I have a couple of personal anecdotes to regale yer azzes with this week, dear readers, as sometimes a story can convey the essence of a man and do so in more entertaining fashion than all the pointy-headed critical dissection one can muster.
It was 1987. My band at the time, the Jacks, landed the opening slot for a JERRY LEE LEWIS concert at the Belly-Up Tavern in Solana Beach. We were all really excited about playing on the same stage as a guy who was not only one of the first-string fathers of rock & roll but also a notoriously volatile personality with a rep for creating trouble wherever he stepped.
Lewis, of course, is best-known for the primal genius of such hits as "Great Balls of Fire," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" and "High School Confidential." He's second-best-known as a man who nearly destroyed his career in 1957 by marrying his 13-year-old third cousin (whose name, unfortunately, was not Lurleen). He's third-best-known for having allegations of spousal abuse and even murder levied against him at various times in his life, from a variety of the six women he has married (Lewis' nickname, "The Killer," subsequently became something of an albatross). He's fourth-best-known for being, in general, a loudmouthed, violent-tempered, cretinous hellion-goon. Jerry Lee Lewis is cracker quintessence; he is to be worshiped and revered, reviled and feared, never ignored in any case.
When I got to the show, pandemonium already reigned. The venue was sold-out with screaming, unruly fans. A roped-off security barrier leading to the backstage area had been established—the first time I'd ever seen such a thing at the Belly-Up. I asked the manager if I could meet Jerry Lee. I was taken to a trailer parked in the back of the club and led inside. There before me was an image that shall ever remain burned into my brain: Jerry Lee Lewis was sitting on a cushioned bench with two beehive-hairdo-adorned, corn-fed heifers clinging to him on either side; that shit-eating sneer that shames the ones affected by Elvis, Billy Idol and Eddie Haskell combined was etched onto his mug.
I did what any normal human being would do under the circumstances: I genuflected. I bowed down flat to the floor at the deity's feet and said, "You are the Killer, you are the King, and it is an honor to share a stage with you, sir. Please don't hurt me."
At this, Lewis and the twin heifers shared a lusty guffaw. Then I shook his hand, proffered an album for him to autograph, and was led away. The entire encounter lasted perhaps a minute. We played our set, and then Jerry Lee took the stage. As the crowd screamed its approval, it soon became apparent that he was fully in character: cranky, surly, difficult, arrogant. He bitched incessantly about the quality of the piano the club had provided him. When this yielded no new set of 88s, his playing became more combative. He pounded the keys as if beating the shit out of the person who dared furnish him with an inferior instrument. He cussed and sneered. He kicked the piano stool out from underneath him, sending it spiraling into the crowd. The booing began, despite this being vintage Jerry Lee. He pulled a comb from his pocket and pulled it through that iconic shock of curly blond hair—another Lewis trademark gesture of disdain. And guess what? It was my comb, unmistakable in its large, blue uniqueness. It must have fallen from my back pocket when I bowed to him; Lewis apparently found it to his liking, and now his regal locks were being smoothed by my comb. Wonderful!
Lewis continued to sneer and snarl at this demon piano, and the moronic crowd—expecting perhaps a shiny-happy oldies act instead of the temperamental thug before them—produced more boos. The atmosphere became akin to a night of pro wrestling. Finally, Lewis stormed off the stage in the middle of his set—yet another trademark act. I was giddy with delight! I tried to get backstage to witness what must have been one really entertaining piss-tantrum, but was denied. My guess: serious raging goin' on. Finally, Lewis returned to finish his set, playing with all the pent-up aggression of an adolescent misfit. Eventually, the boos turned to cheers. Baby, that is rock & roll!
When the concert ended, I went back out to my car and examined the precious autographed album for the first time. It was hard to read his Magic Marker scribble, but it sure looked like he'd signed it "Fuck You, Jerry Lee Lewis." One can only pray that a night of similar anarchy reigns when Jerry Lee storms the Galaxy Concert Theatre on Wednesday night.
Bluesman SMOKEY WILSON isn't as (in)famous as Lewis, but he's just as ornery. The same year we played with Lewis, the Jacks headlined a New Year's Eve show at a San Diego club called Rio's. The manager had booked Wilson to appear with us as a special guest. I was thrilled; Wilson was little-known at the time, but the man is an unsung American classic, crossing razor-tipped vocals la Howlin' Wolf with a mean-assed guitar attack that recalls prime Otis Rush. The plan was for Wilson to play a few songs with us in the middle of our set. There were no rehearsals, and we'd never even met or spoken before the show. Big deal. This was blues.
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So we played a buncha songs with Smokey, and it was great. But ultimately, we wanted to get back to playing our own set, so after the end of the fifth song or so with him, I announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, let's hear it for Smokey Wilson!" This was his cue to turn the stage back to the band. But Smokey wasn't done yet, and he counted off another tune. Same deal at the end of that one—it soon became apparent Smokey had no intention of leaving the stage. To make matters worse, he decided he hated our drummer and shared that sentiment with the crowd. "Wouldn't give you a plugged nickel for that damn drummer," he kept growling into the mic. Of course, the drummer didn't take kindly to this abuse and began to sabotage Wilson's tunes, deliberately throwing in off-time rim shots and loud cymbal crashes at the most inappropriate times. It was awkward as hell, but it was also fuckin' hilarious! We were trying to retain our composure, but we were laughing so hard there were tears falling from our eyes. What a ridiculous predicament: a pitched battle going on, and no question that Wilson would emerge the victor.
The crowd seemed to sense they were witnessing great theater as they watched the proceedings with their jaws agape. That was one unforgettable New Year's Eve; thanks for the memories, Smokey!
Wilson plays with singer Linda Hopkins on Thursday, March 2 at the Blue Cafe. I recommend you show up not only to see a great double-bill blues show, but also perhaps to see Wilson attempt to bogart the stage from Hopkins.
Jerry Lee Lewis performs with Hellbound Hayride, at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600. Wed., 8 p.m. $50; the Smithsonian Blues Party features Smokey Wilson and Linda Hopkins at the Blue Cafe, 210 The Promenade, Long Beach, (562) 983-7111 or (562) 570-1930. Thurs., March 2, 6-10 p.m. $20.