meeting the next day and the calls he swears he continued to receive from Elvis, he seems genuinely pained. They never saw each other again. ‘I never considered myself the greatest,’ Lewis said in 1979. ‘But I’m the best.’
Many people believe that of the two, Lewis is the greater talent. Lewis, for one, is firmly convinced that if it hadn’t been for the scandal involving Myra, he would have become “the biggest thing going.” But there’s more to it than that. “Jerry’s appeal was never as broad as Elvis’,” says Kay Martin, “because he really only appealed to men. I ran his fan club for eight years, and if I had twenty girls in it at one time, that was a lot. He turned them off; I think he frightened them. Because if you were gonna go with Jerry Lee Lewis, he didn’t want to cuddle you like a teddy bear, he wanted to show you his great balls of fire. Plus, he chained himself to the piano with his style. It was very difficult to separate him from that and put him in another context, whereas Elvis, you could put him in those movies.”
At the Los Angeles Country Music Awards broadcast, Lewis offered a short speech. Before he started his number, “Rockin’ My Life Away,” from the first Elektra album, he looked squarely into the camera and said, “I’d like to say that me and Elvis Presley never won an award, but we know who the Kings of rock & roll are.” After the show, as we poured ourselves into the limo and took off for a Hollywood party, he was unusually quiet.
“I get crazy sometimes,” he said, “upside down. But I’ve been accused of more things. If everything they say I’ve done is true, I’d have been put in the penitentiary long ago.” He turned to me. “Did you believe I was telling the truth when I said I pushed that piano in the ocean?” I nodded. “If I did, I swear I don’t remember it. A lot of times people make up things, and I just go along with ’em.” For the next ten minutes he talked about how much he loves pianos, how careful he is not to hurt them when he’s playing with the heel of his foot or clambering inside one.
The party was a whirl of country stars, movie stars and unidentifiable slicks. Lewis made a grand entrance and was soon the center of an admiring knot of people. The execs from MCA records, who were throwing the party, looked a little nonplussed, but Conway Twitty, one of the label’s brightest country stars and an ex-rockabilly singer, came over to pay his respects. “Say,” he asked Jerry, “you remember the Peppermint Lounge in Miami?” Twitty turned to me. “I’d been playin’ there two weeks — this was back in the rock & roll days — and I’d told this club owner some stuff about what Jerry had done to pianos. The guy went out and got an old beat-up piano with boards across it. Jerry showed up at the club the afternoon before he was gonna open, took one look at the piano and kicked it off the stage onto the floor. He kicked it all the way out of the building, across the parking lot and into the water. Then he came back in, blew cigar smoke in the club owner’s face, and said, ‘Now get me a goddamn piano.”‘
Later, back in the limo, Lewis puffed coolly on a cigar. “The next motherfucker that gives me a bad write-up,” he mused, taking the cigar out of his mouth and looking it over with a Jack Palance sort of glaze over his eyes, “I’m gonna hunt him down and blow his fuckin’ head off.”He slowly shifted his gaze in my direction, and then he cracked up. “Nawww, I ain’t gonna do that. Just tell ’em I’m a drunken oaf. They ain’t heard too much about Jerry Lee Lewis except that he’s always sayin’ he’s the greatest” “Well,” I said, “aren’t you?” “I never considered myself the greatest,” he replied. “But I’m the best.”
The past few months have been difficult for Jerry Lee Lewis. An Australian tour had to be cut short when a fan picked a fight with him onstage and the two of them, scuffling, fell against a monitor speaker. Lewis emerged from the fracas with several fractured ribs. He returned home to find that the Internal Revenue Service, which had confiscated all his vehicles once before for alleged nonpayment of taxes, had paid another visit and confiscated them again. To add insult to injury, they had him busted for marijuana and cocaine they said they found on the premises. The last time I saw him, he was looking puffy and out of it. Several people told me they were afraid he was drinking himself to death. But just before this article went to press I called up a friend in Memphis who had done some recording with Lewis. “I just saw Jerry,” he said, “and he’s been in the hospital, getting straight. He looks great. I don’t understand how a man can do what he does to himself and bounce back like that.” I could almost hear J.W. Whitten saying, “But man, that’s rock & roll.”