By Nick Tosches
14 October 2014
Jerry Lee Lewis performs at the Rainbow theatre in London, England in December 1978. Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns
Dressed like a side-street gambler from the days when chrome was chrome, Jerry Lee Lewis sits in the dressing room of the Palomino Club, holding loosely in his lap a half-drained quart of Seagram’s like the unglowing sceptre of an ancient fading kingship.
He looks mean. But not as mean as last night, when he straightened out that chump in the audience with one fast, cruel line; when he threw that swaggering record-company lifer from his dressing room; when, at night’s end, he dared any man present to lift a hand against him. I tried to talk to him last night, but he was in too dark a mood. “What’s the weather gonna be like tomorrow in China?” he asked me. I told him I didn’t know, didn’t care; and he snarled his disgust. “Where do you wanna be buried?” he asked me. “By the ocean,” I answered. That was better. He nodded his indulgent approval. And so it went last night. Toward the end, he would talk of nothing but the Bible. At the end, he would talk of nothing at all.
But, yes, tonight the Killer is in a better mood. He hasn’t thrown anyone out of his dressing room, nor threatened anyone’s life, nor cussed anyone too badly. Not yet, anyway. He looks at the tape-recorder I have set before him the way a man might look at a snake, trying to decide if it’s venomous. He takes one of my cigarettes and starts smoking it. I say something:
NT: Yesterday we were talking about the Bible, and you said that your favourite book was Revelations.
JLL: That isn’t what I said. I said from Genesis to Revelation. Take it as a whole. It’d be hard to choose a favourite book in the Bible. Lord, there’s so many great books. I studied it, studied it all my life. Greatest history book in the world, if you take it word for word, from Genesis to Revelation. All the way. Don’t leave nothin’ behind. Don’t skip over here and skip back over there, take what you want, leave what you want. That ain’t the way God intended it to be read.
NT: Haven’t you ever run across anything in the Bible that you can’t understand?
JLL: You know why you don’t understand it? Cuz you’re lookin’ for an easy way out. Now, if you can show me somethin’ in there that’ll show me how to get outta this thing without burnin’ my ass off in hell, I wanna know where it’s at. You and me, we’re gonna burn in hell. We’re in trouble. We’re sinners, goin’ to hell.
NT: I ain’t so sure about that. You really think we’re goin’ to hell?
JLL: Straight as a gourd. I think we’ve been extended long enough. We’ve been smiled upon quite a bit. The time is near.
NT: How near, Killer?
JLL: Well, nearer than you think. We don’t have the promise of the next breath. We’re goin’ to hell. Fire and brimstone. The fire never dies, the burnin’ never dies, the fire never quenches for the weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth. Yessir, goin’ to hell. The Bible tells us so.
NT: Ain’t nobody going to heaven?
JLL: Very few, very few. It’s a hard place to get to, son. Can’t get there through the Palomino Club, that’s for sure. Church can’t get you to heaven. Religion can’t get you to heaven. Ain’t no such thing as religion anyway. The Bible never speaks of religion; it speaks of salvation.
NT: Next week, Jackson Browne and a bunch of other singers are going to perform at an anti-nuclear rally, nearby in San Luis Obispo. How do you feel about people who combine music and politics?
JLL: Bunch of damn idiots.
NT: So you don’t figure on playing at any anti-nuke shows in the near future.
JLL: To hell with ’em all! Blow ’em all up! Blow everybody clear to hell! Get it over quick! Just don’t kill no alligators in Louisiana. Leave them alone. I married a few of ’em.
NT: Did you keep the hides?
JLL: They damn near got my hide.
NT: Have you ever thought of producing your own records?
JLL: Every record I ever done, I produced. All them cats ever did was follow me around in the studio, try to keep up with me. Who would you vote for, me or Linda Ronstadt?
NT: I never voted in my life. Never will.
JLL: Well, son, what if you had to vote?
NT: I wouldn’t vote for either of you fools, that’s for sure. What could force me to vote?
JLL: Cat with a hide-whip standin’ over ya, whuppin’ ya on the butt with it.
NT: Hell, I’d vote for him.
JLL: That’s sharp. You’d vote for me, then.
NT: Anything you say, Killer. Somebody was telling me the other day about your pushing a piano into the ocean.
JLL: You’re damn right I did. That was in Charleston, South Carolina, a while back. I pushed it outta the auditorium. I pushed it down the street. I pushed it down the pier. Pushed it right into the ocean. Don’t rightly recall why I did it. The piano musta been no good. I just started pushin’ it and it built up steam. Conway Twitty was standin’ there starin’. I don’t think they ever redeemed that piano. I think Jaws got a hold of it.
NT: You’ve been married five times now…
JLL: That’s my goddam business.
NT: … Do you know any more about women now than you did the first time you got married?
JLL: A skirt’s a skirt.
NT: Is that knowledge gonna lead to a sixth marriage?
JLL: I don’t know, son. Maybe God intends for me to live out my life alone.
NT: Have you ever thought of getting into real acting?
JLL: I don’t want no part of it. I hate it. Actors work hard at their job, like I do. But I never did care about actin’. That’s somethin’ I just never did wanna get into. There’s been some great actors, though. Humphrey Bogart, Charles Laughton, Robert Mitchum. I like watchin’ them old movies. I’d hate to take that part of my life away. I like to sit back and watch them suckers, enjoy ’em, knowin’ I don’t have to be in ’em. Take them guys, Abbott and Costello. They were sharp, very sharp. Singin’, dancin’, duckin’ under water, talkin’, or what; it made no difference. They had it, boy, they truly did.
NT: Do you think you might have missed out on much if you had remained down in Ferriday, Louisiana?
JLL: I really don’t know. I never thought about it, Killer. Hand me back my whiskey. Buncha damn drunkards around here. Y’know, one of them things (points to the recorder) can get a man buried. Could get a man killed. A man be sayin’ somethin’ drinkin’, somebody take that tape and use it against him. Get ’im killed. (Sings:) I’ll be here, son, when you’re gone… Know what I think’s your problem? You want your cake and eat it, too.
NT: Sure, why not?
JLL: Damn! You just pissin’ against the wind. You gonna live, you gonna die. You got a soul, you ain’t no animal. And that soul’s goin’ to heaven or it’s goin’ to hell. There’s just two places to go. On Judgment Day, you and I are gonna have to give account for the deeds that we’ve done, the sins that we’ve –
NT: Why are you so obsessed with dyin’ and goin’ to hell. Jerry?
JLL: I’m a sinner, I know it. Soon you and me are gonna have to reckon with the chilling hands of death.
NT: Why the hell are we going to hell?
JLL: Because Satan has power next to God. We ain’t loyal to God, we must be loyal to Satan. Got to be loyal 24 hours a day, brother. There ain’t no in-between. Temptation is the lowest of sins. Jesus was tempted, but he overcome it. That’s why we’re sittin’ here now. You are what you are. You shall serve whomever you served on Earth. You can’t serve two gods. You love one and hate the other. The Bible says you cannot serve God and Mammon. Can’t serve two gods. You’ll love one and hate the other.
NT: Do you figure Elvis went to heaven or to hell?
JLL: You’re not draggin’ me into that one. I’ll tell ya, it sure is a shame. Elvis had plenty of time to prepare hisself. I talked to him quite a bit about his soul. (Starts singing Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds.) Y’know, son, there’s only been four of us: Al Jolson, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Jerry Lee Lewis. That’s your only goddam four stylists that ever lived. We could write, sing, yodel, dance, make love, or what. Makes no damn difference. The rest of these idiots is either ridin’ a damn horse, pickin’ a guitar, or shootin’ somebody in some stupid damn movie.
NT: What other piano players do you like?
JLL: Chuck Berry. Hell, I can’t think of any piano players. I don’t know none but myself. (Sings) “Down the road, down the road, down the road apiece....” I remember that one, the piano player who did that one. That was in 1947. Then in ’48 he came out with (Sings) “Have fryers, broilers, and good old barbecue beef... you never seen such a sight, down at the house, the house, the house of blue lights.” That’s one of my favourites, man, I swear. People don’t realise that I have been doin’ these songs ever since they were number-ones, 1947, 1948. Since I was a little child, man, growin’ up. (Sings) “Down in New Orleans where everything’s fine, all them cats are drinkin’ that wine.” I got the original record of that, Drinkin’ Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee. My cousin gave it to me many years ago. I played that sucker and played it and played it till I wore the damn thing out. It had it. But it didn’t have it like my version had it. A song can be good, but it can’t be great till I cut it.
NT: Do you ever get sick of singing Great Balls of Fire night after night?
JLL: I gotta do it. Them folks would yell for their money back if I didn’t. I mean, hell, we sold like 38, 39 million records on it. Whole Lotta Shakin’ done sold over 100 million records, if y’can believe that. The guy that wrote it, he’s been dead. They got in a big squabble over who wrote it. They don’t rightly know who wrote it. The publishin’ was all tied up. It went back into court again. Big Mama Thornton did it. She didn’t do it like I did it, though. Hell, they oughta give me credit for writin’ the damn thing. I rewrote the whole song. It’s funny that me and Elvis should have two big hit records by Big Mama Thornton. That’s strange. She’s been dead now for many years.
NT: No, she’s still alive.
JLL: Hell, no, she’s been dead for at least 20 years now, son, that’s a fact.
NT: Is it true, Jerry, that your ancestors used to own Monroe, Louisiana?
JLL: That’s a fact. Before it was Monroe. The Lewis Plantation. My great-great-grandfather owned it. He could take his fist, hit a horse, knock that horse to his knees. A hell of a man, Old Man Lewis. Then they turned his slaves loose. Hell, they got a big history, the Lewises. Wild drinkers. Wild gamblers. Sinners, all of ’em. I tell you, son. I’m a mean, mean man.
NT: It would seem like that at times.
JLL: Man, I could take that there tape-recorder and shove it up your…
NT: Why in hell would you wanna try to do something like that?
JLL: Just to prove I can.
NT: Do you really think you’re that mean, Jerry?
JLL: Hell, I don’t know. I wouldn’t think so. They say I am. They’ve always called me the Killer. I often wondered why. I think they meant it musically speakin’, not like I’d go around killin’ people. Hell, the only thing I ever killed was a Louisiana mosquito. The Killer. Lord, I hate that damn name.
© Nick Tosches, 1979