Review #325: All Killer No Filler!, Jerry Lee Lewis
#325: All Killer No Filler!, Jerry Lee Lewis
One of the most memorable moments of writing this series of reviews is going to be this one, this bizarre coincidence. Yesterday, I was carving a pumpkin in my backyard, listening to Jerry Lee Lewis because it was the next one on my list, wondering what it meant to love music by men who did reprehensible things. Then my boyfriend got a notification on his phone.
“Karla,” he said cautiously, “Jerry Lee Lewis died today.”
Over a year ago now, I was on an endless road trip, listening to this box set for the very first time. In some ways, box sets are a horrible mistake on a road trip — see the crucible I bore in Kansas with #54, James Brown’s Star Time. But “Great Balls of Fire” comes on pretty early on, and after that I was wholly won over. Just listen to the way he pronounces the title to know that JLL had more charisma in his little finger than I’ll ever see in real life.
Soon before I pulled into my hotel for the night, my aunt called me, and we discussed (as usual) what I was listening to. Then she dropped a bomb on me: “Didn’t he have a child bride?”
It’s always disappointing to learn one of these legacy rock stars was an abuser or a pedophile or a racist or just a dude who did something awful. Not only was Myra Brown Lewis thirteen years old when she got married, she was his first cousin once removed, and the daughter of his bass player. Eventually, Myra divorced him, citing “every type of physical and mental abuse imaginable.”
And I have to listen to him sing a song called “High School Confidential”? Okay.
Learning about dissolution of Jerry Lee Lewis’ career was both tiny bit gratifying and massively disappointing — the controversy undeniably hurt his career, cutting him down from being “the next Elvis” to being … a country star who was recently inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. And not only did he marry several more times, he was accused of murdering at least one of his wives.
Jerry Lee Lewis isn’t exactly a household name anymore, but it’s not like he was ever really punished. When I wrote this review the first time, I couldn’t believe he was still alive. Now he isn’t.
This is a box set, not an album. Box sets are great, because they usually try to give a fully-fleshed out picture of an artist’s entire career with a chronological and diverse Greatest Hits collection. But they are also tests of endurance.
Lewis started out his career out channeling a countrified Elvis: growling out of his peanut butter mouth and playing with a rockabilly piano, which was wild then and is wild now. He outplays the blues guitarist he’s duetting with. (See: “Crazy Arms,” “End of the Road,” “It’ll Be Me,” “Move on Down the Line,” and instrumental “In the Mood.”) There’s a hint of country in his early stuff, too, a la Hank Williams and my boy Merle. (“All Night Long,” “You Win Again.”)
But he wasn’t dubbed “the next Elvis” for that. His rock and roll stage presence can be felt through the speakers, seventy years after these songs were recorded. “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” is one of the ones I know best, but that’s not even the best one. David Lee Roth’s whole career is an impersonation of Lewis’ performance of “Breathless.” (See also: “I’m on Fire,” “Money (That’s What I Want).”)
The second half of it was propelled less by rock and roll and more by his manager’s insistence that he rebrand himself as a country artist. “Another Place, Another Time” was his breakout hit, and “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Had Made a Loser Out of Me)” is self-deprecating in a way that I think “future Elvis” Jerry Lee would have scoffed at. Maybe he even played it too safe, since much of his country stuff is nothing to write home about. (See: “Touching Home,” “Let’s Put It Back Together Again,” and “Come On In.”)
Both halves of Jerry’s career, though, have a lot to do with women. He sings about women that he doesn’t deserve, and vice versa. (“Break Up,” “She Still Comes Around (To Love What’s Left of Me),” “One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart),” “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye,” “There Must Be More to Love Than This,” “Would You Take Another Chance on Me,” “He Can’t Fill My Shoes.”) There are some genuinely sweet songs about women. (“To Make Love Sweeter for You,” “Invitation to Your Party,” “One Minute Past Eternity,” “Once More With Feeling,” “Sometimes a Memory Ain’t Enough.”) And there are some standouts. “Don’t Let Me Cross Over,” a cheating ballad featuring Lewis’ sister Linda Gail, is the weirdest. (Don’t get me wrong, she sounds amazing, like a Southern nightingale.) “Chantilly Lace” is a farcical rock song where Lewis basically works himself into a horny froth.
Robert Christgau once wrote that Jerry Lee Lewis “absolute confidence in the face of the void.” The more I listened to his music, the more terrifying that quote became. “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” and “I’ll Find It Where I Can,” songs about flipping the bird to your enemies and getting yours, started out as songs that I loved to spitefully sing along to, and soon took on sinister vibes. Hell, even his cover of “Over the Rainbow” started to feel creepy.
Some songs suggest that age did give him some perspective. (“Middle Age Crazy,” “Thirty-Nine and Holding.”) But the one I keep thinking about is “No Headstone on My Grave,” a dynamic gospel-blues that lulls you into the sweet by-and-by. And then at the end, Lewis hits you with, I want a monument.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the two wild card songs: “Drinkin’ Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee” and “Meat Man,” because they’re my favorite two songs to sing along to. It’s worth noting that I don’t drink wine and I’m a vegetarian.
A year ago, I woke up in Indiana at 4 am and started my road trip again. I was a little worried about my car being broken into, but it wasn’t.
I turned Jerry Lee Lewis back on, and it happened to be the last song on the album, “Rockin’ My Life Away.” That’s still my favorite moment of the whole thing, this self-destructive anthem where he declares, My name is Jerry Lee Lewis and I’m rockin’ my life away.