Ever since I’ve been conscious, Johnny Cash was one of those entertainers, performers – hell, people – I’d always been vaguely aware of yet didn’t really know a great deal about. Someone my parents sort of liked, albeit with a kind of amused forbearance; someone kind of comical and not all that cool, really.
Shows where my head was at.
Not a great lover or follower of country music — hey, what could a bunch of twangy bejeweled cowpokes say to me, a snotty punk brat from Manchester, England, right? — I never really paid that much attention back then.
Fast-forward a few years, to a new immigrant life in which country music began to sound less alien, if only through sheer ubiquity and a kind of saturation-point osmosis. Then I heard a song on an otherwise disappointing U2 record. “The Wanderer”, from Zooropa, wasn’t exactly a tour-de-force, but it did tweak my radar a little, with its hints of the still largely untapped possibilities for genre-crossover in that relentless, lonesome railroad clatter and the spaces it contained. Around that time, one of my favourite post-punk artists, Nick Cave, began dropping references to the Man in Black in interviews. Or maybe others did in regard to Cave, I can’t remember. However, curious: I’d always thought Cave himself was the man in black. Finally, I saw a movie called Dead Man Walking, on the soundtrack of which nestled another Cash tune, “In Your Mind”. Country? Sure, this was country, but really, how goddamned different it sounded, how intriguingly far from Nashville, Tennessee. All the roof-raising bluster of a renegade preacher, although never strident. Quavery yet vigorous. Tough but compassionate. Like the slowest kid in class, the light bulb began flickering and fizzing above my head. Hey, this music, this wide-legged stance, this straight-talking open-eyed appraisal of darkness and redemption, was walking a parallel line I’d been familiar with since 1977, was pretty much wrestling with the same demons. Attitude, in other words. Who knew? Well, a whole bunch of people knew, apparently.
The man was phenomenally prolific over a career spanning almost half a century. Hundreds of albums (well over 300, if you include compilations and box sets). Hit records. He battled addiction. Experienced great love. Found peace in family and faith. He moved in and out of public perception. Like Bob Dylan, he didn’t seem concerned about the zeitgeist any more, if he’d ever cared at all. As if he knew larger troubles and truths than fame, fashion and fortune.
The Rick Rubin/American Records stuff released steadily over the last 10 years has given younger rock audiences a precious glimpse into Cash’s unique relationship with American music. More than that; his sly, careworn posture toward the trials of our age is now at least sketched with rugged monochrome beauty, even if it could never be fully coloured in. But this is a tribute, not a review: a plain marking of the passage from our world of a man who touched greatness more than once. Just that one still from the video for his cover of NIN’s “Hurt”, in which Cash looks so weary, lost and impossibly old, can bring tears to my eyes. When that video was recorded, his beloved wife and fiercely supreme den mother June Carter Cash was alive. Yet watching it, you can see a shadow of a premonition, the chilling inevitability of the eventual passing into oblivion of all he loved, including, finally, himself. And by extension, we flinch at the inexorable loss and grief most assuredly heading our own way down those implacable steel tracks.
I didn’t want to write this as a fan. Or even as some detached “expert” observer. In all honesty, with regard to Johnny Cash, there are others far more qualified than I to both eulogize and contextualize his work, his sheer presence in the world. But I have come to respect this passionate man and his fierce music after years of inexplicable indifference on my part, and I merely wish now, at the end, to record (however awkwardly) that slowly dawning regard. He was far from pure, carrying as he did the hard-bitten rebel-markings of his abrasive passage through seven decades of this often-bewildering life. Not pure, then — who the fuck is? — but when he died, something unaccountably good left our world all the same.