Sunday, November 7, 2010

Jerry Lee Lewis Lost and Found

Cover art by Jon Langford

"Life" at the Star Club single

Isn’t the currently honored format for carrying on too long about a rocknroll LP the 33 1/3 series of mini-books published by Continuum Books? So what’s all this business about a full-length tome--Jerry Lee Lewis Lost and Found, by Joe Bonomo (Continuum, 2009)--dedicated to, of all things, a LIVE album? Hasn’t Bonomo, author of Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, as well as his own 33 1/3 book on AC/DC’s Highway to Hell LP, gone too far this time?

Before you call overkill, however, keep a couple of things in mind: we’re talking about JERRY LEE LEWIS here, who’s got more rocknroll in his pinky nail than all your Pixies, Stone Roses, and R.E.M.’s--just a few of the subjects in the 33 1/3 book series--put together. Also bear in mind that we’re talking about Jerry Lee Lewis’ Live at the Star Club LP, arguably the greatest live rocknroll record ever made, and possibly the Killer’s own best album. It’s just too big, too loud and raucous and cranked on preludin for some slim, digest-sized booklet to do up proper.

So much story surrounds the making of Live at the Star Club, that the effort to place it in context would seem to require a running start. Smack in the middle of his long exile in the “desert,” that decade, 1958-1968, fraught with plummeting record sales, grueling years on the road, Beatlemania, booze, speed, and public ridicule left over from the Myra Gail scandal, a hardened Killer blew into Hamburg, Germany, backed by another crew of British rockers, the Nashville Teens. On April 5, 1964, onstage at the “fabulous, most beautiful, I mean really swingin’ Star Club,” Lewis would wail out the crowning moment of that exile, captured for posterity by Star Club recording engineer Siggi Loch.

British television appearance, Spring 1964.

In a lucid and sober prose, with the occasional foray into a sort of Reader Response type of crit that personally identifies with the subject, Bonomo tells the story of Lewis’s early 60’s split with Sun Records, his move to Smash/Mercury Records and Shelby Singleton’s clumsy production, the half-filled clubs, the no-shows, i.e., an extended, generally fucked scene for the Killer. It’d be stupid to suggest that the fabled night at the Star Club redeemed the Killer’s exile in the desert. But Loch switched on his machine and began recording, he captured a moment when Jerry Lee Lewis pounded from the piano keys and the crowd the only kind of satisfaction those years would yield. 

Now, if the idea of a song-by-song analysis of Live at the Start Club kinda makes you groan, well, er, you have my sympathies. But relax, because, once the rundown gets underway you’ll be rescued by Bonomo’s great writing. The descriptions of “Mean Woman Blues,” “Money,” “What’d I Say,” and so on, not only avoid tedium, but, at moments can be downright exciting. Think about it: the Killer never gave the Nashville Teens a set list. On the fly they had to figure out what song they were playing next, and the key, and they had to get it all quickly, lest they draw The Wrath. Caught on tape at one point is Jerry Lee Lewis yelling at his drummer “Play that thing right, boy!” According to Bonomo, the Nashville Teens had to wait before each song, “clutching their instruments, their balls, and their pride in the leap.” Jerry Lee Lewis’ Live at the Star Club is such a great rocknroll record that it will likewise have you clutching your own balls "in the leap."  When leaping you might want to pack along a copy of Jerry Lee Lewis Lost and Found, the hardback edition.

Bear Family Records now makes available both a CD and vinyl edition of Jerry Lee Lewis' Live at the Star Club album.

No comments: