Yes, I’m a day late, but it’s stil worth mentioning: Yesterday was the eighth anniversary of the passing of an American legend, Johnny Cash.
I was aware of it yesterday but didn’t get around to posting anything due to a million other things; but this morning when my Twitter pal Rosanne Cash (@rosannecash) mentioned that she’ll be playing a show in New York with the Jayhawks (@the_jayhawks) next month, I was reminded of the one and only time my wife and I were fortunate enough to see her father – here in Chicago in August 1994 … with the Jayhawks doing the opening set. It was a great show, notable not only for the phenomenal performance of the elder Cash but because of the incredibly (and appropriately) eclectic crowd. We were there with another lawyer-couple, and there were a fair number of well-scrubbed, urban professional types in the crowd – along with surly teens in black t-shirts, flannel-shirted grunge-types, hipsters, Goths, and, of course, graying old bikers with enormous belt buckles, Harley shirts, leather vests. Suffice it to say the entire history of men’s facial hair was on display that night. And probably some women’s facial hair, too.
It’s also worth mentioning that the mid-1990s was a very prolific time for Johnny Cash. He had just released the brilliant American Recordings LP, reinventing himself and his music for what must have been the hundredth time in his career. As you may know, he went on to record a total of six American Recordings albums with producer Rick Rubin, the last two of which were released after his death. American Recordings IV: The Man Comes Around, released in 2002, is probably the best known of the series. That’s the one that includes his incredible re-working of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” and Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” two songs I never could have imagined Johnny Cash covering when they came out; and yet, in a sense, it made perfect sense for him to cover those songs in the twilight of his career.
It made sense for Johnny Cash to branch out and cover modern artists like Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode because he always was one of the most open-minded artists around. Though his own music was predominantly traditional country and Southern gospel, he embraced everybody – including, at the height of the anti-war and civil rights movements, counter-culture figures like Bob Dylan, Kris Kristopherson, and Joni Mitchell. Take a look at the rundown of artists who appeared on his television show from 1969 to 1971: It literally represents voices from all aspects of American society at the time. So, covering modern alternative rock acts made perfect sense for Johnny Cash in the 1990s and 2000s.
But on the anniversary of his death, I have to go back to the song at the top of this post, “Man In Black.” If there’s one song that’s essentially Johnny Cash’s manifesto, it’s this:
I wear the black for the poor and beaten down
Living in the hopeless hungry side of town
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime
But is there because he’s a victim of the times …
I wear it for the sick and lonely old
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold
I wear the black in mourning for the lives that could have been
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men …
Well there’s things that never will be right I know
And things need changing everywhere you go
But till we start to make a move to make a few things right
You’ll never see me wear a suit of white …
Yeah, that pretty much sums up who he was. What a great artist.