Title: Man In Black
Description: Johnny Cash, RIP
Date: 12 September 2003
If you use to a clock-radio, sometimes you wake up to very bad news: today, Johnny Cash Dead at 71. I can't say that it was a shock, like John Ritter also dying today. We've known that JC has been sick for a long time, and if anything it's surprising that he lasted four months without June Carter. Ritter was 54, felled by a heart attack. It's a shame that the two are linked in many minds as merely dead celebrities. Nothing against Ritter, who was a charming enough actor, but Cash created an body of work indispensable to American music, informed by a moral gravity and unabashed sincerity which I fear we shall not see again. Though survived by a number of children, Cash was truly the last of a line.
With our first decisions of the day informed by this bad mood, my wife and I both put on black shirts. This is the sort of inevitable and sentimental detail that one might encounter (and perhaps deride) in a Cash song, but it seemed the proper way to acknowledge the man's life, a life that needs acknowledgment. My iPod has thirty-odd Cash songs on it; I set it to shuffle and went about my day. This is what I heard:
"I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," a duet with Nick Cave from his last album, which was largely an inadequate melange of diffident covers. This is one of the exceptions, and suggests that in with his troubled faith, trust in tradition, and lugubrious baritone, Cave has learned from Cash. It also fits my mood, unlike the next "Get Rhythm" shuffle, one of the songs that define Cash's first phase as rockabilly outlaw. But with songs like "Walk the Line" he integrates moral imperatives into three minute songs. The next song, "Like a Soldier" is from the first American Recordings album, which reinvigorated his career while remaining true to his fundamental concerns, in this case, the promise of redemption ("Like a soldier getting over the war/Like a young man getting over his crazy days/Like a bandit getting over his lawless ways/I don't have to do that no more") offered equally by a good woman (as in this case) or Jesus.
If songs like "Oh What a Dream" represent the first phase of his career, and his cover of Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" the last phase, theatrical performances like "Man in Black" represent his popular but problematic middle period. His grave voice and moral stance were clearly unhip in the sixties. During this period he created a hybrid of musical theatre, folk song, and concept album. Songs like "Mister Garfield" and "Going to Memphis" follow the form of spoken, discursive introduction interpreting the song he then performs. I haven't explored this period much, unless you count the mariachi-soaked "Ring of Fire."
His claim in "Man is Black" is that his life is dedicated to the "poor and beaten down," including prisoners. The incarcerated have been demonized in our society, and all notions of rehabilitation razed in favor of punishment. His commitment is moving, and the thought of Merle Haggard in the front row listening to "Folsom Prison Blues" another argument for redemption. His interest in prison songs extended to American Recordings, performing the definitive version of Glenn Danzig's "Thirteen."
His widest success was mostly based on original compositions like "Ring of Fire," and the renewed interest in the nineties based on covers of unlikely songs. Not that covers were new to him, as Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down" was a hit for him in the 70's. He dabbled with "rock" material (whatever that means-- as his joint membership in the Rock and Roll and Country Halls of Fame attests, he was instrumental to both genres) throughout his career, but his nineties experiments might have been prefigured by his 1983 cover of Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman." As with most of his covers, he finds in the song an expression of a deeply held belief. Springsteen's song expresses a respect for the law, but society's law is trumped by family ("A man that turns his back on his family/He aint' no good"). He finds similar moral truths in almost every song he sings.
I mean, of course, "every song he sang." I could go on, as I've been listening to Cash all day. Right now I'm listening to "I've Been Everywhere," a fun list song that Jennifer and I adapted on our road trip west. I might as well end with a happy memory. JC took me a lot of places, and I'm thankful for it.