Jerry Lee Lewis picked up the nickname Killer as a boy, sent to the principal’s office for fighting his teacher.
He spent a lifetime more or less living up to the name, as Rick Bragg shows in “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story.” The legends of violence around the rockin’ piano man from Concordia Parish aren’t legends, Bragg says: “They’re true.”
So when, during a day of interviews at Lewis’ Mississippi home, the Killer whispered, “This feller’s about to get shot,” Bragg went a little cold.
“Jerry Lee and I got along famously,” Bragg said. “But I had to ask him some things that reminded him of a broken heart, that reminded him of a great sadness. … I had to ask him some things that made him a little mad. So when he said, ‘This feller’s about to get shot,’ it’s not unreasonable that it might be you.”
It wasn’t Bragg. And that’s good news for us, for there never was a more perfect match than Bragg, with his lyrical, distinctly Southern storytelling, and Lewis, the man with a million stories.
Bragg doesn’t shy away from the rough edges in Lewis’ life, and there are many — women, marriages, fights, drugs, bottles, death. Always death.
“He hates to concede any weakness when his back is up; it is almost always up,” Bragg writes. “But he says that his son’s death, so close to Mamie’s, ‘really knocked me off my feet. I didn’t know a thing could hurt that bad. It seemed like it was all I done, was bury my people. It seemed like all I did was stand and watch these people I loved …’ There was a hopelessness in it, because what was it all for if the people he loved most were gone?”
Talking about emotions such as that, you can see where the Killer might have gotten ornery.
As with all of Bragg’s books, each word pulls and works like a mule hauling a plow, carving ridges and rows. You can smell the dirt and the sweat and the whiskey, hear the thump of a church band and the clang of Jerry Lee beating a piano into dust. It is just this side of magic.
And about Jerry Lee; he is there in all his humanity. Given his antics, his wild, piano-flailing, gun-toting, bassist-shooting, cousin-marrying past, you expect maybe a madman, a vortex of music and yelling and sweat. But Bragg gives you just a man, stripped clean of myth, but who wears his rock star bravado like a bespoke suit.
He is, Bragg says, very much a product of his environment, of the low country hard against the Mississippi River, “a place where people were literally fighting for a little scrap of survival.”
And faith. At his core is Jerry Lee’s faith, with him since boyhood, grown stronger over the years.
“Salvation came at you like a horseshoe,” Bragg says of the Ferriday of Jerry Lee’s youth. “Preachers preached it harder than a person could live it. Sin was just as strong. And the music. All this swirling music. This hillbilly music. This great blues. This soulful gospel that would send chills down your back.”
Jerry Lee, Bragg says, calls his music a rattlesnake.
“What he meant was music that was benign or vanilla,” Bragg explains. “None of the music Jerry Lee grew up with was vanilla. You can see a million corn snakes or rat snakes, but when you see your first rattlesnake, you’ll know.”
Rick Bragg knows it. With this book, he has one by the tail.
Follow Beth Colvin on Twitter, @bethcolvinreads.