Chuck Berry/Jerry Lee Lewis, Civic Hall, Wolverhampton

Shake my nerves, rattle my brain

By Simon Price
Thursday 04 July 2013 06:05

'If Elvis had a bit of grace to him, Jerry Lee seemed possessed; and Jerry Lee, far more than Elvis, came to represent all the mythical strangeness of the redneck South: lynch-mob blood lust, populist frenzies, even incest."

So wrote Greil Marcus, the greatest ever rock'n'roll writer, about the man he considered the second-greatest rock'n'roller after Presley. In that sentence, Marcus encapsulates the walking paradox that is Jerry Lee Lewis.

Red of hair and of neck, the Pentecostal Christian (and first cousin of Jimmy Swaggart) who vehemently denied that rock'n'roll was the devil's music, but who was thrown out of his job as a church pianist for sneaking too much boogie-woogie into the hymns, the lover of blues who used to sneak off to black nightclubs in his teens, but who also flew the Confederate flag, sang borderline-racist songs like "Ubangi Stomp" and freely used the N-word.

One oft-repeated rock'n'roll myth concerns the time, back in the Fifties, when Lewis shared a bill with Chuck Berry in New York. Having lost a coin-flip, he went onstage first, and finished his show by setting fire to his piano. As he left to deafening applause, he turned to Berry and taunted "follow that, nigger."

Jerry Lee Lewis is probably not, one might venture, a very nice man. But nice is something which rock'n'roll stars don't have to be. They have special exemption. Jerry Lee Lewis doesn't do nice. He does fearsome.

Five decades later, he's lost the coin-flip to Berry again, and takes the stage to a sea of bald patches and blue rinses in a suit black as night, and tie red as blood. This Rock'n'Roll Legends tour might not be the fantasy black/white, piano/guitar double bill I'd have chosen, but one of them (Eddie Cochran) is four decades dead and the other (Little Richard) is more or less retired.

But as far as the audience of ageing Teddy Boys are concerned, Lewis is the man, and their arthritic bones dance in the aisles as though they've been healed.

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Sitting almost completely still, his hands hammer the keys as though not attached to his body, ghostly entities with minds of their own. I don't think I have ever heard a piano played so loudly and with such sheer violence.

Lewis's Southern drawl, like Alan Hansen's Scottish one, is now so pronounced that it's almost indecipherable, but songs like "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls Of Fire" need no explanation. At the finale, he boots his piano stool several yards behind him and stalks off. One can only speculate about his backstage words of encouragement to the man who has to follow that.

A British musician once told me about the time he was part of a scratch band who were backing Chuck Berry. The great man turned up minutes before showtime with no rehearsal, no soundcheck, not even a setlist. "Er, which songs are we going to play?" one of them finally piped up. "We're going to play Chuck Berry songs," came the reply.

And those songs are so deeply encoded in rock's DNA - just as traces of the dust from the Big Bang are in all our bodies, and every breath we take contains a molecule of Caesar's last - that it's almost fair enough. At so many points tonight (for example, at the moment during "Little Queenie" when he sings "and meanwhile, I'm still thinking..." and you realise "Ah, that's where Marc Bolan got it from), you find yourself awed to be in the presence of a man who has as strong a claim as anyone to having personally invented rock'n'roll.

"I wanna thank ya," says the 77-year-old, sauntering on in his dazzling scarlet-sequinned shirt and acknowledging our applause, "and in return, I'm gonna play my guitar for ya."

And play it he does, on his shoulder like a rifle, or on its end like a cello, or just the regular way, with the casual, gentle touch of a man for whom his instrument has become an extra limb. He plays it, indeed, just like he's ringing a bell, through a set of songs which were mostly written even before the Suez Crisis: "Johnny B Goode", "Hail Hail Rock'n'Roll", "Carol", "Rock'n'Roll Music", "Memphis", his hilarious expression of thwarted teen lust "No Particular Place To Go" ("Can you imagine the way I felt?/ I couldn't unfasten her safety belt!") and his cheesy novelty hit "My Ding A Ling" - "I recorded it at Ly-cester University 50 miles down the road. I was supporting Pink Floyd - they were bigger than me! - but I stole the show."

Over at Morrissey's Meltdown, there's a slight sound of barrels being scraped. The Ordinary Boys - named after one of his songs - are supporting the curator on his final night. Playing reheated bloke-rock in front of a giant Union Jack in Fred Perry, Lonsdale, stretch denim, sambas and Caesar cuts and singing in brutish Home Counties accents, they blatantly bash plenty of nostalgic buttons. This meat-and-potatoes Mod fare is supposed to appeal to people like me, who remember is second - and third - time around. Unfortunately, like Morrissey himself, I am a long-term vegetarian.

With poetic juxtaposition, also on the bill in the Ballroom downstairs, are Gene, one of England's most underestimated bands. Martin Rossiter, nowadays a big, bi, bristle-headed bruiser in a "Cockfighter" T-shirt (and not the preening ponce of popular mythology) rages through an emotion-filled with the prize-fighter swagger of a Sixties soul belter.

Next to that, the Ordinary Boys look ordinary indeed.

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