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God Speed You Black Emperor
Johnny Cash – 1932-2003 By Peter Murphy
Peter Murphy, 14 Sep 2003
With the death of Johnny Cash at the age of 71 last Friday morning, music’s Mount Rushmore crumbled. Cash was a towering presence over the last 50 years of rock ‘n’ roll, folk and country; his voice was the voice of ultimate gravity, weight and experience, and its absence will be felt for many moons to come.
At the MTV Music Video Awards a couple of weeks ago, where Cash was nominated for multiple categories for his immensely moving video for ‘Hurt’, directed by Mark Romanek, hard rock veterans joined hip hop and pop artists in paying respect to the original gangsta. On receiving his best video trophy, Justin Timberlake all but relinquished his prize to the singer, recalling how his grandfather in Memphis, Tennessee raised him on the man in black’s records.
And incredibly, Cash produced work in the last decade of his life that almost eclipsed the ground-breaking work overseen by Sam Phillips in the 50s, the railroad rhythms and moral riddles of masterpieces like ‘I Walk The Line’ and ‘Don’t Take Your Guns To Town’ and epochal late 60s recordings such as the homicidal comedy of ‘A Boy Named Sue’ from Johnny Cash At San Quentin. (The opening line of the title song, “San Quentin, I hate every inch of you,” and the response of his captive audience to it, remains one of the most thrilling moments on any live album.). Cash always managed to play to the freak flag crowd and the right wing rednecks at once, supporting himself in lean years with revue style shows at county fairs, or tours with Waylon, Willie and Kris Kristofferson.
Cash couldn’t get arrested in Nashville throughout the late 80s, but he staunchly resisted being put out to pasture, and under the auspices of rock/rap producer Rick Rubin over the following decade, stripped his craft down to the bare bones on a series of stunning albums for the American Recordings label. While his would-be usurpers peddled a watered down Las Vegas pop simulacrum of hat-headed country, Cash was reinterpreting songs by Glen Danzig, Soundgarden, Depeche Mode, Beck, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Will Oldham and U2, for whom he gave probably the strangest performance of his career, cameo-ing as ‘The Wanderer’ among the shiny cityscapes of the 1993 Zooropa album.
But then, all throughout his career Cash refused to bend to country establishment strictures, introducing Bob Dylan, The Who and Neil Young to the heartlands on his late 60s TV special, and recording songs by the Rolling Stones (‘No Expectations’) and Bruce Springsteen (‘Highway Patrolman’). It’s become a cliché to note that Cash’s life and times were wild enough to make most of his rock n’ roll successors look like sissies – stints in the army, in jail, his struggles with pills and booze and the law – but long after he settled into the role of black clad alt-country patriarch, his outsider image remained. When he received a Grammy for the Unchained album, a notice appeared in the New York Times containing a thank you from Cash and Rubin to the Nashville establishment for their support. It was accompanied by a shot of the singer giving the finger to the camera.
As late as the recent South Bank Show special, Nick Cave recalled how, as a small boy, seeing Cash as a small boy on his ABC-TV television series gave him his first inkling that music could be evil. Cash had in fact prepared for his recording of Cave’s epic ‘The Mercy Seat’ on Solitary Man like a method actor, studying the lyrics and trying different approaches until he arrived at the optimum version, which remains one of the most quietly terrifying pieces of music of recent years.
But then all Cash’s songs were morality plays, ongoing struggles between destructive and devotional impulses, LOVE tattooed on the fingers of the right hand, HATE on the left. The excellent three album anthology God, Murder and Love released in 1999 and featuring sleeve-notes written by Bono, Quentin Tarantino and June Carter Cash, outlining the abiding themes of the man’s songs: prototype gangsta ballads like ‘Folsom City Blues’, with it’s now famous opening line “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” rubbed shoulders with Christian hymns and apocalyptic love songs like ‘Ring Of Fire’ (co-written by June, heir to the Carter dynasty, and the woman Cash credited with saving him from his own worst impulses.
Perhaps the main reason Cash’s passing, anticipated though it was, strikes such a severe sense of loss into the music community is because he was still producing powerful, moving records that told unflinchingly of what it’s like to stare death in the face. Like his Bob Dylan and Warren Zevon, he documented the body’s decay and the spirit’s will to survive that decay right up to the end, songs that wrestled with the black dog of depression (‘I See A Darkness’) or were troubled by dark, self-destructive urges (‘Hurt’). His passing leaves rock ‘n’ roll bereft of one of its founding fathers and its voice of moral – and sometimes immoral – authority.