Jerry Lee Lewis has occasionally been in my thoughts during the last several weeks. While “The Killer” had a long career in American music, his success as a performer is not why I thought about him. Although I liked a couple of his songs, I was not a “fan” and never attempted to see him perform.
When I heard Friday that Lewis had died, I was a little surprised. I’d presumed he was already long dead.
My recent transient thoughts about Jerry Lee started while reading Carl Rollyson’s new biography of William Faulkner. Jill Smith had Rollyson speak at the Union County Heritage Museum in July, and I bought the biography from the museum shop.
Rollyson’s two-volume, 1,097-page, biography of Faulkner is based on many years of research into the life and literary career of the Mississippi Nobelist. Rollyson did an enormous amount of research of his own. Additionally, he had access to the research of Faulkner’s early biographer, Joseph Blotner, and the work of several other writers over the last 60 years.
Until now, Blotner’s book would have been considered the most important Faulkner biography. Blotner was a friend of Faulkner’s from the latter’s time as a lecturer at the University of Virginia. He had first person access to Faulkner and was a pall bearer at the novelist’s funeral in 1962.
Blotner was a good writer of straight forward prose, but his 1974 biography and a subsequent 1991 condensed paperback version were relatively sparse on details about the darker aspects of Faulkner’s life. Blotner does write about Faulkner’s alcohol problem and touches on other details of an unhappy life. However, the reader of Blotner’s Faulkner is spared the many, many ugly details. Some believe Blotner left out most of the nastier stuff to avoid offending Faulkner’s widow and their daughter Jill Faulkner Summers.
Not so with Carl Rollyson’s book. While reading the first volume I was somewhat put off by the abundance of detail about everything from minutia about Faulkner’s personal wardrobe to excruciating details about his long and lucrative career as a screenwriter in Hollywood. I thought it distracted from the flow of the narrative. However, I read Rollyson’s published comments regarding his belief that every detail of the subject’s life is relevant.
Rollyson gives heavy emphasis to the fact that much of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha fiction is about Southern Decadence: violence, predatory miscegenation, rape, incest, racism, alcoholism, debauchery in general and “the Rise of the Redneck.” He spares us no details in discussing Faulkner’s own dissipation, his many dalliances with very young women and his self-destructive binges on alcohol. The genius of Rowan Oak was brought close to death by his drinking bouts many times, wallowing for days in his own filth, and was hospitalized dozens of times to salvage him from dipsomania.
Faulkner died in 1962 at Wright’s Sanitarium, a small private clinic for alcoholics in Byhalia, Desoto County, Mississippi. He was two months shy of his 65th birthday.
What does Faulkner have to do with Jerry Lee Lewis? It is very unlikely that Faulkner ever heard a recording of Jerry Lee singing and even less likely that The Killer ever read a single page of anything Faulkner wrote. Lewis did have a unique singing style and could literally set fire to a piano, but those are not the reasons I thought of him while reading about Faulkner’s life.
It is simply this: The life of Jerry Lee Lewis’s exemplified Southern Decadence.
Lewis married a 13-year old child, a first cousin, in 1957. The scandal of his incest and statutory rape of the girl derailed his early success as a rock-and-roll artist. However, a dozen years later he came back strong as a performer of country and gospel music. By 1970 he was on top.
His outrageous incidents while under the influence of alcohol and other chemicals were legendary.
He accidentally shot Butch Owens, his base player, in the chest with a handgun in 1976. That same year, the Memphis police arrested him, stoned, at the front gate of Elvis Presley’s house on old Highway 51. He was brandishing a handgun and demanding that Elvis come out, so they could settle who was really “The King” or some such nonsense.
The Killer was married seven times, and two of his wives died under what were called “mysterious circumstances.” A grand jury looked into the 1983 death of one of his wives, who died of an overdose with some of Lewis’s own methadone in her body. He had good lawyers and was not indicted.
I thought of Jerry Lee Lewis several times while reading about debauchery in the life and literature of William Cuthbert Faulkner. The life of The Killer would have made an appropriate character and plot for a Faulkner novel. Brother Will would have had to tone it down a little to make it believable, sort of obscure it in those thousand-word sentences.
Jerry Lee Lewis died at age 87, also in Desoto County, living 23 years longer than William Faulkner. Hard living punishes some more, and quicker, than others.