by Sylvie Simmons
Last month, between the 14th and 16th of September, you could walk into Sotheby’s New York building at York Avenue and 72nd Street, and buy yourself a piece of Johnny Cash. Going under the hammer, along with guitars and gold records, was all kinds of Nashvegas clutter: a mawkish Norman Rockwell collotype of the young Abe Lincoln; bronze statuettes of Elvis and John Wayne; a pair of Nudie pants (black, of course); a ‘faux leopard’ car coat; ornate rifles; a ‘Renaissance Revival’ mailbox; Louis XIV-style ‘fauteuils'; an extravagant Waterford crystal cowboy boot engraved with Johnny’s name.
Coming face to face with the debris of a life is rarely a heartening experience. You imagine it to carry more weight – certanly a life as weighty as Johnny Cash’s. As you leaf through the auction catalogue, there’s something hollow and meaningless about this hoard of fripperies. Until you reach the last lot but one.
Lot 768 (out of 769) is, simply, two sheets of plain paper written on in a failing, spidery hand. It is the list Cash made of the songs he was recording for American V, the next – now last – installment of his collaboration with Rick Rubin. Cash was adding songs to that list and recording them in his home studio right up until the day he died. This, not the “empire of dirt” he swept aside in Hurt, is the piece of Johnny Cash that matters.
Many of the songs on the inventory have a religious bent – Family Bible, I Am A Pilgrim, First Corinthians 5.55. Some – Flesh And Blood, Balshazar – are songs Cash has sung in the past. Balshazar, a self-penned spiritual, was one of the first songs he sang when he auditioned for Sam Phillips at Sun’s Memphis studio in 1955. Cash, raised on religious songs, had offered Phillips his services as a gospel singer. The visionary producer and record label owner persuaded him to play stripped-down rock ‘n’ roll, but the way he played it made Cash a country icon. When country music turned its back on him, another visionary producer and record label owner, Rick Rubin, persuaded him to make a stripped-down Americana album, which led to Cash becoming a rock ‘n’ roll icon, who ended his life and his career as he began them both,singing gospel songs. Looking at this list, there’s the uncanny sense of Johnny Cash closing the circle and singing himself back to the beginning.
“Where’s my list? I believe in lists.” Johnny Cash rummages through a pile of papers on his desk and extricates a sheet which he holds up to the light. “I don’t see so good”, he says, peering at it through foggy eyes and handing it to me. I read out a couple of titles – First Corinthians 5.55; Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down. “Those still need some work. I’m going to record them this afternoon. I’m working on American V hot and heavy. I don’t believe in resting. I believe in work. I’ve got to work. June told me once, ‘If something happens to me, you keep working’. She knows me. That I have to work.”
Six weeks prior to this interview, something did happen to June Carter. Cash’s wife of 38 years died in a Nashville hospital in May 2003 from compilcations following heart surgery. Cash’s pain is palpable.
“I told Rick when June died. ‘People would like to see me lay back now and rest and grive and lie on my laurels, , but I’m not going to lay back and relax. I have to work. If I’m going to handle this terrible misfortune that’s come to me at this time in my life, if I’m going to get through it, I’m going to have to work through it.’ So that’s what I proceeded to do. Three days after the funeral I was in the studio. Some people said, ‘You’re crazy, you shouldn’t do that this soon.’ And I said, ‘Tell me why I shouldn’t. I should do that this soon.'”
His voice starts to splinter into a hacking cough, an after-effect of the frequent bouts of pneumonia he has battled in recent years. But when I ask if he’d like to give up for a while, there’s blood in his eye. “I don’t give up. I don’t believe in giving up.” He asks if I would fetch him a cold bottle of Coke. Confined to a wheelchair, Cash can’t get it himself.
We’re sitting in Cash’s study, the smallest room in the house. “It’s got all the space I need”, he says. It’s tucked away in a corner, like the quarters of a particularly undervalued maid, off a grand drawing room heaving with china ornaments and antique furniture, including a magisterial wooden day bed. June Carter’s taste. June, according to her husband, had a “black belt in shopping”. It looks like she had quite a tournament in here. There’s a bed in Cash’s study too, but like the room it’s small, plain and functional. It looks like he might have brought it home by mistake the last time he got off a tour bus in 1997, not realising that his declining health would never give him the chance to put it back again. So it sits against the wall, resigned to its new role as a repository for a pile of papers, three gospel CDs, a cushion or two and a well-thumbed, old acoustic guitar.
Cash’s wheelchair is parked in the narrow space between the bed and the long desk opposite. Half-blind from glaucoma, his face both swollen and sunken, his body battered by pneumonia and diabetes, assorted surgeries, and the neurological illness (variously diagnosed, then undiagnosed again, as Shy Drager’s Syndrome and Parkinsons) that makes his hands shake when he picks up a pen or a guitar, his physical frailty comes as a shock. Just as it did in the Hurt video, when it cut from the old man sitting at the antique table in the baroque, baronial dining room downstairs (June’s taste again) to the wild-eyed, handsome young man hopping the trains. It doesn’t seem right somehow; the Man in Black always seemed mythic, carved out of granite. But the defiance and determination are still visibly there. The life force seems to burn brighter in this white-haired old man than in any young pretender. “Rick is talking about the next ten years”, he says, “and I am too, I’m ready for it,” before qualifying with, “I’m ready for the next five anyway.”
One hand gripping the arm of the wheelchair, he hoists himself up to reach down a book from the shelves that line the walls.“I keep my favourite books here, the ones I use all the time”, he says. They all appear to be non-fiction; books about history, philosophy, politics, folk music, religion of course. His big fingers leaf through the pages. When he finds what he’s after he slots the page into a large contraption at the end of the desk that looks like a photographer’s light box fitted with a thick magnifying glass. The page is projected onto a computer screen.
“I see really good when I get up on that box. It magnifies it to however size you want it. Up to two inches.” He scrolls across the gigantic words of an old gospel song, Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down. “I’m writing some additional verses of my own”, he says. “Everybody else has so I am too.”
That’s not all he’s been writing. For 42 years his life revolved around touring, and when he was forced to give it up he had a lot of time on his hands. He threw himself into recording, which led to a renewed interest in discovering songs, which in turn led to writing them again. First Corinthians 5.55 is one of them, inspired by the Biblical verse about not fearing death. He starts to hum the melody, appearing lost in reverie until a powerboat out on the lake swerves close to the house and the noise makes him look up. “There’s always a rhythm going on in my head”, he says. “Rhythm or words. Always was.”
John R Cash was born in the Great Depression, 1932. His grandfather William Henry Cash had been a horseback preacher. His father Ray worked at sawmills or on the railroads, riding ride the boxcars to whatever jobs could be found to feed his family of five children. When JR, as they called him, was three years old, the family moved from Kingsland onto one of the New Deal cotton farming communities the Roosevelt administration established to help the ‘worthy poor’. He remembers sitting with his two brothers and two sisters and all their household goods in the back of a flat-bed truck, singing the old spiritual I Am Bound For The Promised Land, before arriving on a strip of flat, black, reclaimed land two miles outside of Dyess on the Mississippi Delta, and the prospect of years of backbreaking work.
“I picked cotton by hand, from the age of five until I was 18 years old, every day, after school, right until dark. I would sing to myself when I walked home from the fields at night. Songs were my magic to take me through the dark places.” And not just physical ones. His father used to drink and have violent rages. It was in one such fit of temper that he killed the young JR’s dog. Cash admits to having likely inherited his father’s “addictive behaviour”. He might well have inherited his rage too. Except Johnny Cash had enough self-control to suppress or channel them, at least most of the time.
Nowadays that kind of poor, Southern rural upbringing holds the quality of myth for the big-haired, big-hatted suburbanites who make up most of America’s country music audience. The land and the suffering, family and religion, darkness and solitariness that first informed the genre have become a convenient emblem of the Great American Spirit. But for Johnny Cash it was something far more integral and essential. A pivotal year in Johnny Cash’s life was 1944; he was 12 years old. That was the year he saw The Louvin Brothers when they came to Dyess in a travelling show. He was too shy to ask for an autograph, but decided that a singer was what he was going to be. It was also the year Cash wrote his first song. And most crucially, it was the year that Jack Cash died, “my brother and my best friend.”
There’s a harrowing description of what happened in Cash’s autobiography – his odd premonition that his brother should not go to work that day but join him fishing, but Jack was determined to bring some money home. While cutting wood, Jack was sliced through the middle by a power saw. Johnny’s father showed him the torn, bloody clothes. Jack was slow to die, lingering on in hospital, the family gathering around him to sing hymns. On the last day Jack sat up in bed and asked if they could “hear the angels”. He said they shouldn’t worry, he was going to “a beautiful place”.
Cash wrote “There was no way around grief and there’s no way around loss and nothing is ever the same after it.” The songs Johnny sang at Jack’s funeral – and sang again on My Mother’s Hymn Book – haunted him right to the end of his life. But they also, he said “brought me some peace.” His dark, cavernous voice with its distinctive built-in shudder, always seemed to reflect the haunting more than the peace – and the sense of loss, the suppressed rage, and his sense of solitariness.
As Rosanne Cash, his daughter, observes, “My father lives a lot in his head. He has a lot of grief in his persona. He’s a noble sufferer. It’s a matter of honour for him almost to suffer and not complain. I’ve always said in the past that I thought his dark side and his light side were equally balanced, but the dark side of him leads, especially in his art. And there’s a great beauty in darkness.”
Her father had sung for as long as he could remember, absorbing all the hymns his mother sang to him, the work songs he heard in the field, and the folk, hillbilly, gospel and blues songs he heard on the Sears Roebuck battery radio his father brought home to listen to the news reports on whether the Mississippi was about to break its banks (the incident that led Cash to write the song Five Feet High And Rising). Every morning, from the moment he woke up, Cash would turn on the radio and sing along with Jimmie Rodgers, the Louvin Brothers, Hank Williams, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and The Carter Family.
“Radio was wonderful back then”, he reminisces. “Radio was a lifeline. There was no set format for programming music, except the black station – they called it ‘race music’ – and it was on all day and night. The other ones played everything kind of all mixed up. So I didn’t get locked into one kind of music. I liked it all.” His mother taught him hymns, his friend Jesse Barnhill, a kid with polio, taught him his first chords on the guitar, and the radio taught him everything else. A music teacher tried to teach him how to sing (his mother took in laundry to pay for the lessons) but decided in the end that the way he sang did not need to be changed.
“When I was 17, I had been cutting wood all day with my father and I came in and I was singing a gospel song, “Everybody’s gonna have a wonderful time up there, Glory hallelujah.” Suddenly my voice dropped and I was singing bomm – buh-buh – bomm way down low in the key of E. And my mother said, ‘Who is that singing?’ She came out of the back door and there I was, and I said, ‘That was me, Momma.’ She said, ‘Well keep on singing. So I kept on singing.”
Eager to get out of the Delta, at 18 Cash moved to Detroit and a job on a car factory assembly line. Within months he’d given it up to enlist in the US Air Force as a radio interception operator. He had always been fascinated by radio, and if the nearest he could get to working in the medium was intercepting coded military messages, it beat cotton and cars. In Landsberg, Germany, where Cash was posted, he bought his first guitar – 20 Deutschmarks – and with three fellow servicemen formed a honky tonk band, The Landsberg Barbarians. They played the beer halls and sounded pretty good, Cash said, if their audience had enough beer in them. Cash also found time to write poetry for the forces newspaper. And he started writing songs.
When he was “around 20 years old” Cash penned Balshazar, “the first song I wrote that I intended to record.” It was a gospel song. Not long after, he wrote Folsom Prison Blues. It was not a gospel song. The line – probably his most famous – “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”, is chilling in its machismo. He says it was inspired by a movie he saw at the base, Inside The Walls Of Folsom Prison. “I don’t remember anything of what the story is about, but I got the idea for a song and I wrote it that night. It’s about a criminal and what do criminals do? They kill people. So that’s what I put in the song.”
Cash planned to pursue his musical career when his four years in the military were up. On the train ride back from Germany to the States he wrote Hey Porter. This was the summer that Elvis had broken out with That’s All Right Mama, and Cash and his new wife Vivian Liberto settled in Memphis. By day Cash sold electrical appliances door to door; he didn’t make much money. By night he and two garage mechanic friends, Marshall Grant and Luther Parkins, played the odd gig and didn’t make much money at that either. Cash concluded it was time to make an assault on Elvis’ record label, Sun.
The first time he spoke to Sam Phillips, he told him he was a gospel singer. “Sam said ‘we can’t sell gospel records’. So a couple of weeks later I called him back again and said, ‘I’m John Cash’ – he didn’t remember that I’d called before – and I told him I’d like to come down and sing him some songs. He said he had more artists than he could record and he wouldn’t be interested. Well, another week or two went by and I went down one morning and sat down upon the steps of 706 Union Avenue, and when he came in I introduced myself and he was in a good mood and said, ‘Come on in, I’ll listen.’ And he listened for about two hours – sang everything I knew – and he said, ‘Come back with the musicians’ – I’d mentioned the two musicians I’d been working with – ‘and we’ll put some things down.’”
Four months later, in June 1955, the day after Vivian gave birth to their first child, Rosanne, Sun released the 23-year-old Johnny Cash’s first single, Cry Cry Cry backed with Hey Porter. It sold 100,000 copies. Cash’s second single, Folsom Prison Blues, made it to number one in the country charts. A third single in 1956, I Walk The Line, was another country number one, this time crossing over into the pop top 20. Elvis – who had taken Cash on his tour of the South the previous year (paying him $75 a show) asked Cash to write a song for him. so Cash wrote Get Rhythm (he also wrote a song for Roy Orbison, You’re My Baby). But by this time Elvis had ditched Sun for RCA, and since Sam Phillips planned to groom Cash as Presley’s replacement, he insisted Cash record it himself.
In 1958, Cash would leave Sun too, in his case for Columbia Records. His only reason for doing so, he says, is Columbia promised him he “could record anything I wanted. I begged Sam to let me record gospel songs – Elvis did too – but it wasn’t just the hymns, I wanted to do a lot of things. It was the idea that I wanted to spread my wings.” Cash moved his family to California, where they stayed for the next seven years – most of which time Cash spent on the road.
In a DVD of Johnny Cash’s 1958 appearance on country music TV show The Town Hall Party, there’s a clip in which Cash does an Elvis Presley impersonation. It’s a good one. He already has the greased black hair. He musses it up, throws the acoustic guitar behind his shoulder, juts his pelvis to one side and twists his legs into the famous pose. It’s in the close-up where you see the difference. Elvis’ eyes were nearly always laughing – like a country performer’s, really; Cash’s, like a rock ‘n’ roller, are feral and ready to run.
In the liner notes to Love (one of Cash’s three themed 1999 compilation; the others were Murder and God), June Carter wrote how she first heard of Johnny Cash through Elvis Presley’s attempts to impersonate him. According to June, – who had toured with Presley in the Mark II Carter Family, and who had spurned the King’s advances, though kept his love letters, which Cash later threw into Old Hickory Lake – Elvis thought that Cash’s singing “drives the girls crazy.” Cash laughs this off, saying “He didn’t need any lessons from me to get the women, he got enough to go around for all the musicians that were left over”. But he admits that Elvis did use Cry Cry Cry as the record he always tuned his guitar to.
There’s a scene in another Bear Family DVD – a Hollywood movie this time, Five Minutes To Live – in which Cash, plays a hired gun disguised as a door to door salesman (guitar lessons, not electrical appliances). He’s sitting in a cheap motel room with a floozy in his bed and a guitar on his knee. As he claws out an improvised blues, the eyes in his hollow face look like they belong to a dangerous caged animal. Cash’s considerable intake of amphetamines did nothing to tone down this appearance.
“He was dangerous”, says his friend Kris Kristofferson. “He was a wild man. There was something burning in him. I think it’s the same thing that burned inside William Blake or any great artist who was trying to express himself.” Cash the badass junkie was a hellion. Mostly because he loved drugs so much. Even at the end of his life, he said that he missed them. Drugs for him were nothing to do with youthful exuberance and rebellion. “For me it was darker, deeper. It was violence.”
In his autobiography he wrote, “I clearly remember the first mood-altering drug to enter my body. When I was just a kid, probably 11 years old, I was wrestling at school with a friend of mine and broke my rib.” His father hitched the mules to the wagon and drove him to the hospital, where they shot him full of morphine. Cash remembers thinking, “Boy, this is really something. I’ll have to have some more of that some time.” Touring as a musician gave him the opportunity. He took his first amphetamines when he was on the road with Ferlin Husky and Faron Young. He wrote, “I loved it. It increased my energy, sharpened my wit, banished my shyness, improved my timing, it turned me on like electricity flowing into a lightbulb.” He learned how to take off the edge, when he needed to, by washing them down with alcohol or tossing barbiturates into the mix. He lost even more weight and became snake-thin and wiry. At one point he was taking 100 pills a day.
It’s a complicated business, Cash and addiction. He could talk in later years, once the idea of genetic predisposition became commonplace, of inheriting his addictive tendency from his father, but Cash was also ferociously intelligent, someone who treated life as an ongoing struggle to conquer his anger and pain, so it was curious he should follow in the footsteps of the parent who did not show him love or support, and not the one who encouraged his singing and taught him hymns. It’s clear that the almost mythical machismo Cash embodied was every bit as important to him as the equally mythical search for grace. And he could be as gluttonous as the next person. Like he said, he loved drugs, lots of them. And the addiction was also, one suspects, a way of feeding the fire that drove him, giving him more battles to face down.
“I had my years in the wilderness all right, but it was an experience”, he says. “The drugs I was taking at the time made me live life with a great intensity and I felt everything to the nth degree. I used drugs because they made me feel better, but then they stopped working. But a lot of good songs and albums came out of those years. I’ve had a lot of people say to me, ‘Do you think you would have written more songs or better songs if you hadn’t been on drugs? But I don’t think so. I think I wrote exactly what God meant for me to write.”
For all his talk of God, Cash made an excellent badass. During the drug years – late ’50s to mid-late ’60s mostly, with the occasional relapse later – he was, in Kristofferson’s words, the epitome of “the self-destructive artist”. He kicked out the footlights on the Grand Ole Opry stage in 1965 – the drugs allowed the resentment he felt at having had a hard time breaking into the Nashville music community to come out. He was informed that he needn’t come back, which enraged him even more. He took June Carter’s Cadillac – he had already totalled his own and countless others – and drove it into an electricity pylon, busting his nose and setting of flashes of sparks as the wires hit the ground. The policeman sent to investigate the incident, as it turned out, was June’s second husband Rip Nix.
That same year – 1965 – he was arrested for bringing pills back over the Mexican border hidden inside his guitar. He was arrested for starting (accidentally) a forest fire when he was wired, and tried to kill himself by driving a tractor over a cliff. His cellmate in a Nevada lock-up nearly did the job for him, when Cash – as he always did, on-stage or off – introduced himself with the line, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”. Recalls Cash, “He didn’t believe me”, says Cash. “He had me by the neck saying, ‘If you’re Johnny Cash, sing‘. I said,’I can’t sing, you’ve got me round the neck.’ He let me loose and I sang Folsom Prison Blues. The guy started crying. He said ‘You are Johnny Cash, aren’t you?’ and I said, ‘Yeah’.” It didn’t stop Cash from going on to wreck more cars and break several more bones, including – a bad idea for a singer-guitar player – his fingers and his jaw.
In 1966 Vivian, by now the mother of four daughters, had enough and filed for divorce. Cash moved in with his buddy Waylon Jennings, and the pill intake increased. In October ’67 he made his mind up to kill himself. It appears to have stemmed from his last arrest, one that clearly shamed him: after wrecking his jeep and knocking on people’s doors, causing a commotion, the sherrif, a big Johnny Cash fan, had handed him his drugs back and told him he was free to go and kill himself if that was what he wanted to do. Cash crawled into Nickajack Cave on the Tennessee River, near Chatanooga, and waited to die. He didn’t. When he finally crawled out again, he found June Carter and his mother outside praying for him. June, who had also tried to get Hank Williams to kick his habit, began what Cash called “her lifelong dedication to cleaning me up and my lifelong acceptance of that mission.” He promised her and God, who he figured had his reasons for saving him, that he would sober up. But first – on amphetamines – he made his classic live album At Folsom Prison.
Returning to the house in Hendersonville he had bought the year before, he took to his bed – the same big circular bed that’s still in the round room Cash is using as a recording studio – and went cold turkey. When he emerged it was to play at a high school in Hendersonville – his first ever show played straight, he says – and, four months later, to marry June. He was still straight for his second live prison album, At San Quentin but a sober Cash could still turn on the badass, because it came from a source far deeper than drugs.
Cash had been playing free concerts at various US penitentiaries since 1956, after an inmate at Huntsville prison in Texas wrote and asked him to visit. Says Cash, “it started with Folsom Prison Blues. The prisoners heard that song and they felt like I was one of them. They’d treat me like I was one of them.” The words had the feel of authenticity, even if Cash had never done more than spend the odd over-night stay in a police cell (seven times in total) on misdemeanour charges. The prison albums had a similar effect o the rock crowd – partly because America’s late ’60s prison population was boosted by young Vietnam refuseniks, dope smokers and protest marchers, and particularly because of their attitude and stark, no-frills sound – both by now almost entirely absent in country music.
Although rock musicians – the Stones, The Byrds – borrowed (reverentally and ironically) from country, the two genres were polarised: country was the establishment that rock was anti. Cash had frequently made records that were anti-authority and championed the oppressed. (Bitter Tears for example, his indictment of America’s treatment of its Native American population, incured the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan), but with the cross-over success of the prison albums and the prime TV show that came in its wake, more young people noticed. The Johnny Cash Show, which featured artists as uncountry as Louis Armstrong and Dennis Hopper, was taped at the Ryman Auditorium, the old home of the Grand Ole Opry – the place that had spurned Cash before it moved, along with country music itself, to a soulless, glitzy place in the suburbs.
Cash was smart enough to see the value of this Man In Black persona. In 1971 he wrote a song with that name, announcing that it was his answer to reporters’ questions about why he always wore black. The lyrics, in essence, say it’s in sympathy with the oppressed and in mourning for the dead and suffering. But, typically with Cash, there are more sides to it. Whatever his support for the Indians, there was still something of the cowboy in Cash – the movie cowboy, the good guy forced to switch to a black hat, forever condemned to ride alone, doing what a man’s gotta do. The makers of a late 50s TV western The Night Rider, picked up on that element and cast Cash in the pilot (the series was never made) as just such a character – Johnny Laredo, a dark, brooding singing cowboy, who may or may not have committed murder, but if he was anything like Cash, could entirely understand what motivates a man to do so. The famous words “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” are sung with relish as much as regret. Cash understood evil, he knew where it came from, and if he refused to judge people, it seemed less from any Christian tolerance than from knowing it wasn’t that far below the surface in himself.
“Those lyrics really define the Man In Black character”, says Rick Rubin.”Someone who’s haunted and remorseful, who wrestles with demons, but it seems with him like the demons win most of the time. He always has to live with the darkness of what he’s done, he never gets off scot-free, which aligns him with the prisoners, the outlaws, of the world.”
In the end it was the Man In Black persona that rescued Cash from the ignominy of the late ’70s and ’80s, a period during which he was dropped by Columbia, sidelined by his next label Mercury, and pretty much consigned to the blue-rinse circuit.
Kris Kristofferson: “Johnny Cash was Columbia in Nashville. He built the building. Johnny Cash was bigger than Elvis in Nashville, the most electrifying person in the business. The fact that he was on their label gave them any credibility they had. And to think that they would regard him as irrelevant, it’s really, really” – he’s momentarily lost for words – “infuriating. But it happens to all of us, people who work in something like performance, whether it’s actors or musicians or sports, as you get older people are going to take the young guys.”
Rosanne Cash: “Dad was really floundering for several years after Sony let him go – which at the time was just incomprehensible. Everybody had an idea about what he should do and he started listening to it, because he was unsure about things. It was a transitional period in his life and I think he made some mis-steps, he wasn’t doing his best work by any means – and then Rick, like this angel, kind of comes in and says, ‘I know who Johnny Cash is and that’s what I want on record – just the essential you’. A collective sigh of relief! It was so good for dad. So revitalising. I cannot tell you what it did for him, just the recognition that somebody still saw who he really was and, not only that, was able to draw it out of him.”
When I ask Johnny Cash about his problems with Columbia and Mercury, he pauses before answering, “I let the music get away from me. Because I didn’t care. I saw what was happening – they were taking what I was recording and throwing it out a few records, here, there, I think pressing 500 records with each and calling that a record release. ‘Demographics’ – I got that rammed down my throat. Never a welcome to the label kind of party or anything like that. I just felt that I was somewhere where I wasn’t appreciated and didn’t belong and I couldn’t wait to get out of there. And when I got with Rick and things started happening, I just cut off all ties with Mercury/Polygram and CBS, personal, business and emotional. It felt so good to be back holding the reins myself and doing something people appreciated.”
Rick Rubin, he says, reminded him of Sam Phillips in the ’50s. “It was that same kind of freedom – Sam and Rick both put me in front of that microphone and said, ‘Let’s hear what you’ve got, sing your heart out’, and I’d sing one or two and they’d say, ‘Sing another one, let’s hear more’. And I just kept right on singing. The only difference was Sam was more cocky – had every right to be; discovering Elvis would make you cocky – and Rick was even more laid-back. Laid-down in fact – on the floor when I was playing.” He laughs. “When your producer is barefoot on the floor with his dogs, you feel like you’re down to earth here. You’re with somebody you can talk to.”
What Rubin, then known as a rap and heavy rock producer, saw in Cash was that dark beauty that Rosanne spoke about; the solitary, haunted man. Signing Cash to his American label, the pair’s first collaboration, American Recordings, presented him as cross between an old gunslinger hounded by the black dogs of his past, and an Old Testament prophet challenging the fires of hell to bring it on. It was a stunning album and a remarkable revival for Cash, earning him the first of four consecutive Grammies.
Says Cash, “”It was a very special Grammy, the one that I got for that first Rick Rubin production. It proved a lot of things to a lot of people – to Mercury/Polygram, to CBS, to everybody else at the record companies. My parting shot was, ‘Don’t look for me because I won’t be around – here, take my finger!” Laughing out loud, the frail, white-haired man in the wheelchair raises his middle finger, just like he did in the prison album shot. Eyes bright as a young man’s, he gives all the doubters, whoever or wherever they might be, the legendary Johnny Cash bird.
In the studio in his rambling house in the hills above Sunset Boulevard, Rick Rubin is sifting through the CDRs of songs Johnny Cash recorded for V in his rambling house in the limestone cliffs above Old Hickory Lake. Almost exactly a year ago, Cash was scheduled to fly to L.A and complete the recording here in this studio. Three days before the flight he was taken into hospital with breathing problems. When his friend and former producer Jack Clement dropped by to visit, Cash was still talking about getting straight back to work on the album once the doctors discharged him. He never made it out alive.
The relationship between the Man in Black and the man with the beard is one of rock’s most gratifying and extraordinary stories. They met in 1993 in the dressing room of a dinner theatre in suburban Orange County – a hot, 30 year old rap and heavy metal impressario and a 61-year-old country music legend who, in his own words, had “declined to the bottom of the ladder.” Hard to imagine a bond but there was one, and both say it was instantaneous. Rubin talks about a powerful spiritual connection, ” I realise that if we were to have spent the same 15 minutes sitting together with our eyes closed, not speaking, I think the connection would have been the same. It felt like we connected on some other level than talk.” Tom Petty – who was a good friend of Cash’s, and working with Rubin on Wildflowerswhen the producer rushed in, announcing that he had a shot at signing Johnny Cash – sees it more as an “infatuation”, a kind of love affair.
During the interviews I did with Cash for Unearthed, he would talk about his late wife in the present tense, and often used the word ‘we’. Rubin does the same about his late collaborator when referring to the work he’s doing completingAmerican V.. Cash may not be here physically, but due to his health problems, during the third and fourth American albums there were times when he wasn’t there either. Instead they would conduct the affair long-distance, talk on the phone every day.
“He’d call and say, ‘I’ve recorded this song and I’m so excited about it’. Or ‘I just wrote this song, I’m very nervous about it, I don’t know what you’re going to think, so please call me as soon as you hear it because I really want to know.’ It was the same as when we were working together, just bouncing ideas off of each other, and just coming to the point where we both really liked something.”
They would also take Holy Communion together daily over the phone. Says Rubin, “There’s a TV evangelist here name of Gene Scott, who’s real smart and a great teacher but an outlaw. When Johnny was out here one time, I brought a video of Gene Scott for us to watch in the studio. It really caught Johnny and by the end of it he was crying. Gene Scott was told he had cancer and refused to take any of the medicine that the doctors gave him and just fasted and prayed, and very quickly the cancer went into remission. And he did communion every day while he was sick and he felt that was part of the healing. I sent that video to Johnny because it was very uplifting, and he talked about what a sacred act communion was.
“I asked Johnny about communion and said I’d never done it. I said, ‘Do you thnk we could do it together?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, that would be great, I have a communion kit’. So we made it a ritual that we did on the phone every day, at about two o’clock L.A time – he said the words and we would both visualise eating the bread and drinking the wine. The only time he didn’t do it was if he was in the hospital and couldn’t be reached, or a couple of times over the weekend we missed. And if we didn’t do it, the next time we would speak he would say, ‘I really missed it. I really feel it when we do it.’ And I continue on doing it now, imagining him saying the sentences he used to say, take time to feel it happening. It’s very powerful.”
In the studio too, Rubin would “feel Johnny’s presence strongly”, but he says it happens “less often and less strongly than it did a few months after his passing.” Now, as he works on the songs Cash sent him – “about 60 recordings, with probably 28 or 29 that warrant coming out” – he says he just tries “to do it the way we always did it, keep in communication with him that way. We always were in pretty good sync.”
Asked to describe the Johnny Cash he knew, Rubin smiles. “I found him funny and playful and smart and wise. He was a quiet man – he would rarely offer anything in terms of speaking wisdom, but when asked he would always have an incredible story to tell. And he was very honest. You could ask him anything and he would answer. And he just had a deep well of knowledge and research that he had done, particularly if it was anything spiritual.”
How did the ‘Man In Black’ character that had first attracted him to Cash manifest itself in his daily life, or was it just a mask he put on?
“I don’t think the Man In Black was something he ever really turned on or off. I think he was just being himself, and the Man In Black was a mythological version of that quality of character, that electrifying energy he had. People were terrified of Johnny, awe-struck. Some of the musicians we worked with, especially the younger ones, he would come over to them and be introduced and he would just make casual conversation and to them it was anything but casual. I think that was difficult for Johnny. I would say that most people didn’t get into much depth with him because of that terror. It seemed like there was a barrier between him and most people, though it was in no way imposed by him”.
Which augmented that sense of solitariness?
What is the overall colour of American V and what picture will it paint of Johnny Cash?
“I’d say this album will show a side of him that’s introspective, folky and vulnerable”.
Vulnerable – or sentimental, like some of the songs were on the fourth American album The Man Comes Around?
“I’d say vulnerable.”
There was a sense, on The Man Comes Around, of Cash singing himself out of this world and into the next. Juding by the number of gospel songs on Johnny’s list, will American V sound like he’s checking in from heaven?
” I never thought about it that way, but I don’t think so. I think it’s a worldly album. There’s some songs about being in pain, so that doesn’t sound like heaven.”
So there was no temptation, since Cash has now been beatified as the patron saint of American music, to turn him into the Man In White and do away with the badass Johnny songs?
“Not at all. There’s that quote he told you for the Unearthed book about murder ballads, that there’s a long lineage of folk music where the idea of murdering women are in the songs. Johnny grew up on those songs and he was carrying on the tradition. Murder songs weren’t something invented by Johnny Cash; he just did them well and with conviction”
How central was that badass persona to Johnny Cash’s attraction to the young crowd who bought the American albums?
“I think it was very relevant. If it had not been for that, I don’t know if it would have made a difference, in other words, his greatness would have shown through regardless, but it made a great frame for that greatness, something people could grasp… Because the thing about Johnny was the man. His strength wasn’t in being a musician, it was bigger than music. He was such a great man that anything he did would have been great, and we get a glimpse of him through the prism of music.”
What was Johnny’s reaction to finding himself hailed by young people as cool?
“He did get a kick out of young kids liking him and selling more records than he had in a while. When something happened like he won a Grammy, or a college radio station started playing his record, there would be some sense of, ‘Oh I wonder what they’re thinking now, the people who discarded me’. I don’t think it was any sense of revenge, but he took great pride in the success that he had and in showing his worth. Because I think he was made to feel worthless for a long time. But I don’t think any of this changed anything in the way Johnny worked or what he recorded. I don’t think anything ever did. He sang what he wanted to sing. There’s some really odd choices of songs in the stuff he sent me for V – songs that Johnny always wanted to sing but never seemed to fit anywhere, and that when he mentioned them I thought, ‘Maybe this isn’t a good idea'”, he laughs. “But then when we got to them and did them, there really are some unexpected gems.
“He did this Hawaiian song – I think it’s called Aloha Hi, I don’t have my list – which I thought was a very bizarre choice, but it’s not cheesy at all.”
Rubin, meanwhile, had been discovering a new fascination with early ’60s American folk music. “I had just read the book Turn Turn Turn and I started getting very excited about a bunch of people like Tim Hardin, Joan Baez. I sent Johnny some of these songs. Whether he liked the song or not, it would he’d always spark his memory and he’d say, ‘That made me think of this other song, and I like this one better’. One example of that was the song Four Strong Winds. Johnny said he remembered the version by Ian and Sylvia.”
I sat and watched Cash record Four Strong winds in his old bedroom in Hendersonville – a beautiful, vulnerable version. He also recorded Tom Paxton’s Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound, a song by June’s cousin Joe Carter (son of A.P and Sara) called Eye Of An Eagle, and, of course, a number of spirituals.
Asked if Cash’s deep interest in singing gospel songs towards the end of his recording life led to Rubin behaving as Sam Phillip once had and saying, ‘Look, we need some rock ‘n’ roll’, Rubin shakes his head. “We would always record whatever he wanted to record. Which always included gospel. I think on every album we’ve done there’s been at least one gospel or spiritual song, if not more, but they just had to compete against all the other kinds of songs for quality. The best songs were always the ones that went on.”
Although it’s “too early” to say what will make the track listing for American V – “or even if it will be a double album or if there’ll be a VI; we’re still working on it” – Rubin confirms that one song extremely likely to make the grade is the gospel song Cash wrote at the end of his life, First Corinthians 5.55.
A nurse has wheeled Cash’s chair into his second favourite room in the house. It’s the circular, wood and mirror-clad bedroom where he kicked his amphetamine habit in 1968. It’s a very masculine room – it became their son John Carter’s bedroom after Johnny and June were married. On the walls are hunting trophies, squirrel tails, the head of a large boar Cash Snr shot in Arkansas in the early ’80s and an enormous fish Cash Jr caught on a fishing trip to Alaksa. Since Johnny grew too ill to go fishing on Old Hickory Lake anymore, his beloved fishing boat was sold, and the dock below the window stands empty.
When he’s not recording in his cabin, Cash records in here. David Ferguson, his longtime friend and engineer, is sitting behind an Apple Mac.
“Are you ready Cap’n?” Ferguson asks. Cash takes a swig from a coke bottle, asks an assistant to turn off the air conditioning – he doesn’t want the whirring noise on tape – and positions the headphones on his white hair with shaky hands. In a clear, proud voice, reading from a sheet of paper in which the words are printed in huge, black type, he sings First Corinthians 5.55. The tremulous edge his voice has always had may be more pronounced, but it does nothing to detract from its authority and power.
“Sounds good”, says Ferguson at the end of the take when we listen to it back. But Cash frowns. “There’s a place where you can hear I was losing my breath. We’ll go back and do it again”.
Cash picks up his coke bottle, clears his throat, and sings again with defiance, “Death,where is thy sting, grave, where is thy victory?”
The power of Cash’s voice, Kris Kristofferson says, was “driven by the freedom in it and the integrity. His voice was absolutely his own. Johnny Cash was a wild man, dangerous, as well as being deeply spiritual, This patriarchal figure and one of the funniest guys I’ve ever known. He was a holy terror – and he’s grown into being the father of our country!” And one of the last true giants of rock.