I’ve been thinking about Johnny Cash. As you do.
Just finished reading a bio by Steve Turner, The Man Called Cash, which is an authorised biography. Not many people like authorised biographies, for obvious reasons. What are those obvious reasons? Sycophantic? They usually are. Like those sickly T.V bio’s and this is no exception, but it does attempt to show the man in a balanced light, albeit a balanced ‘golden’ light.
Cash is as cool as they say. He wore black. He was a christian, without judging others. He once said. ‘I gave my flesh to the devil and my bones to God.’
An amphetamine addict for a large portion of his life, he had various lapses, relapses, clean/straight times. His amphetamine habit aged him, gave him that characteristic haggard look that we all know so well. He wasn’t an angel, yet he was fairly confident that he would be forgiven of that. He saw God as a merciful God. He performed in prisons because he had an affinity with the men who were incarcerated there and felt he could have ended up in the same boat. He went to prison for a short time, for picking flowers, so he knew how easy it was to end up in the slammer. These guys however, had murdered people…and more.
He started off as John R. Cash. The ‘Johnny’ thing was a stage name. He hated the ‘Johnny’ at first. John’s father, Ray, made the young John Cash watch, as he drowned puppies in a weighted sack. His father shot anything that moved and was a strong dominant force within the family. As a result, John found confrontation difficult.
He saw death in his formative years, usually of the furrier kind, but then his older brother, Jack, a beautiful, wise soul, met with an untimely death as a teenager, some awful freak accident with a circular saw. Inadvertently, his father blamed John for the tragic event. This affected him deeply and influenced his outlook and creative output in later years. He sought solace in drugs and avoidance. On the plus side, he had a very loving mother, who believed in him and the voice that would one day make him famous.
He was married with four young children when he embarked on an affair with June Carter, who was also married at the time. After he divorced Vivian, his first wife, he married June and they had a son. June Carter was a very positive influence in his life. He liked to surround himself with strong women.
An army buddy gave Johnny Cash the idea for ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. He then passed it onto Carl Perkins, who then gave the song to Elvis to record.
Cash did a theology degrees and passed with flying colours. He went to church to preach, at the peak of his popularity, but fame got in the way. People began to take advantage, tried to pitch their songs while he was praying over them. So he got out of that. He was reluctant to leave the church, but felt he had no choice.
After leaving the support of the church, he returned to amphetamines.
There are many testimonies, from many different people, friends, acquaintances and people he knew, where he freely gave money, food, board and any favours he could, whenever he could. He was always trying to help people according to their needs.
Like I said before, not trying to make him look like an angel, but it sounded like he had integrity, love and warmth, like many of us have, to some degree.
While performing at San Quentin (he had already cut his teeth performing at Folsom prison) he could have incited a riot just by raising an eyebrow. He had all the men in the palm of his hand. He evoked strong emotions in them, not just because of the music and lyrics but through his charisma and unspoken philosophy. . .which was, we could all end up in this position, given the right circumstances and conditions.
They saw that he was real and that got them ready and waiting for a sign. No doubt there was a rebellious streak in them to begin with, but it wouldn’t have taken much to incite them to riot. He knew the power he held. He knew he only had to snap his fingers or whatever and that would be that. He chose not to do it.
Johnny had a very successful T. V show at the height of his career. One day, during the show, he naturally and instinctively, as a christian, began to talk about demonic influences in the christian life. The broadcasters of the show warned him that they were gong to cut it, as it would mess up his ratings. He said, if you do that, I’m outta here. They kept the footage in and his ratings went right down. Did he care? Na. He was never comfortable with the T.V show to begin with.
There was an incident with Richard Nixon, President Of The United States. Mr. Nixon asked Cash to play a couple of songs, ‘Welfare Cadillac’ which had a go at people on benefits and ‘Oskie from Muskogee’, which attacked Vietnam war protesters, Cash said he didn’t know those songs and declined to sing them. He refused the requests of the president.
I think, most of us, for good or bad, will remember, the last video Johnny Cash made before he passed. ‘Hurt’ was originally penned by Trent Reznor, lead singer of Nine Inch Nails. The meaning has been controversially disputed by many. Some say ‘Hurt‘ is about addiction and self harm, others say it’s about suicide and depression. It’s what we want it to be, it’s mercurial, and that’s the beauty of the song and no-one should take that away from us.
It reminds me of that song by Frank Sinatra. It Was A Very Good Year. It’s about a life spent. It doesn’t matter what happened in that life. It’s when we come to the end and look back, whether our life is ended prematurely or not, again, it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing so fragile and delicate and beautiful as a life spent. It’s an aching beauty. Every person is important. The ending of such vibrancy is very moving. We are moved to tears, to sorrow. The song ‘Hurt’ by Johnny Cash is the epitome of all those emotions, grief, pain, hurt, sadness. It pre-empts a great release, a great change. It’s not so sad at the end of the day. Change is a good thing.
I hate that whole ‘cool’ thing. Hero worship. Really cool people are people you never get to know about, the person who lives next door to you, the bus driver who takes you to work every day, the cleaner in The Pound Shop. I don’t believe in ‘lauding’ people because they’re rich and famous. It’s okay to admire them and it’s lovely when they inspire you and give you incentive to do better but they should never be hero worshipped. I don’t believe he would want to be either.
John had his faults and his failings, like all of us. He seemed to be a good guy, we can see that he had integrity regarding his dealings with people, and that he wasn’t intimidated by the American President. He tried to do the best thing by people. He was a very good musician and songwriter. He is remembered by most, celebrated by all.
When people think of Johnny Cash, they think of a really cool musician/singer/songwriter who always dressed in black. He wasn’t always so cool, but then again, neither were we.
6 thoughts on “Celebrating the life of…Johnny Cash”
Nick Cave tells a story of when he first met Cash and was rendered incoherent with awe.
“Take a deep breath son. I can wait.” said the Man in Black.
There’s cool, and then there’s Cool.
My own prison abolition activism was motivated largely by the realisation of how easily I could have ended up on the other side of the bars and what that would have meant for my life. We often had bands doing benefit gigs for us. Some were punk, some were pop, some were reggae, some were country, some were blues … Most of them covered Folsom Prison Blues.
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That is a great story. You can almost hear him saying it, in that deep southern drawl.
Maybe the link was the reason it was in spam. Although you’ve sent links before so not sure what it was all about. Thanks for the comment and link anyway. We got there in the end!
A great article about one of the last authentic musicians. I didn’t know much about Johnny Cash, just knew “Ring of Fire”. Then I saw “Walk the Line” and watched a documentary about when he performed for Nixon. I think he was brave, had so much integrity, I admire that he stood his ground against Nixon.
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Glad you liked it, thankyou. Much appreciated.
A beautiful tribute to a great artist.
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Thanks Anna. It’s much appreciated.
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