Jerry Lee Lewis

Cubby Bear, April 10

By Sarah Vowell

Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth once wrote that the reason concertgoers pay for tickets isn’t just for the music but to watch performers believing in themselves. If that’s true, the 20 bucks it takes to see Jerry Lee Lewis in the flesh might be the biggest bargain in rock ‘n’ roll. He defies the rules of grammar the rest of us take for granted; while some people occasionally refer to themselves in the third person, Jerry Lee has invented a form that can only be called third legend, singing his own name something like 36 times over the course of a recent Cubby Bear evening. He mostly treats his backing band as if they don’t exist (though guitarist Kenny Lovelace’s weird perm is hard to miss), reminding us that we came to see “rockin’ Jerry Lee from Memphis, Tennessee,” and later wondering, “Why the hell does everybody hafta pick on Jerry Lee?”

There are a number of concrete answers to that last question, and none of them has to do with his clearly inspired musicianship. The defiant piano playing, that still volcanic voice (after all these years), the true soul spilling over the painful slow songs, and the letchy growl that makes the fast ones boil over: these are the reasons why the Killer has gotten away with an egomania so deep and wide that even greedy infants tear themselves away from their mothers’ breasts to scold him. Married six times–number three was his 13-year-old cousin, and number four died under mysterious circumstances shortly before their divorce was final–Lewis has taken pride in living down to his image. Stories of his sins are so manifold I almost wish I still believed in good old-fashioned hell just so I’d know he’d finally get what he deserved.

Last year, after Lewis released a fine new album (with the tsk-tsk title Young Blood), a friend said, “Somebody needs to stare down the Mike Tyson in this guy.” Funny how Jerry Lee showed up in Chicago exactly the same week that Tyson blew through town and stayed just long enough to allegedly harass a woman at a club. But all the women at Lewis’s Cubby Bear show were probably safe–the carding policy is so strictly observed that they’re all too old for Jerry Lee anyway.

And yet.

And yet. Those are the two words I find myself using most often in reference to Jerry Lee Lewis. He’s an asshole, and yet the pathos of his “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)” might be my favorite hangover song put down on tape; and yet “To Make Love Sweeter for You” may actually indicate some latent desire for mutual satisfaction; and yet “Great Balls of Fire” is dirty, sacrilegious, funny, and bursting at the seams (i.e., everything a rock song should be and more); and yet I can’t seem to go more than three or four days without spinning his greatest hits, a 42-song set beginning with “Crazy Arms” and ending with “Rockin’ My Life Away” that has more fiery potential than a box of oily rags on an August afternoon.

At the Cubby Bear Lewis pulls his head back like Dracula going in for the kill. Then, temporarily defanged, he delivers a graceful version of “Lucille,” so full of respectful longing you get the feeling he’s talking about an actual grown-up woman. It’s not a night, however, marked by adulthood. He sticks to his youthful chestnuts, but he plays them well. “High School Confidential” bounces around the room, “Chantilly Lace” is as lewd and frantic as it ever was, and “Great Balls of Fire” finds the sexagenarian kicking his chair down and playing the keyboard with his butt. Ending on “Goodnight Irene,” he stuffs the microphone down his pants, makes a crappy attempt at playing Lovelace’s guitar (while it’s still strapped on to Lovelace, a good sport), and leaves the stage as he must have done a million times before, in a flurry of autograph seekers and zealous fans trying to touch his hands. But despite their rabid screams, there’s no encore. Even Jesus came back before the ascension. And yet Jerry Lee is of the other place. “I have the Devil in me!” was his famous shout to Sam Phillips decades ago, and I’m convinced.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.