Friday, February 26, 2010

Not fade away

True Johnny Cash fans, the ones who've been around longer than Rick Rubin's six-album American series, they know what we've got here. They've known it for some time.

They may have known it since back in 1956 when Cash helped put Sun Records on the map with his first No. 1 hit "I Walk the Line." They may have figured it out in 1963 when "Ring of Fire" with its blaring mariachi trumpets was tearing up the airwaves. They certainly got it by 1969 when Live at San Quentin became the biggest thing that happened on this earth (the moon landing, after all, happened on the moon.)

Even if you were younger and didn't follow the legend as it grew from the renegade fringes, you had plenty of opportunities to board the train. And if you had a lick of musical sensibilities, or even if you just liked freight trains or the sound of boom-chicka-boom, you were on board long before the American series came our way.

One of the greatest upsets in entertainment history: Johnny Cash got his own network television show. And on it, with his beloved wife, sidekick and soul mate June Carter Cash beside him, he welcomed artists like Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard and Tammy Wynette. It was a good show. But if you had followed Johnny Cash back in the barnstorming days with the Tennessee Three you might have said "No way" to that notion, not because he wasn't a great performer but because you didn't think he would be universally accepted. Or maybe, because he spoke directly to you, you didn't want that connection to be shared on national TV. Which is petty but true.

The fact is Johnny Cash cultivated his Man in Black image by writing and performing songs about prison, murder, bad asses and bad fortune. And it sold because there was something about him that was as certain as the sunrise, even if was hidden behind a menacing black cloud. And then he got that TV show and people learned there was a lot more to the man than they had imagined. A whole lot more. He had more humility than just about any performer they had seen, more spirituality than a church full of phony preachers, and a basic human goodness that belied his rough-hewn personality, with that scarred jaw and those deep-set eyes.

It's true a lot of people didn't discover Johnny Cash until very late in the game. Some didn't know or understand the story until Joaquin Phoenix burnished it on the silver screen. Some didn't appreciate his music until industrial rockers began doing covers of his songs, or he began doing covers of theirs. The poignant video for "Hurt" -- a Nine Inch Nails song -- brought in legions of new fans. Gothic losers, who would've gotten behind Jesus if he had worn a black T-shirt, who couldn't recite a Johnny Cash lyric sheet if it was attached to their wallet chain, were smitten by his image. For all reasons, some right and some misbegotten, the train got pretty full before it left the station. But every one of them was welcome. And some people got off, and that was alright too.

None of it diminishes his legacy. Nor do the American series recordings. On the contrary, Johnny Cash in his last, painfully difficult days provided a vivid picture of personal suffering, an open window from which to view his final work, which was not always exceptional. But it was real. Some of us flinched, and others turned away because it wasn't pretty or easy to watch.

Final chapters are not always happy endings, but you can't finish a book without them. If you haven't heard "The Man Comes Around" from American IV you never received the fiery jolt that was meant for you, that he wanted you to hear. If you haven't listened to "For the Good Times" from American VI you haven't given yourself a chance to feel as sad and lonesome as a man can be. Those are raw, powerful emotions, and Johnny Cash wore them on his sleeve for all to see.

With the release of American VI we are finally, sadly and mercifully at the end of his recordings. The catalog is complete. "Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog" and "Ain't No Grave" are as different as night and day, as distant as life and death, but they belong to the same man. And today, on his birthday, we ought to play them both, and a whole bunch in between.

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