News Article September 22, 2003
The three-day shoot for the video was about to wrap, and director Mark
Romanek needed just one more shot from his singer star, Johnny Cash. As
Romanek recalls, "I said to John, 'This is the last take. So if you
want to get angry or smash something up, this is your last chance.'"
Cash didn't get it. He thought Romanek meant this would be the final shot
in the ailing star's life, so he had better make it good. Cash wouldn't,
couldn't surrender to such defeatism. "I hope it's not the last
take," he said in that baritone growl, which for nearly a
half-century brought matters of death to musical life.
When Cash did the video for Hurt last year, he was hurting.
Indeed, for 15 years he had been in near constant pain. Decades of drug
dependency, since conquered, had sapped him. So had heart surgery,
diabetes and the medication he took in 1998 for Shy-Drager syndrome, a
fatal neurological disease. (The diagnosis was incorrect, and Cash weaned
himself from the medication.) Failing eyesight made it difficult for him
to read his beloved books on Roman and early Christian history. A dentist,
tending to Cash's teeth problems, had broken his jaw and never fixed it
properly, the singer once said. Cash was then told he could have surgery,
which might end his singing career, or take pain-killers, which could
retrigger his drug addition. He chose instead to live with the pain—all
of it. "He told me that the only time he didn't feel pain," says
author Charles Hirshberg, who spent much time with Cash in his last years,
"was when he was onstage."
Moreover, the song Cash had to enact, by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch
Nails, is an intense cry of pain dished out and taken—a dirge for a life
misspent in rancor. "The facet of John that it explores is serious,
somber and angry," Romanek notes. "But between takes, the John
Cash I saw was someone more active and sprightly than he looks in the
video." When Romanek asked the singer's wife June Carter Cash if she
would appear briefly in the video, the Man in Black puckishly suggested,
"Yeah, honey, why don't you dance naked on the piano here while I'm
playing?" The room roared.
"I can't go on, I'll go on," wrote Samuel Beckett, whose
plays and novels are no more depressing than your average country lament.
John R. Cash (his first producer, Sun Records boss Sam Phillips, dubbed
him Johnny) had every right to sing the country blues. Demons found him
even when he wasn't looking for them. He dressed like a hip coroner and
sang like a gunman turned Pentecostal preacher. His haunting songs
perfectly matched his haunted voice. Rarely before Cash had a singer taken
vocal pain—not the adolescent shriek of most rock singers but the
abiding ache of a veteran victim—and made it so audible, so immediate,
so dark and deep. Rarely, before or since, has a voice also shown the grit
to express, endure and outlive that misery. His songs played like
confessions on a deathbed or death row, but he delivered them with the
plangent stoicism of a world-class poker player dealt a bum hand.
That—and his determination to transcend or ignore musical
genres—made Cash's death last week, at 71, an event that provoked a
serious sense of loss among people of all ages. Children of the '50s
remember the startle of his first eminence: the one Southern star who was
not a rebellious kid but a grownup with cavernous eyes and a voice to
match. Kids of the '60s recall his pop hits, the TV show he was host of
for two years and the easy alliances he formed with musicians beyond
country's borders. The X and next generations know his old songs as if
they were standards, and his boldly simple later work—especially Hurt,
which was nominated for six MTV awards—as emblems of moral and musical
purity, an antidote to the glitz and aggression of teen icons. Cash made
patriarchal integrity cool.
He carried that integrity around the world. "He's loved in
countries that don't even like Americans," says singer-songwriter
Kris Kristofferson, who was a janitor at a Nashville recording studio in
1965 when he first met Cash. "I've seen that firsthand in the places
we've played. People love him because of everything he represents:
freedom, justice for his fellow man. He is unlike any other artist I've
ever known. He's as comfortable with the poor and prisoners as he is with
Presidents. He's crossed over all age boundaries, all political
boundaries. I like to think of him as Abraham Lincoln with a wild
The stature Cash embodies is not so much out of fashion as above it.
His CDs are found in the country section of the music store, but he
doesn't quite fit there. He came up with rockabilly phenoms like Elvis
Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, but few of his songs were
hard-driving rave-ups. I Walk the Line, Ring of Fire, Folsom Prison
Blues—these are, if anything, contemporary folk songs. Cash sang of
specific injustices and eternal truths; he was the deadpan poet of cotton
fields, truck stops and prisons. He was a balladeer, really, a
spellbinding storyteller—a witness, in the Christian sense of the word.
Here was a man who knew the Commandments because he had broken so many of
As the decades wore on, and Cash notched his annual eight months on the
road, experience and excess left their marks on his face, like a hammer
pounding tin. He had the battered charisma of an action-movie star who did
his own fights. Here was a man who had earned his craggy good looks, his
Old Testament God voice, his unique hold on the pop-cultural imagination.
Here, three generations of music lovers agreed, was a man—in all his
imperfections and grandeur.
If a fighter is sucker punched by fate, as the characters in many Cash
songs are, then the heroic thing is to punch back. Cash, as a man and an
artist, had the strength to see that bad times may be not a curse but a
challenge. His biggest pop hit, the Shel Silverstein song A Boy Named
Sue, might be considered comic frivolity for a man whose voice and
choice of material more typically dealt in darkness. But the story of a
man searching out the father who gave him a girl's name has its own
Cashian moral. At the end of a brutal brawl, the father mutters, "You
oughta thank me before I die/ For the gravel in your guts and the spit in
your eye/ 'Cause I'm the son of a bitch that named you Sue."
Adversity made Cash a man, mature and honorable.
He was born into adversity, in 1932, as the fourth of five children of
farmers in Kingsland, Ark. For his family, as with others in the
Depression-wracked area, cotton was the Cash crop. "We planted cotton
in the spring, and we picked it in the fall," says Merline Hall, 77,
a childhood friend of the Cash children. "And you used your fingers.
There were not any [mechanical] pickers back then. At least, none of us
had one." She recalls John as "a good kid" who sang (while
his mother Carrie played piano) at the Central Baptist Church. "It
was not a false voice," says Hall. "How do you describe it? Let
me just say that when he sang, he meant every word he sang. It was the
Christian in him."
After high school, Cash worked at an auto plant in Pontiac, Mich., and
in 1950 joined the Air Force. He came home, married Vivian Liberto and
settled with her in Memphis, Tenn. This was in 1954, and by the next year
he had a deal with Sun Records, which had launched Presley's career. Hey,
Porter, backed by Cry, Cry, Cry, was his first hit. Around that
time, with the help of Phillips and producer Jack Clement, Presley (who
would shortly move on to RCA Victor and megastardom) and two other young
men, Perkins and Lewis, would create the rockabilly branch of rock 'n'
After Presley's contract was sold to Colonel Tom Parker for $25,000,
Perkins had a pop-and-country smash with Blue Suede Shoes, and
Lewis followed a year later with the primal boogie Whole Lotta Shakin'
Goin' On. On Dec. 4, 1956, Cash joined the rockers, now known as the
Million Dollar Quartet, for an impromptu jam session. Astonishingly,
Lewis—the all-time most reckless rock 'n' roller, whom Cash flew in to
comfort when Lewis nearly died in the '80s—is the last man standing.
"You know," he said in sad wonder last week, "I'm the only
one left." (Lewis interrupted his Jacksonville, Fla., concert last
Friday night to perform the sacred song Vacation in Heaven in
In any class portrait, one notices the similarities. But in this group,
Cash stood out—not just with his grave voice and lifer's stare, but with
the somber production of his songs. The lyrics Cash wrote for his
signature hit I Walk the Line express an unexceptional sentiment:
because I love you, I behave. But the thumping bass line and Cash's
delivery ("I keep my eyes wide open all the time") make the mood
part predatory, part paranoid. Even the upbeat love story Ballad of a
Teenage Queen has a spooky side; it sounds as if it's beamed from the
bottom of the well of loneliness. Phillips used acoustical reverbs on many
Sun productions, but Cash hardly needed it. His voice was its own eerie
echo chamber. "His voice was painful, it emoted so much ache and
realness," says country star Tim McGraw, who, with his wife Faith
Hill, forms a new-generation Cash-Carter duo. "There wasn't anything
unreal when you heard Johnny Cash. Faith said today, 'He's the only man in
black who can walk straight through the Pearly Gates.'"
Cash moved to Columbia records in 1958, where he had more menacing
hits, including the admonitory Ring of Fire ("Love is a
burning thing,/ And it makes a fiery ring / Bound by wild desire,/ I fell
into a ring of fire"). Some think this was the time of prime Johnny
Cash. "He was at his most powerful in the early '60s," says
writer-publisher Jack Hurst, author of a book on the Grand Ole Opry.
"Back then he was so deeply into the amphetamines that he had lost an
awful lot of weight. He looked like a wraith, but a powerful wraith. He
was like a prowling tiger onstage. You could see the man fighting demons.
This was around the time he was recording Ballads of the True West, and I
think he saw visions of himself as an outlaw, with a noose around his
neck. He re-created this in his own persona. Against the other side of him
it created this huge dramatic tension." Inside Cash, the churchman
and the outlaw were having a brawl.
Being on the road for weeks, driving from one town to the next, was
exhilarating and exhausting. Country star George Jones, 72, recalls the
days when Cash hired him, the Statler Brothers, Stonewall Jackson and
other scrounging singers to fill out his tour bill. "Lord, I don't
know what we would have done without him," Jones says. "He was
our meal ticket." The nonstop nights on the road led to drug and
alcohol binges. "We went through those hard times together,"
Jones says. "We would try to help each other pull through. We'd get
together in the dressing room after a show, talk about the mistakes we
were making—the pills, the booze, what have you. His first wife Vivian
was a wonderful lady. She went through a lot of hell with him. I know she
couldn't stand it any more."
It takes a sinner to appreciate the blinding glare of grace. Cash saw
the light in 1967, when he began spending quality time with June Carter,
of the legendary country clan the Carter family. Carter urged Cash, who
was trying to kick his addiction to prescription drugs, to attend services
with her at the First Baptist Church of Hendersonville, Tenn. "He
said he didn't think he was ready for that," recalls the church's
minister Courtney Wilson. "But she told him they could go late and
leave early. They came late and sat in the back." That day marked the
revival of Cash's churchgoing and the beginning of his great love. He and
Carter were married in 1968.
He was even closer to June than to Jesus, but his two loves were
connected. "They had a deep, really mystical bond—their love for
one another," says Hirshberg, who collaborated with author Mark
Zwonitzer on Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? The Carter Family and
Their Legacy in American Music. "It was deeply undergirded with
both religion and a total sense, a real deep-down-where-it-counts belief
that God had brought them together. They considered their marriage—the
fact that they had found each other—to be a miracle of their faith.
Their marriage was an absolute religious experience for both of
A solid marriage doesn't guarantee career longevity, but Cash managed
both. "We had more than one discussion about the ageism of country
and rock," says rocker Tom Petty, who recorded and toured with Cash.
"When something's gone past that demographic of appealing to people
in their 20s, they don't think it's good anymore. Yet here was the perfect
case of a guy who was growing older and his music was growing with
him." It was Cash who took Bob Dylan to Music City to make the 1969
Nashville Skyline. Later, he guested on songs with Ray Charles, Emmylou
Harris and U2. In the '80s, he teamed with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings
and Kristofferson for a sometime supergroup called the Highwaymen.
Cash was also loyal to old friends down on their luck. "Johnny
always carried people who needed help," says Knox Phillips, Sam's
son. "He hired Carl Perkins as part of his band and put him on his TV
show, out of love. He did the same for Jerry Lee. No matter how down
someone might be or how negative his reputation had become, Johnny always
had a come-on-in-and-help-yourself attitude for them." And in 1994
Cash found a sympathetic producer in Rick Rubin, co-founder of the
rock-and-rap label Def Jam. It was Rubin's inspiration to return Cash to
his roots: the voice, a guitar and the sparest backing. The result was the
four American albums. These CDs didn't go platinum—they barely went
rhinestone. But they validated Cash's status and towering stature. The
latest one, The Man Comes Around, proves to be the perfect send-off for an
artist who was failing in everything but artistry. It's Cash's own elegy,
eulogy and last words.
The 15 songs include a mess of heartbreak and three wrongful deaths.
Throughout, the gravity of Cash's voice lends something sepulchral to the
fondest lyrics. When, in his version of Ewan MacColl's The First Time
Ever I Saw Your Face, he intones, "I know our joy would fill the
earth," he could be singing from under it. And in Hurt (the
song and the soul-whammingly evocative video) his performance synopsizes a
lifetime of anguish. "I hurt myself today/ To see if I still
feel," he drones. "I will let you down. I will make you
hurt." It is the testimony of a man apologizing for living while
preparing for death.
On June's next-to-last album, Press On, she duetted with John on Terry
Smith's Far Side Banks of Jordan—a song that Cash felt perfectly
described their relationship. It's about two elderly people facing the end
of their lives, and inevitable separation. June Carter Cash made that trip
first, on May 15 of this year, after complications from heart surgery.
Cash was devastated. He knew that if he was to survive June's death, it
would be through the thing he knew best: work. "About three days
after June passed away," says country music star Marty Stuart, who
toured with Cash for 24 years and was for a time married to Johnny's
daughter Cindy, "John's son John Carter called me and said, 'Daddy
wants to record.' It was the best news I heard in a long time. We all
gathered around him and made close to 50 songs." The microphone
seemed to be a source of healing and comfort.
Can a wound like the death of the love of one's life ever heal? Not
easily; maybe not ever. "He tried to contain himself," Reverend
Wilson says, "but her passing took his last spark, the last bit of
his heart." Cash admitted as much. "I don't know hardly what to
say tonight about being up here without her," he said at his first
public appearance after her death, at the Carter Family Fold country music
festival in Hiltons, Va. "The pain is so severe there is no way of
The pain could be described not in words but in sobs. "One day
there was just the two of us sitting there," Stuart recalls,
"and he broke down and started crying and said, 'Man, I miss her so
bad.' I didn't know what to say, so I held his hand. He loved my wife
Connie, who's been a friend to that family for a long time. He grabbed my
hand and said, 'Son, cling to her; cling to her; cling to her.' What I saw
at that moment is that he would have traded every bit of fame,
fortune—everything that Johnny Cash meant to the world—for five
minutes with June."
Two weeks before Cash's death, Jones and his wife Nancy paid a visit.
"He had just gotten back from the dentist," Jones says. "He
had numb lips and all. He stayed seated just about the whole time we were
there. But he was in a good mood. He said he was fixing to get up and
throw that wheelchair away, and he was going back to work." But to
others Cash revealed his resignation. Wilson, who visited Cash at
Nashville's Baptist Hospital, says, "He was aware things were closing
down for him, and he was at peace. He was ready to go home to God."
So many Cash songs speak of the hereafter as if it were waiting,
patiently, urgently, in the next room, as if it were
comforting—especially for a man who had wrestled his demons to a draw
and learned to walk the line—to think of death not as a psycho killer
but as a kindly escort. In September When It Comes, a duet recorded
this year with his daughter Rosanne, Cash speak-sings this poignant
prophecy: "They will fly me, like an angel,/ To a place where I can
rest/ When this begins, I'll let you know,/ September when it comes."
For Cash, September came last week, as Americans coped with a more
general mourning. And if some felt shock at the news of Cash's passing,
they could segue into celebration over a difficult life made exemplary, an
outlaw redeemed by a woman's devotion. Besides, if you believe, the Man in
Black is now garbed in white, and the doting husband has eternity to spend
with his beloved. In a song she composed on the day of Cash's death,
country singer Shelby Lynne imagines a sweet reconciliation—the next act
of a beautiful duet on a new stage:
Hey, my darlin'
Hey, my sweet
I've waited on the day when I knew we would meet
Hey, my sun
Hey, my moon
Today's the day when Johnny met June
TO THE MAN IN BLACK
Sale Now September 20, 2003
Somehow, it didn’t seem
possible that Johnny Cash could be dead.
A resilient survivor of personal
upheavals, a vanquisher of internal
demons, a towering master of his art, he was an elemental force in
America’s cultural landscape. Through music, on television, in movies
and with the written word, his presence left and indelible imprint over
the past five decades.
Like Mount Rushmore or the Mississippi River, it seemed almost unthinkable
that someday he simply wouldn’t be there.
But that’s what happened on September 12, when he passed away at
Nashville’s Baptist Hospital, losing a final battle with respiratory
failure brought on by diabetes.
He was a superstar who spoke for the commoner, a musician who ignored
boundaries, a songwriter who set new standards for clarity, gravity and
honesty. He boldly confronted and publicly acknowledged his weaknesses of
the flesh and spirit. He created one of country’s most durable love
stories, and a bedrock of American musical legacy.
We’re honored to pay tribute to his remarkable life and his amazing
career. In the 120 pages "Farewell to the Man in Black "
Tribute,. In it, you’ll find the incredible story of Johnny’s journey
from Arkansas sharecropper to international superstar. You’ll read about
the powerful, sustaining relationship with June Carter that fueled his
life and his music. And you’ll discover a treasure trove of rarely seen
photos of Johnny as a performer, TV star and family man.
Johnny may be gone, but his influence and his legacy will live on. Please
join us as we salute the Man in Black, a true American original.
Super Star, rebel, Family Man,
Johnny Cash Blazed a Trail Through American Culture But found His Greatest
glory In Love And Faith
Johnny Cash’s long black
shadow loomed large over America for the last half century. With 1,500
records songs and 500 albums, he influenced artist in every genre, from
country’s Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw to rock’s Mick Jagger and Bob
Dylan. His body of work was so timeless and prolific, he became the first
star elected to both the Country and Rock and Roll halls of fame and
he’s been honored countless times with every conceivable award.
Equally at ease performing
for presidents and prisoner’s, Johnny was embraced by generations. When
he debuted on the charts in the 50’s fans flocked to the voice behind
“I Walk The Line” in the late 60’s he captured mainstream America
with his network TV show, but also spoke for the alienated youth of the
nation with the Vietnam war anthem “What Is Truth”. Six recent
nomination (and one win) for his video “Hurt” at the 2003 MTV awards
show, proved he still connects with kids, who admire his music, passion
When he died in Nashville
Sept. 12th at age 71, Johnny Cash was still cool. Earlier this
year he won his 11th Grammy his first came 35 years ago. Johnny
also had four nominations for the upcoming CMA Awards, including one for
his latest album. Should he come up with a win in any category, it would
serve as poetic justice – he’s not won a CMA honor since 1969, the
year he set the record with five award. In later years, he would express
his feelings that country music gatekeepers – Radio, the industry, even
the CMA itself had moved on and left him behind. For all of his success,
Johnny was a man plagued by personal demons stemming in part from his
impoverished hardscrabble childhood and his Christian faith which drove
him to drug abuse and well-publicized rebellion.
But marrying June Carter in
1968 would be his greatest triumph. Her love and devotion saved him and
helped him conquer his addictions. June’s rekindled his spiritual
passion because he needed it; he understood Christian teachings because he
knew how much he’d disobeyed them. Johnny and June’s was a love story
for ages that lasted until they separated by death. When June passed away
in May 2003 many thought that Johnny couldn’t go on without his soul
mate. He confessed at the time, “the pain is so severe there is no way
to describe it” And then, almost four months to the day that June died,
his pain ended at last – and Johnny and June have surly joined together
once more …in heaven
Weekly Magazine Article Oct 2003