Sunday, 3 July 2011

Yet another Johnny Cash biography . . .

I think I've pretty much exhausted my Johnny Cash reading having just finished Michael Streissguth's, Johnny Cash: The Biography (Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press, 2006). I'm not sure why I've not read this sooner really, because on balance I think its the best Cash biography out there at the minute by some distance.

Streissguth is a music historian, and that helps to begin with. He has also written about Cash's famous concert at Folsom Prison in 1968 (there's another Cash book to add to the reading list!). Where other books on Cash take a much more encyclopaedic approach, going into detail on every aspect of Cash life, Streissguth is much more sparring, and all the better for it! There's also a more welcome sense of detachment with this biography; while there's certainly sympathy and understanding for his subject, Streissguth is also more ready to cut through many of the myths that have grown up around Cash, both during his lifetime and after. Its not that this is an unpleasant bebunking of Cash, far from it, but Streissguth does manage to present Cash with all his flaws, realistically, with ever stoop to cynicism. The tone befits what is really the most academically rigorous study of Cash's life.

While Streissguth doesn't overdo his discussion of Cash's long-standing drug problems, he leaves the reader in no doubt that Cash never really got over his addiction issues.His happiest period seems to have been between his marriage to June Carter and the mid 1970s, but after that recurring bouts of addiction became normal. Streissguth is also excellent on Cash's childhood, doing a good job evoking his upbringing in the Arkansas cotton fields. Also helpful is his realistic discussion of the Rick Rubin period. Streissguth is more sceptical about some of the material on this series of albums, seeing the second of them, Unchained (1996), which saw Cash in tandem with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, as the most genuinely representative of the Cash sound. American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002) comes in for a bit of stick, with the exception of the title track; quite what he'd make of volumes five and six, the two posthumous albums, I'm not sure!

Where he's also quite decent is on the religious aspects of Cash life. There's not much on Cash's supposed 'conversion', or rededication following his crawl into the Nickajack caves in 1967, Streissguth prefers to see the birth of his son John Carter Cash as the real turning point. But there's quite a lot here on his relationship with Billy Graham, and also a fair bit on the pastor, Jack Shaw, he took with him on some of his tours in the later 1970s and '80s.

So, I'm still mulling over whether there's any scope in doing some on this myself . . .

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