The Man in Black

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Well, we're doin' mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin' cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought 'a be a Man In Black.

Today is the opening day of Walk the Line, a movie (and, apparently, the rest of the country) am very much looking forward to seeing. I doubt I'll make it to the theater tonight (I had a very hard night last night and I'm exhausted), but I'm hoping to go tomorrow or Sunday. On this auspicious occasion, I thought I'd share with you some of my feelings about Johnny Cash.

I love Johnny Cash. I admire Johnny Cash. I mourned when Johnny Cash died. Johnny Cash has long been among the only music my boyfriend and I can agree on (and that's been true for several boyfriends in a row now). Johnny Cash is the epitome of cool. Johnny Cash's "Hurt" video made me less afraid to age. But it actually goes well beyond that, well beyond Cash's second incarnation as a post-country alt-hipster. It goes back home.

It goes back to my mom, and my stepdad, and the music I grew up with. The core of this music, as I remember it, consisted of what I now know is the very best of classic country music: my mom's personal favorite, and mine as well, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and, of course, Johnny Cash (with a healthy bit of Steve Goodman, John Prine, and Guy Clark thrown in, because when it really comes down to it, mom is more folk than she is country). We played these men on 8-tracks in the big, dusty, black late-70s Chevrolet my mom drove before she moved into the minivan class. I knew the words to songs like "Help Me Make It Through the Night" and "Folsom Prison Blues" well before I could have possibly grasped their subject matter, and I vividly remember bouncing into town on worn out shocks, singing "Mama Tried" along with the scratchy car radio. Neither I nor my mother has the best voice, but what we lack in tune we make up for in volume. And in love.

I remember flipping through my mom's albums, and the ones I wanted to play again and again as a kid. The Outlaws. Waylon & Willie. Live at Folsom Prison. Best of Kristofferson. I loved Cash's booming voice and Willie's smooth one, and it took me many more years to realize that Kris Kristofferson really doesn't have much of a voice at all. I really believed Waylon was a cowboy, and I was more impressed than scandalized when somebody told me The Hag had spent time in the penitentiary. Looking back on it now, I doubt my parents intended me to see these men as heroes, but I certainly did.

And then I grew up a little bit, and figured out how massively uncool country music was, and switched allegiances. And as I developed my own tastes, I found new heroes. The first bunch were more or less throw-aways (there isn't much good you can say for Axl Rose), but I still stand by my love for Kurt Cobain and Ani DiFranco, and still listen to both of their albums. In secret, though, in the car by myself, I never stopped tuning the radio to stations playing country music. Country had mostly turned to pop by then, so mostly it was the same crap as on the other stations, just with a cowboy hat, but occasionally one of those old songs would come on, and I'd sing along just like I had with my mom. But never in front of anybody.

In college I first heard Johnny Cash in the pool hall, and it slowly dawned on me that he'd been dubbed cool. But this was none of the cowboy I'd learned to love as a child, this was the sneering, coked up Cash I'd somehow not seen. No wonder he was cool--he looked like country Iggy Pop. Still, the songs were the same, and it was good to be able to listen to them in public again.

Finally, about the time Cash started putting out records with Rick Rubin, I'd come to my own enough that it no longer mattered what the verdict on Johnny Cash's coolness was--I was getting back into the music I'd loved all along, once again hearing the steel guitar and singing along to songs I'd now known the lyrics to for nearly 20 years. So of course I bought the records, and I was blown away by what I'd been missing. Now an old man, there was a beauty and grace and vulnerability in Cash's voice that he'd never had before. The songs he chose came from all over the map, and everything sounded so beautiful, so brilliant, and so brittle, so fragile.

Which, by that point, he was. While I'd been preoccupied with being a teenager and then a young adult, Johnny Cash had gotten old. Waylon Jennings had died. Kris Kristofferson had turned from the blue-eyed sex symbol of some of my earliest illicit thoughts to a gray-haired B actor. The first time I saw the "Hurt" video, I bawled my eyes out, a little bit for my own early-20s newfound fear of aging, but mostly for the old man in the video, a man who sounded a little bit like the outlaw I remembered, but mostly just looked like an old man.

One day I looked up and he's pushin' eighty
He's got brown tobacco stains all down his chin
Well to me he was a hero of this country
So why's he all dressed up like them old men?

Really, though, I realized upon further viewings, and upon listening to the song over and over again, there was nothing to cry about. This man had lived an amazing life, had been a part of an amazing love, and had carried on, almost til his dying day, with making his music. And making it well. Unlike so many musicians who wash up, who forget, after years of fame, why they do what they do, Johnny Cash continued until his last recording to make real music, the kind real people listen to, and to make it as well as anybody ever has or likely ever will.

Having done a good bit of studying American history, there aren't that many American legends left for me to believe in. I know JFK was a womanizer and a liar, and that no matter how sympathetic his portrayal by Kevin Costner, Wyatt Earp mostly just liked to kill people. I have a hard time sympathizing with Custer's last stand or thinking Lewis & Clark were heroes. Marilyn Monroe and James Dean weren't very smart; Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin were alcoholics, and the more of those I know, the less like legends they look. Johnny Cash, however, stands out in my mind as an American icon. This isn't because I'm not aware of the dark periods in Cash's life--I am--but because he never, to my knowledge, pretended to be anything but a man. A flawed, American man. And there aren't enough of those left.

It may just be chance that Johnny Cash--and the whole passle of American poet-cowboy-outlaw-singers he represents--speaks to me like he does. It may have something to do with growing up in the West, where such things are glorified, or with my own somewhat rebellious spirit. But it's good for us all, I think, to have something or someone speak to us once in a while. It's good to be able to believe in something or someone, no matter how silly. And it's good to have these things or people as links to the parts of our own lives that we are removed from. I still listen to old country songs, and I hear my mother's voice on them more often than not. When I look at pictures of Johnny Cash, I see our shared Native American ancestry in the set, square jaw that looks slightly like my grandmother's. And I don't just miss him, I miss her. I miss six year-old me, singing along to songs I couldn't have understood. And, maybe just for a minute, I'm her again. A piece of American history.

1 Comments

Johnny Cash. Amen. live at folsom prison is one of those albums that i listen to over and over. howl

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