Tag Archives: Merle Haggard

Jerry Lee Lewis: Great Ball of Fire

Against all conceivable odds, expectations, predictions, rumors, gossip and reason, Jerry Lee Lewis is 75 years old. He still sounds like he could hit the key of a piano with his pinky harder than most men could hit it with their right fist. His legacy—a smoldering trail of mayhem and musical masterpieces that stretches from here to Ferriday, Louisiana—was forged with the scorching barrelhouse piano and Pentecostal brimstone holler with which he has haunted and taunted country music and rock and roll for five decades. Slandered by scandal, hobbled by addiction, and fueled by a defiance that borders on vengeance, Jerry Lee has lived to stand his ground in the 21st century, playing the same music he has played since 1956, daring you to dismiss it.

“Mean Old Man,” Jerry Lee’s new album—which follows 2006’s hugely successful “Last Man Standing,” and utilizes the same formula of pairing Jerry Lee with conventionally recognized superstars for a set of covers—is no I told you so. It’s just Jerry Lee doing what Jerry Lee has always done. It is loose, spontaneous country, rock and gospel, delivered by one of the last living inventors of rock and roll on the instrument he taught himself as a poor boy growing up a thousand years ago in the pre-War south. That’s all. And if at times today’s stars seem like mosquitoes buzzing around the head of a lion (Kid Rock on “Rockin’ My Life Away”) or a little campy (Mick Jagger’s Broadway drawl on the Stones’ fake country classic “Dead Flowers”), they are to be forgiven—even admired for their willingness to get in there and do it.

There was a famous argument between Jerry Lee Lewis and Sam Phillips recorded at Sun Studios in 1957. Late one night, after a long session—the bottles had been opened and emptied—Phillips wanted the band to cut a song written by Jack Hammer and Otis Blackwell that he thought would be perfect for Jerry Lee. Jerry Lee refused. He heard evil in the lyrics; to sing them would be a sin. Just 22, he had been kicked out of Southwestern Bible College a few years earlier for playing boogie-woogie in chapel and had made his way to Phillips in Memphis under the absolutely outrageous but remarkably accurate assumption that anybody who could make a star out of Elvis Presley could make a star out of him too. By the time session engineer Jack Clement had the good temerity to hit record that night, Jerry Lee had begun to testify.

“H-E-L-L!” Jerry Lee spells, furious. “It says make merry with the joy of God. Only! But when it comes to worldly music, rock and roll, anything like that: You have done brought yourself into the world and you’re a sinner! And no sin shall enter there. No sin! It don’t say just a little bit. It says no sin shall enter there. Brother, not one little bit.”

The older Phillips tries to counter with a professorial differentiation between faith and extremism, arguing that you can play rock and roll and do good, help people—even save souls. Jerry Lee explodes.

“How can the Devil save souls?” he screams. “What are you talking about? Man I got the Devil in me! If I didn’t have, I’d be a Christian!”

The tape cuts off, but somehow, eventually, Jerry Lee relented and recorded the song. It was “Great Balls of Fire.”

The point being: The guest artists on “Mean Old Man” are singing duets with someone who believes his music has served the Devil—and has played it for 50 years anyway. Cut them some slack.

Still, the best moments on “Mean Old Man” come when nobody is trying to out-Jerry Lee Jerry Lee, including Jerry Lee himself. Everyone shines on the country numbers, which—like Lewis’ impeccable, chart-topping late-60s and early-70s renditions of classics like “Another Place, Another Time” and “What Made Milwaukee Famous”—teeter with weariness, regret and soul.

Jerry Lee’s cracking voice betrays the sadness and futility in “Middle Age Crazy” and Tim McGraw wisely lets the mournfulness hang in the air. “Swingin’ Doors,” his duet with Merle Haggard—two men that for public safety probably shouldn’t be allowed in the same city, much less the same room—is a lighthearted, Saturday night sigh of relief. And the unlikely pairing of Jerry Lee and Gillian Welch on the Eddie Miller country standard “Please Release Me” creates a rural church harmony that serves as one of the album’s true gems.

After a version of the Carter Family’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” that finds Jerry Lee trading verses and sharing choruses with soul powerhouse Mavis Staples, “Mean Old Man” ends with a solo performance of “Miss the Mississippi and You.”

It is a resonant ending. First, the Staples duet: country and gospel, black and white, blues and honky tonk, secular and spiritual, combining to pine for a better home in the sky; then, the man alone at the piano, singing softly into the darkness, like its his only comfort in the world.

–Ari Surdoval


David Broza: For the Sake of the Song

David Broza and Townes Van Zandt met just once, in 1994 at the Main Street Theater in Houston, Texas, where they shared the stage at a writers-in-the-round night. It was an odd pairing.

Broza, a multi-platinum Israeli singer-songwriter and classical guitarist, was a huge international star, though relatively unknown in America. Van Zandt—the brilliant and troubled Texas songwriter who has been hailed as both a genius and an influence by such artists as Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark and even Bob Dylan—was relatively unknown everywhere.

Without doubt one of America’s greatest songwriters, Van Zandt pursued commercial success reluctantly, and it mostly eluded him. In 1981 Emmylou Harris had a hit with “If I Needed You” and in 1983, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard took a version of Van Zandt’s “Poncho and Lefty” to number one. But Van Zandt’s stunning dedication to his own destruction, fueled by heroin addiction and alcoholism and aggravated by manic depression, confined him to the cold comforts of a songwriter’s songwriter.

Throughout his life, he played mostly small bars and clubs, where he could hold even the rowdiest crowd spellbound with breathtaking, precisely fingerpicked ballads like “To Live is To Fly,” “No Place to Fall” and “Be Here to Love Me.” His songs were nearly flawless—intense, powerful, delicate—and Van Zandt sang them with fearless honesty, his voice devoid of any affect or put-on. But as his mental and physical health deteriorated, he could just as likely find himself onstage incoherent and babbling, struggling to hold himself upright in a chair, his voice ravaged as he fumbled with the simplest chords. It was a long slow losing battle that ended on January 1, 1997, when Van Zandt died at the age of 52.

That night at the Main Street Theater, though, Van Zandt was on. Broza remembers it vividly.

“I wasn’t a fan at the time, though I was aware of him.” Broza says. “But after that night. I wasn’t just a fan. He infected me. He played for four hours and I was totally mesmerized.”

The respect was mutual.

“I was playing my work, which has always been putting music to poetry, whether it was Israeli or Spanish or American,” Broza continues. “And I was telling him about working directly with a poet, and how strange it is for poets to write lyrics to an existing piece of music. Townes said, ‘Hey why don’t you take my number? I can write poetry to your stuff.’ So we were going to meet. I was going to fly over and meet with him, but it didn’t work out.”

Soon after Van Zandt’s death, Broza was stunned to learn that Van Zandt had left behind ten poems that he had wanted Broza to have. “I met this man once,” Broza says. “And his wish is to have us work together.”

The result of that wish is the strange collaboration Night Dawn: The Unpublished Poetry of Townes Van Zandt. An at times eerie high wire act that equally balances the voices of two distinct and distinctly different artists, Night Dawn features 11 songs with lyrics penned by Van Zandt, which Broza put to music, accompanied by G.E. Smith, who also helped produce. It is Broza’s first American release in more than 15 years—and it took him more than eight years to write the music.

“I was so moved to have actually received these song poems,” Broza says. “They were such treasures. It took me a year to write the first melody. I carried them with me in a little satchel and when I would arrive somewhere, at a hotel or before a show or a sound check, I would pull them out and look at them. I’d put them on the table by the bed so I’d see them when I woke up. For me, it was about living those lyrics for a long time, and understanding the inner rhythms and intricacies, the sounds of the consonants and the vowels, the way the lines are put together.”

The songs—many of which return to themes of death and leaving—can sound at times more haunted by Van Zandt than written by him. But for Broza, the point was not to recreate Van Zandt’s sound, but to truly collaborate with the work he left behind.

“I wrote the music,” he says. “So it fits right in my hand and it came naturally for me. But I am hearing his playing in the back of my mind. I wrote it in such a removed way from him, but it is really for the people who loved and appreciated his art. I’m just trying to do it justice. I only wish he could hear it.”

For those who love and are influenced by Van Zandt’s art, Broza offers a note of caution.

“The thing is not to take things literally,” he says. “His art was not the result of his depression or his drug and alcohol abuse. It was the result of his genius. And in spite of all his pain, he created all that beauty. Today, I see pain all around, from the tellers at the bank, to the policeman on the street, from big people to small people. There is a lot of pain everywhere. Thank God I have the music.”

–Ari Surdoval