Carl Perkins, 1933-1998

Published January 20, 1998 7:17PM (EST)

With the tabloids tracking Johnny Cash's recent fall from health and
digging hard for signs that it will be his last, it was instead Cash's longtime friend
and collaborator Carl Perkins who, after a long and largely unchronicled series of illnesses, died Monday at Jackson-Madison County General Hospital in Jackson, Tenn. He was 65.

Cash, of course, should live forever. An America without his sort
would be one left finally estranged from our native, specifically
rural, form of moral authority -- the one that comes from
draining the cup of sin to its dregs until you decide you just plain
don't care for the taste of it anymore.

Perkins was an American of another simple, once-familiar type. He was an eager-Johnny, a backwoods prodigy -- he was a good guy with simple manners, strong ambitions and a bit of a bad streak. Not the sort of bad streak that makes for a villain (or, in Cash's case, a hero), but
the sort that makes for the flash and pathos of a genial small-town operator, a likable showoff with a bottle hidden on the side.

His was a pure, uncomplicated sort of cool that can't be faked. It's
also one that's been pretty much driven from the landscape over the past
few decades by our increasingly sophisticated entertainment media, and
by the ferocious routinization of culture and personal aspect that it's
brought us. We should mourn Perkins in mind of that, and honor him
no less strongly than we'll honor his friend when the latter's black
suit is at last folded and put away. In Perkins' own home territory,
where they know him best, there's no danger of his being sent off with
muted ceremony, or in ignorance. But here, in the culture bunkers of the
East and West coasts, we could stand a refresher.

Perkins, along with Cash and Elvis Presley, was one of the original Sun
Records rockabilly stars, recording his first session only a couple of
months after Presley's. But fate wasn't as kind to him as it was to the
other two. In early 1956, while supporting his hit "Blue Suede Shoes,"
Perkins was nearly killed in an automobile accident. In the year it took
him to recover, Elvis rocketed to stardom, his version of the song
eclipsing Perkins'. Elvis would later claim that if not for the
accident, Carl Perkins might've been the bigger star.

Perkins' career would never rise as high again, although he would
release many more 45s, some of which are now considered to be among
the best rock music of all time. The Beatles would cover "Matchbox,"
"Honey Don't" and "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby" in 1963, but
Perkins would be considered a has-been in the States until 1965, when
Cash took him under his wing for a string of tours. During the early
'70s, Perkins had a regular slot on Cash's TV show and a gig writing
songs for Cash and other country performers, which he eventually
parlayed into a new recording contract. The album that resulted, 1978's
"Ol' Blue Suede's Back," did fairly well, but it was with the reissue
flood of the '80s, including such albums as Rhino's excellent "Original
Sun Greatest Hits," that his reputation was finally cemented in the
public mind.

Perkins toured with his Imarocker band (featuring sons Greg and Stan)
until 1991, when he was diagnosed with lung (and later throat) cancer.
After recovering, he was hospitalized again last year for a blocked
carotid artery, after which he suffered a series of strokes. Perkins'
death was not unanticipated: His final album, 1996's "Go Cat Go,"
featured performances in tribute by U2's Bono, George Harrison, Tom
Petty, Willie Nelson and John Fogerty. A biography of the same name, by
Rolling Stone's David McGee, appeared in May of last year. But there
still promises to be far less notice of Perkins' death than the
occasion demands.

Do your part: Think of him today. Remember him as a titan of
rock, the likes of whom we may never see again -- and know that down
in Perkins country, in Tennessee and surrounding parts, there
will certainly be sightings of the man.

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Gavin McNett

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