On the cover of Rick Bragg’s Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, the titular pianist and early rock ‘n’ roll icon holds a cigar and peers into the distance, as if planning his next move. He wears an expression that’s neither a smile nor a smirk, yet has aspects of both, and there are the beginnings of worry lines around his eyes. He’s the Killer, after all, a nickname dating to a grade-school fight in which he took on his teacher, and he looks the part. His reputation of doing exactly what he wanted is well-earned: He played hard, lived harder and often believed himself invincible.
But when Bragg answers his phone, it’s the day after Lewis has had back surgery, and the Alabama author sounds concerned. “He’s been in a lot of pain with arthritis and some nerve trouble in his back,” he says. “That pain’s been with him for decades.” Bragg is in a rare position: He knows Lewis as a legend, sure, but as a person, too. And this is what sets his book apart from the many other accounts of Lewis’ long and storied career.
“I approached him with great anticipation — and one reservation, as to getting shot,” Bragg writes. It was mid-2011, and the journalist and author of multiple books on the South was meeting Lewis to start work on the biography. The rock icon, as much a Southerner as the author, asked about Bragg’s mother’s health.
Over the course of two summers, in Lewis’ home south of Memphis, Bragg got to know the man, sitting in a rocking chair by the 79-year-old pianist’s bed. Among the ground rules: No cussing and no taking the Lord’s name in vain. Otherwise, they dug deep. Western North Carolina author Ron Rash called the end result “the best book on rock ‘n’ roll I have ever read.”
Rather than treating the Killer’s fearless stunts like boasting, Bragg feels that Lewis’ life is more of a Southern Gothic tragedy, rich with death and loss. “The thing about the tall tale is that it kind of ties things up and manipulates how you feel about things, like Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill,” Bragg says. “Jerry Lee don’t claim to ride no tornado, but he did hit a man in the face with the butt end of a microphone stand.” It’s all documented, too, from Lewis’ controversial marriage to a 13-year-old cousin to the damage he did to venues and instruments.
Lewis destroyed dozens of cars — Cadillacs, Corvettes and Rolls-Royces. In one rollover, “the cops are all standing around with their hands on … their guns, waiting for Jerry Lee Lewis to hear the end of a song as he lay upside-down in an overturned Rolls,” Bragg says. “Make that up! Just try.”
It may have been growing up in dirt-poor, Depression-era Louisiana that made Lewis such a daredevil. The impoverished and violent place shaped him, and as a child, he decided to follow his own rules — up to a point.
After all, Lewis has been a devout Christian all his life. It’s the reason Bragg had to watch his language during interviews, and it’s what drove him to marry early (and often) rather than have sex outside of wedlock. He’s a wild man and a rock legend, sure, but he prays, tithes and knows the Bible cover to cover.
“He believes now that he was never playing the devil’s music,” Bragg says. Lewis grew up in the Assembly of God, where music was a powerful, soulful force. But the conservative, evangelical sect preached fire and brimstone, and it tortured a younger Lewis to wonder if one could play rock ‘n’ roll and still go to heaven. It’s not odd to Bragg that Lewis could be so volatile and destructive, but also a man of unshakable faith — in conversation and in the book, the author says things like “you have to understand Jerry Lee.” At this point, Bragg may be among those who actually do.
WHO: Rick Bragg presents Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story
WHERE: Malaprop’s, malaprops.com
WHEN: Wednesday, Dec. 10, 7 p.m. Free