Thursday, May 31, 2012

I've Kissed Mermaids, Rode The El Nino.

I was watching Rage a while back and they were playing some old live footage of Iggy and the Stooges. Iggy was at the front of the stage, contorting his body into all these weird positions. Then from somewhere he gets a hold of a jar of peanut butter (I guess stage props were pretty low-key in that era, but this seems a little ridiculous). Eventually Iggy succumbs to what must have been an obvious temptation and begins to smear the peanut butter all over himself, throwing copious amounts at the audience in the process. For this – and other similar performances – Iggy is universally known as ‘the Godfather of Punk’.

A while after that I was watching Top Gun. Eventually the scene where Goose (Anthony Greene, during his pre – ‘ER’ but post – ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ moment in the sun) is playing the piano to his wife (Meg Ryan, whose hair in this film should have won the best supporting actress Oscar) and his mate Maverick (pre-Scientology Tom Cruise) came on. The song he chooses to play is Jerry Lee Lewis’ ‘Great Balls of Fire’. It’s a pretty crap rendition, but I remember thinking to myself, ‘hey, there’s really something about this song. I bet that the guy that wrote this is actually pretty cool.’

Like most artists who are generally only known for one song – see James Brown and ‘I feel good’ for further reference – Jerry Lee Lewis is often overlooked as a novelty act, a slightly off-kilter piano player who wrote one good song, married his 15 year old cousin and did nothing else with his entire life. But like James Brown, writing off Jerry Lee like this is selling him seriously short.

Now, this isn’t going to be one of those articles that attempts to convince the reader that punk has been around since sometime in the Roman era. As far as I’m concerned, that’s crap. Although the starting point for punk is difficult to pinpoint, it’s safe to say that it first appeared sometime in the mid seventies, as a distorted, stripped back and sometimes out of tune form of early rock and roll. The link between early rock and punk is most clearly evidenced by the Clash, who always wore their rockabilly influences on their sleeve, and who even toured with Bo Diddley. Given that I’ve grown up on punk rock, I figured that maybe it was time to check out some of this rock and roll stuff.

So when I eventually made my way to the now defunct Hound Dog’s Bop Shop down in the West Melbourne end of Victoria Street, I made sure I found a Jerry Lee album. I’d read a review of ‘Live at the Star Club, Hamburg,’ and it sounded like the record I was looking for. The price tags in Hound Dog’s have recommendations written on them, generally ranging from ‘OK’ to ‘great’. This one had ‘great’ written on it. And when I took it up to the counter, the old guy serving me said, “Well, you can’t argue with that.” I sensed that maybe I was stumbling on to something important.

(As an aside, Hound Dog’s Bop Shop - despite their tough prices – was, at that point possibly my favourite record store, simply due to the near-complete lack of pretence in any of the people in there. They knew they weren’t cool. They were old blokes with beer guts and bad haircuts. They didn’t want to challenge you with the music they put on over the PA. They just wanted you to feel good.)

So I get home and put the record on. A couple of seconds later I hunt for the remote, turning up the volume. He’s pounding at the piano, slamming the keys, hollering out at the very edge of his voice, roaring through the hits. I can’t help but think of that moment, up late watching Rage, by myself in a world gone to sleep, watching Iggy Pop give way to total abandon with a jar of peanut butter. On ‘Live at the Star Club, Hamburg,’ Jerry Lee displays the same recklessness. He’s completely lost in the music, absolutely unaware of any kind of social constraints regarding legitimate behaviour. He doesn’t possess one iota of humility, of earnestness, of self-awareness. He just fucking rocks out. And that, more than the music, more than a DIY ethic, more than a Mohawk and a spiked wristband, makes him as punk as fuck, as far as I’m concerned.

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