BY JEFF LEVEN
In an evening otherwise characteristically marked by a virtual absence of cultural profundity, this year’s MTV Video Music Awards were, for a brief moment, crucial and sublime. Amidst all the glitz and marketing and contrived sophomoric stage patter, there seemed to be an all but unspoken feeling that the true meaning of the night lay in its recognition that it would become a final reverent chapter in a legacy whose weight and value to American music – hell, culture – is well nigh incalculable. While he lay sick and, in retrospect, dying, Johnny Cash, the 71-year-old journeyman whose resonant voice, rebel image and earnest songwriting have been a continuously enduring part of America’s musical landscape for half a century, was also having his most recent performance nominated for video of the year. Juxtaposed amongst the hip and the bored, the vacant and the beautiful and, ironically, the young and the obnoxious, Cash’s presence in that program was more than just a mere “comeback” in the sense of critics and old-timer fans reawakening and showering praise on their once-presumed fallen heroes when they put out a good new album (latter day Dylan or Neil Young being good examples). Instead, it was a deeper recognition of the fact that even in the twilight of his career Cash was constantly bringing in new audiences with music that was vital, edgy and distinctive beyond just being accomplished. That evening MTV helped acknowledge that Cash was more than just a hallowed institution of museum-piece quality – he was a hard-driving, hard-working, still-kicking, still-fighting pure American badass.
Despite having a deep and abiding love for the gripping raw-but-elegant storyscapes of his hit singles on Sun Records or his wrenching but still touchingly-humorous rave-ups at prisons-cum-concert venues like Folsom Prison and San Quentin, my vision of Johnny Cash will probably always be filtered through his work for American Recordings. On the surface, perhaps, Unchained, Solitary Man and the like can’t help but look like a masterstroke of premeditated exploitation courtesy of Rick Rubin’s brutal commercial instinct – bring back the Man in Black and have him sing songs by Danzig, Slayer and Soundgarden in the hopes that it will become a novelty amongst the kids. But no matter how cynical you want to be about the concept, the result was arresting – here’s Johnny Cash singing Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” or Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” and he doesn’t just reinvent the songs, he doesn’t just inhabit the songs, he claims them, tears them apart and builds them up again as if they were never written with anyone but him in mind. With his hectoring voice, world-weary delivery and sheer presence in each of these recordings, Cash did what the best interpreters (little-known guys with names like Presley and Sinatra) have always done – infuse their voice and distinctive humanity into every piece of music they touch whether or not it is written by them, a collaborator or some punk kid three generations hence. With the American recordings the venerable old mountain lion Cash came down from the mountain to roar out his name and show the runts who’s boss. And they duly bowed in reverence.
A lot has been written about Johnny Cash the rebel, Johnny Cash the outlaw. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words – witness the famous shot of a fringe-vested Cash throwing a resolute middle finger at the camera, and, one presumes, the Nashville musical Establishment. For a guy with the sheer grim iconoclasm to wear black to the Grand Ole Opry, tour America’s prisons singing songs about killing men just to watch them die and spend years on the road gorging on hard luck stories and amphetamines, such labels are clearly apt. But that may well miss the point. Cash was also a guy who quit what was at the time the most important record label in the world (Sun) because they wouldn’t let him do a gospel album. He was also the guy who, one divorce and a series of hard times behind him, married his most enduring songwriting collaborator – June Carter Cash, a woman with whom he wrote some of country music’s most dazzling love songs (“Ring of Fire” being only the most famous). In fact, Cash’s passing a mere few months after June’s own death seems something like one soulmate following the other into the heavens beyond – testament to a love that so intertwined two people that separation was itself fatal. Cash was a fighter but also a lover, a sinner but also a believer, a man of considerable intensity buoyed by a basic natural ease. Never one to be all ash and hellfire and brimstone and guns and punishment, many of Cash’s songs display a sprightly sense of humor (“A Boy Named Sue” again being only the most famous), a sense of deep personal loyalty (“I Walk the Line”) or the simple love of a place he called home (“Hey Porter”). While some have fetishized Cash’s seeming split personalities with box sets like Love-God-Murder, the simple fact is that Cash the complex individual has always been bristlingly good at articulating himself on wax in whatever mood and guise that may take. Stylistically the story was the same – Cash wasn’t country, Cash wasn’t rock n’ roll, Cash wasn’t gospel, Cash was Cash.
And that’s why the legend and legacy of Johnny Cash is assured. In these pages there’s really nothing I can claim for him that he didn’t build or articulate for himself. Far better for us to contemplate with solemn respect the pristine sincerity of his now-completed project of building a life in song. Johnny Cash did what you’re supposed to do with music. He dove in and used it as a way to express and emote the tensions and joys of his encounters with the world, translating them into a form that others could share. If at times the journey was dark and hectoring it was only because Cash was a man with enough courage to face down the depths of loneliness or longing (the metaphorical incarcerations to which we are all sometimes subject) with sensitivity and wisdom. If at times he rocked the boat it was because he, and often he alone, was equipped with the guts and the brawn to stand up and row hard toward the tougher path of committing to his own identity – musical, cultural and otherwise. Johnny Cash lived a musical life of unflappable dignity and staggering commitment and in that sense he walked the line for all of us, speaking in a voice that will always echo true.