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on 25 September 2009
Hellfire is the second Nick Tosches book I have had the pleasure of reading, the other book being Unsung Heroes of Rock and Roll. Both books are laced with black humour, both have soundtracks, and both have elements of mammon's struggle between fame and salvation.

Hellfire drops you deep into Jerry Lee Lewis' psyche, his conflicts, his sins and his internal agony.
It contrasts the three cousins whose fame made Ferriday proud, Jerry Lee, Jimmy Swaggart and Mickey Gilley. The book was written in 1982 and does not reach the calamities of Swaggart's downfalls or the mysterious deaths of two of Lewis' wives, or Gilley's ten number one country hits and subsequent decline and financial crisis. Nonetheless it is a riveting read written by a talented stylist whose biblical prose evokes the fire and brimstone puritanism of old backwoods Louisiana where the Spirit possessed and spoke in tongues, and where the devil growled in the darkness beyond.

In dirt farming Ferriday the poor were succoured by the Holy Ghost and the Hidden Hooch and enticed by the Lure of The Devil, and you were hot or cold, never lukewarm, and Jerry Lee became seduced by the Whore of Fame. I recall Little Richard had the same conflict (refer the entertaining Life and Times of Little Richard by Charles White) and doubtless they had philosophical discussions when they played together... Jerry Lee was convinced that his way was the way of the Devil and that he was leading his fans to Hellfire. This was the flame of his fame, his agony which he doused with drugs, booze and women, a similar platter to that which served his perceived arch rival Elvis.

Jerry Lee Lewis was a product of his time and location with it's attendant racism, sexism, wife bashing, violence, and yea religion - all those good ole black and white values. This book does not dwell on goodness; there is little grace, comfort or light. It is not an uplifting read but it is fascinating and well written. The soundtrack is Lewis's Live At The Star Club, Hamburg, a 1964 gig where the Killer is absolutely manic, growling and speaking in tongues. It is astounding. It's energy is unrelenting in fact I can't think of anything which comes close, unless there is a good Little Richard live album. Mmm, must suss that out. Nick Tosches is gifted and I'll read more of his output, maybe Dino or Country, sometime later.
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on 29 January 2016
In 2006 The Guardian named Hellfire number one on its list of the fifty greatest music books of all time. I find it hard to argue otherwise. Hellfire is quite simply phenomenal and Tosches performance is as electrifying and audacious and as any that Jerry Lee gave on stage.

An example…

…He was The Killer and he was immortal- damned to be, as long as there was good and evil to be torn between in agony. He would sit backstage in a thousand dank nightclubs, and he would know this, and he would swallow more pills and wash them down with three fingers more of whiskey, and he would know it even more. He would walk like a man to the stage, with his Churchill in one hand and his water glass of whiskey in the other, and he would pound the piano and sing his sinful songs, and he would beckon those before him, mortals, made not as he to destruction from the womb: he would beckon them to come, to stay with him a while at the brink of hell…

In one paragraph Tosches can give you tent show-revival damnation and rock star excess in a rhythm as addictive and insistent as Jerry Lee’s honky tonk piano. He can transform a potentially cliché description of a washed up country singers alcoholism and inner turmoil into something reminiscent of Faulkner or St Paul.

And like all great rock and roll songs Hellfire’s main strength is that it is propulsive and doesn’t outstay it’s welcome- it grabs you by the lapel and shakes you before leaving just as quick. Jerry Lee lived a life that a lesser biographer could spend thousands of pages mulling over and contextualising (See the glut of doorstopper Elvis biographies) but Tosches manages to thoroughly cover the backwoods childhood, the underage marriages, the bigamy, the expulsion from bible school, the tours, the drugs, the booze, the arrests, the shootings, the IRS, the hits, the flops and the comebacks in a mere 262 pages.

I can’t count the number of times I have casually started reading this book on a rainy afternoon only to look up, blinking, from the poignant and opaque final line several hours later.

Buy it…
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on 2 January 1999
I bought this book through "Amazon", when they were a solely american company, so it took quite a while for it to arrive on my doorstep.... but the wait was worth it!!! The book started in the early 1800's,starting with his ancestors, and went through to the present day (1983), and I learnt a lot of things about Jerry Lee Lewis, that I never knew. If you are going to buy a rock'n'roll biography, make sure it is this one...... you won't be disappointed.
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on 28 September 2012
Forget all the books about the stones, this is THE definitive rock roll redemption story, you dont have to be a Killa fan, just a lover of music and rock n roll.
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on 31 January 2016
Revealing the story of Jerry Lee, no wonder he's eccentric?
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on 9 August 2014
This is often billed as the greatest rock biography ever written, but I cannot quite see why. Tosches up takes half of what is not a very long book on the setup - this is the bit of the biography that explains where the subject came from, and Tosches obviously believes that Lewis' dirt-poor and 'edge of the law' extended family had far more influence on his life and career that it actually did. I just don't buy this whole Southern Gothic Heaven and Hell thing being the sole reason for Lewis' ego, narcissism and cruelty to those around him.

I would have liked far more focus on his career and music. This is squeezed into the second half and we only get the highlights.

Having said that, there are some great tales in the book about this highly unpleasant individual, and enough quotable material to put you off ever buying another Jerry Lee Lewis record!
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on 13 August 2013
I actually met this guy in 1962 in Hamburg where my band was playing. Wildman - yes, but he was considerate and humorous - he also bought me a drink!
He's still rockin' too albeit a little slower now. The book is a must for all his fans.
Love him!
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 7 August 2009
Nice book about Jerry Lee, highly recommended to even the slightest fan. Lots of info, ties nicely into Graet Balls Of Fire movie/book.
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on 10 April 2013
Here is my statement: You can read Tolstoi and like it. You can not read Hellfire and don't love it.
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on 16 December 2015
Was bought as a gift and it was well received.
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