The 50 greatest music books ever: No 1 Hellfire by Nick Tosches

If any figure in rock'n'roll has been deserving of a great biographer, it's Jerry Lee Lewis. And in Nick Tosches, the man known as 'the Killer' had that and more ...

1. Hellfire by Nick Tosches

Avalon, originally published 1982, out of print

When it was first published, Nick Tosches's Hellfire was hailed by
Rolling Stone magazine as 'the best rock and roll biography'. That
summation still stands. Like all Tosches's finest writing - his biographies
of Dean Martin and Sonny Liston spring to mind - it tackled a
larger-than-life figure who found the American dream of fame and
unlimited wealth a burden rather than a blessing. Or in this instance,
a curse.

In the God-fearing, demon-stalked figure of Jerry Lee Lewis,
Tosches found the perfect character to match his grand, semi-fictional
style. Here was someone whose personality was so volatile, whose
relationship with his greatness so fraught, that even the most
imaginative novelist could not have done justice to his tempestuous
life. Out of the Manichean deep south he came, trailing his reputation
as a teenage hellraiser, raised on the Old Testament, hellbent on
Godless self-destruction. Tosches, who knows a thing or two about
self-destruction, upped his style to meet the challenge head-on, and
his book has a momentum and mythic quality rare in rock writing.

Hellfire's extravagantly descriptive opening chapter is worthy of any
great American novel you care to mention, recreating the night that
'The Killer' laid siege single-handedly to Elvis's Gracelands mansion.
With a head full of booze and God knows what chemicals, and a Derringer
on the dashboard, he repeatedly rams his Lincoln continental
into the wrought iron gates, hollering 'Tell him the Killer is here!'

A convoy of cops arrive and busts his ass. 'He grinned and shook his
head', writes Tosches, 'for he knew that the cold, brilliant handcuff s
would not long contain him'. Jerry Lee's life unfolds in a
series of vignettes that suggest he is a man pursued by devils
but protected by some incredibly benign higher power. Scandal follows
scandal, with sundry arrests (one for shooting his bass player,
Butch Owens, point blank with a .37 Magnum ), marriage to his underage
cousin, and several hospitalisations for amphetamine abuse. He
even shared Elvis's pharmacist, the legendary Dr George Nichopoulos,
who once attested that Jerry Lee took eight to 10 capsules of
amphetamine before every show.

Tosches tracks Jerry Lee's life from primal rock'n'roller to Las
Vegas showman and beyond, and the Killer's equally crazed cousin,
Jimmy Swaggart, the disgraced TV evangelist, makes many a spectacular
appearance, alongside a host of wronged wives, girlfriends and
band members. In the end it's hard to know what to make of a man
who, when asked what his thoughts were on the occasion of Elvis's
death, replied, 'I was glad. Just another one out of the way. I mean,
Elvis this, Elvis that. What the shit did Elvis do except take dope that I
couldn't git a hold of?'
Nick Tosches's extravagant and evocative biography is a superbly
told story that makes sense of the wildest, most messed-up survivor
in the history of rock'n'roll. They don't make them like that any
more. And, perhaps for that very reason, they don't they write them
like that anymore. A killer of a book.

· See also: the same author's 'Where Dead Voices Gather' (Cape) and Robert Gordon's 'It Came From Memphis'
(Faber) for more strange tales from the South

Q&A: Nick Tosches

OMM: Why did you choose to write about Jerry Lee?

NICK TOSCHES: He was one of the very, very few living characters who intrigued me. He was beyond good and evil in the truest sense of that phrase.

OMM: What were rock biogs like before Hellfire, in your opinion?

NT: There had been only a few rock biographies at that point, and most weren't really books. I remember Jerry Hopkins's book
on Elvis, but no others.

OMM: Why, and how, did you want to approach it differently?

NT: Jerry Lee was, to me, like a figure out of the Old Testament, out of William Faulkner. Those are the languages in which the
book was written: King James and Faulkner. And the book itself was as much about the demons of rock'n'roll and the demons of the soul as it was about the unique man in whom they wrought their dark magic.

OMM: You took liberties in recreating key events in Lewis's life from your own imagination. Did you have any concerns about
making those leaps?

NT: Man, I just wrote.

OMM: Did you approach Lewis himself about contributing?

NT: I had various encounters with Jerry Lee, all of them memorable. His life was a greater contribution to his biography than any writer could ever make.

OMM: Did you ever hear any reaction from him after the fact?

NT: No. I think he has better things to do than read.

OMM: At the end of the book, you leave him very much alive, still roaming the earth, but pretty much facing the abyss...

NT: It's the way we all live. Shallow life, shallow ditch. Big life, big abyss.

OMM: Should he really have been bigger than The Pelvis?

NT: Absolutely. Without a doubt.


Sean O'Hagan

The GuardianTramp

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