The songs are 40 years old, their echoes already fading from our collective memory; they are rarely listened to anymore, needles hardly ever running through their grooves. But the music created in 1955 at places like Sun Records or at Chess Records still rings with as much power, as much passion, as much recklessness as it did 40 years ago. They are songs that define an era, but they are not defined by an era. It's music so timeless that it is likely to influence every rock and roll band till the sun stops burning in the sky.
To listen to the introductory guitar chords of "Maybelline," the pounding piano of "Great Balls of Fire," or the yowling A WOP BOP ALU BOP A WOP BAM BOOM of "Tutti Frutti" is not to stroll through a museum where exhibits are to be admired from afar but not touched; it's to be as exhilarated as audiences were when these songs first screamed from the jukebox or from the radio, when first performed in front of crowds of frenzied teenage kids who latched on to a music that would empower them like never before.
And most of the men who created those songs are still alive, some still playing. But they are like waxworks now, bitter at having been forced to sign over royalties to producers and record label owners and disc jockeys quick to take advantage of men who didn't understand the business of music; they tour the oldies circuits, they've grown fat on the riches of Las Vegas, they've become self-parodies. They have run out of songs, given up on the music they created, forgotten how to be good. And they have aged disgracefully, selling their souls to the Internal Revenue Service (maybe even the devil himself) and spending their time in jail for screwing teenage girls.
It is the great irony of rock and roll that the very people who created the music--who gave rock its shape and voice, who fashioned it out of so many disparate parts till it coalesced into an unstoppable force that divided and conquered the world--have becomes its most disposable and discarded figures. "Legend" is often just another term for "washed-up"; "innovator" is now synonymous with "inconsequential."
Those men who created rock and roll and somehow managed to escape alive--greats like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, Carl Perkins--are so rarely discussed anymore; they are entries in history books, subjects of documentaries, sources of inspiration and influence. With the exception of Jerry Lee Lewis, who will release a new album on May 9 (Young Blood), none of these men have recorded in more than a decade--the reasons for which are usually unknown, perhaps something to do with the fact they have nothing left to say. They are relics, old men. And old men do not rock and roll.
Berry will be 70 years old in October 1996; he barely tours anymore, though throughout much of the 1980s he could be found on some small stage somewhere, duckwalking his way through the old favorites like "Maybelline," "Reelin' and Rockin'," "Roll Over Beethoven," "Johnny B. Goode," "Rock and Roll Music," and so forth--the venerable bluesman one step removed from the oldies circuit. His is perhaps the most extensive, influential catalog in all of rock and roll--he has been covered by everyone from the Beatles to the Stones to the Jam to the Replacements to you name it; before Pete Townshend, before Paul Westerberg, before Eddie Vedder or Kurt Cobain, Berry was there to provide the sound track to adolescence for a generation or a dozen, wringing the poetic from the mundane, as Dave Marsh once wrote.
He didn't score his first million-seller till 1973 with "My Ding-a-Ling"--an silly ditty about his dick--and with the exception of the greatest-hits-live sound track to 1987's Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, the Taylor Hackford-directed documentary-celebration of Berry's life with Keith Richards acting as guide, Berry hasn't released an album since 1979's Rockit. He has become a bitter man, angry at all those years of exploitation by a record industry that took his millions and gave him only the scraps.
Richard Penniman--that's Little Richard, the self-proclaimed Queen of Rock and Roll to Elvis' King--boasts just as impressive a legacy as Berry's: "Tutti Frutti," "Long Tall Sally," "Lucille," "Keep A-Knockin'," "Good Golly, Miss Molly," and on and on. But Richard gave up rock and roll's sin in 1958 for the salvation of Bible school, devoting his body and soul to Jesus. Though he recorded a handful of albums in the 1970s (all long out-of-print) that proved he never really abandoned the secular world for the spiritual one--Richard was no Al Green--Penniman has become over the past 15 years a novelty act, a freak show to be dragged out as comedy relief or when some lesser-known seeks instant credibility.
He appeared in a brief role in the 1986 film Down and Out in Beverly Hills, dueted with Tanya Tucker on a recent country-and-R&B covers album, and recorded Itsy Bitsy Spider for a Disney AIDS fund-raiser. And he often turns up at award shows demanding to be recognized as the greatest rock and roller of all time--"The father of rock and roll!," as he's often proclaimed to whoever would listen without laughing.
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.
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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.