Sunday, March 1, 2015

A chat with Joe Bonomo, author of Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found

In Lost and Found, Joe Bonomo not only delves deep into the events of the night Jerry Lee Lewis recorded Live at the Star-Club, but also explores how the album fit within the context of Lewis’s turbulent life.  The book tells how, after being largely rejected by his fan base due to his marriage scandal, and while playing a style of music rapidly becoming marginalized by Beatlemania and the British Invasion, Lewis defiantly pounded out his greatest musical masterpiece.

Joe was gracious enough to talk with me about his book, the album, and a handful of related topics.  I was thankful for the opportunity, and the whole experience was fantastic.

PY: How did you come to write Lost and Found?

JB: It's a bit of a winding story.  It started when I had written a book in 2007 about the band The Fleshtones for Continuum, now Bloomsbury, the publisher that does the 33 1/3 series of small books about individual albums.  Two years later I pitched to David Barker, then an editor at Continuum, my idea to write a book on Live at the Star-Club for their 33 1/3 series.  So I sent him a proposal and he wrote back saying, “I don't think it's quite right for this series, at least right now, but would you consider expanding the proposal to write a full length book on the album?” – which was fantastic and a great surprise.  Continuum was starting up a series on the pioneers of rock 'n roll – David Kirby wrote a book on Little Richard around that time.  And that was it – he said go ahead and write it.  I spent a year working on it and then it came out.  So it involved a little bit of luck.  I had gotten my foot in the door with a publisher with my first book, and then it was just good luck that they came back asking me to do it in a full book form.

PY: I'm curious about your writing process. Did you know what you wanted the book to be like when you started, or were you letting your research guide the direction of the book?

JB: Well, what I had to do first when my editor gave me this great opportunity was to figure out how I'm going to move this proposal for a short book into a long book.  So as far as the middle section of what turned out to be Lost and Found, I had pretty much outlined in my proposal to the editor.  But now I had this opportunity to write a longer book and I thought, “how can I expand this?” and I came upon the idea of talking about that album at length, but couching it in terms of where Jerry Lee was in his career at that point.  This is a context I would have explored in a shorter book, but now I had the opportunity to explore what exactly got him to that point in April, 1964 when he made this record and then what happened afterwards. So this really gave me an opportunity to talk about his career as a whole providing context for that great record.  Once I figured that out, it was a matter of just researching, interviewing, listening to records, and writing.

PY: Not a bad way to earn a paycheck.

JB: (Laughs) No, no.  Let me tell you, that was a heck of a year working on the book.

PY: I liked how Lost and Found covered in such detail the context in which Jerry Lee Lewis recorded Live at the Star-Club because I think context is so important to fully appreciate the album.  And I also liked your personal anecdotes in the book, such as talking about some of the concerts that influenced your taste in music, because I think that’s also part of the equation of what makes a great concert.

JB: Well, it's funny – my career as a music writer happened completely accidentally, because I was studying creative writing in graduate school as a poet.  I stopped writing poetry, and since about the mid-90s I've been writing essays.  Now, I've loved rock 'n roll my whole life and knew it would be something fun to write about. But my way into a subject is usually autobiographically no matter what I'm writing about.  So this longer Lost and Found book gave me the opportunity to talk about not just Jerry Lee's career, but how I intersected it first as a skeptic and then later as a believer.

PY: In the book you talked about how you were first exposed to Jerry Lee through a Pickwick label compilation.  But I'm curious – do you remember when you first heard Live at the Star-Club and what your first impression was?

JB: I was going to grad school and living in Athens, Ohio – so it was sometime between 1992 and 1995 – and I remember the first few spins of it and the top of my head coming off because of how amazing it was.  I knew about the record before I picked it up, and I'm not sure how I knew about it – I mean I knew about Jerry Lee obviously and I thought it would be cool to hear an album recorded at the Star-Club because of the Beatles’ history there and all that.  I think maybe I had read in Rolling Stone or some other magazine about how great that record was, so my expectations were very high when I put it on.  But man was I blown away.  I'll never forget it.

PY: Yeah, I had the same experience of being blown away.  It's funny – I first heard about the album through Tom Moon's 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, which I loved – so much so that I endeavored to actually listen to at least a portion of each of the thousand recordings in the book. But on my first go through, I couldn't find a copy of Live at the Star-Club online, so I skipped it and planned to find a copy later.  It wasn't until years later when I read Nick Tosches’s biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, Hellfire, that I thought, "man I have to go find that album."  And when I did, I thought the energy in that performance was unlike anything I had ever heard.

JB: Yes, especially when you consider it historically.  There aren't too many records where, the moment I heard it, I knew that it was special.  I knew that Live at the Star-Club was unique even before I knew the history of it.  I knew that there were very few people recording records 1964 that sounded like this.  Of course there were some fantastic rock 'n roll performances during that time, but I knew that there was no one recording and releasing a record this raw, except for maybe some of the garage bands out of the Pacific Northwest like The Sonics and The Wailers.  But right when I heard it I knew it was special and that's what made learning about it and learning about the context around it even more amazing.

PY: I don't know if you feel similarly, but another great thing about the album for me was that it had me reevaluate how I felt about the so-called pioneers of rock music – such as Elvis, Carl Perkins, etc. – because I was used to hearing the standard recordings by those artists. Granted, those are great recordings, but I don't know if they do those artists complete justice. If you compare the Sun Records version of “Great Balls of Fire” and the live album version, to me they are incomparable.

JB: Yes, they are incomparable, but I think equally great in their own way.  What Sam Phillips did at Sun Records was – as I write in the book – like the weather.  It just takes up every inch of the room when you listen to it.  And it was very difficult to replicate. A lot of that was luck, a lot of it was nerve, and a lot of it was skill.  But then the record that Siggi Loch recorded at the Star-Club was something else entirely.

One of the happiest things I think I was able to accomplish in the book was to be able to put Siggi Loch’s name out in front.  And I was grateful to be able to interview him too.  That was one of the most fortunate occurrences in doing the book for me because - well, Jerry Lee is great and the Nashville Teens were fabulous – but that recording is just fantastic.  And that was Siggi Loch, who had the skill, the nerve, and the ambition to record it.  And to recognize something great was going down at the Star-Club, especially when Jerry Lee was there.  But also to recognize that he shouldn't be hemmed in by the limited technology that was available to him, but instead to actually embrace it - you know, using only three microphones to record it.  So he really is as responsible for that record as anyone else.

PY: I agree – and in your book you compare Live at the Star-Club to other Jerry Lee Lewis live recordings. And, certainly the performance at the Star-Club is off the charts, but I agree that the production of the recording is essential as well.

JB: It's so well recorded!  And the point I make in the book is that, if you listen to the next live album he made – the one he recorded in Birmingham, Alabama, just a few months later – the difference is night and day.  Really night and day.  Now, it was just a few months later and it was a different band of course, but the Memphis Beats, his backing band at that point, they were a hot band.  They knew what they were doing. They were crack players and a good rock 'n roll band.  But to my ears it was so murkily recorded that it loses something essential that Siggi Loch caught, which was the atmosphere, the energy, and all the intangible things that are so difficult if not impossible to capture on those live records.

PY: I frequently find myself telling people about the album or playing it for them for the first time, since so few people know about it, and I'm always curious about people’s reactions to it.  My experience is that most people like it, but it's only every once in a while that someone is deeply blown away by it like you or I were. What kind of reactions do you find when people hear the album?

JB: For me, I guess most of the people that I'm friends with and I hang out with, I think we are cut from the same cloth when it comes to our taste in rock 'n roll, so most of my friends have dug it as much as I have.  I guess you read some things online where people say that the album is too noisy, it has too much emphasis on the 4/4, it's too "crashy," and it can't possibly live up to the hype.  But I haven't really come across someone personally who is disappointed with that record.  I really think it's impossible to discount that record, especially when you consider the circumstances of the recording.  What I was happy to discover in writing the book – and this was really an amazing thing to me - was that the very night that Jerry Lee recorded the album, the Beatles were filming the famous opening scene to A Hard Day’s Night.  This coincidence to me was really like a gift from God - it's like, how much more graphically can you dramatize the different direction in which the Beatles were going versus the direction Jerry Lee was going?  So when you recognize the context of where Jerry Lee was - he was essentially a “has-been” in this country, he was tarred-and-feathered and not selling any records at all, and in the midst of that he makes certainly his greatest rock 'n roll album, and I think one of the greatest rock 'n roll albums of all time.  So once you know the context, it's really hard to discount just how tremendous that record is.

PY: Why do you think the album resonates so profoundly with some people and not with others?

Well, I think that probably just comes down to taste.  I don't know if I have a profound answer to that question.  I guess an interesting sort of test would be to gather people with similar tastes in rock music and see if you hear disagreements within that group.  But if someone just doesn't like that type of rock 'n roll, then that I can understand.  I think maybe some people just look for more finesse in their rock 'n roll.  I think a lot of it is that it's really a pretty basic record.  The arrangements are simple, and the album really just pummels you.  And that style just happens to be in my wheelhouse.  I was just blown away by the record really just from the roar it makes.  This ridiculous hyped-up, amped-up, maniacal energy they were able to reach and maintain.  And I guess some people just look for something more melodious, something more virtuosic, more subtle – it's hard to know.

PY: It's funny that you use the word “virtuosic,” because when I was writing a short blurb about the album, I first described it as a “virtuoso performance.” But then I later changed it to "masterful performance” – because I think the term "virtuoso" has a certain connotation that may not apply to Jerry Lee. I mean, there's not a song on the album that has more than four chords in it. Everything Jerry Lee and the band played was really rudimentary...

JB: … it was Paleolithic.

PY: (Laughs) Yes, Paleolithic. But it was the intensity and the abandon with which they played those songs –that is where Jerry Lee's mastery was.  He did simple things, but he did them with such intensity and while being so “in-the-moment.”

JB: And also with such personality.  I mean, that's what it really is.  Anytime he cares – and his recording career was vexed, to say the least – when he cares to commit, when his alcoholism and his demons were in check, and he was committed to a performance, he made everything he played his own.  And there aren't many artists – nowadays especially – that are so large, so formidable, and so self-confident that they make everything – and I mean everything – they play their own. He can play old country, he can play gospel, R&B, blues, ballads, 4/4 stompers – and you knew who was singing.  That was the magic of his performances, especially then when he was still young and hungry and had absurd amounts of energy to burn.

PY: Sometimes I think that you have to have been to a great concert or two to fully appreciate Live at the Star-Club, so that you can sort of put yourself in that club and experience the album as if you were actually at the show.  Would you agree?

JB: I don't know if I agree that one has to have been to some great concerts to be able to appreciate that album, but I certainly think that it helps.  But again, I think it goes back to the way it was recorded.  One of the biggest surprises about the album for me in writing the book was learning about the hand that Siggi Loch played in recording it.  It's such a well-recorded live album that you really hear and feel that tangible quality of being in a loud and raucous audience.  So if you do have that context to draw on then, yeah, I think it's going to help you enter that album, as opposed to someone who hasn't been to concerts or hasn't been to the right ones yet.

PY: To jump to a slightly different topic, do you think much about how technology has changed the way people listen to music and the way music is recorded? If so, how do you think it has affected the overall quality of popular music?

Yes, I think about it all the time.  I think that – and again this is just my taste and preference – I think any great rock 'n roll album or great rock band does not need to be recorded with 48 tracks.  That's really a complaint that goes all the way back to the 70s and 80s. I just don't think a rock band really needs that.  You pipe all those sounds through all those channels and nowadays you usually turn those analog waves into digital “ones” and “zeros,” and it's going to change the sound.  It's going to lose something essential I think.  Now, if you look at the top 40 since around the 70s, with the exception of certain bands like Nirvana and Green Day and The White Stripes, which I think are great rock 'n roll bands, most of the top 40 has been sorely lacking in rock 'n roll. But that's not to mean that it hasn't been created and released, it just hasn't been very popular.  Most of the popular music nowadays has been produced in a way to flatten out the sound and to squash the sound. The so-called loudness wars haven’t helped things. But if rock 'n roll were to make some crazy come back – like if Reverend Horton Heat started to sell a lot of records – and if he were to, say, feel pressured by his label to indulge in some of these contemporary studio sounds and technological sounds, he might recognize that something essential would be lost.

Another thing I was thinking about the other day – I was reflecting on the nature of the sort of “roots revival” bands, and I've been listening to a lot of Dave Edmunds lately and the Rockpile stuff.  I can sit here and complain about the sound of contemporary records, but those records that Rockpile and Dave Edmunds made in the late 70s before he teamed up with Jeff Lynne from ELO and did those strange synthesizer-influenced records, were in a sense an advancement on the early to mid 60s sounds, because he played Chuck Berry and played Everly Brothers, and he wrote songs in those styles.  But Rockpile played those songs with almost a post-punk mania and verve and energy, and so I think they were produced really well. And those record sound better in some respects than the records made in the mid 60s.  So sometimes I think it has less to do with technology than limiting that technology or just playing on the record really well. I mean, I think a lot of it is undefinable.

PY: To me, the problem is also not just 48 tracks, it's the way one can digitally fix mistakes and make parts sound perfect in the studio.  And I think that can cause problems on multiple levels. On one level, musicians or producers can fall into the trap of making everything sound flawless because now they have that capability, which ends up making records sound sterile.  On another level, it's possible these days to make a professional sounding recording without actually being a good player.  If you go back to Jerry Lee Lewis's heyday, all those guys were really phenomenal players and performers because they had to be – there was no way to take shortcuts.

JB: Yes, I agree.  And also I think that part of it is – and I don't know if this is a conscious thing – but I tend to gravitate toward bands where there's not a huge gap in the difference between the sounds they can make in the studio and the sounds they make onstage.  I think the proof in the pudding is when you see a band live because they have to bring to bear a different level of playing and all that, and you will know if they are good players or not when you see them on stage.

PY: I have pretty extreme views on this in that I consider live performance to be a somewhat different art form than recording in the studio.

JB: Yes, that seems intuitively right to me.

PY: Absolutely. And when you think about the things that make a live performance great - the visceral part of a performance - it is so much more important live than in a studio. And conversely, there are certain aspects of music – maybe the more subtle aspects – that come across better on a studio recording than onstage.  So, to bring us back to Jerry Lee Lewis, would you consider him to be more of a live artist or a studio artist?

JB: That's a great question.  I think you would have to address that question to specific eras of his career.  I think more recently – what is he now 80 years old? – he's clearly not the player he used to be.  But if you've heard his last few studio records, there are actually some really good cuts on there.  So right now he’s certainly more of a studio guy, but for years and years – and again, this was born out of necessity – he was chiefly a live performer because he needed the money.

That's something you have to consider with someone like Jerry Lee Lewis whose career is so long is that, in the late 50s, he had some major, major pay days.  Then the so-called scandal hit.  And until his resurgence on the country charts in the late 60s, he did not sell records.  The only way he could keep in the green and the only way he could support his family and his lifestyle was to hit the road.  By necessity he became a performer.  And in that era, I think he is best defined and his best work was done on the stage.  But I think when he started cutting really great hard country records starting in 1968, he made better studio records than he was a performer.  He had top shelf material, he had a great producer in Jerry Kennedy, he was selling records again, so he was able to commit emotionally and psychologically to making studio records again.  And he made some of the best hard country, honky-tonk records of the late 60s and early 70s.  It's a good question though because he clearly is one of the greatest rock 'n roll stage performers of all time, but when he's given top shelf material to sing, when he really commits to it and he's sincere, he makes really fantastic studio records too.

PY: The Rolling Stones come to mind as another example of a band that really excelled both live and in the studio.

JB: Yes, although for Jerry Lee, it didn't really look that way until the late 60s.  I don't know how familiar you are with his 60s albums following the scandal and then signing with Smash Records, but those are really uneven records.

PY: Those records were pretty shaky, and I liked how Lost and Found described the details of how he wasn't selling any records, and how his label was scratching their heads, trying to figure out how to commercialize him.

JB: It was such an interesting era for him to be in because he was one of the so-called founding fathers, at least as far as the myth of white rock 'n roll goes.  And here he was finding himself in 1965 and 1966 when psychedelic and pop and R&B bands were selling millions of records and he is looking down at his fingers, not knowing what to do. Not that rock 'n roll just went away, because it was played all throughout the 60s, during the second half of the decade when introspection and hallucinogens and abstractions entered and some songs began to lengthen and, to my ear, began to trade in some fatal self indulgences here and there.  There was still always old rock 'n roll being played, though.  But Jerry Lee was such an iconoclast – so unique and different from the very beginning – that what made him different was really cast in sharp relief in the 60s when there were so few people doing what he was doing.  But he survived.  Still alive too.

PY: Yes, and given his lifestyle during most of those years, it seems almost miraculous he is still alive.

JB: Oh, it is miraculous!  I don't know what he signed and with whom he signed it, but there's some contract sitting somewhere that's going to explain this.  80 years old.  Unbelievable.

PY: Is there anything else we haven't covered that you really want people to know about the record or about your book?

JB: Nothing too much beyond what we talked about, but I just want to stress that I think part of what I discovered in writing Lost and Found was, especially when it comes to a live album, just how much luck is involved.  Jerry Lee happened to be recording in a place where a very sympathetic, ambitious, and knowledgeable producer was on hand to record it.  And if Siggi Loch was not involved, who knows whether the album would've ever been recorded, and, even if it had been recorded, how good it would have sounded.  I think that anyone who loves rock 'n roll should be grateful that kind of luck happened.  Because I'm sure Jerry Lee put on a great show in Berlin the night before, and I'm sure a month later when he was playing somewhere in the Midwest United States, he put on a great show.  But it happened to be that he had the right producer at the right time and on the right night.  And so luck really has a lot to do with it.
I reference in the book how, in the 80s, we would smuggle in this bulky Walkman to surreptitiously record concerts, but then the next morning I would hear it and it sounded nothing like how I remembered it.  And that happens so often with live shows. But I think Siggi Loch was able to record Live at the Star-Club, sequence it, and mix it in a way that makes one really feel like they were there.  And so we were lucky, you know.  We were lucky Siggi Loch was there to record it.

PY: Well then we are certainly all indebted to Siggi Loch. And I want to say that, for anyone who loves the album and wants to learn more about it, we are also indebted to you for your book.  I know that, as I got deeper into the album, I had so many questions about it – like whether they recorded just this one concert or recorded several and picked one, and how long Jerry Lee had been performing with the Nashville Teens before that show, and on and on. It would have been practically impossible to get those answers without your book.

JB: Well thanks, Patrick. I tend to write books that I really want to read myself.  And it occurred to me one day that no one had ever written at length about this great album, and I wanted to learn more about it.  So I'm grateful to hear that there are others who had those kinds of questions and for whom the book was helpful.

No comments:

Post a Comment