Roll over, Chuck Berry

In rock and roll, 'legend' is another word for 'forgotten'

Bo Diddley, Carl Perkins, Fats Domino, and so many others have merely faded from the musical consciousness; Perkins will occasionally show up on the Nashville Network performing a laconic, countrified version of "Blue Suede Shoes," and usually he looks half-asleep. Fats is just that, and as of eight years ago, Bo Diddley was living in a trailer in the deep woods of Florida; like so many of his contemporaries, Bo didn't know diddley about the music business, never felt the fat fingers of producers and label men lifting his wallet from his pocket.

The only man who managed to retain his artistic credibility was Johnny Cash, once part of Sun's Million Dollar Quartet that also included Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee. Though he suffered through most of the '70s and '80s releasing mediocre albums of country and gospel, Cash resurfaced last year with the haunting American Recordings, the sparse incantations of a man who had embraced his demons without letting them claim his soul, a feat Jerry Lee never quite managed. His voice sounding as though it came from the pits of purgatory, two hellhounds perched at his feet on the album's cover, Cash sang these horrible, mean-spirited songs that were also somehow redemptive and poignant; they were the musings of a man who stood at the precipice of failure, and spat into the maw.

It is not merely enough to survive in this business, Greil Marcus wrote in his legendary "Rock Death in the '70s: A Sweepstakes" piece for The Village Voice in 1979. It is the great rock and roll myth, he explained, to believe that "when so many have fallen, to continue must be a real accomplishment."

"What we are faced with is the same old replacement of values and standards by a fraud on both," he wrote. "To perform in the context of the death of one's fellows may be an act of nerve or perseverance, worthy qualities both, although it is more likely a refusal to surrender possibilities of celebrity and financial reward--but in any case such a performance accomplishes nothing by itself. The word 'survivor' is used to hide this fact, and to hide the banality, falsity, and enervation of whatever it is a performer's perseverance may actually produce."

In Jerry Lee Lewis' case, that perseverance has produced an album that faintly replicates past triumphs: it drags along where his best work once roared uncontrollably, containing the body of "Great Balls of Fire" or "Breathless" but never the soul. "Crown Victoria Custom '51" kicks off with the same rolling boogie-woogie first heard at the beginning of "Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On," but stalls out like the old car of which Jerry Lee sings and turns into by-the-numbers rockabilly--a guy makin' love to his automobile, celebrating his four-on-the-floor and chopped-off top, promising to be faithful to the hunk of steel till he dies.

Young Blood is part country, part rockabilly--pedal steel guitar and boogie-woogie piano competing for space, all hell with none of the fire. Sometimes his voice sounds as powerful as it once did, sometimes it squeaks out a pathetic warble that's supposed to be a yodel, sometimes it just meanders like a drunken sailor on the last night of shore leave. If the Jerry Lee of 1989's Rockin' My Life Away was able to embrace his defeats (at the hands of the government and women) and find dark wisdom at the bottom of the liquor bottle--if he was able to harness his anger and bitterness at a world that owed him much better, his voice a sad and lonesome and creaky facsimile of its former self--Lewis returns to prove he is still The Killer, still as vibrant as he was 40 years ago.

And it's just sad, like watching Gaylord Perry pitch in an oldtimers' game, his fat and weary frame lumbering to the pitcher's mound to do battle with another legend who can barely swing the lumber--containing that sort of pathetic glory, heartbreaking and exhilarating all at once. You want so desperately for the years and pounds of excess to fall away, to shut your eyes and be transported back to a time when The Killer was a killer and The King was a king and the essence of rock and roll was captured in the lunatic rant-ings of a former drag queen who tutti-fruttied for Jesus.

But then you hear Jerry Lee sing, and there's the Killer wearing a frilly tux singing country songs and old R&B standards and adding nothing new to something that now seems very old. "Memories are all I have to cling to," he sings. "Old heartaches are the friends I'm talking to." And there is nothing more painful that listening in on that conversation.

Jerry Lee Lewis performs May 5 at Billy Bob's Texas in Fort Worth.

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