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Killer Virtues

I guess I’m just a contrary motherfucker. This would explain why a two star review of a Jerry Lee Lewis record is an incentive for me to buy it.

A decade after his big hits for Sam Phillips, Jerry Lee Lewis released an album called There Must Be More to Love Than This. He was newly divorced from his cousin and had fallen out of favor with the mainstream, due to his aggressive self destructive nature. He was a punk musician before America knew what to do with one.

In 1971 Lewis’s new label Mercury had a fresh sound for him, with big background vocals, loud upright bass and tight arrangements. High production value and better recording techniques make this record feel more like Nashville than Memphis, but the Killer’s voice reminds you that nothing’s changed.

Maybe it is a two-star album, there are certainly a few clunkers on it. But I think it’s more likely that the critic didn’t listen through to the end. Hidden at the tail end of the record is a tune written by Jerry Chestnut called “Home Away From Home”. It’s a kind of monologue from the point of view of a unfaithful man talking to his mistress. He tells her he knows what he’s doing is supposed to be wrong, but every instinct tells him that this affair is much more real than the relationship with his wife at home.

This is a painful song and Lewis doesn’t let his natural showmanship interfere with its fragile nature. It’s a lot like Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”, where Cooke avoids his old tricks and instead relies on the song and his voice. Jerry Lee doesn’t unleash his signature vocal trills, his right hand hardly touches the piano, and there is no boasting in his voice. He’s being so honest that there’s no room for swagger.
With “A Change Is Gonna Come” you can tell why the song is so important to the singer, the civil rights movement and hundreds of years of oppression are readily apparent in every note, but at first it seems strange that the Killer cares so much about “Home Away From Home”. He’s sung plenty of songs about infidelity before, why does should this one feel so special?

The easy answer is his recent divorce. After 13 years his third marriage had finally fallen apart, and you can hear some of that history in his voice. But that doesn’t feel like the whole story, it doesn’t feel like a song about loss.

It feels like his eulogy.

By right I guess I’ve been doing everything wrong
And it may not be the proper thing to do
But I can’t find this kind of peace of mind when I’m around her
I’m more at home away from home with you

It sounds a lot like the life Jerry Lee chose for himself; One that isn’t supported by society, that’s bound to make people angry. It’s a description of how it feels to go against the grain, to live the life of a contrary motherfucker.

LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: lorenzowolff@gmail.com

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LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: lorenzowolff@gmail.com

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