Mean Old Man: Hellfire – Nick Tosches

Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis storyHellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis story by Nick Tosches

A fiery, energetic look at the first half of Jerry Lee Lewis’ life and career, Nick Tosches’ Hellfire is a great read. It covers way more than just The Killer, starting deep down the line of the Lewis family, at the harsh Louisiana landscape and the even-harsher Pentecostal religion with formed and shaped the inherent contradictions in Lewis.

As Tosches makes clear, inside Lewis has a tortured soul: he was raised in a strict religious upbringing, nearly became a preacher and rose to prominence as a hard rocking piano player, singing songs about screwing, getting drunk and raising a ruckus. On a very visceral level, Lewis’ music is pounding rock and roll, what he himself would call Devil’s Music. But when things go bad, Lewis retreats into religion, recording gospel and preaching to whomever will listen. And, almost as suddenly, he’ll show up on stage in shades and start banging out Great Balls of Fire and the wheel turns again.

There is a lot of supposition here and frequent, sudden changes of scenery as Lewis descends into addiction. But what makes Tosches’ book stand out is his forceful prose, it’s biblical echoes and allusions to fire and brimstone. This is a book where a reference to Jezebel being eaten by dogs is alongside a passing reference to Billboard’s C&W charts. Like Lewis himself, it teeters back and forth and reads like no other musical biography I’ve read.

Inside is a lot of information about Lewis, his troubled marriages, the death of his two sons and the depths of his drug and booze addictions. It’s often countered with looks at his first cousin, the preacher Jimmy Lee Swaggart, who learned to play music on the very same piano but who went in a totally different direction.

The spectre of religion haunts Lewis and his music. Just listen to the shouting match between him and Sam Phillips from a 1957 recording session. Just listen to the bombastic quotes Lewis gives every so often about dragging his audience to hell. Just listen to his albums and how he switches back and forth from gospel to rock to country and back again. As Tosches makes crystal clear, he’s a troubled man.

And yet, he’s also trouble, man. Reading about all the insanity of Lewis’ life – the addictions, shooting a band member, losing everything to the IRS and having his career collapse on him more than few times – it’s hard to believe he made alive even to the end of this book. He barely made it, nearly dying in 1981, but he did. And somehow, the story’s gotten even weirder: just read this Richard Ben Cramer story about the death of his fifth wife.

As of this writing, he continues still, having evolved into something of an elder statesman of Rock; just a couple of years ago, he released an album called Mean Old Man. I’m glad he has a sense of humour about it all, but I still can’t think of a musician I’d want to hang out with less.

Rating: 8/10. As a book about Lewis, it’s a little dated, stopping when he turns 45. But as a biography, it’s first-rate, capturing not only Lewis, but the world that produced a unique force in music. Recommended.




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