Hellfire

July 28, 2019

Off-topic Sunday

 

I’ve been into Jerry Lee Lewis since, as a 13-year-old ted back in the spring of 1978, I lucked on a garishly packaged double album put out by the bargain basement Pickwick label. The gaudy splurge on the sleeve said 50 Rock & Roll Greats, but didn’t bother to point out that it was actually a collection of early Sun rockabilly recordings that introduced me to Carl Mann, Bill Justice, Billy Lee Riley, Junior Parker and a whole load of other rock ’n’ roll pioneers given studio time by Sam Phillips.

 

I already knew about Jerry Lee Lewis, but didn’t have any of his music. That record gave me eight great Sun tracks that lodged him in my teen brain. Along came the Devil and Jerry Lee, draped around each other, staggering into my life, each with a bottle of hooch and a bad attitude. They’ve never left.

 

A while back, some friends bought me an old copy of Hellfire, the Jerry Lee Lewis Story by Nick Tosches, first printed in 1982 (and now out of print but out there if you want to find it). Given that it came out when I was still teasing my greased quiff and aligning my DA, it’s a surprise to me that I hadn’t read it before.

 

What you get is 260 pages of rich prose, a significant amount of that enhanced by Tosches’ pretty active imagination. There are emotions described, conversations had and scenes portrayed that can only have been imagined, and I don’t think the author would expect us to think otherwise, and I’m not saying that detracts at all from the book.

 

Lewis is the product of Welsh immigrants several generations before him, who settled in Louisiana, deep in the Bible Belt. The Bible is big in this book, and big in Lewis’s life. So much of the story is of a long and often drunken struggle with the Devil, pushing Lewis to pound the piano in that way that makes the women scream and the men want to string up this longhaired sonofabitch who’s bewitching their girls.

 

The tone is often poetically biblical, evoking the dramatic evangelical preachers that had such an influence on the young Lewis. And the cast that makes up Lewis’s extended family of brothers, uncles, cousins, wives, ex-wives... gets baffling at times. But in relating all this, Tosches conjures up an atmosphere of a conservative, God-fearing society in the segregated Deep South out of which came the tortured, maniacal Lewis, drawn to play a music that roused passions totally at odds with the teachings of Church. As a believer, he felt that he was doing something sinful, but fuck it. The booze, the guns, the cars, the women, the booze, the drugs, the booze... ‘I’m draggin’ the audience to hell with me.’

 

Sideburn's deputy editor as a teen, just about to find that trouble he was looking for. 

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