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Sometimes the Good Guys Wear Black

Stephen Rauch

After all, the man fed on adversity. It fueled his work throughout his career.

I read somewhere once that when John Wayne died in 1979, many people's immediate reaction wasn't sadness or mourning, although there was plenty of that to go around, but disbelief. Even though he'd appeared at the Oscars earlier that year as a skeleton in a tux 100 lbs too big for him, even though the cancer had taken half a lung, and eventually his entire digestive system, even though doctors gave him absolutely no hope of recovery and the death watch had gone on for months, millions of people clung to the simple belief that the man simply could not die. He was just too big; he'd find a way to beat this too. Even when he fell on-screen: defending the Alamo in his 1960 vanity epic, avoiding a painful bed-death in The Shootist, or shot in the back by Bruce Dern in The Cowboys, we understood that this was only playing, only temporary.

Now that the Man in Black is gone, I understand that feeling.

After all, did he really do time in his youth, either from brawling or something darker? Did he really serve it in Folsom Prison, later site of his most famous concert? Did he really best ten men in a fight after a night of drinking? Or give all his money to an orphaned child he once saw on the street? Probably not, but it doesn't really matter. Because he was such a force, such a presence, that you knew he could do any of them and more if he wanted to.

So even though his lungs took him in and out of the hospital with pneumonia for years, even though he had glaucoma so bad that he couldn't read anymore, even though the arthritis gnarled his hands too much for him to play the guitar on most days, we knew Johnny Cash, the Man in Black, would find a way to bounce back one more time. Any other outcome would simply be unthinkable; he was just too big, and too powerful.

After all, the man fed on adversity. It fueled his work throughout his career. Tales of men who have lost everything, done terrible things, and seek redemption, or at least a place to lay their heads for the long night ahead. His characters were filled with regret at what they had done, even if it wasn't any worse than what most people do, but because they had let themselves down. And yet, he always managed to come off as one of the good guys. He sang (in "Man in Black") of wearing black all the time as a reminder of the sorrows and injustices in the world, and while I always thought it was just because it made him look so goddamned cool, the image fits; he carried the sorrows of the world, so we didn't have to, and because he alone was strong enough.

And the voice. God, that voice! What Bono called "the most male voice in Christendom" in the liner notes to The Essential Johnny Cash, which just about redeems him for the last couple of years. There's such a strength and moral certainty, but also a tenderness there, and a sense of reality that cuts through the bullshit. I've never cared much for Simon & Garfunkel, always thought them a little overblown, but when the Man in Black sang "Bridge Over Troubled Water" with Fiona Apple (on American IV: The Man Comes Around), I realized was a beautiful song it is, and what a simple one. And the sense that for the people he cared about, he'd strike at the very gates of heaven. Which, it always seemed to me, is what you do for the ones you love.

Since my parents were young during Cash's initial rise to stardom, the only period I remember at all is his "American Recordings" run with Rick Rubin. Many journalists, probably looking for an easy angle on a story, wrote in this period of Cash as a "legend in decline," a man who had long since lost his edge and who we kept around just to see him decay. But what is missed with that foolish and short-sighted view is just how good the American albums are. I defy anyone to find a more complete and moving album than last year's American IV: The Man Comes Around. Or how forward-looking he was; he often talked about how happy he was that young people were still discovering and connecting to his music. And how many other 70 year-olds cover Soundgarden? Danzig?

The Man Comes Around closes with "Streets of Laredo", probably the saddest and most beautiful thing I've ever heard, and "We'll Meet Again," and I remember thinking when it came out, "please God don't let those be his last songs." And so I kept on assuming that, somehow, he would go on. No, deep down I knew this was coming. When his wife, June Carter Cash, died a few weeks ago, I knew that the end was near for him. From the way he talked, the way they both did, I like to think that they were so in love that when she left, the fight just clean went out of him.

Of course, a lot of the recent album was focused on death, but then again, most of his albums were like that. But "Streets of Laredo", the traditional song also known as the "Cowboy's Lament", is probably the most direct: a young cowboy dying in the desert, just seeking a like-minded companion to sit beside him, hear his story, and lay him in the ground. I'm listening to it now, for the first time in these last few days. It always made me cry before, and since I heard the news, it's just been too hard.

Again, the thought comes to me: God, he can't be dead. He just can't.

So we beat the drum slowly, and played the fife lowly,
And silently wept as we bore him along.
We all loved our comrade, so brave and handsome,
We all loved our comrade, although he'd done wrong.
"The Cowboy's Lament" (traditional)

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