“Great balls of fire! My friend, Roderigo!” Jerry Lee Lewis as Iago

A re-post in honor of the Killer. R.I.P.

In 1968, there was a short-lived production of Othello in Los Angeles, a dream project of producer Jack Good, who wrote a loose adaptation filled with rock ‘n roll songs. He called the production Catch My Soul. Catch My Soul beat Jesus Christ Superstar by 2 years, and was a harbinger of the rise of the rock opera. (It was turned into a film in 1974.)

The title came from Act III, scene 3, when Othello declares his love for Desdemona, showing the dangerously destabilizing nature of … everything:

Perdition catch my soul
But I do love thee! And when I love thee not,
Chaos is come again.

You can say that again.

Bob Dylan is obsessed with Catch My Soul (the theatre production, not the film). During his tenure hosting the Theme Time Radio Hour (2006-2008), he plugged it repeatedly. The original 1968 production is the Holy Grail, because 1. it was theatre, and therefore there’s no record of it and 2. the main reason: Jerry Lee Lewis played Iago. At that point he was well on the road to rebuilding his career after it was torched a decade before (correction: after HE torched it). He began to rise again, and dominate the country charts, a development no one saw coming.

Jerry Lee was Jack Good’s only choice for the role.

By all accounts, Lewis immersed himself in the project and in the character. Iago is one of the most challenging roles in the canon. There’s a mystery at its heart. Why on earth does he do what he do? Beware the person who fires back an easy answer. They are unwilling to live in Keats’ “negative capability” and such people are not to be trusted. In his series of famous lectures on Shakespeare’s plays, Samuel Taylor Coleridge talked a lot about Iago. He left a note, or more like a footnote, on the sheets of one of these lectures. Worth it to quote in full since it is now so famous:

The triumph! again, put money after the effect has been fully produced.—The last Speech, the motive-hunting of motiveless Malignity—how awful! In itself fiendish—while yet he was allowed to bear the divine image, too fiendish for his own steady View.—A being next to Devil—only not quite Devil—& this Shakespeare has attempted—executed—without disgust, without Scandal!—

The most famous phrase there is “The motive-hunting of motiveless malignity”. Motiveless malignity! Coleridge felt that the motive had to do with Iago’s sense of “intellectual superiority” to everyone around him, which is as good a guess as any. (You could describe Lewis as “A being next to Devil—only not quite Devil”! He would have agreed with that.)

Lewis, by his very nature, had an intuitive understanding of what drove Iago, of knowing in his gut the answers to the questions that have dogged actors who tried to play this part.

Lewis said, “This Shakespeare was really somethin’. I wonder what he woulda thought about my records.”

Because, yes, it’s all about you, Jerry Lee! God, I love that egotism. Made him hell to live with, but … if you know me, you know I don’t care about those things. I mean, I’m glad I wasn’t married to him, but that’s as far as I’ll go. Don’t even bother to argue, because I’m already bored. I care about the art. And that’s it. Jerry Lee tossed his own name into almost every song he sang! This is not a criticism. It was what made him him.

Jerry Lee, not surprisingly, stole Catch My Soul. Easily.

He understood rage and envy. He knew these things were bad, but he found them irresistible. He was a sinner, like all of us are sinners. In Catch My Soul, he exuded these unflattering aspects of humanity with no fear. He prowled the stage, cackling, throwing his head back … He WAS Iago. He was not intimidated by Shakespeare at all. There was a grand piano up there, and he did his Jerry Lee Lewis thing, and it was apparently brilliant and perfect and I have goosebumps just thinking about it. He would punctuate the phrases of the lyrics with swoopy chords, almost like iambic pentameter as filtered through rock ‘n roll. The man understood meter.

Lewis always had a “meta” quality to his performance style. He was his only frame of reference. (This makes me think of James Joyce’s answer to the question, “Who is the best writer living today?” “Aside from myself, I don’t know.”) Lewis was “the best”, just ask him. Everything started and ended with him. (See above: he tossed his own name into almost every song, even well-known hymns, and it just cracks me up every time I hear it. They talk about “personalization” in acting classes. Make it personal. For Jerry Lee, there was no other way.)

For example, one night, during Act V, when Iago runs into the degenerate lusting-after-Desdemona Roderigo – Lewis exclaimed, “Great balls of fire! My friend, Roderigo!”

Jerry Lee was self-consumed and expressed it: he blasted his egotism into the audience. This was why he was so electric at his height. You don’t give a performance like he did at the Star Club in Hamburg – one of the greatest live shows ever caught on record – without having a huge ego. (If you see any list of great concert albums and Jerry Lee Lewis at the Star Club isn’t on there, throw it out. It’s not a serious list.)

Catch My Soul was supposed to move to New York, but Lewis, after a 5 or 6 week run, got bored doing the same thing every night and backed out. 19th c. actor Edwin Booth (brother to John Wilkes) said: “An actor is a sculptor who carves in snow.” That’s the magic of live theatre. And so there is no record of Lewis’ performance as Iago, except …

Two tracks from rehearsal.

Bob Dylan, as I said, is obsessed with these two tracks. So am I. Jerry Lee leers and sneers, utilizing everything he is and has and does in this fictional Shakespearean context, in a language not his own. It’s riveting. He means every word.

First up:

When Roderigo declares his love for Desdemona, Iago replies scornfully,

It is merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will.

… which is really rude and unsupportive.

Here’s Jerry Lee, at rehearsal, singing the song called “Lust of the Blood.” It’s amazing.

Bob Dylan said on his radio show: “You know, if anybody ever asks me why I do this radio show, I could just play them that – Jerry Lee Lewis singing Shakespeare. That’s what this show is all about.”

The only other track we have from Catch My Soul is “Let a Soldier Drink.” This is the scene where Iago gets Cassio drunk, for the most byzantine sinister reasons. And Iago pretends he’s drunk to spur Cassio on. This is Iago playing a long long con. (Dude, get laid. Do something. Just stop.)

Shakespeare’s plays, of course, are filled with songs, and in Othello, Shakespeare has created a fake drinking song for Iago to sing. Iago sings it to get everyone in the mood to get wasted. It’s so disturbing in its mocking limerick-ish rhythm.

“And let me the cannikin clink, clink,
And let me the cannikin clink.
A soldier’s a man,
A life’s but a span,
Why then let a soldier drink.
Some wine, boys!”

So here’s Lewis singing “Let a Soldier Drink.” “Lust of the Blood” is classic rhythm and blues, slow and deliberate. “Let a Soldier Drink” is fast-paced boogie-woogie, Jerry Lee Lewis-style, hyped-up and hopped-up. He’s unleashed. You can hear the rest of the cast carousing behind him, and there’s even some dialogue following the song, so you can get a sense of the acting going on between the songs! There’s a rowdy vibe, the rowdiness of rehearsal. Lewis gives a maestro swoop on the piano before launching into the song. He’s so IN IT. The context is so there for him.

Peter Guralnick interviewed Lewis many times, and in one interview they talked about Catch My Soul. Lewis said, “I never worked so hard in my life. I mean two hours and forty-five minutes running up and down stairs. It was a mess.”

A beautiful mess. At least we have SOME record of what he was like as Iago.

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11 Responses to “Great balls of fire! My friend, Roderigo!” Jerry Lee Lewis as Iago

  1. This must have been amazing to see. Jerry Lee just occupies Iago in these two numbers

  2. Andy McLenon says:

    This story is such a pleasant surprise to see, thanks Sheila! Like all long time Jerry Lee fanatics/completists I’ve always been fascinated with his stint as Iago and very frustrated that there is no film of the performance and only bits of information here and there. All the photos make it look as good as we think Jerry Lee would be. It seems really odd considering how smart and cool Jack Good was and his background in television and being a true hipster visionary, that he wouldn’t have understood the historical significance of the production and got it on tape. He understood image and myth in relation to the founding fathers of rock as well as anyone in the 60’s and kept them in front of the teens in the middle of the British Invasion by booking them on Shindig and bringing them to the UK for shows. He also had Fats, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee on the Monkees TV special he did. Love that UK live concert film from early 60’s with Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee and Little Richard, brilliant performances from all three.
    I’ve read that Jerry Lee like Elvis in his early movies also learned all the parts of the characters in Catch My Soul and really got into it. I love how Jerry Lee refers to Hank Williams as the “Hillbilly Shakespeare”
    I like the idea of a song called “Crack My Soul”, kind of a cousin to the great “Break My Mind” that Jerry Lee covered, actually a lot of people covered it and I’ve never heard a version I didn’t love.

    • sheila says:

      Andy – I so appreciate your background info in re: Jack Good and agree with you that it’s baffling he couldn’t see that the show needed to be recorded in full, especially with the presence of JLL!

      Grateful we have what we do though!

  3. Barbara says:

    This was such an interesting read, thank you! Now I have so much stuff to look up on this particular production.

    • sheila says:

      Jim – hey! Hope you’re well! it really takes some digging to find out anything about this short-lived production (it went from LA to New York and back, I think was the trajectory) – and then there was the later movie in the 70s. with different people.

      I did find this though in the article linked below: “the role of Othello changed hands from ex-linebacker Rosey Grier to an experienced actor, William Marshall, who had already appeared as Othello in several traditional performances of the play.” Rosey Grier!

      William Marshall and Jerry Lee Lewis’ name are side-by side in the poster: I found the poster here:


  4. Shawn says:

    Wow, sounds like few were able to ‘catch’ this performance. And there’s not much to the recordings, other than the great music. Casting JLL in this role made me think of Tom Hulce’s performance in Amadeus, for some reason. Perhaps the way Hulce interpreted his character as a snotty, arrogant child. Not the same, but inspired in a similar manner? I don’t know. But what I do know is I cracked up when you wrote “Don’t even bother to argue, because I’m already bored.” That is why I love reading your words. Art outlives arrogance in my book as well. What a great post, thank you!

    • sheila says:

      // Perhaps the way Hulce interpreted his character as a snotty, arrogant child. //

      He definitely had insight into Mozart – and how genius came out of a man like that. Iago is often played as a behind the scenes schemer – which of course works like gangbusters. But jerry Lee let it all hang out – Iago just breathing hellfire. which is very close to who he was. I wish there was at least some footage of it – but at least we have the pics (I really love the bottom one) and the two songs.

      // “Don’t even bother to argue, because I’m already bored.” //

      hahahaha I am fine to have discussions on certain issues – but there are certain ones I won’t. I’ve had the same argument too many times – it solves nothing – and I really am bored – particularly when the person in question doesn’t even GRAPPLE with the issue. They’re like “I never listened to his music or watched his movie and phew, now I don’t have to.” There’s an anti-intellectualism anti-curiosity thing going on there – a pre-emptive “oh thank goodness I don’t have to listen or read to THAT now” – “I’ve HEARD all these bad things, so … check him off the list of things I need to check out” which I find extremely lazy and I just don’t like talking to people who hold those views. I’ve done my time on the front lines of those wars. I’ve moved on!

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