How should we think about Jerry Lee Lewis in 2017?
At a moment of reckoning for powerful, allegedly abusive men in show business, it’s not possible for this rock ’n’ roll pioneer to appear onstage, as he did Friday night at the Theatre at Ace Hotel, without inviting consideration of his notorious marriage in the late 1950s to his cousin Myra, who was 13 at the time.
If confronted (which he certainly wasn’t Friday), Lewis, now 82, likely would brush off the incident as ancient history — and then explain, like so many others accused of misconduct, that the rules were different back then.
But that didn’t make his hero’s welcome any less remarkable at the Ace, where the singer and pianist played a hastily announced gig while in town reportedly cutting a new album.
Dressed in a shiny gold suit, his silver hair still thick and wavy, Lewis repeatedly brought the audience of men and women to their feet during his amusing if perfunctory half-hour set — a reminder that some legends live outside the immediate circumstances of the day.
Then again, it might’ve been a different context that accounted for such a warm reception.
Already the sole survivor of rock’s so-called Million Dollar Quartet (having outlived Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash), Lewis has taken on even more of a last-man-standing vibe in recent years following the deaths of fellow trailblazers such as Chuck Berry, Phil Everly and Fats Domino.
So another way to regard Lewis in 2017 is as a final opportunity to commune with rock’s founding generation.
That was clearly Lewis’ preference, based on an introductory video that laid out the singer’s importance with archival clips and testimonials from friends and inheritors including Perkins, Berry and John Fogerty (also: Burton Cummings of the Guess Who, whose presence, along with the video’s faded look, suggested the thing had been assembled around 1988.)
Once he got going, Lewis’ choice of material made the same case for greatness as he ran through classics like “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Great Balls of Fire” and Roy Orbison’s “Down the Line” with able backing from his three-piece band. Ditto an unannounced cameo by one of his admirers, Kris Kristofferson, who dropped in to help Lewis perform “Me and Bobby McGee.”
“If I could write a song like Kris,” Lewis joked afterward, “I’d write it.”
The problem with the video and with the old hits was that they invited you to compare the man onstage with the man onscreen and in your head — a losing proposition, of course, given Lewis’ well-earned reputation as one of rock’s wildest performers in his heyday.
About the fiercest he got here was when he expressed his annoyance at finding an unopened can of Sprite on his piano.
“You’d think they’d have opened this for me,” he said.
This isn’t to say that wildness, at whatever strength, is Lewis’ only mode. “Georgia on My Mind” had a kind of ruined sentimentality that expressed (or pantomimed) the regrets he may (or may not) be haunted by.
And his florid solo in “Before the Night Is Over” suggested he still takes pleasure in having mastered his instrument.
But Lewis knows his place in history is tied to his role as a bad boy — indeed as something more frightening than that.
Which is why, at the end of Friday’s concert, he stood up with some effort and kicked over his piano bench before grabbing his gold-colored cane and shuffling into the arms of his half-dozen handlers.
Live long enough, he seemed to be saying, and you can get away with anything.
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