What are you doing for Halloween? Might I recommend a quick jaunt to Budapest to see the greatest living rock n’ roller show you how it’s done. Don’t take my word for it; Jerry Lee Lewis will confirm that as God’s honest truth. The eleventh commandment handed down from Mt. Sinai.
It just so happens that I consider myself a bonafide Jerry Lee Lewis expert. I’ve read the books, the magazines, the interviews. I’ve seen the films. Most importantly, I’ve listened to the music. “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” were revelations to my ears as a child. Jerry pounding on his piano was my first true love. Since those heady days of lost youth, I’ve amassed a collection of Jerry Lee’s music to rival any and scare most. With the exception of a few bootlegged recordings I’ve failed to get my hands on, I don’t believe there’s much between 1956 – 2010 that I haven’t heard. I don’t say this so much as a brag, as to lay the foundation of addiction. There should be transparency between you and me before we talk about this latest record, “Mean Old Man.”
I feel a kinship to Jerry Lee that goes beyond rock n’ roll. Everyone has their demons. Jerry Lee and I seem to share a few of them. This isn’t about me and the Killer, though. It’s just about the Killer and his new record. On with it.
We start where we must: the cover. It’s lurid, hilarious, disturbing, and kind of awesome. While the picture can’t be avoided I find I really don’t have much to say about it. It speaks for itself.
The music has trickled out for about a year now. A single of the title cut was released and the self-conscious joke was indeed funny. I had high hopes that this would be Jerry Lee stripped down and solo. Him and his piano, maybe a small tight band, his ragged voice and 12 country songs. Then seeing additional cuts released with guest artists, I thought it would be a retread of his 2006 album, “Last Man Standing.” With many of the same musicians showing up it was hard not to think that. Back again are Kid Rock, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Keith Richards, Ringo Starr, and John Fogerty. Tim McGraw replaces Toby Keith. Rod Stewart is replaced by John Mayer? Both are equally terrible in my estimation, so why not.
On my first listen, I cherry picked what I wanted to hear. Lewis and Richards doing “Sweet Virginia.” Why did Jerry Lee change “got to scrape that shit right off my shoe” to “got to scrape that shine right off my shoe?” My guess is Jimmie Rodgers didn’t cuss on record. Hank Williams didn’t, and Al Jolson didn’t, either. Neither will Jerry Lee. Then I went for “Whiskey River” with Willie, which turns up a totally acceptable, straight up reading of the classic. The third track I chose was Jerry Lee singing the old Eddie Miller song “Please Release Me” with Gillian Welch. While not revelatory (and why should it be), it’s quite nice. Finally though, while making chicken, pear and prosciutto samiches, I dropped the needle down and listened to the whole thing. What I wasn’t hearing in parts, I heard as a whole. “Mean Old Man” is a really fun record. It rocks right where it should and makes me feel slightly crummy for not liking some of these big time artists simply because they are big time artists. The only dud to my ears is the duet with John Fogerty on “Bad Moon Rising.” The tempo is wrong. The feeling isn’t there.
The best tracks are actually with Tim McGraw, who I’ve maligned more than once in this blog and who here gives his most honest performance to date. The echo drenched revisit of “You Can Have Her” is great. Clapton and Burton are fantastic sidemen behind Jerry Lee. Their simultaneous solo is brilliant. Both do what they do. Unfortunately the second and third solos are truly that and have none of the charm of the earlier duel. The gratuitous use of the cymbal on “Roll Over Beethoven” tips us off that this is Ringo’s cut, but it works somehow on a song that should have been dead years ago. This is the power of Jerry Lee. If he plays it, call it Lazarus. It has been resurrected and born again.
Finally, if you’re looking, there are the scattered singles that didn’t make the album cut. A solo recording of Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and Jimmie Rodger’s wonderfully blue “Miss the Mississippi and You.” Jerry Lee is tore up and lays into these songs like a tired bedfellow. “Sunday Morning Coming Down” he wears like an old jacket that seems to be second skin. “Miss the Mississippi and You,” though, is a slow pour of deep red wine. The piano follows his vocals almost lugubriously. Those lithe fingers have finally become heavy with age. The ivories remain as beautiful as ever under the weight of time as they were once rollicking. Jimmie Rodgers died 77 years ago, but his lonesome is a timeless lonesome, and his songs still ache with a 21st century heart. I don’t know that Jerry Lee has a 21st century heart, but I do know that it aches. Just like mine and just like yours. No century divides the truth, and for all of his sins Jerry Lee speaks the truth.