Thursday, March 15, 2007


Recently I answered an open call for submissions from Contiuum Press' 33 1/3 series, a run of monograph-like books dedicated to classic albums. Out of 450 submissions they chose 20. Mine wasn't one of them, which is fine, although I was hoping it would be. Meanwhile, my big piece of Memphis music movies was pushed from the issue it was slated to run in with the possibility it might run in a future issue. Might.

So my freelance writing sideline is at an impasse at the moment. Which is okay, I guess. I've got plenty to do for The A.V. Club, which always publishes my writing to an audience that seems to like it. But I would have liked to have written this book and I would have liked to see my Memphis work pay off. Which it might still. Might.

Anyway, below is my rejected proposal in the interest of just getting it out there. I'm not rereading it, especially since I've thought of ways to improve it ever since I sent it. If it's riddled with typos or misspellings, please don't let me know. That would just depresss me. Also, you should hear the album. It's amazing.

* * * * * *

First let me say that I was thrilled to see you had opened the door for submissions for 33 1/3. I’m a big fan of the series and would love to contribute. With that out of the way, let me get right down to it and propose doing a book on an amazing album I can’t believe you haven’t covered yet: Jerry Lee Lewis Live At The Star Club, Hamburg.


It’s an album recorded at a crossroads, both for Lewis and for rock and roll, and I would approach it as such. Having seen scandal diminish his commercial fortunes, Lewis has left Sun Records and Sam Phillips for Smash and an unsure future that, in 1964, has yet to pay off. Yet while the hits have dried up domestically, Lewis’ stock has risen abroad. A return to England, the country that unmade him, has been a great success. He has no shortage of fans in Germany either, wildly enthusiastic fans who chant his name when he plays The Star Club in the heart of Hamburg’s nightclub-and-red-light-district, the Reeperbahn. It’s the district that helped birth The Beatles and other British Invasion bands, a wave of rock and roll musicians who grew up worshipping Lewis and his peers, a generation they’re already eclipsing.

One of the bands chasing The Beatles will back Lewis at the Star Club set, The Nashville Teens, who, despite their name, hail from throughout the U.K. They’re soon to have a hit with “Tobacco Road” then begin a slow fade back to obscurity. On this album, they almost seem to be doing battle with Lewis, his inimitable singing and playing outpacing their secondhand competence. They play the British Invasion sound well, but there’s no mistaking it for anything but a copy of a copy made irrelevant here by the presence of an original. As Lewis races through his own hits, and the hits of others from his generation, they’ll lose the battle even if others will win the war for them.

Lewis remains, as ever, a tortured man, believing that the music at which he excels has already spelled his eternal damnation. He’s still haunted by the loss of his toddler son, Steve Allen Lewis, who died in the family swimming pool. His marriage with Myra Lewis, the cousin he married when she was 13, remains volatile. There’s joy in his playing in front of that chanting crowd, but something else as well. Performing high on amphetamines, the state in which he would continue to perform well into the 1990s, he adds his own flourishes to the lyrics. When he sings, “Jerry Lee’s going to rock away all his blues,” while playing “High School Confidential,” there’s exuberance to it but also some wishful thinking. He’s a few years away from a comeback with the country hit “Another Time, Another Place,” but a performance of Hank Williams’ “Your Cheating Heart” gives a hint of the guilt-soaked records that will send him up the country charts.

Recorded in a time of great change for Lewis and the music he helped popularize, Live At The Star Club, Hamburg provides a jumping off point for further discussion—of both Lewis and the environment surrounding the creation of the album—with virtually every song. I would structure this book around the album’s set list, discussing the origins of each song, its particular relevance to Lewis as a recording artist, and it relation to a larger discussion. The autobiographical “Lewis Boogie,” for instance, would lead into a discussion of Lewis’ origins. With “Great Balls Of Fire,” a song built around the twisting of Pentecostal imagery into a sexual sacrilege, I would talk about Lewis’ religious beliefs. Other points of discussion would include ‘60s Hamburg (a scene as wild and open in its way as ‘50s Memphis), Lewis’ relationship with the artists and rivals whose hits he’s covering (including Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, and, with “Money,” Motown), and the unhappy decades awaiting him as he sank successfully into the sounds of country remorse.

As for the biographical information, I’m the editor of The A.V. Club, the entertainment section of The Onion. I began at The A.V. Club as a freelancer, then worked as assistant editor before becoming editor and I’ve written thousands (no, really) of music and film reviews for it, in addition to interviewing everyone from Sam Phillips to Robert Altman. During my tenure there I’ve helped build a section that was once an afterthought to the satirical news into a respected publication in its own right. I would be the best possible person to write this book both because of my deep love of the music and because of my willingness to throw myself into a project until I’m second-to-none in expertise. What I don’t know about Lewis and this album already I intend to research thoroughly both through secondary sources and by consulting as many primary sources as I can track down. I zeroed in on this album as the result of writing a piece for an upcoming issue of REDACTED on portrayals of Memphis music in film. I’ve long been drawn to the place and period that created the early sounds of rock and soul music, but it was Lewis that I couldn’t let go of when I finished the piece. I would like to write a book with the unmistakable intensity of a Jerry Lee Lewis performance and the scholarly discipline I’ve admired in other volumes in this series. My favorite so far: Douglas Wolk’s Live At The Apollo, which captured the personality of the performance itself, provided illuminating facts about its context, and breathed with a personality all its own.

I sincerely hope you’ll give me the opportunity to write an entry that can live up to the high standards you’ve set so far.



If it makes you feel any better, 33 1/3 rejected my pitch this year too -- the second year in a row I've been kicked curbward. I think they just hate rap music.

John said...

Terrific proposal. Sorry you didn't get the nod.

Nanker Phelge said...

Write it anyway... screw those bastards.

Eric Grubbs said...

How long are manuscripts for the 33 1/3 series? Fifty pages in Word?

Keith Phipps said...

Leonard: No kidding. Have they done a single one yet? It's about time. What did you pitch?

John: Thanks!

Nanker: Maybe. I'm not sure it works outside the series.

Eric: Hmmm... That sounds about right. They run about 120 inprint on small pages.

Keith Phipps said...

"In print." Not "inprint"

Eric Grubbs said...

I ask about page length because my book (aiming for 250-350 pages in book form) came out to be 221 pages in Word. Single-spaced, 11-point, Georgia font. No tricks, just a lot of stuff about post-hardcore bands and its culture. A part of me thinks there should be more . . .

Keith Phipps said...

Eric: I have some Henry Rollins/Gregg Ginn slash fiction I wrote that you're welcome to use to pad out the length.

Eric Grubbs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric Grubbs said...

Oh, I've got to read this! I can imagine something along the lines of . . .

Henry: "Greg Ginn was the most intense and inspiring person I've ever shared a stage with."
Greg: "He's a liar. Where are my cats?"