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Johnny Cash: Johnny, I Hardly Knew You

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He’d always been there: a brooding presence emanating from radios and televisions that bore witness to all the evil that people could do to each other. Even when he was a younger man, you swore he’d lived hundreds of years already. The black hair couldn’t belie the creases and lines on the face or the voice scraped raw from screaming in the night.

Yet, I look at pictures of him in the last years of his life; the hair had gone white, his hands were gnarled and twisted by age as if he’d become a grand old oak tree that weathered many a storm, and the years had been stripped away. If some of us are born young to age and gradually be beaten down by the world, he was born old to learn innocence and to find his way home.

“He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction/Taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.” Kris Kristofferson The Pilgrim (Chapter 33), 1970

In the long list of people who Kris claimed to have written the song for, his old mentor’s name is listed as one amongst many, but I’ve always felt the rest were there as camouflage disguising the song’s sole subject, and his isolation. In one of those great ironies that life plays, the cultivated image of the lone gunslinger dressed in black only served to hide the true nature of his lonely walk.

Johnny Cash’s black clad figure has been as much a symbol of rugged American individualism as any other man in the last hundred years. Unlike other figures that have let their image be co-opted for various political movements or philosophies, he was never brought into any fold.

The music establishment in Nashville wanted nothing to do with him, but couldn’t ignore the fact that he appealed to more people around the world than any of their other acts combined. They would try to claim him as one of their own, but it’s hard to do that when you stretch out one hand in welcome and are using the other to try and shove somebody under the carpet.

I have often wondered what they used to say behind June Carter’s back (Johnny’s soul mate, and on again off again wife) about her relationship with Johnny. I doubt if anybody would have dared say anything to her face, but I’m sure there were things said along the lines of “How could a girl from such a good family…” or “He’s only with her because of who she is.”

June was the hand that reached out and brought Johnny back to safety when he was drowning in a sea of drugs and fame. But even she wasn’t enough to keep all his demons at bay. Finding solace in drugs isn’t a solution to anything, but when you feel like you have nothing else, it’s an easy out.

I wouldn’t presume to assume I know what demons possessed him; it’s none of my business anyway. But I know that when I look at photos from certain points in his life the smiles seem to be hiding desperation. The unguarded pictures, the ones not posed or planned, transmit heartbreaking pain. Fatigue that goes beyond the physical emanates from every line etched on his face and tells more of his life’s story than any biography ever could.

I’m not a Christian, and normally when people talk about their relationship with Christ and the Christian God, it makes me nervous. Too many of them make it sound like a threat. If you don’t do like I do, you’re toast. But when Johnny talked of Redemption, you understood what he meant and you knew he was sincere.

He never talked about it like it was a treat that could be taken away from you if you didn’t behave, or that it was only available if you sent in your box tops and twenty-five dollars. Not only was he seeking to redeem himself in the eyes of his God, he seemed to spend his whole live trying to redeem himself to the man who looked out at him from the mirror everyday.

You also knew that the only person that Johnny would ever sit in judgement on would be himself. (Well maybe the country music establishment in Nashville) I can’t see him being self-righteous or holier than thou. His faith gave him strength and offered him a way home. Peace for a troubled mind is sometimes salvation enough that the additional promise about saving your immortal soul isn’t necessary.

When Johnny sang a gospel song, I always felt like I was intruding upon a personal conversation, eavesdropping on a man’s personal prayer. He wasn’t singing to impress anyone or to convert them. He was genuinely giving thanks.

I never met Johnny Cash; I only listened to his music and watched him on television a few times. Most of the time all I ever would see of him was the carefully presented image of “The Man In Black”. It’s only been in recent years, the almost three since his death on Sept. 12, 2003, and the couple of years before that when he was recording those last amazing records with Rick Rubin, that I began thinking about who he was beyond that cut out figure of the lone gunman.

It’s truly amazing how, just because someone is a public figure, we think we know them. We refer to them by their first names when we either talk about or write about them, and we make casual assumptions about what their opinions on matters would be. We act like we have an intimate association; even though it’s more than likely we’ve never even met them or exchanged a single word of conversation

No human being is so one dimensional that we can claim to “know” them just by what is presented as their public face. We can know facts and tidbits of information that will allow us to draw conclusions, conclusions that stand as much chance of being wrong as right, but nothing that justifies our proprietary attitude towards them.

On very rare occasions a musician comes along who lets pieces of his or her soul come through in their performances or their lyrics and like vampires we suck what ever nourishment we can get from them until they are bled dry. But even then, we aren’t privy to their innermost thoughts and dreams.

Johnny Cash was one of those who bared quite a bit of his soul through performance, song writing, and his willingness to talk about himself and his life with a great deal of honesty. But last night, as I listened to The Man Comes Around, one of those discs recorded in the last years of his life, for the first time, I realized that for all my familiarity with his work, that I hardly knew him.

I’m not usually one for caring overly much about the famous and their lives, but for some reason I felt a surge of regret over my lack of knowledge. Part of that stems from fascination, but part of me also feels as if it were owed him in return for giving so much of himself to the world. Maybe if we hadn’t been so ready to idolize the hard living, rugged individual image that the record companies sold us, we would have seen the pain that it was masking.

Would that have made any difference in his life? I don’t know, perhaps not. What I do know is, that very few people probably knew him as well as he deserved. We all enjoyed the “Man In Black” persona too much to want to know about anything else. Even the drug addictions and fallings out with his wife were considered only in terms of how they fit that image.

He was cool and tough and sang songs about prison. He was an Outlaw and a man’s man and no one wanted to know anything different. Looking back now, I think it can be safely said, Johnny we hardly knew you. That’s a real pity.

Johnny Cash was born on February 26th, 1932 and died September 12, 2003. His wife of thirty-five years, June Carter-Cash preceded him the previous May. I hope that somewhere, somehow they are together and at peace. They deserve it.

* Painting by Michael Aldana Creative Commons copyright “Johnny Cash Is Dead”

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Scott Butki

    Wonderful piece, Gypsyman. I too wish I learned about Cash earlier in life.
    I only gained appreciation for him in recent years.
    I recently watched a bunch of his concerts and reviewed them here.

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    Outstanding work, G-man. But don’t forget June. A lot of her classic vintage stuff was out of print, but since the release of the Sunny Side collection last year I’ve been listening to more June than Johnny. She’s something of an undiscovered continent.

  • Jeff

    I was country before country was ever cool.

    Your riding the wave. FO

  • http://blogs.epicindia.com/leapinthedark gypsyman

    Why Thanks Al and Scott, and no I havn’t forgotten June, but she would be a separate chapter onto herself. The family, the history, everything about her, an amazing woman. Did you ever see the movie The Apostle with Robert Duval, where she played his mother? She was wonderful.

    Jeff I don’t know what your problem is, I just feel sorry for you. The great think about Country music is it’s never been cool and never will be. It’s real, which was the point of the whole piece.

    gypsyman

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    There can never be enough promotion about the The Man in Black. It’s too bad he didn’t receive all the attention he was due while he was alive, and I don’t mean that as a slight against this author.

    I too am not a Chrisitian, but am able to understand and appreciate Cash’s relationship with the Lord through his songs. It brought him solace and joy and no one can quibble with that.

    One question, why do you call June his “on again off again wife”? Not to say it’s inaccurate, but I thought they had a stable relationship.

  • http://blogs.epicindia.com/leapinthedark gypsyman

    El Bicho, I’ve always been under the impression there were times in their relationship when they were separated. For some reason I had even got it into my head that at one time they had divorced and gotten remarried, but that’s wrong. I kow they loved each other dearly, but there are time when that won’t be enough to keep you together.

    I could be thinking of times before they were married, so if anyone is able to clear that up for me and El Bicho that would be great. I figured Al would have jumped on it if it were wrong.

    gypsyman

  • Vern Halen

    What’s this country is/isn’t cool stuff? Are you referring to the current blues/pop with fiddles that passes for country on the video channels? Or that which has recent been labelled “old time music” or “alt country?” All of which have their share of briliance & dreck, just like all the other genres of music out there.

    The great thing about Johnny Cash is that he was a songwriter, and knew that when you choose to do a cover, you have to make it your own. His interpretation of the Trent Reznor song is the most obvious example, but JC has been interpreting chioce covers for years. For instance, his version of Springsteen’s Highway Patrolman gives a whole different spin on the tale of brotherhood, love, justice, and making the hard choices.

    As to being country before it was cool? I’ll beat that – country was already in me before I even knew it was. Cool.

  • Molly

    I have heard that in New York, they don’t have a country music station.

  • cgirl

    You’re so wrong about “on again, off again wife”. June Carter was John Cash’s soulmate; he was true to her and she to him. They were each other’s greatest admirer. Please get this right as no one meant as much to him as June, with the exception of his children.

  • http://blogs.epicindia.com/leapinthedark gypsyman

    cgirl,

    Are you a 100% on that? I don’t mean to be doubting, and I don’t deny that they were soulmates, I did say so in the article, but I could have sworn that they had periods of separation in their relationship, when Johnny had backslid and starting using drugs again after their marriage, and she refused to live with him. Like I said this piece was just based on my impressions and limited knowledge of the man, which is why I asked for corrections.

    So thank you, if anyone else knows anything, or would even like to add their impressions of the man, I’d really like to hear from you in this comments section.

    I know the time for memorials is long gone, but with the movie and all, I’d like to know as much as possible about the man behind the myth. My wife and I just watched the video for “Hurt” for the first time last night, scary and painful stuff. So very real as well, no tough guy cowboy or any of that macho stuff.

    Brilliant!

    gypsyman

  • Willbert

    Who’s Johnny Cash?

  • Scott Butki

    Wikipedia has a good bio of him but it doesn’tdirectly answer your question about June.
    One interesting factoid from it:
    “As his career was taking off in the early 1960s, Cash began drinking heavily and became addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates. Friends joked about his “nervousness” and erratic behavior, many ignoring the signs of his worsening drug addiction. For a brief time, Cash shared an apartment in Nashville with Waylon Jennings, who was also heavily addicted to amphetamines (speed). Although in many ways spiraling out of control, his frenetic creativity was still delivering hits. His song “Ring of Fire” was a major crossover hit, reaching No. 1 on the country charts and entering the Top 20 on the pop charts. The song was co-written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore and originally performed by Carter’s sister, but the signature mariachi-style horn arrangement was conceived by Cash, who claimed to have heard it in a dream. The song, written about Cash, describes the personal hell Carter went through as she wrestled with her forbidden love for Cash (they were both married to other people at the time) and as she dealt with Cash’s personal “ring of fire” (drug dependency and alcoholism.)”

  • Jeff

    You don’t have to feel sorry for me Gypsymon.

    But Cash was just about as old as dirt, came up with Jones, Jennings, Haggard, Owens and all those folks. Why does it take Hollywood and a media blitz to suddenly without warning grab reinvent and morph someone with Cash’s reputation and turn in into a piece of haute culture?

    You’re riding the wave… with the movie and the slick PR you wouldn’t even be writing this piece, probably wouldn’t even hum a Cash tune as you milked your cows. The opportunity presented itself and your juices flowed.

    While I appreciate the [Deleted] attempt to degrade my point of view, it has no effect.

  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    Jeff, i can understand where you’re coming from, but in this case it’s far from justified. Gypsyman, this was a brilliant piece. “he was born old to learn innocence and to find his way home.” that’s stunning, right there.

    As far as political shenanigans, i don’t think it’s totally accurate to say he wasn’t involved. His conscious-raising efforts regarding Native Americans, in particular, springs to mind. Bitter Tears is nothing if not a political record, and a brilliant, angry one at that.

    it is all too true that myth swallows the far more compelling truth of the case. The Outlaw, it’s fun, as you say. Like with Waylon Jennings, we buy into this notion at the expense of what’s really goin’ on behind that sneer. With some folks there’s NOTHIN goin’ on, but with Johnny Cash, the Man In Black was a fairly shallow veil (a long black number, perhaps) over a beautiful, sincere individual.

    Again, great piece. Loads to think about, with regards your words up yonder.

  • Scott Butki

    Heck, listen to the song where he explains why he is the man in black – it’s sort of like Tom Joad,
    as long as there is suffering he’ll wear black.
    That in itself is a cool political statement.

    There were many fans of Cash who loved him way before the movie and his covers of artists came along and I’m one of them.

    I was late to country – maybe 10 years ago- but one guy I always really liked and even bought his autobiography was Johnny Cash.

    And it’s funny- when I talk to people and they ask
    if I like country I’ll say not really except
    for like Johnny Cash and Steve Earle.
    And the people will amend their “I don’t like country” comments to include those two exceptions.

  • Scott Butki

    I’m linking to your piece for a music list I’m making. I’ll also elaborate in it about the “man in black” comment I made above.

  • http://blogs.epicindia.com/leapinthedark gypsyman

    Duke and Scott, thank you for filling in more holes for me about Johnny. I’d forgotten that quote about wearing black,Scott and you’re right that is a political statement if I’ve ever heard one.

    Duke, I’ll have to find Bitter Tears, I don’t know it and that sounds like a big hole right there..

    I get where Jeff is coming from too, but he’s misfired here. I may not be a big country fan, at least if you define it by the anti-Hank in the guise of a musician that is Garth Brooks, but I’ve been listening to Hank,Willie, Kris, Waylon, Johnny, George Jones, and others for more of my 45 years than any other music.

    Hell I even shot a movie with Kris, it was a piece of shit starring him and Cheryl Ladd called Millenium, which probably ended up straight to video, and me on the cutting room floor. Never had the courage to see it.

    gypsyman

  • Scott Butki

    Shot a movie with Kris? Are you an actor? Porn star?

  • http://blogs.epicindia.com/leapinthedark Richard Marcus

    Nah I stoped acting about sixteen years agos. It only took me ten years to figure out I wasn’t ever going to do more than scrape by, getting bit parts in bad movies, and starving doing stage work. Ironic thing was that I moved away from Toronto in 1990 just as the film boom was starting to take off and before the explosion really hit.

    If I had hung on for a couple more years…? ah well such is the stuff of life…

    Oh Scott I’ve been looking for that music list, has it been posted at B.C. I was just thinking I can link to it from my site’s version of this post.

    Richard Marcus

  • http://Matdikim mATT cONLEY

    YOU HIT THE MARK. GREAT PIECE.
    I MET HIM.HE STUCK OUT HIS HAND AN SAID ,
    “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
    He performed on a TV SDpecial I did. He had presence and great kindness to all. and when he sang the worl stopped for awhile.
    “Johnny, we knew ya”

  • Scott Butki

    Matt, I’m jealous.
    Richard, it’s this piece here