Fanning the flame

"Once or twice - and this is true - he stands up and plays that piano with his arse. And no bum notes, either"; Jerry Lee Lewis The Forum, London
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On his piano stool sits Jerry Lee Lewis, the fire-breathing legendary monster of deep Southern rock'n'roll. But he is 60 and the fire he breathes now burns with less ferocity. Actually in his nice white shirt and sharp black suit he resembles a Louisiana preacher, which is the very thing he once trained to become. That was until the passions that Lewis has never mastered spilt over into his piano playing, and he was expelled from Bible school for playing the hymn "My God Is Real" to a boogie woogie beat.

But Jerry Lee's God was really Real, and all his demons too. That's what made his rock'n'roll so terrifying and visceral. If sin is to be exciting, then you need to believe it truly sinful. Lewis did believe; even now his music swings back and forth, between the cackling madness of a man who's embraced damnation and the maudlin lowing of a penitent drunk. Tonight he leans toward the latter style and disappoints the larger part of his following who are up for the hot stuff. "Louder, Jerry Lee! Louder!' yells one of the many exquisite teddy boys present.

It's doubtful that Lewis hears him, or would care anyway. He takes the show along at his own, magisterial pace. He plays whatever moping country ballads he damn well pleases, and then relaxes with drawling monologues that nobody can make out through the PA. When he does rock out it's a pantomime performed with insolent ease. On the piano, his left hand pumps up a rumble of thunder while his right hand hammers the famous staccato clatter. Lazily he'll lift a leg and let his boot heel add to the mayhem. Once or twice - and this is true - he stands up and plays that piano with his arse. And no bum notes, either.

The luckiest teddy boys and girls get to jive around him on the stage until they're led away. When the going gets slow again and rockers are restless, Jerry Lee looks down at them with his sinister smile. He always knows he can fix any crowd before the night ends by cutting loose those three climactic numbers: "Great Balls of Fire", "High School Confidential" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On". They may bore him but they enthral anyone who hears them played by Jerry Lee Lewis, "the Killer" himself. And momentarily you feel the privilege of witnessing this man who belongs to musical history.

Lewis comes from the same place and time that rock itself did, in the swampy Southern land where blues met country & western. The world that fashioned this God-fearing, gun-loving, hard-living, bug-eyed wild man is long gone.Sometimes tonight to watch him on stage is like visiting the Colosseum - a place where blood and terror once held sway but now is only an historical site. Then you look around and there is a real live lion, roaring and ready to dine.