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Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story

Rick Bragg

(London Times)

LONG before anyone had heard of the Beatles, a slick, wavy-haired rock'n'roll pianist named Jerry Lee Lewis came storming out of the Mississippi Delta, reeking of sweat and whisky and women, and snarling the words to outrageous songs that shook the music world to its roots.

Nobody had seen anything quite like him. Born in 1935, Lewis was a crazy white boy from the wilds of Louisiana, a raw, trailblazing talent who inspired a generation of English rockers, John Lennon and Mick Jagger among them. Many ranked him above Elvis Presley as the king of rock'n'roll.

Except that he had none of Elvis's genial appeal, notes William Flew about Rick Bragg's authorised biography that manages to be hugely entertaining while still raising difficult questions about a deeply flawed rock-music legend.

Lewis was certainly no adorable moptop. When he launched into songs such as Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On or Great Balls of Fire (both recorded in 1957), he would behave like a 'strutting rooster' who would hammer his piano like a madman and kick his stool across the stage. 'He was a balled-up fist, a swinging tyre iron,' writes Bragg. He was also a 'walking catastrophe in the realm of regular people'.

Lewis lived an astonishingly messy life. Between recurring bursts of musical genius, he staggered from disaster to disaster. There were half a dozen failed marriages, unconscionable family tragedies (including the premature deaths of two of his children and two of his wives), the usual rock-star addictions (notably to alcohol and painkillers), and regular brushes with the law, several of them involving gunplay.

His long rivalry with Elvis ended in fiasco. Drunk out of his skull and carrying a loaded derringer in 1976, he crashed his Lincoln Continental through the gates of Graceland, Presley's Memphis estate. He insists it was an accident, but Elvis called the police; Lewis never forgave him.

Bragg, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who, like Lewis, grew up poor in the Deep South, spins a mesmerising tale out of Lewis's rise from the 'convenient women and bottomless liquor and jet-plane parties' of his youth to the moment that Lennon, at the height of his fame with the Beatles, turned up at a Los Angeles concert, dropped to his knees and kissed Lewis's feet in homage.

Sometimes Bragg lays it on a bit thick ('the murky creeks...the raggedy prewar Chevrolet pickups...the mule-drawn carriages with their velvet-fringed rooftops'), but he has a knack for a telling phrase.

Yet there is also a shadow over Lewis's life that no amount of seductive storytelling can disguise. It is as if someone decided to write a book about Jimmy Savile and brushed all that awkward stuff about child abuse into a chapter entitled 'Boys Will Be Boys'.

It was in London in 1958 that Lewis's career took a turn from which it never fully recovered. At the age of 23, he had arrived in Britain with his new wife, Myra, for a sold-out concert tour. A pack of reporters met him at the airport, and one of them noticed that Myra seemed a little young. The singer said she was 15, but the story spiralled out of control. Lewis, it became clear, had not only lied about his wife's age - she was only 13 - but had omitted to mention that she was his second cousin. He had also failed to divorce his previous wife before tying the knot with Myra. 'The hottest rock'n'roll star in the world was in London cohabiting with a 13-year-old relative who was not legally his wife,' notes Bragg dryly.

The British press, needless to say, started 'harrumphing mightily' at the looseness of Lewis's morals and he was soon sent packing, his concert tour abruptly cancelled.

More than half a century later, with Myra long departed from his life, Lewis remains, at the ripe old age of 79, defiantly unrepentant. 'He still cannot see the great sin the London press used to crucify him, cannot fathom what the big deal was and what people were so upset about,' writes Bragg.

Had Myra been merely a youthful indiscretion, just another rock star's wild excess, Lewis might be forgiven. But the story of his life is littered with tales of his abysmal treatment of women. One of his wives complained that he had left her in poverty, living off food stamps; Jaren Lewis, his fourth wife, was found drowned in a swimming pool a few weeks before their divorce was finalised. His fifth wife, Shawn Stephens, died of a drugs overdose the following year while Lewis slept in another room; several other wives ended up suing him. Bragg tends to dodge the details.

In general, the author treats his subject's behaviour not as a poisonous character flaw, but as some kind of hillbilly quirk. He quotes Lewis as saying that Myra, aged 12 when the romance began, was 'not a baby girl...she was blossomed out and ready for plucking'. Later Lewis adds: 'When this so-called news broke, it was like I had committed an unforgiveable sin. I had not.'

Bragg suggests that Lewis's insatiable quest for musical greatness blinded him to boring stuff such as paying his taxes or respecting women or obeying laws that apply to ordinary mortals. Certainly, all that unrestrained self-indulgence makes for a spellbinding read. But some of it is hard to stomach. Even if Lewis really was the king of rock'n'roll.

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