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Book Review

A Half-Million Dollars: Biographies of Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis


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It was December 4, 1956. The famous black and white, now sepia photograph snapped that winter afternoon shows four young men, silhouetted against acoustic tile, making joyful noise. Three of the four were standing around the one at the piano, the one who would be king. When this photograph was taken, two of the men were 21-and the other two, 24-years old. Two were Baptists and two the chosen, Assembly of God, with both traditions shot deep in their individual flawed psyches. All were Scotch-Irish, hard-scrabbled proud Southern poor. These young men, young adults in the Post-War '50s, were about to change a culture so profoundly that we can scarcely consider our "today" without them. "No one wanted to follow Jerry Lee," Johnny Cash recounted years later. "Not even Elvis."

The picture is of Sam Phillips' "Million Dollar Quartet" taken at Sun Studios, 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee. The four men were, in order, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and the man who would be king, Elvis Presley. Two of these four men are enjoying carefully crafted biographies that reveal the Augustinian miracle of arising from humble settings, experiencing great fame, flaming out and catching fire again. Robert Hilburn's Johnny Cash -The Life and Rick Bragg's Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story provide an accounting of two of the most commanding figures in American music in equally commanding manners.

Johnny Cash -The Life
Robert Hilburn
688 Pages
ISBN: # 978-0316194754
Little, Brown & Company

The better part of 21st Century Johnny Cash reportage deals, at least in part, with Cash's masterful self-mythologization. This very subject was a driving theme of Tony Tost's ruminations on Cash's American Recordings (American Recordings, 1994) that he wrote for the 33&1/3 series:

"This book concerns itself...with the Cash myth and the elemental role American Recordings played in revitalizing and finalizing it... [Cash's myth] is a brilliant one, strange and necessary in equal measure... regarding [American Recordings] as a great late chapter in an ongoing narrative, one in which Cash mingled his creative and biographical pasts with the creative and biographical pasts of his country.

[It was not] until the first American Recordings album that the mythic Cash finally walked forward and backwards at once, carrying himself out beyond his time. He had greater celebrity before his final period, bigger albums and better songs, but not the permanence [my emphasis] that hung around him at the end. That's the story we are hunting for—his arrival into permanence. American Recordings is the album that did it, and the story is better than true."

...better than true.

The most Southern of personal attributes is storytelling, that oral tradition going hand-in-hand with mythmaking that relies more on creative elaboration than a strict recounting of facts. Johnny Cash wrote two autobiographies completely committed to this principle: don't wreck a good story with literary accuracy. Former Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn provides a more unvarnished portrait of the "Man in Black" and does so sympathetically, not taking Cash to too much to task.

Born J. R. Cash February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas, Cash was to grow up with his parents and six siblings in Dyess, a Mississippi County share-cropping town in the unforgiving Arkansas Delta. He did not become known as John R. Cash until enlisting in the air force, who would not accept initials as a first name. It was not until Cash signed with Sun Records in 1955 that he took the stage name Johnny Cash.

Let's see...the conventional wisdom is Cash wrote and released some influential sides on Sun in the 1950s, with Carl Perkins, created rockabilly. He married young, had children and was eventually unfaithful to his wife, all the while consuming an impressive amount of Dexedrine and Equanil. He was arrested in El Paso with said drugs, receiving a suspended sentence. Cash got strung out on his upper-downer habit and with the help of country royalty, June Carter, kicked cold turkey, reunited with God and recorded Live at Folsom Prison (Columbia, 1968), quickly followed by Live at San Quentin (Columbia, 1969), casting himself in a soft bronze.

In the 1970s, Cash presented himself as "The Man in Black" taking full control of his own mythmaking, solidifying his outlaw, outcast image with often mercurial behavior and public positions. Through the '80s he was largely ignored save for his appearances with the "Highway Men" (Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson) and his introduction into the Country Music Hall of Fame as its youngest inductee. He pursued various charitable interests centering on the marginalized in America.

Cash lost his Columbia contract in 1987 and briefly recorded for Mercury Records with only meager results. In 1994, Cash was approached by American Recordings producer Rick Rubin to make a stripped down recording cover songs of contemporary artists selected by Rubin. These American Recordings ran to four volumes while Cash was alive, with two post-humorous volumes eventually released. Cash's final years were tempered with great success and failing health. Cash grew into an Old Testament Prophet specter, an image he solidified with his final recordings. He passed away four months following his wife, June Carter Cash.

That is the tidy version anyway, mostly culled from Cash's two autobiographies and made into the biopic I Walk the Line (20th Century Fox, 2005). This movie, for dramatic purposes, is somewhat sanitized much like Ray Charles biopic, Ray (Universal Studios, 2004). Life is so rarely has such clean lines even with the adversity and strife both men experienced. What Hilburn does in his well-researched and expansive biography is add the soot back into the story, not bracing Cash, but putting him in better perspective.

Hilburn reveals Cash's numerous infidelities while married to June Carter as well as his suffering multiple relapses to his chemical dependency, a number well beyond what Cash himself relayed. Now, this is more like real life. Hilburn describes how Cash pre-medicated with amphetamine before taking the stage at Folsom Prison, a fact that goes a far way in explaining the brilliant anger Cash exhibited when he spat out "Cocaine Blues" at a Mach 3 velocity. Hilburn dissects the Cash myth while leaving it largely intact, something important to the Cash story. The Man in Black was able to maintain his myth under, and in spite of, intense scrutiny.

Well-paced and descriptive, Hilburn's best accounting is saved for last: the American Recordings and beyond, when Cash found the "permanence" Tost described in his book. Almost tenderly does Hilburn take account of Cash's productive final years, describing with great care June Carter Cash's death and then Cash's own. Hilburn's presentation of Cash's life is mostly even narrative, bereft of dramatic devices used to add suspense that is not there, reflecting much Cash at the end. He carefully builds anticipation around the Cash monuments without hyperbole. If the Gospel of Luke reveals the Christ most people hope for at the end, then Hilburn does the same for Cash, presenting him as the fallible human being he was and the exceptional human being he became.

Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story
Rick Bragg
512 Pages
ISBN: # 978-0062078223

Where Robert Hilburn's portrait of Johnny Cash carefully dispelled the mini-myths surrounding Cash while leaving the over-arching myth intact, Rick Bragg needed only to tell the story of Jerry Lee Lewis in chronological order to achieve the same. You see, there is no myth to Lewis, only a well-documented history of a man who for his entire life has been larger than life and whose stature never waxed and waned, only his career and success. Bragg's project benefits from its subject being alive and well, living in Nesbit, Mississippi at The Lewis Ranch, behind a wrought-iron gate brandishing a piano. Approaching 80-years old, The Killer is as relevant as ever.

Rick Bragg saved his true homage for Jerry Lee Lewis for a Garden & Gun (Oct.-Nov 2014) article anticipating the publication of his Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story. Where Hilburn's Cash writing is studious and respectful, Bragg's fine writing crackles with personality, much like its subject:

'The words themselves were not often poetry, but poetry is hard to dance to. It is how you sing it, pound it, that matters, or you might as well read it off a post office bulletin board or bathroom wall. People called it genius, and [Lewis] became a man you made exceptions for, to hear him do his thing...He did just about everything [...] in his life he ever wanted to do, did some of it almost perfectly, most of it wildly and with feeling, and some of it...well, he had a good time in the chaos, doing that too."

Something to notice first in this biography are the photographs. No, not the ones printed on the slick paper and included in one or two sections of the book, nor those in the dust jacket. No, I talking about the front and back endpaper and the title page. The front endpaper is a photograph of Lewis and his trio performing on the flat bed of a truck in the film High School Confidential (MGM, 1958). Depicted is an impossibly young Jerry Lee Lewis performing with a carefree, unencumbered abandon. There is a trace of innocence here, something longing to be lost or changed...but that never happens the way one wishes.

The Title Page photograph is of Lewis backstage at the Star Club, Hamburg, Germany in 1964. Lewis is about to record perhaps the finest, most corrosive and disturbed live rock & roll album committed to magnetic tape. Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, recorded April 5, 1964, is a feral and bleeding document that exists as half myth, half legend and half fact, the latter manifesting the experience of rejection Lewis experienced from the bad publicity arising from having married his 13-year old first cousin, once removed, Myra Gail Brown in both the American and foreign press. That brief six years between High School Confidential and Live at the Star Club hardened Lewis' psyche and image, revealing him as mercurial, commanding and wholly unhinged genius who was, arguably, a greater talent than even Elvis Presley. Jerry Lee Lewis was not given his due and he was going to take it from his German audience at the expense of his young, English back-up band, that spring evening. If there is an operational definition of rock & roll music, it must be Live at the Star Club.

The back matter endpaper photograph is one taken of Lewis from behind the stage at the 2014 Beale Street Music Festival. Lewis is situated stage left, looking out at the crowd of the 20,000 true believers, most not born when he first released "Crazy Arms" in 1956. Not, 1974, not 1984 or '94 and not 2004. The year this biography was published... Bragg in his G&G article goes on to sharpen the point:

"Now there is only him to speak of the creation, only him and a wheelchair-bound Little Richard and a frail Chuck Berry and reclusive Fats Domino, to shout the birth of rock and roll. 'Daddy took after Chuck one time with a Barlow knife,' he said, never claiming memory is a neat and tidy thing. He fought Carl Perkins across the trunk of a '57 Buick. He watched Johnny Cash steal a motel TV..."

No, that May afternoon, on the banks of the Mississippi River, within sight of the bridge joining Tennessee and Arkansas, Jerry Lee Lewis delivered the same camp meeting message he has for the past 60 years... Look a-here, sweet mama, let's burn off both our shoes / Well, my heart's a-beatin' rhythm and my soul is singin' the blues...

Lewis' is an Horatio Alger story hopped up on dexies standing in a ditch filled with two feet of whiskey. He lived life con brio and outlived all but few contemporaries and remains the only one still performing. Bragg's account does not pull punches, nor does it need to. Bragg successfully grasps the meaning of Jerry Lee Lewis and the music he begat:

...And you laughed and laughed, because you know that no matter how outrageous a thing is that you might have done, he did it, better or worse, and did more of it, and if he can do all that for all these many years and still be breathing—no, living—then there is hope for the rest of us. Surely we will live forever."

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