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May 16, 2018

Robert Christgau: Great Books of Fire: Tosches' Hellfire feels like it was written fast

Hellfire feels like it was written fast, too--but not ground out like a quickie, really written, in what I envision as a month or two of icy lyric fury. Even at the end, when what begins as heroic narrative breaks down into a string of clipped little items that might just as well have been lifted whole from the trades, the police blotter, and the secret diary of Oral Roberts Jr., the book has the kind of trancelike coherence that has overtaken every writer at the dawn of a specially blessed all-nighter. Basically the tale of the archetypal Southern backslider, it's been described as Biblical and Faulknerian, and it should be. But Tosches, who has Iots of just-the-facts hack in him, sustains a page-turning pace that intensifies its of-a-pieceness. And his tone partakes of the grand, inexorable distance of a genuine epic as well.
Such things cannot be, of course--the epic is of the past. All the oral tradition south of the Mason-Dixon line can't bring it back unspoiled, and anybody who thinks different is ignorant, pretentious, or both. So Hellfire can only succeed as some kind of mock epic, the chronicle of a would-be hero in an antiheroic age. And indeed, Tosches does cut King James's English with journalese; he does mix straight reporting and bent faction with the stuff of legend; he does disfigure his story with the mean details of Lewis's vanity, cruelty, and crazed sense of humor. But Hellfire isn't mock anything. Without hewing foolishly to the usages of a dead form or trying to write like someone he isn't, and without presenting Lewis's excesses as merely cool, colorful, or demidivine, Tosches limns the life of a doomed hero as if that hero deserved our respect, and his. As a dedicated classicist who is also a former snake hunter and a contributing editor to Penthouse, he rejects the notion that there's something debased or devalued about the mongrel rhetoric he exploits. It's just there, with all its peculiar virtues and drawbacks, and it's Jerry Lee Lewis's mother tongue.
Not that this avowed Pindar fan doesn't respect the past--not even that he doesn't believe there-were-giants-in-those-days. Like most rock critics with a specialty in roots music, he disdains most of today's pop, and his Jerry Lee is driven by his heritage as "the final wild son" (Tosches's phrase) of a family with "a big history" (Lewis's). Nor is Hellfire at all solemn--in fact, it's very funny indeed. Lewis's excesses aren't merely cool or colorful, but they're at least that--this wild son has done a lot of exorbitant things in his life, and he's some interview: I mean Elvis this. Elvis that. What the shit did Elvis do except take dope that I couldn't git ahold of? That's very discouraging, anybody that had that much power to git ahold of that much dope.'" Furthermore, Tosches does play his story for laughs, often finding punch lines in the grand rhythms of his rhetoric itself: "She caressed Jerry Lee and soon told him that she was pregnant. He told her that it was no seed of his that had rendered her so. They lifted their hands in anger anew." Nevertheless, Tosches never makes fun. This is a humor not of derision but of delight.
I'm making big claims for Tosches's complexity of tone, and I'm sure not everyone will read him that way. His elevated periods can be dismissed as rodomontade, his jokes as sarcasm, his compact narrative and penchant for interior monologue as proof that he didn't do his homework. Then again, you can also dismiss Jerry Lee Lewis as one more unholy roller, or pigeonhole his achievement as a couple of classic rock and roll songs, a piano insignia, and a fling as a country star. But I would argue--having listened long and hard, I would swear--that there's a lot more there. Lewis's offhand arrogance, candid insincerity, and unshakable sense of destiny are not qualities commonly found in any artist. He's very much a modern, set apart not so much by the elementary truth and transcendent power of his singing and playing as by his self-consciousness itself. His distance from his own show of fervor can seem positively eerie upon reflection, yet it in no way diminishes that fervor--if anything, the distance helps the fervor penetrate and endure. Tosches has absorbed this sensibility if he didn't share it all along. In Country, he avers (pace Bird and JB) that Jerry Lee Lewis's mastery of 20th century rhythm is rivaled only by Faulkner's, but what author has learned from subject hardly stops there, and where it ends is with that same synthesis of distance and fervor. This is why Albert Goldman's half-truths about rock's attitudinal roots in "the put-on and the take-off" are so irrelevant--it's radically unlike "Mad or the routines of Sid Caesar" because its formal roots are in the ecstatic, vernacular music of the American South, just as Tosches, who is touched with the spirit, is radically unlike Goldman, who has all the largesse of an unemployed gagwriter.
Lewis believes that the source of his fervor is beyond question. "I got the Devil in me," he told Sam Philips just before cutting "Great Balls of Fire." "If I didn't have, I'd be a Christian." And while he's hardly the first Southerner possessed by such a notion, no one else has ever had the genius to dramatize Christ's defeat so graphically. Not only is Jerry Lee a sinner, he's a proud sinner, and not only is he a proud sinner, he's a bored sinner; he's always interpreted the breakup songs, for instance, as if no suffering would ever bring him around. You win again, he seemed to say--and you'll win again after that. And what does it matter? I'm still the Killer. Grrrrrr.
What Tosches believes is harder to know. I suspect, however, that the source of his own fervor isn't second-hand--isn't just his passion for Jerry Lee Lewis. Tosches's account of Pentecostal fundamentalism maintains an objective if not skeptical tone. But like everything else in this terse, intense book, it never gets theoretical, never sociologizes, and though nothing else would be formally appropriate I'm left wondering. Not only does it seem that Tosches envies Lewis the simplicity of his Manicheanism, which is bad enough, but it also seems that in a less literal way he counts himself in thrall to the same dichotomies. Tosches makes no bones about the wages of this belief, always linked so intimately with romantic agony in extremis--he leaves Lewis unloved and without male issue, his career and his IRS account in tatters. His judgment, however, is muted. If Lewis has traded an eternity in Hellfire for some great music, you can't help but feel that Tosches has gotten a fairly great book at similar cost.
As a skeptic in the matter of eternity, I don't really believe that myself, of course, and Hellfire is fairly great indeed--the finest rockstar bio ever and up with Mystery Train among all rockbooks. But as such it raises philosophical questions, for it reminds us that even the much more reflective Mystery Train is rooted in--and perhaps limited by--the Puritan tradition and/or the Great Awakening, which between them sometimes seem to ground all American culture. Because Nick Tosches, Greil Marcus, and Jerry Lee Lewis each takes this heritage seriously, each creates work that isn't mock anything, that connects us with an epic, heroic, deeply felt past. But in escaping modernism's cul-de-sac they don't escape modernity, which is why it's worth remembering that in the end both Hellfire and Mystery Train aren't epic all. They're tragedies of damnation. I'm not lodging a complaint--these aren't just fine rockbooks, they're fine books, a lot finer and more durable than most of what passes for literature and criticism these days. But one reason for that is that neither of them is content with such achievements. To the either-or--and beyond.