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

C. Michael Bailey By

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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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