Here’s how stuff happens when you’re a teenager, which is what I was in the late 60s. You see a new magazine with a big picture of a rock or cultural icon on the cover and you think: Gimme. You buy it if you’ve got an extra buck or two and you read it cover to cover.
In the spirit of making conversation at the supper table and keeping your parents advised on “what you’re up to” you mention that it’s now possible to write articles about musical performers and get paid a lot of money for it.
Because you think it sounds good, you add, “That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to write for Rolling Stone.”
My dad was a copy editor at the Lubbock paper and knew all about Rolling Stone, or thought he did. A headline he composed for a story about Mick Jagger’s marijuana bust read: “Rolling Stone Gathers Grass.” It was one of his favorites.
Editor that he was, dad pointed out to me an obvious fact – “Buddy Holly’s dead” – and followed that with a tough question: “Who, in Lubbock, are you going to interview?”
That was a puzzler all right, but the answer came via my AM car radio that afternoon or the next in the form of an advertisement for the Bigger ‘N Dallas nightclub, conveniently located about a mile from my house.
“Live! And in person! One night only! The Killer! Jerry Lew Lewis!”
So that was it. I’d interview the rock and roll legend and send it to Rolling Stone for publication. Because that’s how it is when you’re a teenager. You say one day you’re going to write for Rolling Stone; a few days later you’re on the verge of making it happen.
A few days after that, you’ve forgotten about the whole thing.
And so it was with me. But my dad didn’t forget. Not only did he approve of my now forgotten plan, but he came home a couple of days later with news that my interview with Jerry Lee Lewis was “all set up.”
“The one you’re going to do with Jerry Lee Lewis. For the Rolling Stones.”
“I set it up for you. Just go in, tell them who you are and Jerry Lee will take care of you. And you’re welcome.”
Truth was, I didn’t actually know much about Jerry Lee Lewis except “Great Balls of Fire” and a “Whole Lotta Shaking Going On.” Heck, he was already a throwback to an earlier time, and he played hard-core country music now, stuff like “What Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Fool Out Of Me.”) What if Rolling Stone didn’t think Jerry Lee was still cool?
My mom was pretty well up on Lewis’ erratic personal life, and kept mentioning something about a 13-year old cousin and a shooting. Or two. I wasn’t sure this was something the peace and love generation wanted to read about or not. But I kept it in mind.
My short drive to the club represented the third time I’d ever been inside a night club and the first time without my parents. A pretty waitress in a mini-skirt greeted me at the door. She asked, “Do you have some ID?”
“About what?” I might have replied.
When I told her I was the reporter who was going to interview Jerry Lee Lewis, she muttered something about merit badges and led me to the back of the club where I spied Jerry Lee Lewis his ownself sitting on a leather couch embroidered with colorful visions of cows, cowboys and cacti.
Jerry Lee had been drinking. He was, in fact, still at it. I should have written down what kind of whiskey he was drinking but I didn’t notice, not even when he offered me a sip or two to “settle my nerves.”
The interview started out poorly and quickly deteriorated. I asked him why they called him the Killer and he assured me it wasn’t because he ever killed anybody.
When I asked him what he thought about the Beatles, he said, “Ringo’s the only one I’d care to have a drink with.” Then he added, “Don’t put that in your story” in a way that made me want to not put that in the story. The Beatles always said nice things about him, he explained. Wouldn’t be polite to talk bad about them.
Ditto the Rolling Stones. His comments on all the “Bobbys” that ruined rock radio – Bobby Vee, Bobby Vinton, and Bobby Rydell – were likewise off the record. He tempered his vitriol toward President Johnson with acknowledgement that LBJ gave him the watch he was wearing at that exact moment, and it wouldn’t do to badmouth him in the face of such generosity.
That got us to talking about Presidents and one of the young longhairs in Jerry Lee’s band mentioned that George Washington smoked opium, at which point Jerry Lee jumped up from the couch, spread his legs and declared the statement a lie and further described exactly what kind of lie it was.
A menacing silence followed, broken only when the mild-mannered 16-year old reporter in the room asked, “So, Mr. Lewis, what do you think of Buddy Holly?”
Not only did this take Jerry Lee’s mind off attacking his misinformed band member, he actually liked Buddy Holly a lot and said so. He lamented not making it by to see Buddy’s momma while he was in Lubbock.
Just when it looked like we were getting somewhere, the interview was over. A man came and told Jerry Lee it was time and the Killer made his way to the stage and played all the great old songs and the new ones, too. I watched in amazement – I know that guy! – until the pretty waitress in the mini-skirt said it was time for me to go home, correctly pointing out that tomorrow was a school day.
“Well,” my dad said when I came home smelling like cigarette smoke and stale beer, “at least you didn’t get shot.”
Or stabbed. Jerry Lee shot his bass player not long after that (the bassist might have badmouthed Thomas Jefferson for all I know) and later stabbed an interviewer in the neck with a broken off whiskey bottle. I learned the same thing that interviewer learned but without the bloodletting:
Any interview with Jerry Lee Lewis that you walk away from is a good interview.