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Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found
By Joe Bonomo
Continuum (NY/London), 2009
Joe Bonomo wrote the book on the Fleshtones, SWEAT: The Story of the Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, and now he goes back a bit further, looking at one of the master’s of rock’n’roll’s riotous career.
I’m going to assume the reader of this blog has enough awareness to be cognizant of The Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis, and his amazing music. I’m not going to insult your intelligence, because neither does Bonomo.
The ultimate focus of the book is a rare 1964 recording Lewis made in Hamburg, Germany, called ”Live” At the Star-Club, where he was accompanied by the British band, the Nashville Teens. To many who have heard it, the recording is one of the highlights of not only Lewis’ career, but is considered one of the best live recordings in the history of the genre. Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity, as this is still considered a hard album to find (anyone wants to send me a copy, I wouldn’t complain…).
Essentially, the book is broken up into four sections. The first covers what happened to the career of Lewis’ during and after his infamous downfall, when the news broke he married his barely teen second cousin (while still married to someone else, no less). The second section deals with what lead up to this Star-Club recording, the taping itself, and the aftermath. The next section deals with the rest of his career as it veered into country, and the final is his legacy.
Bonomo has stated (on Facebook, I believe) that biographies are also about the author. In this case, it’s absolutely true, and all kudos for the acknowledgement. As there really is no such thing as “objective,” it’s refreshing to see an author embrace that notion. He clearly places himself within the story, describing how the album effected and affected him, how he came to know the recording in the first place, and how it fits into his own world of music (including punk rock). One of the ways he does this is by discussing some other excellent live recordings, such James Brown’s Live at the Apollo and one by Charlie Pickett and the Eggs (and yes, it is an amazing LP; I saw them play CBGBs, as well).
It’s telling that Bonomo starts the book with the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word “ego,” as there should be a picture of Lewis right there (I have an OED, and there is not, FYI). Lewis does not always come off as a likeable guy in the story of his life, but Bonomo does not shy away from that, looking at both good and bad points of the artist as a talented, self-loving, self-loathing, drug and alcohol-fueled, misogynistic and abusive musical genius. As he states on page 102, in discussing a performance of “Mean Woman Blues,” “As always, the lyrics take a back seat to their filthy delivery, which takes a back seat to Jerry Lee’s piano playing, which takes a back seat to nothing and no one.”
As a side-bar, I remember when JLL was set to play the Ritz in New York City in the 1980s, someone was to interview him, but before he could, JLL insisted the writer down a tumbler amount of likker prior to him even being allowed to sit down at the same table (I would have walked out, frankly). I don’t remember who the writer was, where I read this, or what the outcome was, but it shows the personality of the man and his need to control. However, what he dominated the best was the piano keyboard. Lord, the man can play.
While extremely knowledgeable about his subject, Bonomo constantly feeds the reader many facts about Lewis, but with his excellent writing style, he never hits one over the head with it, nor does it resemble a history class, reeling off the facts. Rather, he weaves them into the story in a way where the reader is totally engaged in the moment, which is not an easy task. The author’s love of the topic comes through with excitement rather than gushing, without pretention of raising a flawed character, but rather places the reader there, sharing the experience rather than lecturing about it.
One of Bonomo’s strong directions is taking the events that are happening within the storyline, as it were, and placing them into a larger cultural context, such as telling what the Beatles and Stones were doing at the same time Lewis was at the Star-Club, or details about the Nashville Teens, what let up to their backing Lewis, and what happened to them after.
Bonomo talks to many of those who were involved with Lewis’ career, including the late, great musician Jim Dickinson and producer Jerry Kennedy, both from Memphis, as well as some who had been at the Star-Club that night, such as the person who did the recording, did the mixing the tape onto the album, and who ran the club at the time. All this gives authenticity to the author’s tales of the many rises and falls of Lewis.
Although short, I enjoyed the final part, where Bonomo takes the legacy of Lewis and shows it through his interpretation, and in the eyes of some current musicians of various genres, from the snubbing of Lewis by the Country Hall of Fame, to the punk of X and the Ramones, and the rockabilly revision of the Reverend Horton Heat and Dave Alvin of the Blasters (Alvin has a great quote near the end of the book [p. 188] where he states, “When you’re younger you have all these silly conversations: ‘What’s the best Fuck You record of all time?’ Was it Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music? I’d say, no, it was Self-Portrait by Bob Dylan. Well, so is ’Live’ At the Star-Club. The way I think about it is you’ve got a wolf that’s caught in a trap, and Jerry Lee at the Star-Club is the sound of a wolf biting his own leg off.”
As Jerry Lee Lewis declined to be interviewed for this book, I wonder what he thinks of it. But then again, by not talking to him, I believe that there is more freedom for Joe Bonomo in the book, giving him a bit of a clearer head perhaps, with less pressure to “perform” (Lewis is infamous for his demands), which makes for a grand ol’ time in itself.