At one point early on in “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story,” biographer Rick Bragg tries to ask his subject one more question.
“Didn’t I hear once that you ” But he cuts me off.
“Yeah,” he says, “I probably did.”
And that, according to Bragg, was about the only time that Jerry Lee Lewis – The Killer, an icon who has lived through the highest highs and lowest lows of anyone in the rock era – dodged one of his questions. Through several years of interviews, Bragg coaxed the story out of Lewis in all its amazing and tawdry glory. From scaling the charts to burying wives and children, Lewis has had enough agonies and ecstasies for 10 men.
Bragg will be in the Triangle for three readings, and we caught up by phone.
Q: As much as he’s been through in 79 years, does Lewis have the most iron constitution on earth?
A: It’s almost spooky. There’s something beyond science in Jerry Lee. I’m usually a show-me-don’t-tell me kind of guy who believes what he sees. But every news organization in the country has a Jerry Lee obit ready to go, and he just keeps defying time. I always tell audiences, Jerry Lee ain’t like you and me.
When I interviewed him, Jerry Lee had crippling arthritis in his back, a compound fracture of the leg, shingles, pneumonia a couple of times. And that’s the beginning, I can’t even remember all the things that went wrong. He’d lay in his bed while I’d sit beside him in an old rocking chair asking brutally hard questions, some of which had us both laughing out loud.
Q: It’s funny that he and Chuck Berry are about the last of the old-timers left, given how much alike they seem.
A: It’s almost romantic in a way, that it’s come down to two guys so similar in belligerence and toughness. They used to look at each other like game roosters in a barnyard, fighting over who was gonna close the show, who was more man, who was more rock ’n’ roll. There was the infamous burning-piano incident, where Jerry Lee torched the piano as he was walking offstage just to see Chuck Berry’s face. But Jerry Lee would say it don’t matter who’s the last one left, he is the stud duck of rock ’n’ roll.
Q: Did you ever get him mad at you?
A: A couple times, yeah. But he never stayed mad because we had an understanding that he’d have to talk about things that were uncomfortable, embarrassing and quite frankly heartbreaking – like the deaths of his two sons. There were times he’d physically turn away, but he’d always come back and finish the thought. People who ask if he didn’t want to talk about this or that don’t understand Jerry Lee. Jerry Lee doesn’t want to be whitewashed, which would make him just like you and me. Jerry Lee doesn’t want to be safer or more respectable or more reasonable or even more thoughtful – although he did prove himself to be plenty thoughtful, gracious and almost kind.
He did not ask me to leave out anything and he talked plenty about the death of wives, busting men over the head with a mike stand, being pursued by the IRS for the greater part of his adult life. Sometimes, at the most embarrassing moments of all, he’d laugh out loud. I’ve never interviewed anyone like him, who was so devilishly proud of bedevilment.
Q: Nick Tosches’ “Hellfire,” from 1982, has long been regarded as the definitive Lewis biography. Was it a challenge to go beyond that?
A: “Hellfire” is a great story, and the writing is just so good. It’s as much a tone poem as anything else, a beautifully dark and grim tale. But when people ask me what I have that nobody else does, I quote my editor: “We had the guy.” That was the difference between us and everything done before.
The first 100 pages are some of my favorites because of what happened in that mud and dirt to create him. Jerry Lee disagrees, he says he’d have been a rock ’n’ roll star even if he’d been born in Manhattan or Kansas. But I think a lot of it had to do with the Louisiana mud and the fact that he was born into that convergence of blues, hillbilly and gospel.
Jerry Lee had been thinking for quite some time that he’d like to tell his story, his side. He’d kinda danced around with different folks over the decades and wanted to finally have his say in the autumn of his life. My editor is a huge Jerry Lee fan and a piano player himself. Jerry Lee and I don’t have a lot in common; I can’t even play the radio. But he figured we had enough to where it’d be a good fit and I think it was. Southern is Southern, whether it’s Appalachia or the Louisiana bottomland.
I joke that I should’ve gotten myself a three-month supply of beef jerky and bottled water, taken the tags off my car, fled and not come back until it was safely underway with some other poor fool. It was not easy just because of the nature of Jerry Lee and his world. But I look at the elegant cover and I’m proud I did it.
Q: The question comes up throughout the book, can a man sing rock ’n’ roll and still go to heaven?
A: That question haunts Jerry Lee still and lingers on. It’s one he asked Elvis and it terrified him; he turned white and walked away. Obviously any Southern boy is gonna think about this. But I tend to agree with Jerry Lee and his mama. You can commit a lot of meanness in the name of rock ’n’ roll, be selfish and cruel and pollute your body with all manner of chemicals. But Jerry Lee’s mama told him his gift came from God and had the power to lift the blues off people. When I hear him on the radio, driving down some highway with 400 miles to go, I’m immediately transported to a place where the smoke is so thick it’s blue, the air smells like perfume and the floor is slick with a thousand years of beer. It’s a haven and it may not be heaven, but it takes the blues off.
Q: Does he really keep a gun under his pillow?
A: Oh yeah. Not his pillow, but the one on the passenger side, so to speak. If he had a bad dream, well, it was going to get dealt with violently. He showed me his .357 and I could not help noticing the bullet holes in that bedroom’s walls, or thinking about how he shot his bass player. “He didn’t MEAN to shoot his bass player,” I told myself, but was he any less shot? Well, no.
He told me about that, how someone handed him the gun and said, “Be careful, Jerry Lee, it’s got a hair trigger.” Everyone was in the middle of “unconsolable drinking,” as he put it, and of course it was cocked. Only in the South would someone in a roomful of drunks hand over a cocked and loaded gun. You’ve got to love our people.
So the book is on the best-seller list, critical success is in place. Things have gone as good as I could hope. But the bottom line is I made it through and I’m not even trying to be funny. I tell people all the time at book signings: Jerry Lee ain’t like you and me.