Saturday, August 02, 2008

Have A Little Fun Tonight

Jerry Lee Lewis – Live At The Star Club, Hamburg

It was another crazy weekend here at Wildebeest Asylum HQ and my head is totally frazzled, but this week I'm going to push on nonetheless and try and wring something sensible out of my fingers through the haze of a headachy hangover and serious sleep deprivation.

The subject of this week's musing is one of the 1001 albums. I anticipated Jerry Lee Lewis with little excitement, knowing little about him and following on the heels of the dire previous entry in the series, Buck Owens' ear murdering country drawling. I was expecting to just give it one quick listen and then move on. How wrong I was. Even half way through the first track I was thinking “Oh this is much better than I anticipated!” and as it transpired Lewis was just warming up. Three songs into his set when he drops into 'Money' (you know the song, “Thats. What I want!”) I was floored by the absolute insanity of his performance. Lewis' piano playing is phenomenal. His riffs may be simple but considering that he's screaming like a madman whilst bashing them out like the keyboard killed his parents, and combined with his reputation for playing behind his back or while standing on top of the piano it's very impressive. His singing is amazing too. Sure most of the time he's just shouting but there's no doubt that he's giving it all he's got both physically and emotionally. And his backing band keep up in the intensity department. The guitar solos may be just two note wailing but even the likes of Opeth or Dragonforce should envy the rawness and wild energy that they capture.

The songs themselves have been reduced to hoary, clichéd golden oldies by the decades. 'Good Golly Miss Molly', 'Great Balls of Fire' and 'Hound Dog' may garner a bit of intellectual respect for their place in music history but few of our generation have much genuine inclination to actually listen to them. All the same in this performance Lewis howls his way through them with an energy and yes even savagery that would give even the likes of Dillinger Escape Plan something to think about, and should cause half assed metal bands who treat a live performance as a job no more exciting than sitting in an office all day (I'm looking at you Satyricon, Slipknot and the Deftones) to hang up their scary masks, wipe off their scary makeup and admit that a forty year old album made by a devout Christian lad has made them look like a bunch of gutless pussies.

The concert recorded on this album was performed at a time when Lewis' star was on the wane, following the media response to revelations of a dubious nature about his personal life (and it's wasn't just some moral majority era wowserism either, marrying one's thirteen year old cousin would probably still be frowned upon today), and it's easy to hear in his manic performance the sound of self-destruction; as though he feels he's lost everything and has nothing left but the catharsis of throwing every piece of oneself into the primal thunder of rock and roll. One of the tragic things about art is that we can only ever achieve our full potential when one's personal life has wound up in such an unpleasant place that the anger or despair brings about some kind of transcendence to create something beyond the norm. Sure I've heard plenty of great performances where the performers are jazzed up in a positive way, usually simply by the pleasure they take in creating music, but those can never quite match up to the spectacle of seeing or hearing someone totally fucking losing it for real. And the appreciation of this is not schadenfreude or pity or voyeurism, but the feeling that you've witnessed something truly genuine; that the hands smashing that keyboard or throttling that guitar are driven by real emotion instead of a mere abstract passion to make some good music. It's a little depressing but of course it's the human cost that it took to create the performance that makes it special. And that's why this album is rightfully regarded as one of the greatest live albums of all time, and why when I see Sigur Ros tonight they're probably going to suck.

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