Killer Over the Rainbow

I wrote this for the Oxford American a long time ago (Issue 27/28). I’ve added YouTube links.

Forget about the marriage — his third, her first — to the thirteen-year-old cousin, Myra Gail Brown. (“I plumb married the girl, didnít I?” he asked, plaintively, not comprehending the outrage that almost ruined his career; to him, it wasn’t as though he had seduced and abandoned her.) Forget that both Jimmy Swaggart and Mickey Gilley are his cousins. Forget all the stories — for example, the one about how his career as a preacher-to-be ended when he was expelled from Bible college for turning the hymns he played into raucous roadhouse anthems. Forget the Lewis Ranch, in Nesbit, Mississippi, that scaled-down Graceland which occasionally gets attached by the IRS but currently features for its guests “The Killer’s Kar Kollection.” Forget the plain-faced bragging: “My only regret in life,” he said not long ago, “is that I’ve never sat in the audience and watched a Jerry Lee Lewis show.” There are many other things people claim he said, most of them being braggadocious too; forget all of them.

Of course, I’m asking too much. Long, long ago Jerry Lee Lewis became those stories, those reports, those scandals: taken together, they constitute The Killer. But every now and then I almost forget, and when that happens I hear the songs. Not “Great Balls of Fire,” not “Whole Lotta Shakiní Goin’ On.” I doubt I’ll ever be able to hear those again. But take another song, a relatively unknown one: when “Great Balls of Fire” came out in 1957, the B-side was a Hank Williams cover, “You Win Again.” When Hank Sr. did it, it was terrific, a classic guitar-based country blues. But Jerry Lee and his piano take it altogether elsewhere: the rolling boogie-woogie bass line in the left hand, sounding almost like Fats Waller at times, the gospel chords and blues licks with the right, the max-reverb vocal soaring above it all — it’s a masterpiece, nothing less, and though Hank wrote the song Jerry Lee makes it utterly his own. Listening to “You Win Again” you wonder, for a moment, why Elvis is Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis just another “legend of rock and roll.” You think, the momentum could have swung the other way.

But, largely because of the disastrous marriage to Myra in 1958, it didn’t. When the news got out, promoters canceled Lewis’s concert dates and record store managers swept his records off the shelves. It would be the better part of a decade before Jerry Lee could reassemble his career into something reasonably whole, and he achieved the reassembly, in large part, by preserving and even exaggerating every quirky trait that he had become famous for in those early days: the heavy-fisted glissandos, the constant thundering boogie rhythms, the vocal squeals and hiccups — and yes, stomping on the piano, that kind of thing too. But eventually Lewis extracted a kind of magnificence even from self-parody.

Twenty-three years after “You Win Again” he released his version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” in his hands a song completely without restraint or taste. “You Win Again” sounds demure in comparison. Someone once said that Casablanca is a great movie not because it avoids film clichés, but because it joyfully employs every possible cliché into its two hours; Jerry Lee’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is like that. He simply wonít acknowledge the clash between his trademark mannerisms and the song’s style and structure: he takes the old classic and unhesitatingly filters it through his sensibility, making no compromises and taking no prisoners. It goes in Judy Garland and comes out the Killer. As I listen to the song, a part of me says that he’s simply crazy, laughably crazy; but I also recall that we sometimes have another name for this abject refusal to swerve or be sidetracked. That other part of me says: if this ain’t genius I don’t know what is.