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The Whore of Fame
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.