ATLANTA — Hanging with Jerry Lee Lewis isn’t as dangerous as it used to be.
He rolled many a Cadillac in his day. He was known to punch out a drunk heckler using the butt of his microphone stand. Back in the ’70s, he accidentally shot his bass player in the chest.
These days the most dangerous resident at Jerry Lee Lewis’ north Mississippi home is a Chihuahua named Topaz Jr. He bites.
But that doesn’t mean Pulitzer prize-winning writer Rick Bragg felt completely relaxed during the long summer days when he was interviewing the rock ’n’ roll icon, researching his new biography of The Killer, called Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story.
First of all, the setting was kind of eerie.
They conducted the talkathon in Lewis’ bedroom, where the walls were pocked with bullet holes and there was a Bowie knife sticking in the door. The curtains were drawn and the lighting was dim, much of it coming from a big-screen television playing episodes of The Virginian or Gunsmoke, with the sound turned down.
There was a photograph of Hank Williams on the dresser, draped with a black ribbon. And there was Jerry Lee Lewis, The Killer himself, an old man, lying on his bed, recovering from hip surgery, immobilized by arthritis.
Lewis would do all of his reminiscing on his back. But even lying down, he wasn’t what you’d call mellow. “He did show me the long- barreled .357 he keeps up under his pillow,” Bragg said.
The writer said he wasn’t really scared. “I knew Jerry Lee’s not going to shoot me on purpose. But, then again, he didn’t mean to shoot the bass player either.”
As Bragg spoke on the phone about his experiences with Lewis, he waited in the parking lot outside a grocery store near Jacksonville, Ala., where he had just delivered his 90-something mother, Margaret Bragg, to go grocery shopping.
In All Over But the Shoutin’, Bragg told the story of his iron-willed, loving mother, who picked cotton to raise her family after being abandoned by her alcoholic husband. Bragg idolized his mother, and Jerry Lee idolized his. Both Bragg and Lewis grew up dirt poor in the rural South. This gave them plenty to talk about.
Lewis’ life, Bragg said, “was probably as close to the label of old Southern Gothic as anything that I’ve ever encountered in the real world, and I’ve seen some pretty tragic, awful stuff. I’ve written three books about working-class people surviving in the Great Depression. It wasn’t like Jerry Lee had anything up on my people in that regard.”
But, like stuffing lightning in a bottle, catching the electricity of Jerry Lee Lewis between the covers of a book meant depending on the veracity of a man not known for allegiance to the truth. Bragg was often willing to give Lewis the benefit of the doubt.
“I don’t think Jerry Lee Lewis had to exaggerate his life one bit to make it interesting,” Bragg said. “He really did make Elvis cry. He really did turn over more Cadillacs than most people purchased in the state of Mississippi.”
Here are a few of the topics Bragg touched on during a wide-ranging conversation about his experiences with the bad boy of Ferriday, La.:
On being asked by his agent whether he was interested in writing about Jerry Lee Lewis:
“When they asked me if I wanted to do it, I joked and said maybe I should have gone and hid under the bed and not answered my phone until Thanksgiving. But I got to thinking, how can this not be fun?”
On the disputed story that Lewis set a piano on fire to annoy and upstage Chuck Berry:
“At this point in his life, the piano is kind of a secular savior. The piano saved his life. He told me once, ‘I ain’t never abused no piano.’ What he means is, he doesn’t like the idea. But if you press him on it — I pressed him on the Chuck Berry piano incident, and he said, ‘Yeah, it happened.’”
On the subtitle: His Own Story:
“The bottom line is, this book was written from Jerry Lee’s perspective, obviously. Whether you call it autobiographical or not, it’s written from inside his head.”
On why the interviews were interrupted for almost a year:
“He broke a hip and had a compound fracture of one leg. He almost died, like often happens with old folks with traumatic injuries. There were a dozen times when I thought that this book won’t see the light of day. And that would be a shame.”
On how Lewis could believe that marrying his 13-year-old cousin wouldn’t cause trouble:
“As to the conventions of the 1957 Deep South, marrying a 13-year-old girl was not unheard of. I’m not talking about had it happened (once) before. It had happened, quite a bit. Marrying a second or third cousin was (also) not a reason for the world to come unhinged and fall off its axis and roll off. He really didn’t think it would ruin his career. However, if caution had whispered in his ear, he’d have ignored it, because he, quote, ‘done what I wanted to do,’ unquote.”
On Lewis’ current religious convictions:
“He always, from childhood, had been taught that the wages of sin are to burn in a lake of fire. There are no philosophical discussions, no academic discussions. The wages of sin are death, and worse than that, to burn. And there is no in-between. He prays over his meals and before he goes to sleep at night. He doesn’t allow any blasphemy in his presence. He doesn’t curse. He reads his Bible. At this point in his life, he wants to live out the rest of his life without sin. He is preparing himself for that day. I have no doubt that he is utterly sincere.”