Go Cat Go!
The Life and Times of Carl Perkins, The King of Rockabilly

Lori Leibovich reviews the autobiography"Go Cat Go! The Life and Times of Carl Perkins, The King of Rockabilly" by Carl Perkins and David McGee.

Published May 23, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

In "Go Cat Go! The Life and Times of Carl Perkins, The King of Rockabilly," Rolling Stone contributing writer David McGee proves that adoring biographers make for stale biographies. McGee pens a paean rather than a history, forgoing a critical look into the life of one of rock-n-roll's most neglected forefathers in exchange for a literary love fest. Famous for authoring the smash hit "Blue Suede Shoes" in 1956, Carl Perkins combined twangy country strains with thumping honky-tonk backbeats to help give birth to the rockabilly rhythm. After hearing Elvis on the radio singing in a similar, hybrid style, Perkins left rural Tennessee and took off for Memphis where he convinced Sun Records founder Sam Phillips to give him a go. McGee tells more than he shows, producing a biography that is as cursory and saccharine as a stylized country hit. He devotes a chunk of the book to Perkins' recording sessions and road life, but overlooks how Perkins' constant touring affected his beloved wife and four children. And while the book jacket tells of "Perkins' descent into alcoholism," McGee makes only sporadic references to the singer's disease until almost three quarters into the book. When McGee does look at the problem, he chooses to focus on Perkins' recovery.

McGee's superficial explanations extend to his discussions of Perkins' music as well. He mentions a black musician, "Uncle John," as one of Perkins earliest inspirations, for example, but doesn't probe the historical connections between Perkins' rootsy sound and the gospel and blues music exploding from the segregated black South where Perkins grew up. McGee's swelling prose is punctuated by sections designated for "The Voice of Carl Perkins," where the Rockabilly legend adds his own words to the story. This structure stunts the flow of the book, and Perkins' unedited, platitudinal, recovery-speak adds little to the reader's understanding of his life. "Life is a lot like a glass of tea, " Perkins says. "You boil it to make it hot, you put ice in it to make it cold, you put sugar in it to make it sweet. . ."

There are some interesting -- if not revelatory -- anecdotes. Sam Phillips of Sun Records cheated Perkins out of thousands of dollars in royalties; Jerry Lee Lewis was a volatile, arrogant personality; Elvis wore eyeliner and suffered from stage fright and a jealous heart; and Johnny Cash popped bushels of pills. As for Perkins, he is lovingly portrayed as a family-focused, God-fearing man whose talent lifted him out of poverty. (His first guitar was made from a cigar box and a broom handle.) Along the way, he lost two brothers (who were also his band mates), survived throat cancer, opened a center for abused children and ultimately garnered the respect of a generation of musicians, from the Beatles to Eric Clapton to The Judds. What we never do learn is, what exactly made the cat go?

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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