Sunday, October 21, 2007

Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story (1982)

The basic word on this—as a perusal of practically any edition's blurbs will attest—is "Best Rock Bio Evah." I think the Boston Phoenix may have actually got closer to the heart of the matter: "To call Hellfire the best book written about a rock 'n' roller is to miss the point.... Hellfire is a rock 'n' roll event." I'm not here to argue with anyone about this—no one can deny that this is a remarkable book, a marriage made in ... some place fantastic ... between its subject Jerry Lee Lewis and biographer Nick Tosches. In general, not enough is understood about the religious convictions of some of the key figures in that first wave of rock 'n' roll and their beliefs in the basics of sin and redemption: thinking here specifically of Elvis, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis, the subject at hand, who once famously (or maybe not so famously) shut down a recording of "Great Balls of Fire" to argue the metaphysics, epistemology, and orthodoxy of the song with producer Sam Phillips. "How can the Devil save souls?" Lewis cried at one point. Tosches, a painstaking fact chaser, probably doesn't have the problems associated with this conflict, but he understands it. He understands the sources of those beliefs, and most importantly, he understands the language in which they are expressed. His book will make you laugh out loud at them. It will also chill you to your core.

In case it's not at the library.

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