Jerry Lee Lewis, the mayhem-fueled singer-pianist who was the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s very first inductee, hadn’t released a major new recording in 11 years before his star-studded new Last Man Standing (Artist First). Though rather queasily anticipated, this album of star duets rates as a nearly epic summation.
There was catastrophic potential in the notion of Jerry Lee sharing the spotlight’s hot glare with some of the egocentric, overrated and marginal talents trotted out among these 21 tracks and as many big-name guests. If the hackneyed duet concept weren’t enough, he has already been reduced, largely through his own spifflicated gunplay, substance abuse and marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, almost to caricature, a perception cemented by the incalculably damaging biopic Great Balls of Fire!, which presented him as an ape-man buffoon.
Many, then, have forgotten — if they ever realized — what a sensitive artist Lewis is. His vocal style resonates with the profound melancholy of Al Jolson, the naked torment of Hank Williams and the masterly hillbilly-blues amalgam of Jimmie Rodgers (lifelong idols all), a foundation upon which his own orgiastic gospel-boogie slam can rise to extraordinary heights. From the feverish, walking-wounded soul of his 1956 Sun Records debut, “Crazy Arms,” to the socio-sexual threat of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” to his last significant creative peak, a 1979–81 series of masterpieces (the bottomless yearning of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and the achingly close-to-home triptych of “Thirty-Nine and Holding,” “Middle-Age Crazy” and “I’d Do It All Again”), Lewis has launched nearly as many bruised contemplations as he has slash-and-burn rock & roll classics. Lewis’ campaign ranks as one of the most ambitious in rock history, examining everything from the betrayal of Christ (the gospel standard “Thirteen at the Table”) to the Kennedy assassination (his self-penned 1966 mind-blower “Lincoln Limousine,” with its cryptic “It goes to show/You never know/Who’s your enemy or your friend”). As he once sang, “Nobody knows Jerry Lee.”
Beyond the self-propelled mystique, rooted in the Southerner’s hell-bound Baptist scorch, simmers a stew of narcissism and genius, volatile yet nourishing enough to redeem a life of extreme tragedy (his path is littered with dead children and wives) and self-destructive foolishness. Yet the resultant public exposure has never pierced a closely guarded vulnerability, one that Last Man Standing producers Steve Bing and Jimmy Rip were able to succor and exploit.
They faced a mutha of a challenge. Jerry Lee, after all, is a man whose respect and affection it generally would take the better part of a lifetime to earn, and the preponderance of hippie-era pretenders assembled here are more likely subject to the Killer’s scorn than his admiration. (“Any son-of-a-bitchin’ man wears his hair like a woman,” he told biographer Robert Palmer, “has got a fuckin’ weakness he better get rid of.”) So on the most appalling travesties — and there are more than a few here — Lewis glaringly shows up the irrelevance of assholes like Ringo Starr, Don Henley and Rod Stewart while showcasing his own familiar rock & roll metaphysics. Killer is all over it, brilliant and crafty as ever, loading on the eruptive piano and redneck poetics tough and tender, downright violent when the mood requires. Every track gains undeniable weight from his frighteningly involved, deeply wrought performances.
Some of these collaborations are unexpectedly marvelous, opening with Led Zeppelin’s “Rock & Roll,” where Jerry Lee’s prodigious shout and rampaging ivories are momentously complemented by Jimmy Page’s savage, refreshingly nonhysterical guitar; it’s uncut, seriously rockin’ shit that comes across as neither cute shtick nor gimmicky marketing. Mick Jagger’s suitably embittered, misogynistic “Evening Gown” features a relatively subtle vocal track from Jagger and allows Jerry Lee ample margin to show how downright fresh he remains, chewing up the lyric with vivid, sugary menace. Conversely, Keith Richards’ pathetic, croaking ruination of “That Kind of Fool” pollutes an otherwise first-rate job by Jerry Lee, and “Honky Tonk Woman” with meathead Kid Rock is a flat-out atrocity.
“Twilight” is a lovely moment for the Killer, with Robbie Robertson’s guitar counterpointing a string-laden countrypolitan arrangement that harks back to Lewis’ Smash Records era. B.B. King’s Lucille talks a swinging six-string dialect on the marvelous “Before the Night Is Over.” On “You Don’t Have to Go,” even professional whiner Neil Young manages to retain the track’s hard blues dignity, unlike Bruce Springsteen and John Fogerty, whose phonus balonus exhortations and graceless bellowing (on “Pink Cadillac” and “Travelin’ Band,” respectively) fall somewhere between litter and vandalism. While Willie Nelson’s reliably cracked musicality adds much to “A Couple More Years,” the other legendary country cats involved, Merle Haggard (“Just A Bummin’ Around”) and George Jones (“Don’t Be Ashamed of Your Age”), sidle through stoned novelty knockoffs; neither one — another decidedly unpleasant shock — rises to the occasion as valiantly as does nu-hillbilly wonder boy Toby Keith on the flag-waver “Old Glory.”
The most amazing thing, even more than how right-now wonderful he sounds, is how at ease the chronically restless Jerry Lee seems; he still craves the rock and, secure in the knowledge that none of the guests offers any real competition, nails everything brought before him. Regardless of the frequently wrong-headed tone of this concept (even the title’s allusion to Killer as the sole survivor of the Sun Records roster is erroneous; just ask Billy Lee Riley or Sonny Burgess), Last Man Standing has captured Lewis in better form than any other recording in decades. The closing number, with Kris Kristofferson (one of the few colleagues Lewis actually admires and respects) on Kristofferson’s classic “The Pilgrim,” is a suitably emphatic climax. The damn thing always sounded like it was written with Killer in mind, and when he sings, “Never knowin’ if believin’ is a blessin’ or a curse, or if the goin’ up was worth the comin’ down,” it plays as both painful self-examination and resigned, transportive acknowledgment of mortality. A performance for the ages.
Last Man Standing re-establishes Lewis as just what he’s always insisted he is: the greatest rock & roll performer and interpreter of them ?all.
JERRY LEE LEWIS | Last Man Standing |Artist First