Music

"Everyone I Know Goes Away in the End": A Tribute to Johnny Cash

David Antrobus

Not a great lover or follower of country music -- hey, what could a bunch of twangy bejeweled cowpokes say to me, a snotty punk brat from Manchester, England, right?

Ever since I've been conscious, Johnny Cash was one of those entertainers, performers - hell, people - I'd always been vaguely aware of yet didn't really know a great deal about. Someone my parents sort of liked, albeit with a kind of amused forbearance; someone kind of comical and not all that cool, really.

Shows where my head was at.

Not a great lover or follower of country music -- hey, what could a bunch of twangy bejeweled cowpokes say to me, a snotty punk brat from Manchester, England, right? -- I never really paid that much attention back then.

Fast-forward a few years, to a new immigrant life in which country music began to sound less alien, if only through sheer ubiquity and a kind of saturation-point osmosis. Then I heard a song on an otherwise disappointing U2 record. "The Wanderer", from Zooropa, wasn't exactly a tour-de-force, but it did tweak my radar a little, with its hints of the still largely untapped possibilities for genre-crossover in that relentless, lonesome railroad clatter and the spaces it contained. Around that time, one of my favourite post-punk artists, Nick Cave, began dropping references to the Man in Black in interviews. Or maybe others did in regard to Cave, I can't remember. However, curious: I'd always thought Cave himself was the man in black. Finally, I saw a movie called Dead Man Walking, on the soundtrack of which nestled another Cash tune, "In Your Mind". Country? Sure, this was country, but really, how goddamned different it sounded, how intriguingly far from Nashville, Tennessee. All the roof-raising bluster of a renegade preacher, although never strident. Quavery yet vigorous. Tough but compassionate. Like the slowest kid in class, the light bulb began flickering and fizzing above my head. Hey, this music, this wide-legged stance, this straight-talking open-eyed appraisal of darkness and redemption, was walking a parallel line I'd been familiar with since 1977, was pretty much wrestling with the same demons. Attitude, in other words. Who knew? Well, a whole bunch of people knew, apparently.

The man was phenomenally prolific over a career spanning almost half a century. Hundreds of albums (well over 300, if you include compilations and box sets). Hit records. He battled addiction. Experienced great love. Found peace in family and faith. He moved in and out of public perception. Like Bob Dylan, he didn't seem concerned about the zeitgeist any more, if he'd ever cared at all. As if he knew larger troubles and truths than fame, fashion and fortune.

The Rick Rubin/American Records stuff released steadily over the last 10 years has given younger rock audiences a precious glimpse into Cash's unique relationship with American music. More than that; his sly, careworn posture toward the trials of our age is now at least sketched with rugged monochrome beauty, even if it could never be fully coloured in. But this is a tribute, not a review: a plain marking of the passage from our world of a man who touched greatness more than once. Just that one still from the video for his cover of NIN's "Hurt", in which Cash looks so weary, lost and impossibly old, can bring tears to my eyes. When that video was recorded, his beloved wife and fiercely supreme den mother June Carter Cash was alive. Yet watching it, you can see a shadow of a premonition, the chilling inevitability of the eventual passing into oblivion of all he loved, including, finally, himself. And by extension, we flinch at the inexorable loss and grief most assuredly heading our own way down those implacable steel tracks.

I didn't want to write this as a fan. Or even as some detached "expert" observer. In all honesty, with regard to Johnny Cash, there are others far more qualified than I to both eulogize and contextualize his work, his sheer presence in the world. But I have come to respect this passionate man and his fierce music after years of inexplicable indifference on my part, and I merely wish now, at the end, to record (however awkwardly) that slowly dawning regard. He was far from pure, carrying as he did the hard-bitten rebel-markings of his abrasive passage through seven decades of this often-bewildering life. Not pure, then -- who the fuck is? -- but when he died, something unaccountably good left our world all the same.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Film

Masaki Kobayashi's 'Kwaidan' Horror Films Are Horrifically Beautiful

The four haunting tales of Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan are human and relatable, as well as impressive at a formal and a technical level.

Film

The Top 10 Thought-Provoking Science Fiction Films

Serious science fiction often takes a backseat to the more pulpy, crowdpleasing genre entries. Here are 10 titles far better than any "dogfight in space" adventure.

Books

'The Kill Chain': Why America Might Lose Its Next Big War

Christian Brose's defense-nerd position paper, The Kill Chain, inadvertently reveals that the Pentagon's problems (complacency, inertia, arrogance) reflect those of the country at large.

Music

2006's 'Flat-Pack Philosophy' Saw Buzzcocks Determined to Build Something of Quality

With a four-decade career under their belt, on the sixth disc in the new box-set Sell You Everything, it's heartening to see Buzzcocks refusing to settle for an album that didn't try something new.

Books

'Lie With Me': Beauty, Love and Toxic Masculinity in the Gay '80s

How do we write about repression and toxic masculinity without valorizing it? Philippe Besson's Lie With Me is equal parts poignant tribute and glaring warning.

Music

Apparat's 'Soundtrack: Capri-Revolution' Stands Alone As a Great Ambient Experience

Apparat's (aka Sascha Ring) re-imagined score from Mario Martone's 2018 Capri-Revolution works as a fine accompaniment to a meditational flight of fancy.

Music

Chouk Bwa and the Ångströmers Merge Haitian Folk and Electronic Music on 'Vodou Alé'

Haitian roots music meets innovative electronics on Chouk Bwa and the Ångströmers' Vodou Alé.

My Favorite Thing

Weird and Sweet, Riotous and Hushed: The Beatles' 'The White Album'

The Beatles' 'The White Album' is a piece of art that demonstrates how much you can stretch, how far you can bend, how big you really are. The album is deeply weird. It has mass. It has its own weather.

Music

Sarah Jarosz Finds Inspiration in Her Texas Roots on 'World on the Ground'

By turning to her roots in central Texas for inspiration on World on the Ground, Sarah Jarosz has crafted some of her strongest songs yet.

Music

Hinds' 'The Prettiest Curse' Is One of Victory

On The Prettiest Curse, Hinds create messy pop music that captures the vibrancy of youth without being childish.

Music

12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.

Music

Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.