Critic fondly remembers the Man in Black
It was sometime last week that the question popped into my head: What would my emotional response be to the death of one of my musical idols?
On Friday morning, I walked into my house and was greeted with the news that Johnny Cash had passed away early in the morning and, unfortunately, I had my answer. I went upstairs, put on one of his records, sat on my bed, and that incredible connection he has with his audience, any audience, flowed through my tears.
The first Johnny Cash album I owned was Johnny Cash At San Quentin, and to this day I am still struck by the overwhelming sense of compassion and truth it contains – two things we always search for in music and rarely find together. San Quentin opens the same way all his other shows did, with the immortal line ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,’ that omnipresent, baritone voice of his resonating modestly throughout the prison. He never spent more than a few days in prison, besides the many shows he played in them all over the country, but he knew what it was like to be a prisoner – of addiction, sin and contradiction.
Cash spent most of his life giving the silent and discarded a voice. He sang for the lonely outsider, the vagabond traveler unable to find his way home, the Native Americans long-forgotten, the Vietnam protesters and the men rotting away in our penal system. His music was a grand tapestry of the indomitable spirit of this country as it fought to break free from the trappings of fatalism and mortality. He was just as willing to showcase the dark, forbidden temptations we into as he was the hope and beauty that lead us to the light. As Kris Kristofferson so eloquently described him, Cash was a ‘walking contradiction.’ He was a larger than life mythic figure, a sinner and a saint who was equally convincing as both. He was famous for his shockingly violent couplets such as the one found in his biggest hit, ‘Folsom Prison Blues:’ ‘But I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die.’ Even more shocking, though, was his ability to transcend the hedonistic side of sin into redemption.
He also transcended the boundaries of music. The debate will always go on as to whether he is country or rock ‘n’ roll, but to me he’ll always be simply Johnny Cash: a class of his own. As his recent cover of ‘Hurt’ shows, he gave new weight and depth to other peoples songs. Country or rock, Cash always found his truths amidst the silence in between.
In my opinion, music lost the most compassionate voice it has ever had Friday morning. One of the great communicators of humanity, Cash laid down his indelible truth with a remarkable combination of irony, humor and illicit, bare and beautiful emotions that covered the broad framework of human nature. The Man In Black has passed over to the other side to join his soul mate and wife June Carter. What he leaves behind is a blueprint for the complex inner workings of how we live and, more importantly, the reasons why.
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