Jerry Lee Lewis is the embodiment of rock ‘n’ roll. He’s the Pretty Boy Floyd of piano players whose cultural significance can hardly be overstated. And just as the outlaws of the 1930s were far more dynamic than their popular image, so too were the outlaws of 1950s popular culture. Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley, to name a few, burst into uncharted territory where the traditional lines drawn between poor Southern whites and poor Southern blacks began to tremble against the power of a music that we now call rock ‘n’ roll and changed the world forever.
In one of the best rock biographies of recent memory, Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, former New York Times journalist and professor of writing at the University of Alabama, Rick Bragg, paints perhaps one of the most human and rich portraits of the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer. The work is so eloquent (in spite of what Stephen King wrote about it in the New York Times) readers may feel as though they are sitting there in the room with the aged icon as he reminisces and rants revealing both the tenderness and fury that made him a legend.
Of course this sort of sympathetic tale-telling may be lost on some and scoffed at by the likes of the New York Times, but what the Times’ review by Stephen King fails to comprehend is the basic meaning of Bragg’s title: this is Jerry Lee Lewis’s own story as told to Bragg. The book doesn’t just tell the tale of Jerry Lee’s life. What Bragg does is let Jerry Lee tell his own tale. And that’s the beauty of it. Of course we can forgive poor ol’ Stephen though for failing to fully appreciate all of this; not only is Steven from about as far from the South as a person can get (Maine), he’s not a journalist (hell, even his fiction is pretty trite), nor is he a musician. (And yes, Steve, we saw that you made sure to mention that you play rhythm guitar in The Rock Bottom Remainders in your Times review but that hardly qualifies you to start writing reviews about musician bios. Do yourself a favor and don’t tell people you’re in a band, man. Then they’ll look you up on Youtube and find this. I rest my case.)
Anyhow, back to rock ‘n’ roll and journalism and reality and all that.
From the introduction to the final chapter, Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story is engrossing, not only in that it gives a first person account of life through the eyes of Lewis, but that it offers Lewis’s own account of some of the most influential moments and musicians of the twentieth century. But the true genius of Bragg’s work with Lewis is that he has bound the man to his world and made his story universal in a sense. Granted, the book is sort of a self-portrait of one man, but it is also a journey into the soul of the South through all of its stubborn glory and sordid contradictions.
The author, Bragg, is a Southern man himself born and raised in central Alabama and tells the story of “The Killer” with a sort of sympathy that only a real Southerner could fully appreciate. Bragg’s previous works have also been highly acclaimed. In 1996, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for journalism. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Bragg’s biography of Jerry Lee Lewis is written in a journalistic style, weaving the life story of one man through the beautiful and dangerous world that produced him.
Unlike most biographers that rely on Freudian archetypes to give their books an appearance of real depth, Bragg dodges such over-used conventions and avoids cheap psychoanalytic mind-reading to let Jerry Lee speak through him. Lewis recounts his family’s history as Louisiana bootleggers and his father’s time in prison is recounted along with other anecdotes from a wild childhood in tough times in a tough part of the world that might have broken or killed lesser men. But in the fashion of a true Southern gentleman, Jerry Lee tells his tale with dignity and those he can’t tell in that fashion he courteously avoids. And while he certainly never forgets the importance of his own myth-making, he embellishes without malice and in an endearing way as others might tell fish tales. What he never does is place blame on others for the many vices that, throughout his life, nearly destroyed him. He never blames his parents, whom he recalls with warmth and tenderness. Even in his brief theological meanderings, Lewis avoids laying blame for his inequities on the Devil and prefers to accept his own responsibility in the choices that gave rise to so much scandal during a career which spanned seven decades.
While the book is rich in detail about the off-stage life of The Killer, it is a book about the music, the power of music and the importance of music. Wherever a story or reflection may lead, Jerry Lee always brings the conversation back to music – from the day he spotted his father, Elmo, coming up the drive with a piano for his son in the back of his truck through all his better known triumphs and tribulations – to his very last performances and recordings and hopes for one more great comeback.
Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story is filled with so many brilliant phrases but the passage that might sum up this excellent book can be found in the introduction where Bragg recounts one of his interviews with Jerry Lee.
Later, on one of those quiet, weary afternoons, I have one more question before we stop for the night.
“Didn’t I hear once that you…” But he cuts me off.
“Yeah,” he says. “I probably did.
Here’s to Jerry Lee and Rick Bragg for all they’ve given us in this fine book.
JERRY LEE LEWIS
His Own Story
By Rick Bragg
Illustrated. 498 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $27.99.
By J.D. THOMPSON
J.D. Thompson is a musician and writer. His first album, Chasing Demons, was released in 2009 and has since released several singles which can be heard at www.thompsonautomatic.com.