Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Man In Black

I fell into a burnin' ring of fire
I went down, down, down
And the flames went higher
And it burns, burn, burns
The ring of fire, the ring of fire.
---Johnny Cash, "Ring of Fire"

A child's favorite music vs his parent's favorite music- truly the age-old struggle. When I was growing up my parents enjoyed country music, and artists like Hank Williams, Porter Waggoner and Loretta Lynn. My first concert was Mel Tillis at the Michigan State Fair. I remember my father playing songs from a country music songbook on a guitar with four strings. Me? I was much cooler than all that. Give me the Bay City Rollers. (Like that's cool.)

But there was one song that I thought was pretty funny, so I would actually pause to listen when it came on. That song was "A Boy Named Sue" by Johnny Cash. The rest of his music got lumped in with the other country artists my parents made me listen to on long car trips, although shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die was an interesting turn of phrase. Yeah, "A Boy Named Sue" was entertaining. Rap artists today owe a lot to songs of that style.

My daddy left home when I was three
And he didn't leave much to ma and me
Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze.
Now, I don't blame him cause he run and hid
But the meanest thing that he ever did
Was before he left, he went and named me "Sue."

Well, he must o' thought that is quite a joke
And it got a lot of laughs from a' lots of folk
It seems I had to fight my whole life through.
Some gal would giggle and I'd get red
And some guy'd laugh and I'd bust his head
I tell ya, life ain't easy for a boy named "Sue."
---Johnny Cash, "A Boy Named Sue"

Time went on and I began to develop my own taste in music and my own favorites. Kiss was at the top of the list, along with AC/DC, REO Speedwagon and Journey. All rock and roll. No country allowed, and especially not the old stuff like Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash. Mention the name of Johnny Cash and I might ask, "Is he even still around?"

Funny thing happened around 1994- I discovered that yes, indeed, Johnny Cash was still around, and he had just recorded an album with a guy named Rick Rubin. Up until that time Rubin had only produced rap records and speed metal bands like Slayer. The pairing of Rubin and Johnny Cash was intruiging. The fact that Rolling Stone magazine gave a country album a five-star review was even more so. I wanted to hear this album, but I didn't want to pay $15 for a country album. I finally wandered into a record store and buried the Johnny Cash CD in a pile with Kiss and Soundgarden. If the cashier checked me out fast he might not notice how uncool I was.

"Johnny Cash? I've heard that this CD is really good."

Well there went my facade.

First time I shot her I shot her in the side
Hard to watch her suffer
But with the second shot she died
Delia's gone, one more round
Delia's gone

But jailer, oh, jailer
Jailer, I can't sleep
'Cause all around my bedside
I hear the patter of Delia's feet
Delia's gone, one more round
Delia's gone
---Johnny Cash, "Delia's Gone"

The album which won the Grammy that year for best contemporary folk album was a fantastic album indeed. American Recordings was a simple album- just Johnny and his guitar. Acoustic music being one of my favorite styles, I took to it right away.

OK, now I've lost it. I'm listening to Johnny Cash and liking it. What's next, Loretta Lynn?

Well.... She recorded a CD with Jack White of the White Stripes called Van Lear Rose, which I wanted to hear but was more averse to buying than I was Johnny Cash. I checked it out from the library and listened to it. And liked it as well.

Something weird is going on. I'm liking my parents' music? Am I getting old?

I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that's real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything

What have I become?
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end
---Johnny Cash, "Hurt" (written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails)

I didn't buy his next two albums Unchained and Solitary Man, but I did delve into his back catalog some with the box set Love--God--Murder, and I liked what I heard. My affinity for the man in black was growing. There was some good music here, and I was sorry that I had waited so long.

Then came American IV: The Man Comes Around, and the song "Hurt", a song originally performed by Nine Inch Nails on an album called The Downward Spiral. The song is very compelling, and Johnny Cash really made it his own. You could feel the despair in his voice as he sang about the pain caused by his own past of drug abuse. Then the video was made, and I wanted to tell people to stop making videos at that point because it had been done to perfection. It contained a collection of video clips throughout Johnny's career, interspersed with clips of a very old Johnny Cash singing the song. And I think that's one of the qualities that makes this video so powerful; Johnny is at the end of his life, lamenting that everyone he knows has gone away.

As sure as night is dark and day is light
I keep you on my mind both day and night
And happiness I've known proves that it's right
Because you're mine, I walk the line

You've got a way to keep me on your side
You give me cause for love that I can't hide
For you I know I'd even try to turn the tide
Because you're mine, I walk the line
---Johnny Cash, "I Walk The Line"

Yesterday I was listening to the Carter Family on my way to school. I have some Hank Williams on reserve at the public library as well. Life has come full circle.

Hi, my name is Sean, and I am a Johnny Cash fan.

There's a man going around taking names
And he decides who to free and who to blame
Everybody won't be treated quite the same
There will be a golden ladder reaching down
When the man comes around

The hairs on your arm will stand up
At the terror in each sip and each sup
Will you partake of that last offered cup
Or disappear into the potter's ground
When the man comes around
---Johnny Cash, "The Man Comes Around"


Blogger Nathan said...

I've had a similar Cash conversion. Thanks for articulating this better than I could.

12:33 PM  

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