Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Even more Johnny Cash reading

The brief memoir of Vivian Cash (nee Liberto), I Walked the Line: My Life with Johnny (London: Simon & Schuster, 2007), the first wife of Johnny, makes for pretty remarkable reading and gives a very different take on Cash's life than that to be found in many of the better-known accounts. At the heart of the book are the love letters written by Cash and Vivian during the years Cash was stationed in Germany when he was in the US Air Force. The letters are bookended by Vivian Cash's account, filling in the chronological details of her years married to Cash. The Cash narrative she provides is different at a number of key points from the story that has been told in other accounts - especially the very problematic Walk the Line (2005) film biopic and even some of Cash's own autobiographies.

The book begins with an account of the first meeting between Cash and his first wife following the death of June Carter in 2003. At the meeting Vivian talked about her desire to write about her years with Johnny, with both recognising that the time had come for a full disclosure of the story of their marriage. Set up in this way, reader's appetities are whetted for what revelations might follow! Vivian Cash lays the blame for the breakup of her marriage to Johnny almost entirely on Johnny's drug habit, which increased with Johnny's increasing fame and ever more onerous touring committments. Addiction to uppers and downers ensured that the Johnny she had known and married all but disappeared and an aggresive and distant Johnny who she saw less and less of and who she barely recognised became the norm. Predictibly, the other villain who looms large in her account is June Carter, who Vivian accuses of relentlessly pursuing Johnny until he was her - indeed she recalls one instance of meeting June Carter backstage and being informed by her in no uncertain terms: 'Vivian, he will be mine' (p. 298). Later Vivian was almost airbrushed entirely out of Johnny's life. Carter appears almost predatory in Vivian's narrative, a very far cry from the saintly images of her portrayed in other narratives., indeed it bizarre to see both women claiming that God wanted them to be with Johnny, and both praying to the same God at the same time to that effect!

While there's much of the kind of invenctive here that one would expect from Johnny's ex-wife, there also an authenticity in this narrative that is often absent from Johnny own autobiographies. One suspects that Vivian Cash's version of events is much closer to the reality than many of those spun by Cash and June Carter. And of course, 'I Walk the Line' was written with Vivian Cash in mind, not June Carter!


By contrast Tony Tost's, American Recordings (London: Continuum, 2011), part of Continuum's 33 1/3 series, is a very different book, dealing with the other end of Cash's career, his first album in the American Recordings series, which effectively relaunched his career in 1994. Tost examines each of the songs on the album in turn, investigating the terrain inhabited by each of them, and how each song represented something different from Cash's long career and many different personae. There's lots of good close analysis here, but Tost is very dismissive of any song that taps into Cash's religious beliefs. So while each of the songs on the album plumb the depths of Cash's personality, 'Why Me, Lord', his cover of the Kris Kristofferson song, is dismissed as the album's 'proudest, weakest moment' (p. 82). Tost has little understanding of Cash's evangelical beliefs, which he sees as banal and simplistic, and that ultimately did little to save Cash from his self-destructiveness. 'If there is beauty to be found in the song', Tost rites, 'it is the beauty of a Nero softly playing his fiddle as all of Rome burns' (p. 85). Given the insights of the rest of the book, this is a gross over-simplification. The theme of redemption runs as a red chord through Cash's recorded output, but Tost is prepared to dismiss this as just a little disingenuous. Part of the genuis of Cash's music is the juxtapostion of sin and redemption so closely. Not for nothing, surely, does 'Why me, Lord', follow on closely from Cash stark and desperate 'The Beast in Me'.

For me then Tost's book flags up the unsatisfactory way in Cash's religious convictions tend to be dealt with in much of the writing on him. The real reason for this is, it seems, a poor understanding of Cash's religious context, the evangelicalism of the American South. But there was also always a tension in Cash religious pronouncements, certainly Cash was not a straight-forward religious believer, and the way he expressed those views in the public domain evolved over his lifetime. There's still room for a more nuanced and contextualised treatment of Cash the Christian . . .

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