Other singers from the sixties seemed like kids, but Johnny Cash seemed all grown up. Other singers put on a ‘show’, but Johnny Cash onstage was Johnny Cash off. Other singers lost their identity through the maze of the music business, but Johnny Cash gained his identity through the same process. Few figures in American music managed to be so true to themselves for so long as Johnny Cash did.
Everything Cash was was on the stage for people to see: the humor, the menace, the pain, the fear, the fun. So many artists present an airbrushed image onstage that seem completely at odds with the human being beneath. There is simply no way that Bruce Springsteen or David Bowie is the same person offstage as when either is on. But Cash simply presented as he was. He put two feet on the ground and dared you not to like it.
Even if all those working class songs were a posture - no music star can understand what it means to be blue-collar - he spoke for those who were. He realized the fakery around him, and used it to the advantage of people of his origins, who were in no position to fake the fact that life hadn't dealt them a bitter, bitter hand. He was like the 40-year-old who’s been married twice, never went to college and pays child support, but goes on the weekend to his half-brother’s frat parties, drinks everybody under the table and goes home every weekend with the prettiest sorority sister at the party. Deprived of his virility in old age, forced to sit at home and contemplate his life; clearly depressed by its wreckage, and as usual, letting it all hang out for people to see. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards put on the same show they put on forty years ago, and as a result their music is still frozen in 1972. Cash was one of the rare singers influenced by rock who had the integrity to get old. And because of that he may have done his very greatest work at the end of his life.
Cash’s Indian Summer was all the more remarkable because like so many artists he seemed earmarked for a flameout. With Cash, the problem was not simply drugs or women, his lack of self-discipline carried from life to music. A Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen can sustain a steady stream of great work from the beginning of their careers to end. Their greatness is poured out on the page, and what we see on the stage is a poor shadow of the greatness you can bring yourself to their music with friends at a campfire. Never so with Cash, whose appeal was so bundled up in the vulnerability of his public self that without his delivery, so much of the music he sings would seem second-rate. Much of it is not even by Johnny Cash, or even Cash’s personal songwriters. And few great artists ever churned out as much rubbish as Cash did. Yet Cash’s entire self-image was built on being a survivor, and few went through more of the horrific paces it takes to earn survivor status than he. Furthermore, the more trash he made, the more determined he became when given the opportunities for greatness. He is one of the rare cases in which the bad moments seem to make his great moments greater.
It took guidance from the unlikeliest of sources to transform Johnny Cash from an artist with greatness into a Great Artist. Before their American Record collaborations, Rick Rubin was a producer of Hip-Hop and Heavy Metal, probably best known for collaborating with LL Cool J, The Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. Yet maybe it wasn’t so unlikely. Rubin provided guidance in two genres where artists are notorious both for macho behavior and lack of discipline. He honed the inspiration of talented but lost musicians and gave them the framework they needed for their talents to flourish.
And so for ten years, Rick Rubin would record Johnny Cash from Cash’s home. They would record simple songs in simple arrangements with simple appeal. Many of the songs would be well-known, and Johnny Cash would sing them more movingly than anyone had ever heard them sung. The rest would be written specifically for Cash that would feature him in the best possible light. It transformed Johnny Cash from a sixties semi-rock star to one of the Post-WWII crooners of his youth. But it would hardly have been appropriate for Cash to sing the youthful romantic songs which you found in Frank Sinatra recordings until Frankie’s death. Cash became a crooner who sang about loss, ageing, pain and love. He became a true artist in a way the 40’s crooners neither aspired to be nor were.
The result was one of music’s great tragic statements. Over the span of six (though maybe seven, or eight?) albums, we listen to a man gradually prepare to die. He contemplates life, regrets, afterlife and love.
It begins with American Records. This is hardly a death album, but it is most certainly a summation of life; mostly in its sour moments. The third track, “The Beast in Me” by Nick Lowe, gives us a new Cash - vulnerable on a whole new level. Just Cash and a guitar, in which Cash declares “The beast in me has learned to live with pain/And how to shelter from the rain. And in the twinkling of an eye/Might have to be restrained. God help the beast in me.” It is already one of the most shockingly frank portrayals of regret in music. But three songs later we get “Thirteen” by Glenn Danzig in which he declares “ Got a long line of heartache/I carry it well. The list of lives I’ve broken reach from here to hell.” The earlier Cash seemed like one of the most dangerous presences on the stage, but try to imagine such introspection from similarly dangerous stage animals like James Brown or Elvis.
And then comes two songs that are less songs than prayers for forgiveness. First, “Oh Bury Me Not,” a traditional folk prayer collected by Alan Lomax which Cash declaims rather than sings. “Let me be easy on the man that’s down. Let me be square and generous with all. I’m careless sometimes, Lord, when I’m in town. But never let them say I’m mean or small.” Then comes Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire.” “Like a baby, stillborn/Like a beast with his horn/I have torn everyone who reached out to me./But I swear by this song/And by all I have done wrong/I will make it all up to thee.” The first was a prayer to God, the second, a prayer to love.
American II, Unchained, is the weak link of the series. Rubin brought in Tom Petty and the Heart Breakers to back up Cash. But the band simply cannot adjust itself credibly to Cash’s vulnerability. Cash brings an incredible intimacy to songs like “Spiritual” and “Meet Me in Heaven”, but the country/bluegrass cliches which accompany him keep the album more earthbound than it ever should have been.
It is in American III, Solitary Man, that Cash takes the bold step which leads him from promise to the promised land. He is audibly beginning a physical decline. But Cash, his voice weakened, his diction imprecise, is captured doing the one thing which no other rock artist has yet done. Be old.
Time after time, Cash endows all sorts of famous songs with far more weight than the originals ever did. When Tom Petty sang “I Won’t Back Down”, it was in response to the difficulties life throws at us. When Johnny Cash sings “I Won’t Back Down”, it is against life’s ultimate difficulty. When U2 sings “One”, it’s Bono’s usual ersatz statements about healing the world. When Cash sings it, it’s feels as though it’s about the wisdom acquired after a lifetime of hardship. When Cash sings ‘Nobody’, a song by 19th century singer Egbert Williams about the loneliness of being a person at the bottom of society, Cash turns it into a song about the loneliness of being at the top.
But the masterstroke of American III is in Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat.” Cave’s original is pure punk-psychadelia. It presents us with the bad-trip experience of being executed. Berlioz got there 165 years earlier. As rock’s patron saint of prisoners, Johnny Cash is the perfect person to transform this song. And the lyrics are eminently transformable. “I began to warm and chill to objects and their feels/A ragged cup, a twisted mop/The face of Jesus in my soup/Those sinister dinner deals.” In Cash’s version, it becomes the Death Row to which we all are sentenced. It could as easily be a painful death as experienced in a hospital bed as in an electric chair. What is meant to be macabre in Nick Cave’s version beomes bitterly, bitterly tragic. It is perhaps all the more horrifying for being so much truer to life’s experience. Personally, I picture the singer sitting in a hospital bed, watching and feeling himself die. It is one of the most lacerating songs ever recorded, made all the more unbearable because of its perfect arrangement with bass guitar, organ, hammer dulcimer and piano all together. The song is one of music’s great moments. And prepares us for the hour-long trip into the agonized wrestling with death which is American IV.
By the time of American IV, The Man Comes Around, Cash’s aim for something larger than life is immovable. We are now subject to an hour of wrestling with death from which there is no relief.
It starts with the title track: "The Man Comes Around." Much of Cash’s less compelling work, like so many pop artists, has to do with his religion. It’s impossible for those of us who don’t believe with his fervor or in his religion to relate to all the prattling on about Jesus. But this song, with its Book-of-Revelation and revelation-like incantations, and its refusal to use religion for comfort, is something else entirely. There is no consolation, no hope, only awe. This is the kind of uncompromising music which can inspire a true religious experience - a song of a man resigned to the afterlife, come what may. There is no pleading for forgiveness: "Whoever is unjust, let him be unjust still/Whoever is righteous, let him be righteous still/Whoever is filthy, let him be filthy still/Listen to the words long written down/When the Man comes around.” Cash is no longer addressing the merciful God of the Gospels. This is the angry, retributive God of Revelations and the Old Testament.
When we hear: “The needle tears a whole/the old familiar sting.” The Mercy Seat prepares us for what’s coming. We are faced with a piece of industrial rock, once again psychedelic in intent but far more dignified even in Nine Inch Nails’s original than Nick Cave’s original was. When Trent Reznor sang "Hurt", it was clearly about being in the throes of heroin addiction. If Johnny Cash had sung it fifteen years previously, it would probably have been about heroin. But a year before his death, what could it possibly be but an iv-needle? This is now a song about the indignities of ageing. When Trent Reznor sings “Everyone I know, goes away in the end.” sounds as though it speaks of the painful transience of friendship with addicts, or even about the ability of drugs to clear one's mind. When Cash sings it, it is about nothing less than the inevitability of death. The video which accompanied this cover made this Cash’s swansong to the music public (and the anthem of my friends’ college years). But this song is hardly a swansong. It is a song full of a white-lipped, youthful anger.
Cash’s cover of “A Bridge Over Troubled Water” would absolutely be preferable to Art Garfunkel’s original of this song if not for Fiona Apple’s slightly tacky sing-along. When Simon and Garfunkel recorded it, it seemed to be about simple friendship. But it takes on an extraordinarily different quality if one views it in a different light. This is, perhaps, the message every dying person wants to give to those they love when they go. And more than anything, the message every parent wants to give their child when the time comes. When one realizes that the song which precedes it is "Give My Love to Rose" - perhaps meaning his famous daughter, Rosanne Cash, the potential for it to be moving becomes that much more.
When Cash sings “I Hung my Head” by Sting, I find it extremely moving and I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it’s the arrangement, perhaps it’s the somber mood of the other songs, but I think this song taps a reservoir of guilt which no other song in the series can tap, not even The Beast in Me. This song could easily be viewed as yet another of those Johnny Cash pretends he’s on Death Row songs. But like all addicts, Cash must deal with the guilt of lives wrecked: not just one’s own but the lives of others. The understated dignity of Cash's delivery lets you read whatever emotions into the song you wish. But I can’t get around the thought that this is a song about terrible guilt. The trial is always being conducted by those whom we love and who love us.
But for me the emotional core, not just of the album but of the entire project, is what follows. “The First Time I Saw Your Face” by Ewan MacColl is delivered as though in a dream state, just guitar, cello and sustained organ chords. It is not a song as such, it sounds like a narration with melody. It is as though we are seeing glimpse of heaven. It’s probably meant to be addressed to his recently departed wife, June Carter Cash, but maybe it is about entering heaven and seeing the face of God. There is no way of knowing. It is no exaggeration to say that this is one of music’s great moments.
A bit later, we treated to a weird light-and-dark experiment. First comes The Beatles’ “In My Life.: And once again, the cover supersedes the original. When The Beatles sang it, it was a light-hearted, somewhat sentimental ballad. Even if they never meant it that way, The Beatles couldn’t help if the song is interpreted as nothing deeper than ‘you see people? success hasn’t spoiled us,’ when it soon became abundantly clear that success did precisely that to them. But how much more does this song mean when sung by a singer who publicly wrestled with so many demons and can still look back on his life with affirmation and joy?
But then comes “Sam Hall” by Tex Ritter, and we encounter a tone that is the complete opposite. Here we have a flash of the macho, defiant Cash of yore. ‘I hate you one and all/I hate you one and all/Damn Your Eyes!’ It is as though we are watching the singer feel, as we all often do in our lives, reproachful of the softness and vulnerability we felt just a moment earlier and that much more desperate to banish fearful thoughts.
Yet the Cash’s most vulnerable moment is yet to come. He had recorded Danny Boy once before. But this is my favorite of all the covers on this album. Just a great singer, a solemn organ and an eternal song. The simplest of all the songs on this album, and second only to “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” in its ability to move us. Danny Boy's original appeal lies in that it is a parent addressing a son who goes off to war. People have found Danny Boy a heartbreaking song for a hundred years because the parent is assuring the child that it is the parent that will soon be dead, not the son. But neither the parent nor the son has any way of knowing. Therefore we must, in part, read the song as a bargain with God or fate, to offer the parent's life in exchange for the child's. In Cash's life, there was no such bargain to be made, because his fate was already sealed. He could only hope that others would keep going and live lives full of happiness.
The album ends with another unsurpassed cover, this time of a British music hall standard. No doubt, Vera Lynn’s original of “We’ll Meet Again” is great, particularly when accompanied by footage of nuclear explosions in Dr. Strangelove. Though written for a light musical film, it became an anthem of wartime Britain as a song displaying resolve in the face of battle. But when Cash sings it, it is an expression both of Christian faith and of ambivalence. ‘Don’t know where, don’t know when.” Heaven or hell? In the Resurrection or when we’re cloned? We simply don’t know.
American IV, The Man Comes Around is one of music’s great statements about death. It is not an acceptance of the inevitable but a haunted, wrenching struggle with it. We listen to a man wrestle with the demons dying brings out in everyone, and the singer only resolves his doubts by asking still more questions. The classical music lover in me is put in mind of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony: a similar mud-wrestle with death which ends with far more questions than answers.
But if we experienced a struggling soul in American IV, then American V, A Hundred Highways, gives us a picture of a serene man who smiles at his situation, come what may - more Mozart’s last year than Mahler’s. This is a man who has received one last burst of energy, and is determined to use it. Robert Christgau referred to this album, not quite fairly, as “Dead Man Singing.” This album is, in fact, full of life. The traditional hymn, “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” has enough energy to be a gospel setting in a Baptist Church (black or white). But a surprising number of many of these songs are about love. We get an old man’s folly in love with Gordon Lightfoot's “If You Could Read My Mind.” The original is probably about a breakup, but in Cash’s voice it could be anything from impotence to a story of two old lovers (and there were many to whom it could have been addressed). We have “A Legend in My Time”, which was written for Roy Orbison. Contrary to the title, it’s not about fame. It’s a song about the heartache of love. “If they gave gold statuettes for tears and regrets/I’d be a legend in my time/But they don’t give awards and there’s no praise or fame/For hearts that are broken for love that’s in vain.” We even have an old Sinatra song, “Love’s Been Good to Me.”
But then there is American VI, Ain’t No Grave. If America IV was the anguished coming to terms with the end of Mahler. If America V was the playful thankfulness of Mozart. America VI is the matter-of-faith certainties of Bach. A grim darkness descends upon this music, and the grimness gives us hope, as though we are experiencing a higher form of happiness - happiness on a plain that we first heard at the beginning of American IV. Just as American IV seems to grow out of the germ of “The Mercy Seat,” American VI seems to grow out of the germ of “The Man Comes Around.” We have listened to Johnny Cash prepare to die through the finest of increments, and we now hear him firmly concentrated on the beyond, singing in a manner that reminds us of the Old Testament prophets.
The title track, “Ain’t No Grave”, begins the final journey. It’s a song written by Claude Ely, who was not only a musician but a Pentecostal healer. This is a religious song with the incantations of the deep south surrounding it: “Well, look way down the river, what do you think I see?/I see a band of angels and they’re coming after me/Ain’t no grave can hold my body down."
By American VI, Cash has confronted his demons and now looks to the suffering of others. “Redemption Day” by Sheryl Crow is a plea for understanding. In Cash’s voice, it becomes a prayer. A lifetime’s worth of experience and suffering makes it that much more meaningful when somebody turns his thoughts to the suffering of others. It begins “I’ve wept for those who’ve suffered long/But how I weep for those who’ve gone/In rooms of grief and questioned wrong/But keep on killing.” It’s another way of saying Auden’s famous lines from September 1st, 1939: “Those unto whom evil is done, do evil in return...we must love one another, or die.”
It’s that spirit that makes “A Satisfied Mind”, “It Don’t Hurt Anymore” and “Cool Water” so....peaceful. Just as Cash dies, we see the birth of a new singer. The serenity for which he searched so long comes to him just as he is dying. So many artists, from Verdi to Rembrandt to Welles seem to find an entirely new style in their final works. A lifetime of trodding the same path lets a great artist master his material, and once that artist achieves mastery, he can turn it to completely different things than he ever dreamed of making.
Aloha Oe, or “Farewell to Thee” is the unofficial anthem of Hawaii. You've heard it a million times, even if you don't realize it. And thus far, it has a still greater claim to fame, as it appears for the moment to be Johnny Cash’s true swansong. Cash, his voice barely able to carry the tune, lightly brushes the notes. Like “We’ll Meet Again”, it is a song that might express a Christian message (“Until we meet again...), but we’ll never know. All that we know is that the Johnny Cash of this album has made peace with himself, and has never seemed as in love with life as he does in the months before it ends.
There are even rumors of an American VII album. Not for nothing was there a Saturday NIght Live skit with Horatio Sanz playing Johnny Cash recording albums from beyond the grave. I’d like to think that Rick Rubin is pointing a microphone at Cash’s cemetery plot with some studio musicians standing over it while Cash sings from below the ground.
The accomplishment of those final years was monumental. Johnny Cash was the first singer even remotely influenced by rock to take us through the whole process of ageing, decline and death. Other musicians are hitting 70 and still putting on the same show as they did when they were in their twenties. It might do something for nostalgia’s sake, but it does nothing for art. Only an artist who not only was true to life, true to his music and true to himself could have done this, but also experienced enormous failure, frustration and pain all throughout his life, and the fierce integrity it takes to let us see it all.