Jerry Lee Lewis is still alive. He’s the one tasked to carry the torch for Sun Records. Everybody else is gone, from Carl Perkins on down to Cowboy Jack Clement. It’s 2014. He’s got a new album out. Tour dates too, theoretically. He’s got a website and everything.
It’s not supposed to be like that. Jerry Lee Lewis is a guy who drove furiously drunk to Graceland with a 38 derringer and demanded to see Elvis at 2 in the morning. Jerry Lee Lewis is a guy who did a staggering amount of pills and a superhuman amount of drinking, the sort of “pound a fifth before breakfast” drinking that’s physically repellant just to imagine. He’s a Christian who spent most of his career living like a Greek God. He shot his bass player.
Narratively speaking, he’s not supposed to be the last of the line. He’s supposed to be the coulda-been. The guy with 6 singles who inspires semi-annual “what if he had made it to 30?” discussions on European rockabilly blogs. He’s supposed to be some dark myth. You know, the forgotten cult legend, the secret you’re not ready for, who didn’t need to wear black, who shuffled off the earth before the Beatles broke America. Jerry Lee Lewis was supposed to die by driving his Rolls-Royce off the top of Mount Everest in July 1963. Yet here he is, 79 years old, occupying the same Billboard chart as Taylor Swift.
Now, I got this rule about living legends and whether to be impressed by their longevity. It’s not about how long they live: it’s about whether they beat the spread. It’s not very impressive that Willie Nelson is 81, because he carries himself like an introspective guy who has attentive handlers that treat him right. And it wasn’t impressive at all when Bob Hope made it to 100, because he seemed like somebody who had an around-the-clock nurse staff with white boards that said KEEP HIM ALIVE! in big blue dry erase marker, carefully underlined. The spread for Bob Hope was 98 and he beat it by two.
The spread for Jerry Lee Lewis was 28. He’s got it beat by 51 years. For Bob Hope to wow me like that, he’d have to be giving interviews to Larry King in 2048 in the irradiated, walled-off, robot-sniper-nests-at-Chick-fil-A ruins of the San Fernando Valley.
So a new album by a living, breathing Jerry Lee Lewis is an incomprehensible suggestion no matter how many times it happens. The man is a Dexedrine heart attack walking. He’s got that voice, like a lawnmower being revved up at your kitchen table, that only Howlin’ Wolf had from birth and everybody else fakes by screaming into a pillow before they go to the studio.
And once upon a time, he recorded Live at the Star Club. It’s one of those albums I can’t even talk about because it’s so tempting to get greedy about superlatives and look like a liar. A vicious, thundering performance where everything is too fast and the songs aren’t sung so much as roared. It makes you want to steal a car. By that metric, which is the only good one for rock and roll, it’s perfect.
So where does this baggage leave The Killer, the rock and roll icon who has outlived virtually all of his peers? Mostly it leaves him as a literary figure. An excuse for southern writers to try out all their “how do you explain a man without first explaining the rivers, and not just the rivers, but the mud around the rivers, and the sinners and death and hell and Huey Long and mama who were swept away by her?”-isms.
Because Jerry Lee Lewis can’t quite exist in the present tense. He can’t have the second act of a Johnny Cash or Roy Orbison. He doesn’t have the charisma for the redemption bit. He looks too mean, too stubborn. He can’t pull off a big Glastonbury love-in.
All he can do is make Jerry Lee Lewis albums. He’s a force of will, all personality. He can’t feign the scholarly-minded flexibility required to cover Nine Inch Nails with a straight face or even pretend he cares a whole lot about lyrics.
The result is that his “comeback” albums, which try their damndest to be star-studded classic rock kitsch-fests, all come out as regular Jerry Lee Lewis albums, and succeed entirely on his terms. Last Man Standing is wonderful, a good time rock and roll album without pretense so long as you squint and pretend Kid Rock’s not on it. And its follow up, Mean Old Man is a worthy successor, a good time rock and roll album with a bent toward ballads so long as you squint and pretend Kid Rock’s not on it.
The new one is Rock & Roll Time. Its biggest strength is that it has no aspirations of being an event album. It doesn’t try and make you think about mortality or Kid Rock. It doesn’t try to add to the bombast of the myth or humor the feature writers with some well-curated Blind Willie Johnson cover. The only thing newsworthy about it is that it’s Jerry Lee Lewis. Eleven songs totaling 32 minutes and the best song on it is the title track, same as it always goes. It seems effortless, tossed-off, like he could do three of these a year but doesn’t feel like it.
It falters in two places though. and here he has the opposite problem of every aging rocker. “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Promised Land” are two of the finest songs ever written, both of them demanding unshakable conviction, but he stumbles over the lyrics and has no focus. The performances are deflated and labored. He sounds tired. It makes you wish he could have done them at the Star Club all those years ago, and beat you up with the lyrics. It’s a reminder of his mortality, and he doesn’t wear it well.
There’s something to be said for the workhorse quality of Rock & Roll Time, which as always features a couple songs that stack up next to any of his other studio work, but the best thing about it is the cover. It’s just him standing in front of Sun Studios, as if to say “I’m Jerry Lee Lewis and I’m still here. Isn’t that enough?”