O Death, Where Is Thy Sting? O Grave, Where Is Thy Victory?

The embodiment of rock and rollI 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.

17 thoughts on “O Death, Where Is Thy Sting? O Grave, Where Is Thy Victory?”

  1. Well I knew this would happen soon, I mean how much longer could he hold on without June? Too bad his Hurt video didn’t win all the awards it was up for at stoopid MTV’s ceremony last week. It certainly deserved them, it’s just splendid. In fact I’m gonna watch it again right now! I read Cash’s autobiography and it was one of the best true-life stories I’ve ever read, I highly recommend it. He had an INCREDIBLE life. He was an amazing artist and an amazing person.

    One thing I really liked in the book, he was talking about his family, and you know he and June were both married to other people previously and had kids from those first marriages (she four, he two). Then they had one child together (the only boy of the bunch!) They decided early on that they would never use the words “step” or “half” to refer to anyone in the family, everybody was to be everyone’s son or daughter, sister or brother. I thought it was very touching and true to the real nature of family. RIP, Cash.

  2. At least he went out on a high note – ‘The Man Comes Around’ reminded everyone that Cash still had more integrity and talent than most contemporary artists put together.

    And I hope I’m at least 1/10th as cool at 71 as Johnny was. He was the coolest old man ever.

  3. I met Johnny and June one time in 1969, in a place best forgotten. He introduced himself to the three of us and asked us where we were from and how we were doing. I will always remember that he intitiated the conversation, not us. It was the kind of guy he was! God rest his soul.

  4. Ladies and gentlemen, Johnny Cash is dying.

    More importantly, Johnny Cash is LIVING.

    He has not yet shuffled off this mortal coil. Although he is marching to the scaffold, he is not there yet.

    I know that you will join me in mourning him when he’s gone, I hope that you will join me in celebrating his life while it is in progress.

    Cash lives, and thank God that he does!

  5. My comments previously were made before checking the morning news. I am deeply saddened by this.

    Love and prayers to Cash’s family.

    At that, I revise what I have said, but contend: CASH LIVES. In every one of us who play his music, CASH LIVES.

  6. No, the circle won’t be broken

    By and by, Lord, by and by…

    Daddy’ll sing bass

    Mama’ll sing tenor

    Me and little brother will join right in there

    In the sky, Lord, in the sky.

  7. Why does it seem the Grim Reaper takes in quantities of 3? First Wesley Willis, then Warren Zevon, now Johnny Cash. What a fucked up, sad week…

    Johnny, thanks for so many amazing songs. You lived a life both long and full, and carried yourself with a strong dignity. Here’s to hoping that you and June are now together, sipping a glass of champagne in the Hereafter, and showing God that not only bad guys wear black. And say hi to Hank W. for us.

  8. Cash might have looked like he had one foot in the grave with the “Hurt” video, but that doesn’t make it any easier.


  9. Did anyone catch 60 Minutes’ profile of Cash, which they did in the 70s, it looked like, but ran on Sunday night? Cash was interviewed by Harry Reasoner, and he (Cash) just seemed so regular and down to earth. Spoke with total honesty about his own excesses. No legend-playing.

    I also found it very impressive how, recently, he kept up with contemporary music — he even covered a Will Oldham song! For a onetime Nashville regular to go that deep into “outsider” territory is very cool, in the best way, meaning heart.

    He was a great person, and will be much missed.

    Did anyone else find it weird that there was no mention in the profile of Roseanne Cash, his daughter by his first marriage, and a singer like him?

  10. “UN-F..KING Believable!” That’s how I would describe the SUPERIOR EFFFORT that went into the making of the HURT Video, featuring the life of Johnny Cash! I’m a former country DJ, and musician. I remember attending a Johnny Cash concert at a Baltimore suburb hall called “Painters Mill” in the mid 70’s. This was a circle in the round if their ever was one! The stage at Painters Mill revolved around so that EVRY seat in this {former} auditorium put you right in front. With the Carter Family, Johnny entertained with budding star Marty Stewart, and veteran Opry singer Jan Howard {wife of the late legendary songwriter Harlan Howard}. I believe the famous quartet The Statler Brothers were also on that venue. Later in life I took a pilgrimage to Nashville. this was in the early 80’s, and the town was no Mecca like I had been led to believe! Instead of walking through the stench of a has-been town, I decided to do the tourist thing and take a tourist bus on the tour of the country starts homes. I’ll never forget seeing the estate of June and Johnny. The home had levels upon levels, flowing down to what I believe was the Cumberland River. I think naturalist Jack Hanna’s home would be out-done with the likes of this place! I thank God that the HURT Video was made, and the EXCELLENT review written on their web site was right on target. I learned of a flood that took the ‘house of Cash’ museum. I visited there when on my tour of Nashville {actually, I believe it sits in a town called Hendersonville}. When I went inside the museum, who would be working the cash register but Johnny Cash’s Mother! Talk about humbling experience!

    Bill Wood – Greenbelt, MD [email protected]

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