Cash

cash_johnny_essentialFROM THE PLAYBACK:stl ARCHIVE: Now, on the eve not only of the first anniversary of Cash’s death but also of a Sotheby’s auction of property from his and June Carter Cash’s estate—in New York this September 14 through 16, the gavel will fall on 773 lots ranging from a pair of Carter Cash’s girlhood shoes (Lot #1) to an unthinkably white tuxedo of Cash’s (Lot #611) to a pair of harmonicas the Man in Black used in Boston on his last concert tour (Lot #747)—my thoughts perforce have turned once more to a topic they’ve avoided for a year.

 

 

 

It seems unthinkable that roughly a year has passed since an ex-lover left her condolences in my T-Mobile voice mailbox at 6:34 a.m. on Friday, September 12, 2003. By that time, of course, as I waged my daily battle with the treadmill at the Clayton Bally Total Fitness, CNN had already relayed the news:

Johnny Cash was dead.

“I love you,” over time, has come to enjoy a reputation as the most difficult declaration in the English language, yet rivaling it in emotional resonance, with one less syllable, is another phrase entirely: “Good-bye.” Although Cash’s death came as no surprise, I’d not felt such music-related woe since December 8, 1980, the day rock ’n’ roll assassinated John Lennon. (Those who would protest that a lunatic “merely” murdered Lennon are in all likelihood reading not just the wrong column but the wrong columnist.)

Now, on the eve not only of the first anniversary of Cash’s death but also of a Sotheby’s auction of property from his and June Carter Cash’s estate—in New York this September 14 through 16, the gavel will fall on 773 lots ranging from a pair of Carter Cash’s girlhood shoes (Lot #1) to an unthinkably white tuxedo of Cash’s (Lot #611) to a pair of harmonicas the Man in Black used in Boston on his last concert tour (Lot #747)—my thoughts perforce have turned once more to a topic they’ve avoided for a year. They have done so perhaps inadvisably, for here abides neither comfort nor cohesion: grieving takes time, yet grief often defies time’s passage.

The dreary facts remain, of course. The day after Cash passed, both The New York Times (“Johnny Cash, Country Music Bedrock, Dies at 71”) and the Chicago Tribune (“‘Man in Black’ spanned eras, genres”) ran stories on him on the front page, below the fold, and in an atypical display of restraint and class, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch devoted roughly 40 percent of the cover of its Saturday tabloid to a black-bordered photo of the musical icon.

A multitude of magazines soon followed suit. Both Time and Rolling Stone ran full-cover portraits of Cash, and Entertainment Weekly, among many others, featured an inset. Meanwhile, Country Music Media Group, the publisher of Country Weekly, and London Publishing Co. both issued square-bound stand-alone tributes to him. In the days and weeks immediately following his death, indeed, profiles of Cash seemed to grace every publication on the North American continent except Popular Mechanics—and I may have simply overlooked Popular Mechanics’ tribute.

“He was…something of a holy terror,” Kris Kristofferson observed in the eulogy, “like Abraham Lincoln with a wild side.” Rolling Stone subsequently quoted Kristofferson’s observation with many, many more. “Every man could relate to him, but nobody could be him,” noted U2’s Bono. “To be that extraordinary and that ordinary was his real gift.” Bob Dylan, meanwhile, mused, “Blessed with a profound imagination, he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul.” Also included in the magazine were testimonials from other collaborators, protégés, devotees, friends. Merle Haggard, of course—God and the devil would’ve had to tag-team Hag to keep him from elegizing Cash, and even at that, no sane bookmaker would ever have covered those odds. Marty Stuart. Steve Earle. Tom Petty. Mark Romanek, who directed the video of Cash’s interpretation of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt.” Emmylou Harris and Sheryl Crow, both of whom sang at Cash’s funeral. Jerry Lee Lewis—who in his right mind would have predicted that the Killer would outlive the rest of the Million Dollar Quartet?

Names, notations, notions—fully a year later, they continue to circle senselessly in memory, like autumn leaves swirling in a backwoods whirlpool, round and round and round, a dreadful blur of sienna, taupe, and black. Again, here abides neither comfort nor cohesion, and the facts, at best, provide a distraction, good, bad, or indifferent. By way of example, Newsweek’s obituary of Cash noted:

He always sought directness and simplicity, not just in his stark, austerely elegant music…but in his obsessively forthright self-presentation and chronic self-examination. Yet the closer you looked—the closer he looked—the more remote he seemed.…

To this day, that last clause seems not merely nonsensical but ludicrous, an obnoxious pomo overlay. Johnny Cash, remote? Pffft! Grease an old skillet, set it atop an open flame, crack an egg on the rim, drop its contents—yolk and all—into the blissful sizzle, and, for good measure, add three or four strips of home-cured bacon, and you’ll have an objective correlative of Johnny Cash, a man and musician as remote as a spring thunderstorm, a summer sunrise, or a winter midnight.

The man defined the music, and the music defined roughly half a century on innumerable originals, as established by everything from The Complete Original Sun Singles, a two-disc offering from Varèse Sarabande, to Lost Highway’s American IV: The Man Comes Around, the last studio recording released before his death. With its 75 tracks, The Essential Johnny Cash, the three-CD Columbia/Legacy boxed set from 1992, arguably provides the finest primer to his work: “Cry, Cry, Cry,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” “Big River,” “Man in Black.” (Those who would dismiss all music as Muzak, a sonic backdrop to matters of “real” substance, should consider the second take of “San Quentin” from 1969’s live Johnny Cash at San Quentin, recall the fate of Orpheus in Thrace, speculate on what might have happened had Cash not reprised that number almost immediately, and recognize the potential potency of three chords and the truth.) On songs written by others, meanwhile, Cash also left his mark or made his point: “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” “The Long Black Veil,” “Ring of Fire,” “Jackson,” “Oney.” Indeed, his studio performance of Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” may well rank as the cheeriest evocation of depression ever recorded, a sharpened candy cane straight to the heart.

Still, inevitably, these are facts, mere facts—pretty distractions. In an allusion to A.P. Carter’s classic “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”—which mourners sang at the funeral and which Carl Perkins quoted in 1968 in “Daddy Sang Bass,” yet another Cash standard—Entertainment Weekly observed last September, “Of course the circle feels irretrievably broken.”

It still does.

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