Nick Tosches’ 1982 biography of Jerry Lee Lewis is one of the best rock books in print, and a worthy rendering of a man nicknamed ‘Killer’. Lewis is an idiosyncratic character who, in his own words, was “one mean sonofabitch”. He’s first cousins with the preacher Jimmy Swaggart, and his life has been an ongoing struggle between the sacred and the profane, with plenty of madness thrown in for good measure. Tosches captures the tone of Lewis’ twisted life with a writing style that’s part biblical brimstone, part gumshoe detective. Hellfire isn’t just a great story, it’s a first-rate piece of writing and a perfectly stylized biography of a truly American character.
Witness Tosches’ vivid description of what happened when Lewis’ disapproving father first discovered him playing rock music in some Southern den of iniquity:
Elmo walked past the crowded bar, past the roulette wheel, the blackjack table, and the Beat-My-Shake – walked until he saw his son, sitting up there at the piano, pounding and howling about how them big-legged women better keep their dresses down ’cause when he stared drillin’ on ‘em they were gonna lose their nightgowns, and that old blind man standing up there next to him, nodding his head up and down and wrenching at that electric squeeze-box as if it were the instrument of his blindness and he could not free himself from it. Elmo liked it – all of it. He had him a drink, and he liked it even more.
The book opens with Jerry Lee getting arrested at the gates of Graceland after causing a drunken disturbance in the wee hours of the morning, and after covering the bases of his life, circles back to an aging rocker losing his grip on reality. One nightmare sequence sees Jerry Lee morphing from dressing room to dressing room, the only things that remain constant are the drink in his hand and the idiotic reporter across from him asking inane questions. It’s a scarifying, crystalline take on the mind-numbing rigors of fame. Another passage finds him lost on tour somewhere in the midwest, ordering a bottle of booze from room service and watching the static on his television turn into a swarm of insects. This is chilling stuff, and from everything I can glean from Lewis’ character, it ought to be.
A straight-up re-telling of the facts of Jerry Lee Lewis’ life would make for an unsatisfying account. It’s a credit to Tosches’ stylized writing that even though Hellfire is nearly 30 years old, it still reads like the definitive biography of a rock and roll hell-raiser.
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