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September 12, 2003

Goodbye, Johnny Cash

Posted by Phil on September 12, 2003 6:33 PM

Although I have Johnny Cash CDs that I purchased in my 20s and 30s, my memories of his songs put me in the back seat of my parents' car, listening to country-music radio, where I think even as a kid I recognized their substantiality compared to most of what I heard. Not that I thought of it that way: I just listened to Johnny Cash.

My favorites were "One Piece at a Time" and "A Boy Named Sue," because they were funny and they told long stories--they could eat up a lot of boring highway. But I also remember the respectful fear I felt listening to "I Walk the Line" and especially "Ring of Fire." My dad said that his version of "Ghost Riders in the Sky" even scared him. The symbolism in those songs is hard for a kid to chew: I essentially took them literally, swallowed them whole. I didn't know what walking the line meant, but listening to the muffled guitars and the sincere, austere desperation of his voice, I didn't doubt that he walked it. "Ring of Fire" was something else again. I had no idea what it meant; certainly allusions to love meant nothing to me. It was simply a man's firmly stoic recollection of a descent into Hell. I had no context for the mariachi horns: They just sounded scary. They sounded like fire.

Johnny Cash was complete and complex. He wasn't whispering Bill Anderson or smarmy Glen Campbell or sappy Kenny Rogers. He could sing a sad song and he could sing a funny song, in a voice like a minister and your haunted uncle who doesn't talk about what he did in the war. He sounded like iron and stone, but with a human tremor that suggested fear and mortality. His power was in his control, but then he'd shout "suey!" in a guitar break, and you heard wild danger. He understood the loud, violent men in those prison audiences.

I've since learned that there was plenty of wild danger in his life. Before June brought him back to his religion there was lots of booze and speed, which seems incongruous with his image as the somber Man in Black--until you see that fantastic picture of him flipping the camera a vicious bird, his upper teeth and bottom lip spitting, "F--- ---!"

He was a bad motherfucker and a wise, gentle soul. For 50 years he made American music of rare vitality and unassailable integrity. The Southern white men who converged in the '50s in Sun Studio in Memphis were all giants--Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis--but Johnny Cash probably stood the tallest, and now Jerry Lee stands alone.