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

C. Michael Bailey By

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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
Harper
2014

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.

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