I originally wrote this piece in November 2002 as a review of The Man Comes Around for Doog Magazine. It is reproduced here with permission from Doog.
Johnny Cash is on his way out. He is dying. But so are you. And so am I. We all are.
Rock and roll is rife with tales of death and mortality. Hank Williams said it best with “I’ll never get out of this world alive.” And then Jim Morrison paraphrased this sentiment with “No one here gets out alive.” Both of those guys were dead by thirty. But Johnny Cash has lived to be an old man. He’ll turn 126 this year and he just released the fourth album in his American Recordings series, produced by Rick Rubin.
It is a well-known fact that Johnny Cash was the one who convinced Elvis Presley to put grease in his hair and shake his dick in the direction of the young girls in the first row. Plus, he introduced Jerry Lee Lewis to his first black girlfriend (pre-cousin) who happened to be 13 years old at the time (which wasn’t as wrong back then, they say, except for the black part). He also persuaded Roy Orbison to never remove his sunglasses (like Ray Charles!) and to ingest herbs that created the effect of a chemical vasectomy. One listen to Orbison’s voice, though, and you see that it was well worth his noble sacrifice—he sings like an angel. So even if Johnny Cash had never recorded a single note, he would have already earned his seat in the rock and roll hall of fame (and I’m not talking about the one in Cleveland, baby—I’m talking about the metaphorical one that includes Hasil “The Haze” Adkins as well as the Great Darryl Nathan).
But he did record a single note, several of them actually, and he sang at least three notes too. Listen to him searching for the pitch in “I Walk the Line” by humming before each verse. Ho ho, that’s an old trick but most people don’t record that part. Or they don’t sing it into the microphone, but Johnny Cash did. Even back in 1955 at the tender age of 17 he was flipping off the man and showing everybody that you don’t have to be some superhero like Bing Crosby to be a singer. Oh no, you can be human. A mere mortal.
And he’s been recording songs about mortality ever since.
We already covered the fact that everybody sings about dying. And they always have. Listen to thirty seconds of any of the six disks in the Anthology Of American Folk Music (compiled by Harry Smith), and you’ll see that the only thing those cotton-pickin’ (no shit) hillbillies from the 1920s sang about was killing, getting killed, dying, and grieving. It’s downright spooky stuff that makes Marilyn Manson and all those goddamned geeks with the face paint and spikes sticking out of their faces (you’ve seen the video, right?) sound like Doris flipping Day.
But Johnny Cash came around and brought that scary stuff into the rock and roll era, and he’s always sounded like he really meant it. When he sang about killing a man in Reno just to watch him die, you believed it even though everybody knows he never did any hard time—just hard drugs. And when he sang all those prison songs, you still feel the desolation and rage.
But he’s always sung gospel songs along with the other stuff. And what’s the gospel message? Redemption, forgiveness and eternal life—in essence, immortality. And whether you believe in that stuff or not, Johnny Cash’s conviction comes through in the music, and you know that he’s done his share of sinnin’ so he’s probably learned a thing or two about forgiveness (more than you, smart ass) over the years. Especially over those years (1961-1978) when he was a maniacal, cranked-up speedfreak drunk.
So when Rick Rubin approached him to revive his career in the early 1990s by recording straightforward (i.e., decidedly un-Nashville) country music, they came up with a combination of songs that reflected both the sinful and the spiritual sides of Johnny Cash, sometimes—often, actually—within the same song. The first album, 1994’s American Recordings, contained songs written specifically for him by the likes of Tom Waits and Glenn Danzig as well as a handful of new originals, some “traditional” covers (“Why Me Lord,” “Oh Bury Me Not”), some weird covers (Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen), and one new version of a song he had previously recorded (“Delia’s Gone,” the previous version of which omits the lines about wanting to grab your “sub-machine” and has the creepy background honky chorus that was all over his post-Sun recordings).
They’ve kept up this formula for the next three album, plus or minus additional instrumentation and guest musicians. I’m sure it’s a great fucking honor to sing a song with Johnny Cash, but will someone please get Glenn Frey’s voice the fuck off the new album, American IV: The Man Comes Around? It doesn’t belong there and neither does the voice of Nick Cave or Fiona Apple. While we’re at it, we didn’t need a Johnny Cash version of “Desperado” at all. That’s right, the Eagles song. Sure, “Take it Easy” rocks and “Tequila Sunrise” is all right and “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” kicks ass, but “Desperado” sucks balls and it always has and it always will, even when Johnny Cash sings it, but especially when Johnny Cash sings it while Glenn “Miami Vice” Frey sings background vocals. Get off my Johnny Cash record, you imposter scumbag! (Oh wait, just realized it’s Don Henley on there, not Glenn Frey… Aw, who cares? What’s the difference?)
But it’s a good album. As everyone likes to say these days to justify mediocre releases by artists they still admire: “It’s better than 90% of everything else out there.” Absolutely. There are some songs that there was simply no need to re-record, like “Give My Love to Rose,” the definitive version of which can be found on Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. And there are some songs that just aren’t that great, like “Bridge Over Trouble Water.” And some songs that are pretty but just odd choices for the Man in Black to record, like “In My Life” and “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” And although I’d rather cram a pair of rusty scissors in my ear than admit it, I like the Depeche Mode version of “Personal Jesus” better than the one on here.
Speaking of rusty, as if you needed another reason to completely ignore mainstream alternative music, all of Johnny Cash’s covers sound better if you aren’t familiar with their original versions. Granted, this is based strictly on my personal experience, but I’ve never heard the original “Rusty Cage” by Screaming Trees or Soundgarbage or whoever the fuck (doesn’t matter), but Johnny Cash’s version on 1996’s Unchained kicks much ass. Same with “Hurt” on this new one. Never heard the Nine Inch Nails version—never want to, never will—but Johnny Cash’s version is very cool. “Personal Jesus,” on the other hand, which I’ve heard, is not very cool. (Oh wait, I’m full of crap with this theory, since I know the Beck song (“Rowboat”) and the U2 song (“One”) and the Neil Diamond/Monkees song (“Solitary Man”) and I like Johnny Cash’s versions of all of those. Never mind.)
Nevertheless, the man is dying. His voice sounds so old and tired on American IV that you almost want to start mourning right now. He’s got the death rattle in his singing voice. Have you ever heard the death rattle? It’s the gasping, wheezy, moist breathing sound people make immediately before they die (no cough reflex, see?). I’ve only heard it twice in my life, but it’s a truly unsettling sound. And you can hear it in Johnny Cash’s singing voice throughout this entire album. He’s dying. But so are you. And so am I.
The Flaming Lips said it best: “Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die? And instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know you realize that life goes fast…it’s hard to make the good things last.” This is not a goodbye to Johnny Cash. I’m looking forward to his next album… Thank you, Rick Rubin, despite the new album’s shortfalls, for making Johnny Cash’s good things last as long as they have. And thank you, Johnny Cash, for looking death in the eye and tell it to fuck the fuck off once again.