Sunday, 21 March 2010

Thinking about the 'Man in Black'

For those who don't know the 'Man in Black' refers to Johnny Cash, the American singer, to call him a country singer is too restrictive, who died in 2003. The release of the sixth, and surely final, album by American Recordings: CASH: Ain't No Grave (2010), earlier this month, consisting of 10 songs recorded by him in the last weeks of his life, has got me back into listening to Cash's work and reading some of the many biographies that have appeared about him in the last decade or so.

Cash's recording career went through a number of phases, most of his best-known songs, 'I Walk the Line', 'Ring of Fire' etc, were first recorded in the late 1950s and early 1960s, during his days under the guidance of Sam Phillips and Sun Records in Memphis, the same stable that also produced Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins at roughly the same time. Increased addiction to amphetamines throughout the '60s, led to a reduction in his creative talents until, following a profound religious experience after a sort-of suicide attempt in the Nickajack caves, led to a new focus and his famous prison concerts at Folsom and the notorious San Quentin in California. The 1970s and '80s were not the best decades as Cash, by this stage increasingly overlooked by the Nashville establishment, struggled to get much radio airplay in the US. His rehabilitation came in the early 1990s at the hands of the unlikely rap producer Rick Rubin. Under his guidance, Rubin produced six albums which saw Cash return to a stripped back sound, much as he had done at the beginning of his career. The first album, American Recordings, featuring just Cash and his gorgeous Martin acoustic guitar, was a collection of traditional country songs and sprinkled with a few Cash originals. It led to a further three albums during Cash's lifetime, all of which followed the same pattern, stripped back production, showcasing Cash's voice, and a collection of traditional folk and country songs by the likes of Jimmie Rogers and the Carter Family, some fresh material from Cash himself and more controversially some covers of more pop and rock material from the likes of Tom Petty, Neil Diamond, Depeche Mode, U2 and most famously, a version of the Nine Inch Nails song 'Hurt', in which an obviously dying Cash sung about his battle with addiction and the havoc it had wreaked in his life. Two further albums were released after Cash's death, both featuring an obviously weakened Cash, singing material recorded in the months following the death of his wife June Carter and before his own death shortly after. For those who've not heard Cash, the first American Recordings album, called just American Recordings, is probably the best - indeed its been hailed at the best album of Cash's career. It contains all the Cash themes, death, murder, redemption and love! The first track, 'Delia's Gone', about a guy tying his girlfriend to a chair before shooting her is typical, as is the song which follows shortly after - 'Why Me, Lord?' - the juxtaposition of a slightly malevolent streak and profound spiritual insight, summing up the contradictions in Cash's own character.

Cash published two autobiographies; the first in the late 1970s wasn't great. A much better version, Cash: The Autobiography, was published in 1997. These kind of autobiographies are often a bit hit and miss, but Cash's stands out for its honesty and integrity. There's lots on his dirt poor upbringing on a cotton farm in Dyess, Arkansas, the tragic early death of his brother Jack in his early teens, the early days at Sun Records, the writing of the famous songs, then the gradual deterioration into drug dependancy, the ridiculous behaviour on the road where guns and over-the-top practical jokes, some of which are actually hilarious, seem to have been the norm, and then the spiritual awakening after his suicide attempt in the late 1960s. The candour with which Cash speaks about all these problems is the key attraction of the book; yes, his discussion of other singers and celebrities can be a bit cloying at times, and there are lots of questions that the book doesn't answer - unsurprising really given that this is a deeply personal narrative on Cash's part. There's lots o nhis Christian life too, his conversion at an Arkansas Baptist Church at the age of 12, his spiralling out of control as his popularity increased, and then his regeneration and new marriage to June Carter, who seems to have kept him broadly together for the remainder of his life, although there were a number of further sad, but thankfully short, relapses into drug dependency.

So curiosity led me into looking what else was out there about Cash. I came across Stephen Miller's Johnny Cash: The Life of an American Icon (2003), which at a little over 400 very closely written pages is a much more thorough look at Cash's life and career. Yet I thought it was a really irritating book. It didn't tell me an awful lot more about Cash himself, apart from the addition of some more outlandish stories, most of which didn't really add to the general sum of Cash knowledge. The most infuriating part of this book though was Miller's less than positive opinion about most of Cash's music - most of his albums, not just the cheesier side of his output, and including the critically acclaimed American Recordings series, come in for pretty hefty criticism in places. His recordings with Bob Dylan, especially their recording of 'A Girl from the North Country' being especially singled out. There's also a really cynical attitude here to Cash's spiritual life. It certainly figures heavily in the book, but Miller has little understanding, leave alone sympathy, for the southern US evangelical subculture. There are plenty of books that concentrate on Cash's spiritual life in more detail, but many of these are written by insiders of that evangelical culture; I've resisted buying and reading any of them yet - their hagiographical tone is likely just as unhelpful as Miller's more cynical approach.

I haven't mentioned Rodney Clapp's, Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction: Christianity and the Battle for the Soul of the Nation (2008), which I read a couple of years ago and probably could now do with revisiting. Now to the guitar to get that opening riff from 'Folsom Prison Blues' right!!

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