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Sunday, September 14, 2003
Monday, Sep. 22, 2003
The Man In Black
Country star, Christian, rocker, rebel. Johnny Cash showed the world how to walk the line
By RICHARD CORLISS
The three-day shoot for the video was about to wrap, and director Mark Romanek needed just one more shot from his singer star, Johnny Cash. As Romanek recalls, "I said to John, 'This is the last take. So if you want to get angry or smash something up, this is your last chance.'" Cash didn't get it. He thought Romanek meant this would be the final shot in the ailing star's life, so he had better make it good. Cash wouldn't, couldn't surrender to such defeatism. "I hope it's not the last take," he said in that baritone growl, which for nearly a half-century brought matters of death to musical life.
When Cash did the video for Hurt last year, he was hurting. Indeed, for 15 years he had been in near constant pain. Decades of drug dependency, since conquered, had sapped him. So had heart surgery, diabetes and the medication he took in 1998 for Shy-Drager syndrome, a fatal neurological disease. (The diagnosis was incorrect, and Cash weaned himself from the medication.) Failing eyesight made it difficult for him to read his beloved books on Roman and early Christian history. A dentist, tending to Cash's teeth problems, had broken his jaw and never fixed it properly, the singer once said. Cash was then told he could have surgery, which might end his singing career, or take pain-killers, which could retrigger his drug addition. He chose instead to live with the pain—all of it. "He told me that the only time he didn't feel pain," says author Charles Hirshberg, who spent much time with Cash in his last years, "was when he was onstage."
Moreover, the song Cash had to enact, by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, is an intense cry of pain dished out and taken—a dirge for a life misspent in rancor. "The facet of John that it explores is serious, somber and angry," Romanek notes. "But between takes, the John Cash I saw was someone more active and sprightly than he looks in the video." When Romanek asked the singer's wife June Carter Cash if she would appear briefly in the video, the Man in Black puckishly suggested, "Yeah, honey, why don't you dance naked on the piano here while I'm playing?" The room roared.
"I can't go on, I'll go on," wrote Samuel Beckett, whose plays and novels are no more depressing than your average country lament. John R. Cash (his first producer, Sun Records boss Sam Phillips, dubbed him Johnny) had every right to sing the country blues. Demons found him even when he wasn't looking for them. He dressed like a hip coroner and sang like a gunman turned Pentecostal preacher. His haunting songs perfectly matched his haunted voice. Rarely before Cash had a singer taken vocal pain—not the adolescent shriek of most rock singers but the abiding ache of a veteran victim—and made it so audible, so immediate, so dark and deep. Rarely, before or since, has a voice also shown the grit to express, endure and outlive that misery. His songs played like confessions on a deathbed or death row, but he delivered them with the plangent stoicism of a world-class poker player dealt a bum hand.
That—and his determination to transcend or ignore musical genres—made Cash's death last week, at 71, an event that provoked a serious sense of loss among people of all ages. Children of the '50s remember the startle of his first eminence: the one Southern star who was not a rebellious kid but a grownup with cavernous eyes and a voice to match. Kids of the '60s recall his pop hits, the TV show he was host of for two years and the easy alliances he formed with musicians beyond country's borders. The X and next generations know his old songs as if they were standards, and his boldly simple later work—especially Hurt, which was nominated for six MTV awards—as emblems of moral and musical purity, an antidote to the glitz and aggression of teen icons. Cash made patriarchal integrity cool.
He carried that integrity around the world. "He's loved in countries that don't even like Americans," says singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, who was a janitor at a Nashville recording studio in 1965 when he first met Cash. "I've seen that firsthand in the places we've played. People love him because of everything he represents: freedom, justice for his fellow man. He is unlike any other artist I've ever known. He's as comfortable with the poor and prisoners as he is with Presidents. He's crossed over all age boundaries, all political boundaries. I like to think of him as Abraham Lincoln with a wild side."
The stature Cash embodies is not so much out of fashion as above it. His CDs are found in the country section of the music store, but he doesn't quite fit there. He came up with rockabilly phenoms like Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, but few of his songs were hard-driving rave-ups. I Walk the Line, Ring of Fire, Folsom Prison Blues—these are, if anything, contemporary folk songs. Cash sang of specific injustices and eternal truths; he was the deadpan poet of cotton fields, truck stops and prisons. He was a balladeer, really, a spellbinding storyteller—a witness, in the Christian sense of the word. Here was a man who knew the Commandments because he had broken so many of them.
As the decades wore on, and Cash notched his annual eight months on the road, experience and excess left their marks on his face, like a hammer pounding tin. He had the battered charisma of an action-movie star who did his own fights. Here was a man who had earned his craggy good looks, his Old Testament God voice, his unique hold on the pop-cultural imagination. Here, three generations of music lovers agreed, was a man—in all his imperfections and grandeur.
If a fighter is sucker punched by fate, as the characters in many Cash songs are, then the heroic thing is to punch back. Cash, as a man and an artist, had the strength to see that bad times may be not a curse but a challenge. His biggest pop hit, the Shel Silverstein song A Boy Named Sue, might be considered comic frivolity for a man whose voice and choice of material more typically dealt in darkness. But the story of a man searching out the father who gave him a girl's name has its own Cashian moral. At the end of a brutal brawl, the father mutters, "You oughta thank me before I die/ For the gravel in your guts and the spit in your eye/ 'Cause I'm the son of a bitch that named you Sue." Adversity made Cash a man, mature and honorable.
He was born into adversity, in 1932, as the fourth of five children of farmers in Kingsland, Ark. For his family, as with others in the Depression-wracked area, cotton was the Cash crop. "We planted cotton in the spring, and we picked it in the fall," says Merline Hall, 77, a childhood friend of the Cash children. "And you used your fingers. There were not any [mechanical] pickers back then. At least, none of us had one." She recalls John as "a good kid" who sang (while his mother Carrie played piano) at the Central Baptist Church. "It was not a false voice," says Hall. "How do you describe it? Let me just say that when he sang, he meant every word he sang. It was the Christian in him."
After high school, Cash worked at an auto plant in Pontiac, Mich., and in 1950 joined the Air Force. He came home, married Vivian Liberto and settled with her in Memphis, Tenn. This was in 1954, and by the next year he had a deal with Sun Records, which had launched Presley's career. Hey, Porter, backed by Cry, Cry, Cry, was his first hit. Around that time, with the help of Phillips and producer Jack Clement, Presley (who would shortly move on to RCA Victor and megastardom) and two other young men, Perkins and Lewis, would create the rockabilly branch of rock 'n' roll.
After Presley's contract was sold to Colonel Tom Parker for $25,000, Perkins had a pop-and-country smash with Blue Suede Shoes, and Lewis followed a year later with the primal boogie Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On. On Dec. 4, 1956, Cash joined the rockers, now known as the Million Dollar Quartet, for an impromptu jam session. Astonishingly, Lewis—the all-time most reckless rock 'n' roller, whom Cash flew in to comfort when Lewis nearly died in the '80s—is the last man standing. "You know," he said in sad wonder last week, "I'm the only one left." (Lewis interrupted his Jacksonville, Fla., concert last Friday night to perform the sacred song Vacation in Heaven in Cash's honor.)
In any class portrait, one notices the similarities. But in this group, Cash stood out—not just with his grave voice and lifer's stare, but with the somber production of his songs. The lyrics Cash wrote for his signature hit I Walk the Line express an unexceptional sentiment: because I love you, I behave. But the thumping bass line and Cash's delivery ("I keep my eyes wide open all the time") make the mood part predatory, part paranoid. Even the upbeat love story Ballad of a Teenage Queen has a spooky side; it sounds as if it's beamed from the bottom of the well of loneliness. Phillips used acoustical reverbs on many Sun productions, but Cash hardly needed it. His voice was its own eerie echo chamber. "His voice was painful, it emoted so much ache and realness," says country star Tim McGraw, who, with his wife Faith Hill, forms a new-generation Cash-Carter duo. "There wasn't anything unreal when you heard Johnny Cash. Faith said today, 'He's the only man in black who can walk straight through the Pearly Gates.'"
Cash moved to Columbia records in 1958, where he had more menacing hits, including the admonitory Ring of Fire ("Love is a burning thing,/ And it makes a fiery ring / Bound by wild desire,/ I fell into a ring of fire"). Some think this was the time of prime Johnny Cash. "He was at his most powerful in the early '60s," says writer-publisher Jack Hurst, author of a book on the Grand Ole Opry. "Back then he was so deeply into the amphetamines that he had lost an awful lot of weight. He looked like a wraith, but a powerful wraith. He was like a prowling tiger onstage. You could see the man fighting demons. This was around the time he was recording Ballads of the True West, and I think he saw visions of himself as an outlaw, with a noose around his neck. He re-created this in his own persona. Against the other side of him it created this huge dramatic tension." Inside Cash, the churchman and the outlaw were having a brawl.
Being on the road for weeks, driving from one town to the next, was exhilarating and exhausting. Country star George Jones, 72, recalls the days when Cash hired him, the Statler Brothers, Stonewall Jackson and other scrounging singers to fill out his tour bill. "Lord, I don't know what we would have done without him," Jones says. "He was our meal ticket." The nonstop nights on the road led to drug and alcohol binges. "We went through those hard times together," Jones says. "We would try to help each other pull through. We'd get together in the dressing room after a show, talk about the mistakes we were making—the pills, the booze, what have you. His first wife Vivian was a wonderful lady. She went through a lot of hell with him. I know she couldn't stand it any more."
It takes a sinner to appreciate the blinding glare of grace. Cash saw the light in 1967, when he began spending quality time with June Carter, of the legendary country clan the Carter family. Carter urged Cash, who was trying to kick his addiction to prescription drugs, to attend services with her at the First Baptist Church of Hendersonville, Tenn. "He said he didn't think he was ready for that," recalls the church's minister Courtney Wilson. "But she told him they could go late and leave early. They came late and sat in the back." That day marked the revival of Cash's churchgoing and the beginning of his great love. He and Carter were married in 1968.
He was even closer to June than to Jesus, but his two loves were connected. "They had a deep, really mystical bond—their love for one another," says Hirshberg, who collaborated with author Mark Zwonitzer on Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music. "It was deeply undergirded with both religion and a total sense, a real deep-down-where-it-counts belief that God had brought them together. They considered their marriage—the fact that they had found each other—to be a miracle of their faith. Their marriage was an absolute religious experience for both of them."
A solid marriage doesn't guarantee career longevity, but Cash managed both. "We had more than one discussion about the ageism of country and rock," says rocker Tom Petty, who recorded and toured with Cash. "When something's gone past that demographic of appealing to people in their 20s, they don't think it's good anymore. Yet here was the perfect case of a guy who was growing older and his music was growing with him." It was Cash who took Bob Dylan to Music City to make the 1969 Nashville Skyline. Later, he guested on songs with Ray Charles, Emmylou Harris and U2. In the '80s, he teamed with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kristofferson for a sometime supergroup called the Highwaymen.
Cash was also loyal to old friends down on their luck. "Johnny always carried people who needed help," says Knox Phillips, Sam's son. "He hired Carl Perkins as part of his band and put him on his TV show, out of love. He did the same for Jerry Lee. No matter how down someone might be or how negative his reputation had become, Johnny always had a come-on-in-and-help-yourself attitude for them." And in 1994 Cash found a sympathetic producer in Rick Rubin, co-founder of the rock-and-rap label Def Jam. It was Rubin's inspiration to return Cash to his roots: the voice, a guitar and the sparest backing. The result was the four American albums. These CDs didn't go platinum—they barely went rhinestone. But they validated Cash's status and towering stature. The latest one, The Man Comes Around, proves to be the perfect send-off for an artist who was failing in everything but artistry. It's Cash's own elegy, eulogy and last words.
The 15 songs include a mess of heartbreak and three wrongful deaths. Throughout, the gravity of Cash's voice lends something sepulchral to the fondest lyrics. When, in his version of Ewan MacColl's The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, he intones, "I know our joy would fill the earth," he could be singing from under it. And in Hurt (the song and the soul-whammingly evocative video) his performance synopsizes a lifetime of anguish. "I hurt myself today/ To see if I still feel," he drones. "I will let you down. I will make you hurt." It is the testimony of a man apologizing for living while preparing for death. On June's next-to-last album, Press On, she duetted with John on Terry Smith's Far Side Banks of Jordan—a song that Cash felt perfectly described their relationship. It's about two elderly people facing the end of their lives, and inevitable separation. June Carter Cash made that trip first, on May 15 of this year, after complications from heart surgery.
Cash was devastated. He knew that if he was to survive June's death, it would be through the thing he knew best: work. "About three days after June passed away," says country music star Marty Stuart, who toured with Cash for 24 years and was for a time married to Johnny's daughter Cindy, "John's son John Carter called me and said, 'Daddy wants to record.' It was the best news I heard in a long time. We all gathered around him and made close to 50 songs." The microphone seemed to be a source of healing and comfort.
Can a wound like the death of the love of one's life ever heal? Not easily; maybe not ever. "He tried to contain himself," Reverend Wilson says, "but her passing took his last spark, the last bit of his heart." Cash admitted as much. "I don't know hardly what to say tonight about being up here without her," he said at his first public appearance after her death, at the Carter Family Fold country music festival in Hiltons, Va. "The pain is so severe there is no way of describing it."
The pain could be described not in words but in sobs. "One day there was just the two of us sitting there," Stuart recalls, "and he broke down and started crying and said, 'Man, I miss her so bad.' I didn't know what to say, so I held his hand. He loved my wife Connie, who's been a friend to that family for a long time. He grabbed my hand and said, 'Son, cling to her; cling to her; cling to her.' What I saw at that moment is that he would have traded every bit of fame, fortune—everything that Johnny Cash meant to the world—for five minutes with June."
Two weeks before Cash's death, Jones and his wife Nancy paid a visit. "He had just gotten back from the dentist," Jones says. "He had numb lips and all. He stayed seated just about the whole time we were there. But he was in a good mood. He said he was fixing to get up and throw that wheelchair away, and he was going back to work." But to others Cash revealed his resignation. Wilson, who visited Cash at Nashville's Baptist Hospital, says, "He was aware things were closing down for him, and he was at peace. He was ready to go home to God."
So many Cash songs speak of the hereafter as if it were waiting, patiently, urgently, in the next room, as if it were comforting—especially for a man who had wrestled his demons to a draw and learned to walk the line—to think of death not as a psycho killer but as a kindly escort. In September When It Comes, a duet recorded this year with his daughter Rosanne, Cash speak-sings this poignant prophecy: "They will fly me, like an angel,/ To a place where I can rest/ When this begins, I'll let you know,/ September when it comes."
For Cash, September came last week, as Americans coped with a more general mourning. And if some felt shock at the news of Cash's passing, they could segue into celebration over a difficult life made exemplary, an outlaw redeemed by a woman's devotion. Besides, if you believe, the Man in Black is now garbed in white, and the doting husband has eternity to spend with his beloved. In a song she composed on the day of Cash's death, country singer Shelby Lynne imagines a sweet reconciliation—the next act of a beautiful duet on a new stage:
Hey, my darlin'
Hey, my sweet
I've waited on the day when I knew we would meet
Hey, my sun
Hey, my moon
Today's the day when Johnny met June
Reported by Jackson Baker/Memphis; Steve Barnes/Dyess, Ark.; Sean Gregory and Jyoti Thottam/New York; Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles; and David E. Thigpen/Chicago
Copyright © 2003 Time Inc. All rights reserved.
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