The more zealous detractors of rock 'n' roll have often referred to it as "the devil's music," but few musicians have paid much heed. Imagine, though, the inner turmoil that might develop if one of rock's most gifted performers actually believed in its sinfulness. Then you have begun to glimpse the tormented soul of Jerry Lee Lewis.
Within Lewis--who followed in the footsteps of Elvis Presley to teen idolatry in 1957 on the strength of such licentious hits as "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire"--has raged a vivid tug of war between salvation and damnation, heaven and hell. In "Hellfire," Nick Tosches captures the vagaries of this ongoing battle with empathy and style.
"Hellfire" traces the Lewis clan to its Baptist roots in the Mississippi Delta, depicting with Faulknerian intensity a world of poverty, ignorance and religious fanaticism. Tosches guides us from the family's entrance into the church of the Assemblies of God, where cousin Jimmy Swaggart would learn to speak in tongues, to Lewis' first contact with black blues and country & western--two strains of music to which he would remain in thrall--and to Lewis' first marriage, at 16, to the 18-year-old daughter of a preacher. It is halfway through the book that he takes us into the Memphis studios of Sun Records, where Lewis teamed up with Elvis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash to make rock 'n' roll history.
A good example of the tightrope Lewis walked between the religious and the secular is contained in Tosches' retelling of events that led to his expulsion from Bible school:
"He was called upon one evening to play piano at chapel service, which he gladly did. But when he began playing the Pentecostal hymn 'My God Is Real,' the preacher shot him a glance of reproach, for he was playing it boogie-woogie style, and he was playing it faster and faster until it was double tempo, and then an unseen student in the congregation gave a joyous howl, and then there was another, and Jerry Lee heard both of these howls, and he beat the boogie so hard that there was nothing left of the hymn, nothing but the sounds of the Holy Ghost that had inspired it, and he cried out the final lyric and raked the keys violently back and forth. 'My God is real, for I can feel him in my soul!' "
Later, in times of marital and tax problems, after the death of his son, and in innumerable "comebacks," there is a constant underlying tension, with Lewis never very far from an outburst. But the music redeems him again and again. It is his crazed country genius that pulls him through and lends this terrific biography its power.
Who better to write a rock 'n' roll roman a clef than Lisa Robinson, a syndicated columnist and magazine editor whose stock-in-trade for more than 10 years has been her access to rock celebrities and their confidences? In "Walk on Glass" Robinson cleverly intertwines music-biz legend, lore and gossip into a believable scenario, spicy but never slipping into the gutter. She tracks the rise, fall and renaissance of Lindel James, a beautiful and headstrong, if somewhat naive, female rock star, and the machinations of her Svengali manager, Jeff Stein. And although nearly every character has a real-life parallel, the central characters are all unique and compelling.
If there is one flaw in "Walk on Glass," it is that Robinson strains to let us know just how much she knows about the music business. In dropping impressive details at every turn (the capacity of a concert hall in Philadelphia; the kind of advances rock bands were getting in 1976; what kind of vodka bass players prefer, etc.), she sometimes forgets to let her characters breathe. But one cannot help but identify with Lindel James as she copes with "overnight" success, falls for, and is abandoned by, English rock star Brian Davis, and ultimately attains professional and personal independence by virtue of her willpower, talent and a little help from her friends. Not a completely original story line, perhaps, but at the center of this vignette is a modern heroine to care about.