gall and gumption

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Jerry Lee Lewis -- II

That's who I listened to at drawing today. I've already mentioned the songs I like. I listened to those, they still seem as brilliant as they ever did. I think what I love about these songs is this combination of qualities: the speaker is highly self-aware but unable to stop screwing up.

It's late and she is waiting
And I know I should go home
But every time I start to leave
They play another song.
Then someone buys another round,
And wherever drinks are free
What's made Milwaukee famous has made a fool out of me.

I love the simplicity of this, how quickly it gets into the story. That's pretty much the whole thing. In the next stanza she tells him "Love and happiness can't live behind those swinging doors," he doesn't listen and she leaves him. Two stanzas tell it all. He's got all these songs, too, about men in midlife crises doing foolish things. "He's thirty-nine and holding/Holding everything he can."

You don't even know if that line is supposed to be funny. It could go either way. And the idea that these sorrows have something ludicrous near their core is one of the unsettling things about Jerry Lee Lewis. It's like how he keeps stamping little personal signatures on things -- referring to "Ol' Jerry Lee" or "The Killer," for example.

Or, God, when he does a cover of "Over the Rainbow." It's such a pretty little song, catchy, simple, you can imagine little girls singing it in kiddie beauty contests and talent shows, can't you? But adults can do magic with it, too. Like Willie Nelson, who made it completely fresh and new in his cover of it. It's a song that makes everybody look good.

Jerry Lee Lewis does it his way, of course, and we know he can sing a ballad; he's even got these sort of Lawrence Welky-sounding backup singers, and it is all very nice with just a few touches of Killerism except that the piano seems to be possessed by an entirely different spirit, an irrepressible spirit that offers its own zany commentary. It suggests complete ownership and identification with the piano; it's his speaking voice as much as any other voice he has, and that voice is original, wild, devilish. It's like he's singing this sweet old show tune and the piano keeps sneaking in to give you this honky-tonkish leer, or to pinch you on the butt, or just to remind you how thoroughly Jerry Lee Lewis enjoys being Jerry Lee Lewis at the piano. it's just totally unselfconscious and brilliant.

I suppose Hank Williams is the guy who wrote the book on taking bad judgment in women, combining it with one's own pigheadedness, and spinning the pathetic and the ludicrous out of it into wonderful songs. Even in the same song.

But I'm not sure even he can beat George Jones at that piquant mix. In "The King Is Gone (And So Are You) the guy sits at home alone after his woman has left him having taken with her everything except one beat up little old table, a unopened Jim Beam decanter shaped like Elvis, and a Flintstones jelly bean jar.
I pulled the head off Elvis,
Filled Fred up to his pelvis
Yabba dabba doo
The King is gone and so are you.

By the end of the song he has drunk of the entire bottle. Elvis and Fred Flintstone are talking to him about women, and he breaks Elvis's nose trying to get the last few drops out of the bottle. I like the economy of the storytelling. None of this "Hold on baby we can make it" crap. Mostly they don't make it.


At 7:37 AM, Blogger Juke said...

I needed that "yabba dabba doo" bit.
And your insights are tight and on the mark for Lewis and Williams. Thanks for this.

At 8:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Had heard that old GJ song many years ago on a 45 rpm juke box in a bar where I worked and loved the great words! Now just last week (jan. 6,2007)I was trying to recall it for my grandson, telling him what a cool song it was...and had to google it to find the name. While doing so, your site came up on first page with the info I needed plus a great little article you wrote. Thank you! from Ft. Walton Beach, FL...Margo


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