Day of the Pentecost, with Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Costello

Gather round chillen, for I have a ghost story to tell you. Or perhaps it's a Holy Ghost story.

Sunday, October 13, 2002 became perhaps the most intensive day in my experience of rock music.  I saw Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Costello play.  It was a rock and roll day of the Pentecost.  If there was not a literal tongue of fire over my head signifying the presence of the Holy Spirit, I could nonetheless feel the Spirit in waves.

The Jerry Lee show started at 3 pm at the Little Nashville Opry House in Nashville, Indiana.  A new guy on his first album, a country singer named Brad Magness opened.  His main opening song was a basic lament of a poor broke lonesome bastard spending his last $5 on a long distance call to Texas just to hear his ex's voice.  He picked some fine guitar; he finished with a credible and passionate version of "Maguelena," a demanding Mexican or mariachi style instrumental associated with Roy Clark.  He rates a mention because he was good enough that when he left the stage my companions and I unanimously agreed that we would actually like to have seen him play a couple more songs.  That's a pretty good mark for an opening act- helped by the fact that he only played three songs.

Then it was time for Jerry Lee Lewis.  Despite being the most infamous dope and booze hound in rock history (give or take Keith Richards), somehow he's survived 67 years.  That constitutes an achievement in itself, but that being the case, one shouldn't expect too much more going in.  I figured I was spending $35 simply to say that I had been in his presence.  I mean, hell, it's Jerry Lee Lewis.

His initial appearance confirmed my worst fears.  He looked like death warmed over for the second or third time.  He had the pallor of a corpse; he had little color to him.  He seemed puffy, like he'd been pumped full of embalming fluid.  This seemed especially bad in contrast to the memory of Jerry Lee as one of the more beautiful and physically vital performers ever. I couldn't help but think that he'd look like this when he's laid out in that pine box- probably not too long from now.

He came out slightly hunched over.  He struggled to shuffle his way across the stage and sit down at the Steinway piano.  His voice slurred as he greeted the audience.  I haven't followed his health issues closely, but he sounded like a stroke victim.  It didn't look like there was going to be a whole of shaking today.  Then he reached out his old man hands to the keyboard and opened his mouth to sing.

Son of a bitch!  That's Jerry Lee Lewis stuck inside that corpse's shell, and he'd come to rock the bells.  He wasn't going to be jumping up and down, making show, but he had a force of will and pride in his performance that obviously won't be stopped by anything short of death. 

Get over your initial shock and dismay over his physical condition, and look closer into the eyes.  Yeah, that's still him in there, all right.  The world changing life force of the man is still right here with us.  Jerry Lee Lewis would not even understand the concept of going gently into that good night, much less being willing to do so.

Singing "Sweet Little Sixteen" must at this point be more an aesthetic than a practical interest, but he was all over it.  The corners of his mouth turned down in a little frown of satisfaction.  Yeah, he knew he still had it.

By this point in life, his hormones have dissipated and the animation of simple physical lust has faded.  The women folk and farm animals can probably rest fairly safe now- though seeing that glint in his eyes, he might just surprise you. 

Draining away simple sexuality, however, leaves all kinds of other strains of more interesting expression in stark relief.  His mind wandered backwards across the decades of accumulated memories.  He spoke of coming home from Australia to be met by someone serving him divorce papers at the airport.  "She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye" seemed maybe even more poignant than his classic 1960's hit recording.  The sorrows and regrets of his infamous life poured out in his performance. 

Someone in the audience shouted out something about being willing to "sacrifice" himself for Jerry Lee.  I don't know what that would mean, but several members of the audience spontaneously pronounced their love for him.  He was touched by the display, not entirely sure how to respond to the religious nature of some of the pronouncements.  He thanked them, and invoked God's blessing.  Then he lit into "Chantilly Lace" to clear the piety from the air.

Longing poured forth as he sang "Over the Rainbow," and of that land that "Jimmy Swaggart dreams of."  This was no expression of mockery for his cousin, but a lament for something so distant he could barely imagine it himself long decades after the anguish of his famous Sun studio breakdown insisting that he knew he was going to hell for singing the devil's music.

He has been humbled by age and infirmity, yet the famous ego hasn't died.  He acknowledged the ravages of age, that he's not 21 anymore.  He confessed to being every bit of "26."  He apologized profusely and sincerely for his voice being a bit groggy- though I could barely tell it at all when he was actually singing.  "I hate for you to have hear me all hoarse like this, cause I've got a beautiful voice."  He smiled to acknowledge his egoism.

He spoke of Elvis Presley, and his mind drifted back across the years again, like Elvis Costello's "Veronica."  He spoke for a half minute or so about the good times they'd had, and what a great friend Elvis was.  Looking into his eyes, Jerry Lee seemed to be somewhere around 1965.  Then he looked out, and remembered where he was.  He smiled gently, and said simply and quietly "OK." 

"Don't Put No Headstone on My Grave" carried great meaning.  He sang it contemplatively, then open it up with a greater sense of urgency than he could have had those decades ago when first he sang it.  For singing about not wanting a headstone, however, he didn't seem to be averse to being immortalized.  "I deserve at least one of those gold monuments."

Finally he played the main signature songs.   Turned out there was indeed a "Whole Lot of Shakin'"- though a lot of it was the compadres and me in a far more aggressive display than this old skewing audience.  He shot some hot "Great Balls of Fire" at us, and he was done. 

He had built up steam across an hour of playing, and you could see that this was the stuff keeping him alive.  He had worked up enough fight to kick the bench over and dance a little shuffle on his way off stage.

In theory it seems ridiculous to think that he's better now than in his prime. Yet I find it difficult to believe he would have been quite as interesting 20 years ago.  Watching the force of his ego rage against the dying of the light fascinated me more than any simple lust could.  By God, I'd just seen JERRY LEE LEWIS. 

One of my companions seemed oddly subdued afterwards over dinner.  Observing the ravages of age work on this great hunk of manhood apparently depressed her.  She took it the wrong way, though.  The second law of thermodynamics remains a fact of life.  It's a given, and we'll get to be old and feeble someday if we're lucky.  What's more significant- and not simply a given- is the spiritual force of this man, his will to not simply survive, but LIVE.  If they ever plan on burying Jerry Lee Lewis, it's going to take six men to hold him down while they nail the box shut. 

Then it was time to rush off to Indianapolis to meet up with my brother Daryl and my other brother Daryl for Elvis Costello and act two at the Murat Theatre.  Dinner with the girls after Jerry Lee cost me half of the Laura Cantrell opening set.  She's pretty and sincere.  Her act was skillful and earnest and totally boring.  Thank you, goodbye, go away. Sorry.

Naturally Elvis picked something on the freaky side for his pre-appearance mood setter, apparently an Austrailian name of Mary Schneider yodeling Rossini over top of the William Tell Overture?  Yodele-hi, yodele-hi, yodele-hi, hoo!  Funny thing is, besides the pure silly novelty of it, the thing is a pretty good jam.

Then Elvis hit the stage pounding out the venom of "I Hope You're Happy Now" and he was all done with the cute crap.  He came to rock, and we were going to be doing good to catch our breath for the next two hours.  The Imposters (the Attractions with a new bass player) knocked them down with great fury- and more importantly, great precision and nuance.  Apparently he's had a belly full of Brodskys and Bacharach- at least for the moment, and needs to burn off some of that original animating rock fury.

This turned out to be the kind of show where a good version of "Alison" crossed with "Tracks of My Tears" and an outstanding take of "Watching the Detectives" turned out to be among the less compelling moments of the night. 

Indeed, I was surprised to find that in fact the most compelling moments of the night came mostly from performances of the new album, When I Was Cruel.  The new album was quite good- probably album of the year, but I hadn't considered it quite up with, say, Trust or Imperial Bedroom.  He caught me rather by surprise then, particularly with the evil undertow of "15 Petals."  "Tart" jumped out in a way it hadn't in the context of the album. Of course "Doll Revolution" whipped ass live, and "Spooky Girlfriend" delivered the demented hooks.  The film noir tango rap "Episode of Blonde" was spankin' good.  Hell, at that he didn't even play three of the best songs from the album ["45", "Soul for Hire", "Alibi"].

The centerpiece of the show was the title track of the new album, "When I Was Cruel #2."  He looks back not in anger any longer at the big shots and playas whom he hated so much as a youth, now gathered for a wedding- someone's #4 ("There's #3 just by the door").  In describing this song, some have invoked his famous lyric "I used to be disgusted, but now I try to be amused."  Well, there's nothing "amused" about this song.  He lays out instead an epic of furious pity for the empty, pathetic excess and petty vanity of the supposed beautiful people.  The hells they create for themselves punish them worse than anything Elvis could wish upon them.

The live performance was pegged to a pre-recorded rhythm loop, including the one word sample used on the record.  Tied to the sample, the live band digs the medium tempo trip-hop groove deeper, harsher than the record.  As they reach the climax, Elvis turns it into the evilest rendition of "My Funny Valentine" you'd ever want to hear- right over the same rhythm loop.  

As this plays out, a harsh piercing drone kicked in, and punishing blue strobe lights- cruel indeed.  He finishes out the last minute, and stops- but the drone and the flashing lights continue.  Then he explains that they weren't part of the song.  The flashing lights weren't his doing; "This isn't a Pink Floyd show."  The fire alarm had gone off.  Most of the audience thought it was part of the song.  The way it worked in I'd almost call serendipity, except that word sounds way too simply pleasant for the hardness of the affect achieved.

Turned out to be a false alarm.  Water pressure had dropped for some reason, automatically kicking in the alarms.  It just gave us a ten minute intermission, which I for one needed after the slamming first forty minutes.

We still had a whole 90 minutes of show left ahead of us.  "Man Out of Time" always works, and "You Little Fool" gained new interest from the fresh rock arrangement.  "Indoor Fireworks" slowed and quieted things down with a basic acoustic guitar accompaniment- about the only really quiet piece all night.

Funny how you keep picking things up with Elvis songs.  It was only now after a near quarter century living with "Party Girl" that my other brother Daryl points out to me during the show how the climbing chords at the end directly invoke the build up of Abbey Road, the part right before Ringo's drum solo. Damn, I'm slow on the uptake.  Finally it was the encores, and well past the time others would have called it a day, Elvis is just peaking. 

It occurred to me during the show that "I Want You" has become his most indispensable concert staple, the voodoo ritual where he breaks on through to the other side.  This tale of morbid obsession has long been recognized as the litmus test for a real Elvis fan.  The classic studio rendition from Blood and Chocolate provides what now looks like but a skeletal blueprint for the satanic rite he makes of it live.

He rang more evil out of it here than ever in my experience.  He builds up a fury, demanding to know the details of exactly what she's done with that other guy.  But he can't let go.  A harsh guitar solo drops back to a creepy organ solo.  The fury builds again.  He lets it go back to a whisper, peering into the darkest haunted corners of his psyche where the demon spirits lay in wait. Finally he drops in a piece of an obscure Dylan song "Senor."

Then as that finally gives way, he closes the show with "Almost Blue."  Generally speaking, this constitutes one his prettiest, most straightforward songs.  He wrote a simple, direct torch ballad that Sinatra was a damned fool not to record.

It came out subtly, disturbingly different here, though.  The performance was only maybe marginally harsher than the studio version, but the energy was freaky.  Presented as the closing part of "I Want You," I wondered what he had in mind.  There's nothing specifically violent in either lyric.  Yet somehow I wondered if he hadn't killed the girlfriend, singing "almost blue, almost doing things we used to do" to her corpse.  Is it me that's that twisted, or Elvis?

A couple of dozen diehard fans waited at the back door for Elvis.  He graciously stopped to sign autographs and get pictures taken with the faithful.  

So I'm waiting with the CD booklet from The Juliet Letters for him to sign.  I brought it rather than Armed Forces because I figured he'd think I was cooler for bringing his classical record rather than the more obvious pop record.  Right.  Steve Nieve shows up, and I end up having him autograph an album that he didn't play on.  "You want me to sign that?"  He was a good sport.

Naturally I'm thinking up something funny to say to impress Elvis with what a cool, witty guy I am.  "If I could just touch the hem of his garment" sounded pretty clever as an idea.  Of course, by the time I actually get to him, what I actually said was something closer to "You're Elvis.  You're really cool.  Me like."  He was quite gracious, but I'm feeling like the host of the Chris Farley Show, "STU-PID, STU-PID, STU-PID." 

I did manage to convey that I had just seen Jerry Lee Lewis earlier in the day.  In a brief conversation, I managed to get out that I was quite thrilled to see Jerry Lee and Elvis on the same day.  He replied, "Well, looks like you got half of the Million Dollar Quartet." 

He's so witty.  Me so dumb.  

Stumbling off into the night, the shows reverberated against one another.  Elvis put on the best show I've seen even from him- which is to say the best show I've ever seen from anyone.  He's at the absolute top of his game, the very picture of artistic and physical vitality.  He has conquered and thrived.  He's truly the king in ways that Jerry Lee and the other Elvis couldn't be, hobbled by demons, lacking the education.  He's learned from their successes and failures. He's fulfilled the dream.  He has transcended.

This put an odd, creepy spin on the Jerry Lee Lewis show of but a few hours earlier.  He was some kind of powerful spectral presence.  I'm looking for Biblical metaphors.  Perhaps I'd seen the ghost of Peter. "On this rock I will build my church."  Or perhaps he was the ghost of Moses, brought to the edge, but disallowed to enter the Promised Land as punishment for hubris.  Whatever it was, it was an extraordinary visitation from some spiritual place beyond.

A reader's rebuke


Holla Back! 

Jerry Lee Lewis IS

Elvis Costello Is King

Music Sustains the Soul

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