February 26, 2009

and the whirlwind is in the thorn-tree...

The Man in Black

Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything's OK,
But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
'Till things are brighter, I'm the Man In Black.
- Johnny Cash

He'd always been there. A brooding presence emanating from radios and televisions that bore witness to all the evil that people could do to each other. Even when he was a younger man, you swore he'd lived hundreds of years already. The black hair couldn't belie the creases and lines on that face or in a voice scraped raw from shouting at the devils that pursued him night after night.
Yet, I look at pictures of him in the last years of his life; the hair has gone white, his hands are gnarled and twisted by age as if he'd become a grand old oak tree that weathered many a storm, and the years have been stripped away. If some of us are born young to age and gradually be beaten down by the world, he was born old to learn innocence and to find his way home.

Johnny Cash's black clad figure has been as much a symbol of rugged American individualism as any other man in the last hundred years. Unlike other figures that have let their image be co-opted by various political movements or philosophies, he was never brought into any fold.
The music establishment in Nashville wanted nothing to do with him, but couldn't ignore the fact that he appealed to more people around the world than most of their other acts combined. They would try to claim him as one of their own, but the reality was that as they stretched out one hand in welcome they used the other to try and shove him under the rug.

I have often wondered what they used to say behind June Carter's back about her relationship with Johnny. I doubt if anybody would have dared say anything to her face, but I'm sure there were things said along the lines of "How could a girl from such a good family…" or "He's only with her because of who she is".

June was the hand that reached out and brought Johnny back to safety when he was drowning in a sea of drugs and fame. But even she wasn't enough to keep all his demons at bay.
I wouldn't presume to assume I know what demons possessed him, and it's none of my business anyway. But I know that when I look at photos from certain points in his life the smiles seem to be hiding desperation. The unguarded pictures, the ones not posed or planned, transmit heartbreaking pain. Fatigue that goes beyond the physical emanates from every line etched on his face and tells more of his life's story than any biography ever could. Finding solace in drugs isn't a solution to anything, but when you feel like you have nothing else, it's an easy out…but it’s not the only way to find a measure of peace.

How well I have learned that there is no fence to sit on between heaven and hell. There is a deep, wide gulf, a chasm, and in that chasm is no place for any man.
- Johnny Cash
Johnny gained victory through the redemptive power of his personal faith. But when Johnny talked of redemption, you understood what he meant and you knew he was sincere.
He never talked about it like it was a treat that could be taken away from you if you didn't behave, or that it was only available if you sent in your box tops and twenty-five dollars. Not only was he seeking to redeem himself in the eyes of God, he seemed to spend his whole live trying to redeem himself to the man who looked out at him from the mirror everyday.

You also knew that the only person that Johnny would ever sit in judgment on would be himself. He didn’t seem self-righteous or holier than thou. His faith gave him strength and offered him a way home. Peace for a troubled mind is sometimes salvation enough that the additional promise about saving your immortal soul is almost too good to be true.

When listening to Johnny sing a gospel song, I always feet a bit like I’m intruding upon a personal conversation, eavesdropping on a man's personal prayer. He wasn't singing to impress anyone or to convert them. He was genuinely giving thanks.
I never met Johnny Cash; I listened to his music, I saw him perform live one time and I watched him on television over the years – I knew of him but I didn’t know him. Most of the time all I ever would see of him was the carefully presented image of The Man in Black. It's only been in recent years, the almost three since his death on Sept. 12, 2003, and the couple of years before that when he was recording those last amazing records with Rick Rubin, that I began thinking about who he was beyond that cut-out figure of the lone gunman.

It's truly amazing how just because someone is a public figure we think we know them personally. We refer to them by their first names when we either talk about or write about them, and we make casual assumptions about what their opinions on matters would be. We act like we have an intimate association; even though it's more than likely we've never even met them or exchanged a single word of conversation

No human being is so one dimensional that we can claim to know them just by what is presented as their public face. We can know facts and tidbits of information that will allow us to draw conclusions, conclusions that stand as much chance of being wrong as right, but nothing that justifies our proprietary attitude towards them.

On very rare occasions an artist comes along who allows little pieces of their soul come through in their work, but even then, we aren't privy to their innermost thoughts and dreams, their fears and joys.

Johnny Cash was one of those who bared quite a bit of his soul through performance, song writing, and his willingness to talk about himself and his life with a great deal of honesty. But last night as I watched the documentary “Johnny Cash’s America”, for the first time, I realized (for all my familiarity with his work) that I didn’t know him at all, really.

He was cool and tough and sang songs about real life and real people. He was an outlaw and a patriot and a man's man and no one wanted to know anything different…and that's a real pity because he was also a husband and a father, he was a farmer and woodworker, he made ridiculous mistakes and he had remarkable triumphs, he was just like you and me.

Johnny Cash was born on February 26th, 1932 and died September 12, 2003. His wife of thirty-five years, June Carter, preceded him in death by four months. They are together and at peace, forever.
They deserve it.

2009 should see the long-awaited release of the sixth (and final) album from Johnny Cash's remarkable "American Recordings" sessions which he recorded in the final years of his life, right up to just a week before he died. The first five albums are rightly regarded as masterpieces, as is the subsequent 5 cd box set "Unearthed", which is a collection of other tracks recorded during the same sessions. The rumoured track listing for American VI is:

• San Antonio
• Redemption Day
• Here Comes a Boy
• That's Enough
• 1st Corinthians 5:55
• I Can't Help But Wonder
• Nine-Pound Hammer (the old Monroe Brothers song)
• North to Alaska
• His Eye is on the Sparrow (great old hymn)
• If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again (another great old hymn)
• The Eye of an Eagle
• Don't Take Everybody for Your Friend
• Belshazzar
• Loading Coal
• A Half a Mile a Day
• Flesh and Blood
• I Am a Pilgrim (another great old hymn)
• Beautiful Dreamer
• Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down (another great old hymn)
• Family Bible (another great old hymn)
Watch a video for the song “When the Man Comes Around”…

Watch an excellent biography produced by mars hill church

His studio albums are legendary, but his live shows were just incredible – the way he and the audience would feed off of the emotional content of the music elevated the experience to the sublime… For your edification and enjoyment here's a wonderful live set from the Newport Folk Festival, 1964 – the American recordings era wasn’t the first time that Johnny connected with America’s youth…
buy his recordings...

1 comment:

b said...

Wow, as always, great article/piece-- always so insightful and thoughtful!

"You also knew that the only person that Johnny would ever sit in judgment on would be himself. He didn’t seem self-righteous or holier than thou. His faith gave him strength and offered him a way home. Peace for a troubled mind is sometimes salvation enough that the additional promise about saving your immortal soul is almost too good to be true."

Put perfectly, and thanks to Johnny Cash for being able to encompass such notions and understandings.

Really like the first image, by the way!

And didn't know that American VI was in the works at all, but now I'm really looking forward to it.