- 12 Sep 23
On the 20th anniversary of Johnny Cash's death, we're revisiting our special Hot Press tribute to the Man in Black...
Originally published in Hot Press in 2003...
"Well, y’know… not too good.”
Billy Bob Thornton’s reply to the inquiry after Johnny Cash’s health was succinct enough as he sat in his Vicar St. dressing room some 18 months ago, but in his expression – part pained grimace, part philosophical shrug – was writ volumes of respect and regret. Cash had written a complimentary endorsement to go on the sleeve of Thornton’s album Private Radio; for the actor, writer and singer, and for scores of other disciples in new country, old country, alt-country, folk and rock ’n’ roll circles, there was palpable sorrow in the realisation that these were the twilight days of a patriarch.
So yes, there was an element of foregone conclusion about Cash’s death. He’d been in severe physical pain for years. His body was ravaged by decades of substance abuse, diabetes, and heart surgery. In 1999 he was misdiagnosed with a neurological disorder known as Shy-Drager syndrome, and subsequently had to wean himself off the medication. Pneumonia put him in a coma for eight days in October 2001. His eyesight was poor from glaucoma and his breath short from asthma. He was in constant discomfort from having his jaw broken during dental surgery; he refused surgery to correct it for fear it might endanger his singing career. He also refused painkillers, wary that it might cause him to relapse into drug addiction. The only time that pain faded was when he was onstage singing.
But following the passing of his wife and soulmate June Carter Cash last May, there was now pain in his soul, and anyone who knew anything about love and death would’ve predicted that he couldn’t last long. Although he kept busy recording spiritual and gospel songs with Rick Rubin, many close to him felt the heart had gone out of the man.
He died on Friday September 12 at the age of 71.
The Grand Canyon did not close up.
The sky didn’t turn black and the moon didn’t run red.
But nevertheless, as the week wore on, the sense of loss seemed to grow more acute and more widespread, from the cover of Time down to the hotpress message board, from CNN to local radio. John Kelly’s Mystery Train two-hour special, aired on the night of his death, received a record number of phone calls, e-mails and letters in response. Tributes poured in from everyone from Al Gore to Nick Cave, who issued a statement that said simply: “He had such a wealth of experience in his voice, heaven and hell, and no one could touch him. He was the real thing.”
A voice of gravity, weight and experience had been silenced. Many of us who grew up in the shadow of Cash as not just a singer but an icon out of a Western fable or a Bible yarn came to realise that he impacted on us in a way that was far more powerful than we might have imagined. It was not just that voice, or the songs, but his embodiment of something deep and contradictory and troubled and endlessly struggling about human nature. He was Johnny Cash the speed fiend and the Jesus freak. Johnny Cash the hallelujah shouter and the murder balladeer. The Johnny Cash who sang his heart out in church and broke the bones of his foot trying to kick out the door of his jail cell. Johnny Cash the badass old-timer who sang spirituals next to Soundgarden songs, whose voice of ingrained authority trembled with self-doubt.
That voice cut through the generations, from those who were weaned on the four horsemen of the rock ’n’ roll post war apocalypse to the show bands and country ‘n’ Irish combos who cranked out Cash and Carter family standards in the ballrooms, to the ’60s idealists who remembered seeing Bob Dylan and Neil Young and The Who on his TV series, to the punk kids reared on Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails, who recognised in him proof that fire and righteous anger don’t die with age.
At the MTV Music Video Awards a couple of weeks ago, where Cash was nominated in multiple categories for his ‘Hurt’ video, 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 his elder, recalling how his grandfather in Memphis, Tennessee raised him on the Man In Black’s records. In the week after his passing, producer Rick Rubin was so upset he did what Cash himself did following June’s death – he threw himself into the music, getting involved in some four or five separate projects. One of these, no doubt, will involve the sifting through the numerous recordings Cash made in his last months, making sense of his own history, even as that history was coming to an end.
Johnny Cash’s life story was one of hellfire and recovered grace, a tale cleaved by the lightning rod of a Baptist god, split into Old Testament ire and New Testament redemption. That story began in Cleveland County, Arkansas during the Depression. Cash often bristled at attempts to portray his story as rags to riches; his father Ray could always find work on the railroad or in the sawmills when the price of cotton dropped. When Cash was three, his father hired a pick-up and moved the family from Kingsland to Dyess as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal and there they farmed in a socialist co-op set up. Cash’s ear found solace in church gospel and the radio, while his beloved older brother Jack was fixing to become a preacher, but the young John was devastated when Jack died in an accident with a circular saw.
“He described heaven as he was dying,” Cash told Joe Jackson in 1991. “We were all there and he said, ‘Mama, listen to the angels. I’m going there, Mama. What a beautiful city. Hear the angels sing. I wish you could hear the angels singing.’ And then he died.”
Three years later, Cash saw Memphis radio personality Eddie Hill and the Louvin Brothers at the Dyess High School auditorium and it rekindled the fire that had lain dormant in him since his brother’s death. By the mid-’50s he’d enlisted in the army, married and was trying to break into radio broadcasting on his GI Bill. He auditioned for Sun Records founder Sam Phillips as a gospel singer, but Phillips was more interested in signing a rockabilly act to capitalise on the success of his other signing, Elvis Presley. Cash had a couple of tunes, including ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, which he’d written while in the army, plus ‘Cry, Cry, Cry’, sweated over to appease Phillips’ lust for more rock ‘n’ roll (the producer also convinced Cash to change his name from John to Johnny in order to appeal to high school kids). He hooked up with drummer Luther Perkins and bass-player Marshall Grant, and together the trio formulated the ‘boom-chikka-boom’ sound, a rough approximation of southern railroad rhythms. With that black, booming baritone over the top, and lines like “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”, Cash sounded like hell on wheels. By 1956, he was a star, having scored hits with tunes like ‘I Walk The Line’, ‘Big River’ and ‘Home Of The Blues’ and also written songs for Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley.
Within a couple of years, Cash had quit Sun following disputes with Phillips over money, and moved to Columbia, for whom he wrote more hits such as ‘Don’t Take Your Guns To Town’ and ‘The Ballad Of Johnny Yuma’. Throughout the early ’60s he also recorded a series of seminal concept albums – Ride This Train, Blood Sweat And Tears and True West – plus epic song stories like the seven-minute ‘Legend Of John Henry’s Hammer’, all of which were inspired by blues, field and chain gang recordings made by musicologists like Alan Lomax and predated the Civil Rights and folk movements. Cash played the first of his legendary San Quentin concerts in January 1960 – Merle Haggard was playing in the prison band at the time.
Cash was building a myth, but his family life was in tatters from incessant touring, drink and drug abuse. The singer took his first pill in 1957, like so many road musicians, to stay awake on long drives and get him through the next show. Benzedrine helped him overcome his shyness, but he found it harder and harder to come down after the crowds had gone home. Following a decade of smashed up hotel rooms, attempted drug store robberies and near-overdoses, he was forty pounds underweight, strung out and at the end of the line.
“I was striking out at myself and the deep-set resentment I felt because I was in that trap,” he told hotpress. “The end of the trail was death and it just sat there sneering at me and I smirked right back so many times during those years. I challenged death, duelled with it and I don’t know how in God’s name I kept it at bay.”
Cash was slung in jail for three days in El Paso in 1965 for attempting to smuggle Dexedrine and Equanine tablets into the US. His wife Viviene divorced him two years later. He was remarried the following year to Carter Family dynasty heir June who first heard Cash’s name a decade earlier when she eavesdropped on Elvis trying to imitate his singing backstage. Cash on the other hand, had grown up hearing June on the radio with her mother Maybelle and her sisters Helen and Anita. After they first met, she co-wrote ‘Ring Of Fire’ with Merle Kilgore, the apocalyptic paean to Cash that later became one of his signature tunes.
By the late ’60s, Johnny Cash’s TV special had made him a household name, and his association with Bob Dylan (they duetted on Nashville Skyline) ensured that his was a hip name to drop with the younger crowd. His version of Shel Silverstein’s ‘A Boy Named Sue’ and the Johnny Cash At San Quentin album were huge hits – the title song’s declaration of, “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.
Yet Cash was still struggling with his addiction. Over the next few years June helped wean him off the pills and the booze plus the tranquillizers and barbiturates he now used to come down from the amphetamines. He was going without food, sleep and rest, his whole body one big mess of muscle spasm and bone. After a particularly bad show in front of some 2,000 US soldiers he vowed to quit. At June’s suggestion, he began attending services with her at the First Baptist Church of Hendersonville, Tennessee. He stayed clean for the next eleven years, before a relapse into amphetamine, sleeping pill and percodan abuse on tour in Europe in the early ’80s culminated in one last clean up in the Betty Ford Clinic.
But if Cash at least partially regained his health, by the mid ’80s his career was going down the tubes. His revue style shows with June took flak for being overloaded with revivalist hokey, and many fans that’d been drawn to Cash’s wilder side found it hard to swallow the Rev. Billy Graham aspects of his act and the born again fervour of his 1975 autobiography.
After 28 years, Columbia dropped him in 1986. By that point his spirits had sunk so low he’d even begun sending himself up. His last recording for CBS was an exercise in taking the myth called ‘Chicken In Black’. He even made the label pay for a video shot in New York with himself dressed as a chicken. The Cash story may have entered its New Testament phase, but it also took the odd Monty Python & The Holy Grail turn.
“John Cash took me to his house in Nashville one time and showed me around his Zoo,” U2’s Bono told hotpress in 1993. “He’s driving me around saying, ‘We got zebras here and a cockatoo there,’ and we ended up chasing ostriches… Then he turned around and said, ‘I had an emu here but I had to get rid of it because the thing attacked me, broke two of my ribs and almost killed me. If I hadn’t had a stick in my hand to beat it back, I’d probably be dead right now.’ He was very serious about it all, speaking in that dark, deep voice of his, but I couldn’t help seeing the headlines: Johnny Cash Killed By Emu! The mind boggles!”
Then, just as Cash seemed resigned to being put out to pasture, left to tour the nostalgia circuit, he appeared on U2’s album Zooropa, cameo-ing in ‘The Wanderer’ as a sort of Biblical Burroughs figure wandering a post-industrial technological wasteland. This was a character seemingly descended from the paranoid loner struggling with his vows of fidelity on ‘I Walk The Line’.
“I think there’s another kinda darker element to ‘The Wanderer’ and Johnny went with it,” says U2’s The Edge. “Johnny sings from a very clear place, he was that character, that’s the powerful thing, he could sing those songs with such authority because he’d been that guy, he’d been through so many difficult times in his life, seeing the world from the gutter and from the penthouse and every stage in between, and you never felt that you were hearing anything other than what was just coming out of his soul. So this song was a bit of a jump for him, ’cos it was definitely kind of a character, but it was like a Tarantino version of Johnny almost, slightly caricature, but still he related a lot to the ideas and the colours in what we were working on.”
The song would serve as a portent of where Cash was headed; in 1993, he was contacted by a young man who would become a key figure in rehabilitating his career.
Rick Rubin was well established in rock and rap circles as one half of the Def Jam team who discovered hip-hop pioneers Run DMC, Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys, but he had also become a big money rock producer on the strength of his in-the-room and in-your-face production jobs for acts like The Cult and The Red Hot Chili Peppers (and latterly, System Of A Down and The Mars Volta). But crucially, Rubin also had a firm grasp of Americana by way of his association with The Jayhawks and Tom Petty.
When Cash met the younger man backstage in Los Angeles, he thought a partnership unlikely. Rubin, he would recall, looked like the ultimate hippie: wino’s clothes, bald on top with hair down to his shoulders, a bird’s nest beard. Plus, the singer had no interest in being repackaged as some sort of rock act. Despite Rubin’s knowledge of his work, his enthusiastic pitch and the fact that he reminded Cash a little of Sam Phillips, he thought nothing more would come of it. But Rubin was dogged about signing Cash to his American Recordings label, and when they met up again a few dates down the line he impressed upon the singer how deadly serious he was about producing him. He proposed that Cash record alone, just himself and his guitar, playing every song he’d ever wanted to put on tape, plus originals, plus a couple of Rubin’s own suggestions. This got Cash’s attention. He’d long coveted the opportunity to make such a record, but got short shrift from major label executives.
Cash went to Rubin’s house and recorded over a hundred songs, with no effects, no overdubs, not even a pick. The result, American Recordings, went on to win a Grammy for best contemporary folk album and re-introduced Cash to an audience who favoured combat boots and body piercings over rhinestones and sequins and who’d previously known him only as a shadowy image from their parents’ pasts.
The new material included songs by Tom Waits, Loudon Wainwright and Leonard Cohen. Cash had recorded songs by rock artists before (including the Rolling Stones’ ‘No Expectations’ and Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Johnny 99’ and ‘Highway Patrolman’) but their impact had been dissipated by somewhat staid arrangements.
American Recordings by contrast was astonishing in its sparseness and bleak power. There was ‘Delia’s Gone’, a brutal death ballad part derived from a levee camp holler (“First time I shot her/I shot her in the side/ Hard to watch her suffer/But with the second shot she died”), with echoes of the folk standard ‘Delia’ recorded by Bob Dylan on his similarly bare-boned album World Gone Wrong the same year. A video directed by Anton Corbijn featured Kate Moss as the murdered child bride, borne aloft by the towering Cash looking like something out of Bela Lugosi’s worst morphine dreams. The song proved remarkably in tune with the convulsive mood of the times. This was the era of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads, gangsta warfare, Kurt Cobain’s suicide and creeping millennial dread. A live performance of the tune on David Letterman’s show reduced even the host to something like stunned silence.
“To write it, I sent myself to the same mental place where I found ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and, being older and wiser to human depravity, picked up on some darker secrets than I’d seen in 1956,” Cash wrote in his second autobiography. “It turned out to be a pretty popular song with young audiences, though it made a lot of people uncomfortable. I got no big kick out of singing it, but it was one of those things I felt right about doing at the time, and it definitely had a place on an album whose scope was all about the music that had made me. Many of the biggest, most popular songs I grew up with, in country and folk and blues, were about crime and punishment, mayhem and madness, trouble and strife writ large and lurid.”
Then there was a chilling cover of hardcore metaller Glen Danzig’s ‘Thirteen’ a death’s head tattoo of a song that united several generations of bad-ass ballads, from hobo blues to metal posturing (Cash once attended a Metallica concert with his son John and pronounced it “spectacular”) to the Death Row label. Even better was a song that had been percolating in the imagination of British rocker Nick Lowe for some years. Lowe had once been married to Cash’s daughter Carlene, and the song, ‘The Beast In Me’, was tailor-cut for his ex father-in-law.
“Basically, I had the idea for that song in 1979 and sang it to Cash rather drunkenly one night,” Nick Lowe told Joe Jackson shortly after the release of American Recordings. “It was one of those songs where you have a great title and a great couple of lines and you’ve basically said everything and can’t get any further. So I tried to bluff Johnny Cash, sang a load of whole tosh for him. Yet he knew I was on to something, and every time I’d run into him over the intervening years he’d always say, ‘How are ya doing with ‘The Beast In Me’,’ and I’d think he was taking the piss out of me for being a bit drunk! But he was right about the idea for the song. But then he knew I was writing about him in the end and felt I articulated those tensions between different sides of his nature, the beast and the softer side.”
Cash and Rubin repeated the trick in 1998 with Unchained, featuring songs by Soundgarden (‘Rusty Cage’), Beck (‘Rowboat’) and the Louvin Brothers (‘Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea’), with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers acting as the backing band. When the record received a Grammy, a notice appeared in the New York Times containing a thank you from artist and producer to the Nashville establishment for their support. It was accompanied by a shot of Cash giving the finger to the camera.
In 2000, there came a timely reappraisal of the Johnny Cash canon with the release of the three-album anthology God, Love and Murder, featuring sleeve notes from Bono, June Carter and Quentin Tarantino. “Johnny Cash’s tales of hillbilly thug life go right to the heart of the American underclass,” the latter wrote. “…Cash’s songs, like the novels of Jim Thompson, are poems to the criminal mentality. I’ve often wondered if gangsta rappers know how little separates their tales of ghetto thug life from Johnny Cash’s tales of backwoods thug life. I don’t know, but what I do know is Johnny Cash knows.”
The third instalment of the American Recordings series, American 3: Solitary Man, also released in 2000, stands as probably the strongest of the lot. At the core of the record are three extraordinary performances. For U2’s ‘One’ he sifted through the multiple choices offered up by the ambiguities in the original and settled on interpreting it as a hymn to himself and June. Will Oldham’s ‘I See A Darkness’, with its author on backing vocals, was a spectral acknowledgement of the black dogs of depression and his own latent self-destructive impulses. And his reading of Nick Cave’s masterpiece of psychodrama ‘The Mercy Seat’ played like a musical companion to the last act of Dead Man Walking as imagined by Dostoevsky; a journey into the insomniac nightmare of a man on death row who, verse after verse, asserts his innocence through a fog of religious hallucinations until finally admitting his guilt.
Cave himself would show up on Cash’s next – and final – album The Man Comes Around, duetting on Hank Williams’ ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’. The fourth instalment of the American series was in many ways Johnny Cash’s most diverse record, cleaving to the traditional in its choice of love songs such as Ewan MacColl’s ‘First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, and ‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters’, but still, with Rubin’s encouragement, breaching territories that would’ve seemed unthinkable a decade before, versions of Depeche Mode’s ‘Personal Jesus’ and Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’.
But the album’s fiercest statement came from Cash’s own pen, another nightmare, this one gleaned from the last volume of the book that inspired him as a boy and saved him as a man – the Revelations to John on Patmos. In ‘The Man Comes Around’, Cash mustered his failing strength in order to finish a song that took longer to write than any other in his life, whittling down dozens of pages of lyrics until every line was loaded with arcane symbolism. As Cash explained in the sleeve notes, the trigger idea came from a dream he had while in Nottingham, England some seven years before, in which the Queen hailed him with the line, “You’re Johnny Cash! You’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind.” Cash awoke with the phrase ringing in his head, and eventually traced it to the book of Job. From there he began lifting images from Revelations. The result was a fevered boiling down of the many strange, bizarre, violent and horrifying images from a book that has fascinated and mystified theologians, numerologists, serial killers and scholars for the last two millennia. Cash meets it head-on on a railroad rhythm, his stance confrontational, righteous, knowing, cautionary and fearless.
To the end, he was still kicking against the pricks, still producing powerful and moving records that told unflinchingly of what it’s like to stare death in the face. His passing left popular music, the people’s music, bereft of one of its founding fathers and its voice of moral – and sometimes immoral – authority.
- 15 Oct 21