The 1950s and 1980s had some similarities. During both decades the country was in the hands of a slightly doddering, grandfatherly president, we were economically stable (if you ignore the skyrocketing – pardon the expression – defense spending), and American society swung toward the conservative. One of the side-effects of this swing was the screeching, reactionary killjoys who were obsessed with the damaging effect rock music was having on the younger generation. It was…the devil’s music.
In the 1950s, it was the jungle throb of the rhythm – of African-American origins – and the blatant sexuality it seemed to invite, that upset people so. Racism aside, their reaction was understandable. It was sex music. The 1980s were actually a little more hysterical. They had come to terms with the sex (mostly), but now it was the devil himself they were wringing their hands over. The cartoon Satanism espoused by second-tier heavy metal acts as a way to be provocative did just that. The 1980s were steeped in media stories about “Satanic cults” and “ritual murders.” Don’t hear too much about those things these days, because society eventually grew up and realized it was all a load of shit. There were a few blips on the radar later (Marilyn Manson, gangsta rap), but it was those two decades in which the most people got their knickers in a twist about the “devil’s music.”
Ferriday, Louisiana’s own demon-child, Jerry Lee Lewis – often referred to simply as “The Killer” – burst onto the scene in the first wave of rock and roll in the mid-1950s. From behind his poor, abused piano, Lewis bashed out the fastest, harshest, most defiantly alive music of that repressed decade. His 1957 single “Great Balls Of Fire” lasts one minute and fifty seconds, but it seems eternal – in the same way someone who holds on through a thirty-second earthquake swears it lasts forever. Just before that, his “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” was a blatant come-on, a declaration of sexual prowess only slightly couched in metaphor. (Only Billy Ward & The Dominoes’ “Sixty Minute Man” from 1951 was more explicit in its bedroom bragging, and guess what? Lewis covered it later.) Lewis was a howling, leering, stomping madman, and the only reason he wasn’t lynched for the length of his hair was because he kept it brushed back (unlike those Liverpool fruits who came over a few years later). All you have to do is watch the YouTube clips linked above to understand what a bomb had been dropped on the 1950s. He was an untamed force of nature, like Keith Moon and G.G. Allin. Of course, unlike those two, The Killer still lives and breathes.
Sadly, most people remember Lewis today not for his towering musical legacy, but for marrying his thirteen-year-old cousin – which was not necessarily an unusual arrangement in rural Louisiana in the 1950s. But it was unusual in New York, in London, and in all the places that had to tolerate you if you wanted to remain at the top of the show business heap. So Lewis fell off the top in 1958, and went into rock ‘n’ roll exile – playing hotel lounges and county fairs, touring Europe, selling just enough records for alimony and taxes (not that he ever paid either one.)
Anyone who’s read Nick Tosches’ landmark biography of Dean Martin, Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, knows that Tosches is no ordinary biographer. He’s more like a novelist, and an impressionistic one at that. Yes, he weaves in the basic biographical facts, but Tosches also wants to set a mood and paint a picture.
The mood set by his 1982 biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, Hellfire, is unsurprisingly, one of sin, blood, and thunder, of the variety espoused by good old-fashioned Southern Pentacostal churches of the previous century. Here’s an excerpt, describing Lewis’ late 60s sort-of comeback as a country artist: He cast to the ground whiskey and he cast to the ground pills, the entwined, killing serpents of his many-yeared succor; and with the clear, cutting eyes of the hawk he watched that returned whore, errant Fame, raise her skirt, and he felt her belly warm to his, and he threw back his head and he roared as he had never roared before.
[Side Note: If you want to hear one of the best live albums ever released, check out Live at The Star Club, Hamburg. Recorded in 1964 at a small German nightclub (where The Beatles once played a pre-fame residency), Lewis blazes through his big hits and several covers at punk-rock speed, backed by the second-rate British Invasion band The Nashville Teens (!), who have the fight of their lives trying to keep up with Lewis’s pilled-up, demon-driven performance. From the opening glissando of “Mean Woman Blues” to the final crashing chord of “Shakin,’” The Killer commits an all-out assault on his instrument, the audience, and his overmatched backing band, refers to himself in the third person more often than the most cocksure rapper, and generally blows the roof off the joint. It is, in the words of the later Rolling Stone review, “one long convulsion.”]
Anyway…Cousin-marrying. Whiskey. Pills. Gunfire. Wrecked Lincoln Continentals. More whiskey. All of that Lewis waved away, dismissed as unimportant. But the one thing always gnawed at his soul was the sinful nature of the music itself. As a devout believer in scripture (if not necessarily the Assembly of God church in which he was raised), Lewis spent at least four decades in the grips of psychological self-torture – he genuinely believed the music he was playing was sending him to hell. (And his audience, too, he often added.) Unlike the heavy metal meat-heads of later decades, when Lewis said he was working for Satan, he meant every word…and he hated himself for it. He believed it cost him two sons (both dead in separate accidents), his health (he’s been consistently in and out of hospitals since the mid-1970s), and his sanity (if he ever had any to begin with.)
But he could never stop himself from doing it. The devil’s music was too strong.
Tosches’ biography ends in the early 1980s, when Lewis was still in the grips of his dark night of the soul, and at any moment could drop dead of booze or pills, or perish in one of the tragic accidents that dogged his every step. There’s nothing about the resurgence of interest in Lewis’ career triggered by the nostalgic, goofy 1989 biopic Great Balls of Fire! starring the hulking, linebacker-sized Dennis Quaid as the undersized, rail-thin Lewis, but miscasting is the least of its problems. Tosches’ book is just as stylized, but his fire-and-brimstone tone captures the anguish of Lewis’ tale, where Jim McBride’s film is an air-headed bubblegum pastiche of half-truths and musical cliches. (It did give Holy Bee namesake Peter Cook a cameo as a British tabloid reporter.) The only thing I liked about it was the last caption before the screen faded to black: “Jerry Lee Lewis is playing his heart out somewhere in America tonight.”
That may not be 100% true anymore. The movie is over twenty years old after all, and Lewis is now 74. But he’s off the bottle (“It started making my skin break out,” he told Esquire) and he is still working. His new album, Mean Old Man, comes out in September, and according to everyone who knows him, he’s still a crazy, incorrigible pain-in-the-ass. And for all we know, he still thinks he’s going to hell for playing the devil’s music. Even Little Richard came to accept that he could play rock ‘n’ roll and serve the Lord, but something tells me The Killer still tosses and turns at night.
From the sublime to the ridiculous — and I mean that in the nicest possible way — we turn to the “autobiography” of former threat-to-decent-society-turned-harmless-reality-show-star Ozzy Osbourne, I Am Ozzy. Now, there’s no way I believe Ozzy Osbourne actually sat down and put pen to paper and wrote a book. By his own admission, he can barely sign his own name. But I do believe these are his thoughts, opinions, reminiscences, and war stories all put down on tape, and then transcribed and whipped into shape by “co-author” Chris Ayers.
My admiration for the book is really a testament to Ayers, who made his reputation by embedding with American troops in Iraq in 2003, then writing the excellent War Reporting For Cowards. Here he fills in the historical gaps and provides structure, while never losing the mumbling, slurred, Brummie-accented authorial voice of Ozzy himself.
The best parts are the descriptions of the origins and struggles of his old band, Black Sabbath, before their rise to fame in the late 1960s, and the behind-the-scenes look at the production of the ground-breaking reality series The Osbournes in the early 2000s. It sags in the middle, when it goes into confessional mode and details all the terrible things he’s done under the influence, including biting the head off a live bat onstage (mistaking it for a rubber prop), which led to a series of rabies shots and notoriety he will never live down, much like The Killer’s cousin-marriage. (The last words of Ozzy’s book are “My gravestone will read: Ozzy Osbourne, born 1948, died whenever. He bit the head off a bat.”)
So how does this dirt-poor, shy, awkward, dyslexic, ADD-addled kid become The Prince of Darkness, condemned by the church, the press, the government, and the PTA? It just goes to show that image was everything in the shallow 80s. Ozzy chose this part to play, and everyone accepted it at face value and lapped it up. (So strong was the power of image, that when Ozzy didn’t want to go onstage one night, he simply cut off his hair in the dressing room. No one would accept a metal singer with short hair, right? No concert. Or so he thought. His wife/manager Sharon shoved him onstage, short hair and all. The picture is in the book.)
Unlike Lewis, Osbourne retains his working-class humility, downplaying his own modest talents and admitting his success is due to good luck and hard work (and the skills of Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi.) We like Ozzy, and that’s the difference between The Osbournes and later copycat shows like Family Jewels and Hogan Knows Best. Gene Simmons and Hulk Hogan have a colossal lack of self-awareness. They still believe they’re viable, relevant superstars, and have egos to match. (And as much grief as the Osbourne kids get for being a little spoiled and obnoxious, they’re pretty decent compared to the brain-dead monsters on those other shows.) People (I’m guessing) watch those shows to laugh at arrogant, shallow people doing stupid things. Ozzy, however, knows he’s a niche performer nowadays and is always in on the joke.
It was implied during the three-year Osbournes run (’02-’05) that Ozzy was relatively clean and sober, and his clumsiness and mumbling were due to damage to his nervous system during his hard-living days. But no, Ozzy admits in his book what we all sort of suspected — he was still galactically fucked up on booze and pills during the series (only cocaine was off his menu.) As for being clean and sober in 2010? He admits that it’s “one day at a time.” (He does have a medical condition, which was finally diagnosed in 2005 as Parkin Syndrome — a rare variant of Parkinson’s Disease — and since he began the correct treatment, the tremors and slurred speech have lessened considerably.)
So check these books out, but make sure your mortal soul is pure as the driven snow or you might fall under the dark spell of the devil’s music. The Holy Bee knows he’s already a lost cause.
Oh, and Rule #15 of Guterman & O’Donnell’s 33 1/3 Rules of Rock and Roll? “Whatever you do, Jerry Lee Lewis has already done it. Probably better, too.”
(* from “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by Jonathan Edwards, 1741)