A Mind That Suits
What doesn't kill me, makes me laugh... usually.
Monday, September 15, 2003 :::
The Johnny Tribute is down from here a very short ways...
Those of you who are coming to A Mind That Suits for the first time may want to look at the archives for August 10, where there is a sampling of previous material.
If you like what you read, please e-mail me--the link is on the left. And pass it on. I like reaching folks from all over.
But here is the most important thing right now:
Johnny Cash, RIP
He was a most old-fashioned kind of sinner.
J.R. Cash never doubted the validity of Scripture’s judgments: sin is sin, and he was sorry for what he had done, and he did a lot in the bad days. Johnny’s last major hit, a remarkable 47 years after his first one, was a haunting, stripped-down version of “Hurt,” by the techno-punk band Nine Inch Nails. When asked how a Christian could do a song by such a nihilist as Trent Reznor, Johnny replied that it was the best anti-drug song ever written.
Drug abuse was one of the many things that John R. Cash knew about first hand.
And “Hurt,” as interpreted by the Christian Johnny Cash, is not so very far thematically from his most famous song, his second hit, “Folsom Prison Blues.” He opened every show with it. Johnny’s expressive simplicity meant that familiarity never robbed the line “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” of its power to shock, but the simplicity also gave power to the regret and sorrow that pervades the song.
Johnny Cash. John R. Cash.
That was his real name: J.R., just as Harry Truman’s middle name was “S” without a period. “J.” became “Johnny” when he landed a recording contract, with the troublesome Sam Phillips.
He got the full name in his mid-twenties, but he had already packed in a whole lot of living. He had been raised on a farm in Arkansas, had joined the army, had worked in the auto industry in Detroit. But from the very earliest days singing in the Pentecostal church of his parents, music was the one thing that drove him.
And it drove him to the very heights of American culture. He was part of the very beginning of what most of us know as modern American popular music, if one will concede that Broadway, an older form, has a rather specialized audience. And Johnny never wandered very far from music that is far, far older than Tin Pan Alley.
Johnny Cash was just different. He was the only major ‘50’s act to survive the Ed Sullivan broadcast. For most of his career, “pre-Beatles” meant death with young audiences, but not for Johnny.
When Elvis was enjoying his second run at the top, he was already considered something of an old-fogey act of interest mainly to lonely redneck mamas, despite his still amazing powers. But at the same time, in the early 1970’s, no country acts, and very few rock acts, were as big as Johnny Cash. Moreover, he was cool. He was the best friend of Bob Dylan, who came out of hiding to appear on Johnny’s short-lived TV show. Johnny Cash played county fairs, and he also hung out with the very cream of the ‘60’s generation of musicians. No popular entertainer has occupied as many respectable corners of American popular art just by being himself.
He was also a very old-fashioned kind of liberal, the working class, labor union, patriotic kind. Unlike most of the left, he was unabashed about his very conservative form of Christianity, and about his love for his country. He was opposed to the Vietnam War, but he refused to engage in trashing the country or the troops. Indeed, as he recounted in “Singing in Vietnam Talking Blues,” the revelation he had when he and June toured the war zone was that we needed to support our boys.
Cash also never acquired the standard leftwing airs. Again, although he was lionized by the very hippest of rock’s pantheon in the 1990’s, he stayed true to himself, only shifting his emphasis so more of his work sounded like “Folsom Prison.” He recorded “Folsom Prison” in 1956, so this was not much of a change. He never forgot where he came from. His continuing hold on rock and country performers, and the fans that could not get enough of him, can be traced to that fundamental honesty, that ability to reach right into the heart of the average person and touch the rawest spot.
“Raw” is a good word for J.R. Cash. As much as one can analyze his kind of talent, it seems to have been a remarkable ability to paint, with the fewest words possible, the plight of the individual against forces that he cannot control and urges that he can but doesn’t. “Flesh and Blood” describes lust and love in the most natural and delicate terms, and “Big River” recounts the stupidity of a man willing to chase the wrong woman the entire length of the Mississippi. The good, and the bad.
And he could plead with God like a perfectly honest sinner, giving voice to the cry that is the heart of anyone with any openness to the transcendent, and the promise of its fulfillment in Christ. (If anyone can find a word of his that can be described as “Deist,” I would be surprised. A Christian is what J.R. Cash was.) In keeping with his Pentecostal upbringing, he could combine the most personal religious feelings with the most vivid apocalyptic images. The personal somehow stuck with you. For his studio band some years ago, he played “Will You Meet Me In Heaven,” with its striking image of a couple standing on a cliff edge watching the world destroy itself. Former son-in-law and devoted friend Marty Stuart blurted out, “That’s a good one. Who wrote it?” “I did,” came the simple reply.
But Johnny was a sinner, and as with so many great artists, his personal problems prevented him from staying at the top. True, the Nashville establishment, as always, kept pushing country acts into the treacly realms of Nash-Vegas blandness. But sometime in the 1970’s, Johnny stopped being the anchor for respectable country music. He never caved: he never produced commercial schlock. But he no longer dominated as he once did, and country music drifted into horrible Urban Cowboy trash.
If you read the reminiscences of the New Traditionalist musicians of the 1980’s, the name of Johnny Cash is peculiarly absent. And he continued his downward drift into the early 1990’s, when I got to see him and the Carter Sisters.
In a corner bar.
Johnny Cash looms over the memory of my entire life. From very early on, I knew that there was something called “country and western music” – now, alas, just “country”--and that Johnny Cash was the best who had ever sung it, with the possible exception of Roy Rogers and Hank Williams, Sr. The only explanation I can come up with is my mother: she grew up near Bakersfield, California—i.e., “Nashville West”—and she never lost her love for country music. I remember being thrilled that she got to meet Johnny Cash when he played the hick, backwater Orlando of my youth. She was the first entertainment editor for the Orlando Sentinel, and Johnny was very close to the first truly major act to play our new sports arena, a converted hanger. I watched his TV show religiously. Long before I really started following country music seriously, I loved Johnny Cash.
So when the ad appeared, my jaw dropped. As I recall, they even had to run a second ad with the note, “Yes, the Johnny Cash.” It was the first of three times that I saw him and June, and it was far and away the worst. Johnny barely showed up to play, especially noticeable against the professionalism of his sisters-in-law and the energy of his wonderful wife. But when he finally woke up, in the middle of his solo set, the place lit up. I remember that vividly, one of those moments that live with you. The power was still there, it was just asleep. Our waitress politely said that the show we saw was better than the first, so it had taken a while to rouse from its slumber.
But Johnny had inspired some great artists, and they did not want him to drift away. He rose again to the very top of fame, and the jump start gave his live performances a new vigor. The power was there until the end.
Although much is made of his American Recordings series, and rightly so, the key moment in his rehabilitation was when U2 asked him to sing a song on their Zooropaalbum. “The Wanderer” is perhaps the only highly produced recording he ever made, and it is one of U2’s best. It is the story of a man who rebels against God and society, seeking to experience as much “as a man can before he repents.”
Johnny was not shy about re-writing lyrics in other people’s songs. When U2 first showed him their words for “The Wanderer,” it revealed the band’s complete abandonment of Christianity. Johnny was not about to abandon the key anchor of his life, or give the impression that he had. He rewrote the lyrics, so that the narrator was simply God’s most rebellious child.
And he didn’t need to rewrite to make it his own. “What have I become, my sweetest friend?” he sings in “Hurt.” Even before the video for Johnny’s version shows images of June Carter, we know whom Johnny means by “my sweetest friend.”
Valerie June Carter Cash. Was ever a bad, bad man blessed with such a helpmeet?
June Carter was, of course, heir to the greatest of family traditions in country music, and she did a lot to continue it. She recorded a career retrospective, the justly honored Press On, in 1996, and it must be added to even the slimmest collection of Johnny Cash.
She said at one point that she had been as much a part of as many changes as she wanted. She was not, it seems, cut out to be a star on her own. Her immense talent was clear to all, and she spent time in New York training to be an actress. As westerns were popular on TV in the late Fifties, she found a lot of work, and she clearly would have had a fine career. Anyone who saw Robert Duvall’s masterpiece, The Apostle, could see that.
But she hated New York and the Hollywood scene. The experience inspired one very funny song, “Gatsby’s Restaurant,” and one very wistful one, “I Used to Be Somebody,” but it also inspired her to return to her roots. When she fell in love with Johnny Cash in the early 1960’s, she went back to the family business of music and stayed there.
She was introduced to Johnny’s music by Elvis, for whom she was a backup singer, and, one intuits, a girlfriend. He envied Johnny’s ability to command audiences without the showmanship. June called that Johnny’s “power.” Johnny, for his part, said that he knew he wanted to marry her the first time he saw her singing at the Grand Ol’ Opry. By the time she joined his band some years later, both had gone through short, loveless marriages, but it took a while for them to make it formal.
The memories of their children paint her as a woman who would give selflessly to others, and make the world as gentle a place as she could.
Johnny himself provides a much more vivid image that testifies to the strength of the deep, quiet woman with whom he shared every moment for 40 years. Dear old Johnny, it seems, was a pill-head, a speed freak. All those deep emotions required a lot of fuel, and he turned to the pharmacy to get it. As with all addicts, he promised his wife he would reform. And, as with all addicts, he went to great lengths to hide the stuff he was still taking.
I remember a magazine spread from the early 1970’s in which country music’s king and queen posed in their new castle, an old home in the woods near Nashville that they had refurbished grandly. Apparently, it did not always look that pristine, for gentle June would ransack the palace from top to bottom looking for Johnny’s stash, not one single luxury item more important than the health of the man she loved.
The storied melodrama seems like tabloid fodder, though, remarkably, they stayed out of the papers and kept most of their problems quiet. But it is more than that, because it allows us to glimpse a little deeper into the dark, luminous well from which Johnny and June Carter Cash drew for their very great artistic achievements, and into their very real love. I saw them up close three times, and I do not remember an older couple that seemed so completely comfortable with each other.
Some time when they had gotten older, Johnny came down to their second home in Jamaica with a gift, a song he had found. It was about an older couple promising to wait for each other on the “far side banks of Jordan,” whichever one should go first. By design, I was standing at the edge of the stage during their last appearance in Washington, before his drug taking finally caught up with him in the form of neurological disorders that ended his touring days. June performed her usual perfect set of a few songs, and then Johnny came back on so they could sing their favorite song, the one he had brought her as a gift. I have two very vivid pictures of them together, and one comes from that moment, as they stood hand in hand, the once raging giant and the tiny maiden who tamed him, pledging their eternal love. In the recorded version, on Press On, June sings the lines about going first, which she did, last May, but Johnny did not tarry and now he has followed her.
With the passing of June Carter, the world became a much lonelier place. Now that Johnny’s gone, it just seems empty.
I’ll be sitting on the farside banks of Jordan.
I’ll be sitting drawing pictures in the sand.
And when I see you coming,
I’ll rise up with a shout,
And come running through the shallow waters,
Reaching for your hand.
::: posted by A Mind That Suits at 10:15 AM