He was Punk two decades before Punk.
If he started his career in 1977, he would have shared the stage with Strummer, Patti, and Iggy. He had this nervy, maniacal piano-playing schtick, as if someone held a shotgun to his head, demanding he cover Hank Williams, or Roy Orbison—right now or else.
That’s Jerry Lee Lewis. The outlaw—and the outlier.
Man, myth, legend, and undeniable influence on first wave punk in the late ‘70s. His songs staccato, the piano playing brutal, and all with an intuitive understanding of youth culture and its infinite mystery—majesty in squalor.
As a kid in the ‘90s, born to bonafide rock ‘n’ roller parents, I quickly latched onto their encyclopedic record collection, devouring everything I could—from the Clash to new wave stalwarts like the Psychedelic Furs. But the thing that perplexed me most was what I thought of as ‘missing link’ type sounds that reminded me of Elvis and Joe Strummer’s long-lost brother.
That’s the Stray Cats, the Cramps, and “More Fun in the New World”-era X albums that had that raw, rockabilly twang, but with a slinkier, moodier sound, anxious and spindly like XTC’s first five years of output.
Now we’re in 2017. That Punk/Rockabilly hybrid sounds like a distant memory. A lot of what is dubbed ‘Punk’ now sounds staged and corporate—a glossy package of manufactured angst marketed primarily to 14-year-old boys. And Rockabilly kind of had a resurgence in the late ‘90s, manifesting itself in a big band sound with the resurrected career of Brian Setzer, among other bands with names that sounded like they were straight out of the 1940s—the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and the like.
That revival didn’t really catch on, and Rockabilly faded back into the ether. So where’s the edge? Why does everything sound so safe now?
When I listen to the Cramps classic Bad Songs for Bad People I’m reminded of the twang, hillbilly yelp and urgency with which Jerry Lee Lewis played. Lux Interior was the first person I thought of when hearing “High School Confidential,” seeing Lewis possessed at the keys.
It’s as if Lux heard “Crazy Arms” or “One Minute Past Eternity” as a kid, sitting alone in his bedroom on Halloween night, and decided that he could make his own version of rockabilly, repackaged as late-night, cable-access horror schlock.
I wouldn’t be surprised if young Lux had a dream one night where Jerry Lee Lewis came into his room for a lesson in Shock the Audience 101. For Lewis, the mad piano work almost seems quaint now—probably antiquated even when Lux was a kid—but where does anyone even get the idea to play a gig at a sanatorium, as the Cramps did? Can’t you see it?
JLL: Lux, you can’t just stand in front of an audience and scare the hell out of them with your clothes, jumping around like an uncaged animal windmilling on your guitar—that’s for crusty guys like me. And Pete Townsend, of course.
Lux: But Jerry Lee, if I can’t howl and beat up on my guitar, how can I do this?
JLL: Ever been to a looney bin?
Now you must admit, it’s plausible that the whole idea for the Cramps’ infamous 1978 gig at the Napa State Mental Hospital came from a David Lynch dream sequence.
Then again, that’s the spirit of Punk. Go against the grain, shock the system, shake people up. That’s not possible anymore with leather jackets and spikes and Chuck Taylors. Or banging on pianos, for that matter.
Nowadays, the lines of what is and isn’t Punk are completely blurred, and have little to do with three chords and distorted guitars. Punk is becoming canonized, a museum piece like Rockabilly and the Big Bands of yore.
But that doesn’t mean it’s dead, or even dying a slow death. As long as there are people in this world who have the fire inside of them to take that road less traveled and say something different, even unpopular, about own humanity, then there will always be Punk.
Sounds change—but the sentiment never dies and the shared struggle is always worth defending, tooth and nail, for life.
Jerry Lee once said, "Elvis was the greatest, but I'm the best." He may be onto something there.