Two questions: 1. Is that the most bad-ass picture ever taken of a pop icon? 2. Is there a more bad-ass pop icon who’s ever walked the planet?
(Those questions are rhetorical in case you didn’t already know.)
Sex, drugs and rock and roll? The late Johnny Cash (who would’ve turned 80 on February 26th) was a combination of Keith Richards, Elvis Presley, and Public Enemy, only he did it first and no one before, or since, ever did it quite like him.
Quite literally too big (or complicated, or cool) to be contained by labels, he dabbled in rock and roll, rockabilly, blues, gospel, and folk. And while he can—and should—be considered an obvious lock for the Mt. Rushmore of Country Music, Cash was an American who wrote and sang about the country that made him. Even though at various times Kris Kristofferson attributed multiple sources of inspiration for his song “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33”, it is hardly a stretch to imagine who he had in mind for these lyrics (“He’s a poet, he’s a picker / He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher / He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned / He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction / Taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home”). Is there a better description out there for the icon who came to be known as The Man in Black?
The best way to understand, and appreciate, the legendary life and times of Cash is to listen to the way he evolved, as a musician and as a man. (For anyone not familiar with Cash’s extensive discography, understand that this overview is not intended to be definitive; in fact, it scarcely scratches the surface. But if you’ve been looking for a reason to figure out why Johnny Cash is so revered, and why your collection has been lacking a certain something, hopefully these tracks will put you on the right path.)
His first hit, “Hey Porter” establishes the early Sun City rockabilly sound: very traditional, upbeat, and irresistible.
It’s possible that the younger generation—who know Cash as the bad-ass whom every young artist must (understandably) name-check for street cred—might not realize how crucial gospel was (to Cash, to the evolution of certain types of American music), and therefore not pick up what he’s putting down on an old track like “Peace in the Valley”. But make no mistake, this is deep (and deeply moving) stuff.
It’s on another early hit, “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town”, that we see the emergence of the Cash so many people came to know and love: the mordant preacher and wary bar room visionary:
Cash’s battle with pills, the law, and himself almost derailed his career (and almost killed him), but he found his way through the darkness. He emerged scarred, scared and—for a while—clean and sober. But his escapades with the wrong side of the law, coupled with the difficult early years of his life, gave him an ingrained empathy for folks who struggled just to put one foot in front of the other. Plenty of artists have felt (and articulated) compassion, but Cash was able to deliver harsh tidings without seeming cynical, he could encourage without being patronizing and he could celebrate anonymous citizens because he believed what he was saying. One look at him told you he had never forgotten where he came from.
On January 13, 1968, Cash did something he had gotten in the habit of doing: playing live to inmates. He appreciated the reception they gave him (talk about a tough crowd) and anyone who wants to know the difference between a carefully engineered PR stunt and the real thing need only listen to the songs Cash sings, and the feedback from the crowd. (Or, consider that a young man in the audience during Cash’s first such concert, at San Quentin in 1958, was sufficiently inspired that he changed his life and, in the process, became a music legend himself. His name is Merle Haggard.) Indeed, the easy, familiar way Cash interacts with these men provides an impossible-to-predict (or manufacture) authenticity, and the scattered hoots and hollers turn a scorching performance at Folsom Prison into an indelible American document (“I just want to tell you that this show is being recorded . . . and you can’t say ‘shit’ or ‘hell’ or anything like that . . .”). From the opening, familiarly succinct introduction “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” to the electricity in the air after the line “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”, to the final second of this recording, Cash takes his unique audience on a tour of some of the things he has seen, heard and imagined. There is, as usual, plenty of stark truth-telling but there is also humor (see “25 Minutes To Go” and “A Boy Named Sue”) and emotion to spare.
Here’s the thing. No singer delivers a song in a vacuum: when a man like Cash took up a cause, it carried the authority he had spent a lifetime accumulating. When he decided to dress only in black, even writing a song to explain it, his gesture was seen as a shout out of solidarity. No one could pull that off today, but no one could have pulled that off, then. Nobody except Johnny Cash. Politicians, artists, and athletes could (and should) all learn from the example he set: by keeping it real (for real) and being honest—to his audience, to himself—while refusing to put himself on a pedestal, he managed to get placed somewhere above politics, demographics, and fads. He wasn’t always popular, but he was always respected. And when he sang a song, it stayed sung. Exhibit A: just imagine any other singer doing what he does in “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”. The line between moving and mawkish is blade-of-grass thin, and not only does Cash turn this tale into an epic, he manages to imbue this tragedy with the passion and pathos it requires.
Of course, Cash also had fun with life. It’s difficult to describe the joy of seeing him interact with kids on Sesame Street (from inmates to toddlers and every combination in between, Cash was the closest we’ve ever come to being able to use words like “Everyman” and “American Dream” without a scintilla of irony).
His star faded for a spell, so it was wonderful to watch him get an extended—and well-warranted—victory lap when his American Recordings series struck pay dirt and introduced him to a whole new fanbase.
At this point, he had done all he could do. And yet, he had a little more to give: he went deep and left us one last memory. Painful and poignant, his rendition of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” is everything we can ask for from Art, delivered by a man who, as always, knew of what he spoke. Still, a man like Cash wasn’t made for this millennium. Health failing and heartbroken at losing his wife, in 2003 he finally was ready to slow down and sleep.
When the legend becomes fact, the saying goes, print the legend.
The legend is contained in one life and it’s real, preserved, for all-time, in his songs. Cash is gone but the legend lives. That’s a fact.