Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Man in Black Again

review by Richard Wirick

Johnny Cash: The Life
Robert Hilburn
Little Brown

Lucian Freud, whose sensibility was as far from an Arkansas country singer’s as could be imagined, was obsessed with the Johnny Cash song “Chicken In Black.” It was one of the singer’s most forgettable creations, embarrassing him so much in later life that he
tried to get Columbia Records to pull the recording. But Freud saw in it [at least according to Greig’s new bio, Breakfast With Lucian Freud] a sort of comic montage of our deepest fears: death, abandonment, physical deterioration, loss and interposition of others’ personalities. To
Freud, Cash’s chicken was the Chaplin Animal, scaring us into titters as it twirled its head like a cane, walking the high wire of identity shifts above the abyss.

Cash was the sun at the center of many orbits. [‘Johnny was the North Star—you could set your compass by him,’ said Bob Dylan.] Freud may have been the Pluto of that lot, the cold, outer periphery. As one moved toward the singer, the influences made more sense and fell into place. All of country-western appeared to be infused with his dark, gritty testaments to restraint, to
temptation resisted and succumbed to. ‘I Walk The Line’ topped the charts in 1956, a hymn to fidelity that could only have been penned by a philanderer. Cash created duets and foursomes as fast as a square dance caller, and the ballroom floor was the very laboratory of 50s and 60s popular music and talking-blues storytelling. It had the diversity that stunned Greil Marcus when he heard Dylan’s ‘Basement Tapes’ or Nash’s Smithsonian Archive—-it was that ‘Old, Weird America,’ an ‘Invisible Republic’ populated by the (always singing) drowned and saved.

Cash’s first collaboration—collaboration! From that most isolated self-portraitist!—was that of his family back in cotton country Arkansas. Daddy sang bass, Mama sang tenor, and all “the children would join right in there.” But he saw a largeness to his life, a feeling it belonged to the world, and so he moved to Nashville and L.A., past crossroads as divergent as gospel, country, folk and rockabilly. The first family of Christian music, the Reverend and Mother Maybelle Carter, would eventually take him in by way of a daughter to be his second wife. But he first had to weather the Hercules tasks of a serviceman’s ennui, Tin Pan Alley’s gatekeepers, and amphetamine addiction that made him feel ‘like the wad of powder wrapped around a cannonball.’

Collaboration by happenstance, by accident, was one of the Man in Black’s specialties. Probably the best known was the 1956 evening in (his first producer) Sam Phillips’s Sun Studios in Memphis, when Phillips’s other artists and recording aspirants wandered in and strapped on instruments: Carl Perkins of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ fame, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis, a contentious young bird-dogger with a head of blond curls like Shirley Temple’s. It was called the Million Dollar Quartet, and while bootlegs of it circulated for years, it was Floyd Mutrux (full disclosure: my friend and client) who made it all cohere in his stage play of that name, now running in nearly every theater district in the world.

Cash saw collaboration’s two poles in the cesspool of captivity (fox holes, prisoners) and the bright nimbus of the newly blessed (he was baptized perhaps three times). He was fascinated by incarcerated populations, and in his legendary 60s prison shows both took song fragments inmates had scratched out on napkins, and brought them numbers he’d especially written for the occasion. [’16 Minutes To Go’ was a Villonesque gallows ballad, and ‘Wanted Man,’ one of many collaborations with Dylan, were standouts from the San Quentin concert.] His voice carried a deep, somnolent anger, and burglars and murderers saw him as their twang-tongued Orpheus. The night before Utah’s Gary Gilmore was the first man to be executed in decades in the
U.S., back channels arranged a phone call between the condemned man and his idol. ‘Is this the real Johnny Cash,’ the prisoner asked. When the great voice assented, the murderer, only hours from the firing squad, replied ‘Well, this is the real GaryGilmore.’

* * *

I first saw Cash, in the flesh, in the presence of his almost-in-laws, the evangelical caliphate of Border Radio’s Carter Family. I was high up in the bleachers at the Ohio State Fair. The stage lights were dim, and the figures they were trained on melded into a yellowish, pulsing ball. Dust from the cattle barns drifted over us: church people having seen him at Billy Graham crusades, fans waiting for Bob Hope’s show, pimpled hippies like me in green velvet pants and tennis shoes.

Now this was collaboration, with the man in black walking around like a demon among angels. Mother Maybelle, June and Carolyn sang in steady trios, hovering over the flow of the old woman’s autoharp. Johnny’s voice was the anchor that kept the ship from drifting off. His baritone throbbed through ‘Keep On The Sunny Side,’ ‘Pickin’ Time,’ ‘Wreck of the Old 97,’ and ‘Five Feet High And Rising.’ Thinking back on my father’s vinyl collection, I remembered Cash would do a few of these in rounds or echoey step-downs with the sisters backing him. He sang ‘Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord?)’, and when he recited the last verse-line of ‘SOME-times it causes me to tremble,’ each of the sisters would take it into the bridge with pair-notes calling out ‘[T]remble, tremble . . . . . tremble.’ Then he would come back with a final, authoritative ‘TREM-BLE,’ and their voices closed around his like a winding shroud.

But there was rocking to be done that August night in ’71. We youngsters demanded he step out with ‘Mystery Train,’ ‘Get Rhythm,’ or ‘The Rebel (Johnny Yuma).’ Only he and his shadow filled the spotlight then, the boom-chicka-boom of the Tennessee Two replaced now by the harmonies of his sisters-in-law. He sang ‘Giving Good Weight,’ where the truck-driving narrator fools the truck scales reader with an inventory of low-tariff goods like eggs and livestock, plastic and beans. When he drives off the scales he leans out the window and strums louder and faster and confesses his true cargo of ‘pig iron, pig iron, I got aaa . . . .llllll pig iron.’ ‘Thou shalt not lie’ was not a commandment, and the narrator was an addled man trying to feed his family, so the women behind him just giggled, swaying and snapping their fingers. The final flourish had to have no holiness whatever, invoking just a single sinner, male type. It was ‘Big River,’ which Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead would later cover in over 1,500 performances. The narrator chases the same skirt from St. Paul to the Louisiana Delta, coaxed southward through the maze of waters by her ‘long Southern drawl.’

* * *

After the demise of his ABC television show [featuring first TV performances by recluses like Dylan and Joni Mitchell], and through numerous bouts of addiction in the 70s and 80, Cash’s chances for pairing up with other musicians seemed to evaporate. By 1982, The Blasters and the Stray Cats, along with a host of British bands from Birmingham, gave listeners all the hillbilly rock it wanted. JC was beginning to take on the weathered patina of a relic. There were tours with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, under the banner of The Highwaymen. They were a potent four-some, with especially effective duets by Cash and Jennings, a musician who, like Merle Haggard (among the inmates at the San Quentin shows), probably never would
have existed except in the penumbra of the man who stood behind him.

But as time wore on and a new generation of country-rock performers—one being his daughter Roseanne—were on the ascent, Cash seemed lost. His managers and agents fished for large venues. But he traveled in lesser domains, mainly in he Upper South and Sunbelt. They were small clubs, dinner theater, obscure festivals that let him rest on his laurels for 50-something nostalgiacs. Columbia dropped him. His wife fought off increasing bouts of illness, and so did he. Cash couldn’t sell out even the most modest of auditoriums, and not even forty miles from his home in Nashville.

Then came Rick Rubin, the rock producer who looked like a cross between Zeus and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons. Against all advice, Rubin hatched a plan to commit Cash to a series of studio dates that would consolidate into a smorgasbord of new songs and covers. Against all advice, Rubin wanted to do it in his home studio outside Los Angeles. Rubin proffered the idea in a tremulous call to Tennessee, wondering if Cash would even take it or know who Rubin was. Cash’s wife June was making movies by then, and the singer had shaken off his years of resentment at how badly he had been treated when he lived in the San Fernando Valley in the late 50s and, like Elvis, was trying to break into film himself. As T.S. Eliot said, ‘You only abandon yourself to a new faith when you’ve got nothing else to lose.’ Cash was not objectively
at that point yet, but he felt the industry to which he’d given his talent was so preoccupied
with new acts that he may never again have the chance Rubin offered with his ingenious archive-new work hybrid.

* * *

Early meetings were promising, and as Robert Hilburn notes in his new biography, Cash: The Life, Cash drew a parallel between Rubin’s patient manner and Sam Phillips’s easygoing approach in the tiny Sun Studios a generation before. Rubin wanted to go back and mine Cash’s more sinister side, the messenger of dark forces that made him so attractive to criminals, exiles, and young rockers. ‘Delia’s Gone,’ a song this writer heard on his father’s Sears hi-fi hundreds of times, was an old standard re-written by Cash in the 60s, a somber, Dostoyevskian study of violence and remorse. This was the hook Rubin wanted, the vehicle that would return Cash to
the shadowy place he occupied before he became a symbol of goodness and family in
the 70s.

It’s opening has the prisoner singing to his block guard:

Delia, oh Delia, Delia all my life
If I hadn’t have shot poor Delia
I’d have had her for my wife
Delia’s gone one more round, Delia’s gone.

First time I shot her
I shot her in the side
Hard to watch her suffer
But with the second shot she died
But jailer, oh jailer
Jailer, I can’t sleep
‘Cause all around my bedside
I hear the patter of Delia’s feet
Delia’s gone, one more round, Delia’s gone.

As Hilburn has it, the song had all the zest and confidence that allowed Cash to push musical and cultural boundaries for decades, the “maverick tradition of his best fifties and sixties recordings.” Cash brought out songs he had written during his post-Columbia, Mercury records days that he had kept hidden until he could get them into the right hands. Rubin said “I wasn’t looking for songs that would ‘connect’ Cash to a younger audience. I was just trying to find songs that really made sense for his voice. By that I don’t mean baritone; I mean resonate with his character so he could sing the words and have them feel like he wrote them.” Over several days, Rubin and Cash had nearly three dozen songs, and the producer felt he’d gotten just what he wanted. Cash left for a Branson, Missouri concert series with Wayne Newton, despondent at having to open for Newton before an audience of unappreciative blue-haired retirees.

The American Recording series of CDs turned out to be one of, if not the great Second Act of an American musical giant. Rubin had Cash lay down primitive treatments of new and earlier penned compositions, revival numbers he had sung on Graham crusades, and, most ingeniously and importantly, somber tunes from rockers than Cash could cover as if his own. He sang Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird On A Wire,’ and Neil Young’s bittersweet ‘Heart of Gold.’ When Rubin suggested Steve Earle’s ‘Devil’s Right Hand,’ Cash became ecstatic at the first few bars. Earle was one of dozens of young acolytes who saw Cash’s TV show as the high water mark of the early 70s. Again, the prison angle presented itself: when Earle spent time on the inside for cocaine and weapons possession in the mid-90s, Cash had been—-along with Emmylou Harris and Waylon Jennings—-one of the few people who had written to him. On and on the sessions went. The albums were described by Rubin as ‘[S]tarting from scratch and introducing a new recording artist.’ As Cash’s daughter Roseanne said, “Rick came along at exactly the right time, because before him, Dad was depressed, discouraged, and it was a powerful thing that happened
between them, and Dad was completely revitalized and back to his old enthusiastic self.” She went on: “I think Rick saved his life at that moment.” ‘Endless Highway’ and ‘The Man Comes Around,’ along with the final ‘Cash,’ emblazoned with a shadowy toddler picture of Johnny from the thirties, were immensely surprising, gratefully received masterpieces. Indeed, packaging was
part of Rubin’s brilliance. ‘American Recordings’ cover was a black and white image of a prophet, shot by the Dutch photographer Anton Corbin, who did U2’s ‘Joshua Tree’ album. Cash stands in a high desert landscape in a ragged funeral coat and cane, two dogs on leashes beside him. Randy Lewis wrote in the L.A. Times that ‘[C]ash has collected 13 songs that peer into the dark corners of the American soul. In that respect, it’s akin to Clint Eastwood’s ‘Unforgiven,’ both in its valedictory, folklore-rich tone and its wealth of characters who embody good and evil in varying proportions.”

These “aery populations” that had filtered out of Cash’s early records, into those of Jennings, Ry Cooder, Dylan, Dave Alvin and others, had come full circle back to the master who had conjured them. As Cash’s painful ailments increased, the final ’Ain’t No Grave’ CD is filled with eerie, spectral short pieces like the Hawaiian dirge ‘Aloha Oe,’ much of it sung a cappella. It is the voice and shifting register of a man looking to cross the bar, to return to the Great Artist who had sent him. When that happened, he gave new meaning, crippled as he was, to “finishing strong.” He finished mightily, beautifully, in songs that will be listened to, like Stephen Foster’s, a
hundred years from now.

Richard Wirick is the author of the novel One Hundred Siberian Postcards (Telegram
Books). He practices law in Los Angeles, where he is the LA contributing editor of the
Pacific Rim Review of Books.