Thank You For Your Truth
"Well I know what's right/I've got just one life/In a world that keeps on pushing me around/But I'll stand my ground/And I won't back down."
Johnny Cash is dying. The Man in Black, weak and old and falling apart - a man in retreat? The first track from his latest and in his own words probably last album, Solitary Man: American Recordings III, throbs out of the speakers by way of response. Guitar first, big as the plains, and then that voice. That rich, deep voice saturated in experience, hopelessness, despair, redemption, cigarettes, booze, roads that lead to nowhere, and then more. More roads, more nights, more loves, more pain. Johnny Cash, up against the wall, peering into the darkness, has the answer: "I won't back down." The only tragedy is the unresolved, and Johnny Cash is very far from finding his resolution. Johnny Cash is terrifyingly alive.
Listening to his recordings from the 1990's feels, at times, like eavesdropping on a man in his most intimate moments, in a confession to the night or kind of last will and testament. Johnny Cash has never been one to hide either from himself or the world around him, but there is something uniquely special about his work with producer Rick Rubin. Perhaps it is partly because so many people had consigned him to memory as a songwriter past his peak and fit to be dusted off and praised only in death, when all sins - even musical ones - are forgiven (or forgotten, which amounts to the same thing). Yet here he is, still very much with us, and producing arguably the best music of his career, work that embodies all the strength and frailty that makes music essential to our lives. Songs with which to soundtrack the moments, remember in sickness and health, and feel better for having known. Yes, there is something thrilling, even empowering, to the knowledge that Johnny Cash cannot and will not be kept down.
But that isn't all. I don't imagine old age to be much different from drowning, except perhaps that it is slower, and that the past haunts us in images that linger long enough to almost come alive once more. And so, on his last three albums, Johnny Cash sounds like a man coming full circle. He has no time to waste on words that do anything less than sing the songs of his soul, whether that means reaching back to his childhood ('That Lucky Old Sun'), or making his plea with Heaven ('Spiritual'). The cover versions he selects, most notably U2's 'One', Kris Kristoferson's 'The Beast in Me', or Nick Cave's 'The Mercy Seat', are examples of a great craftsmen breathing his own kind of life into the sometimes surprising songs he sets about interpreting, while the orignals - 'Country Boy', 'Delia's Gone' and 'Field of Diamonds', amongst others - display his undiminished power as a songwriter.
If music could be boiled down to just two categories, I think we would be left with Classical and Folk or, risking over-analysis, Abstract Metaphysical and Human Metaphysical. Folk music, like poetry and every other art-form that finds its shape in individual voices, is really nothing more or less than The Song of Songs (or, for the less Occidentally inclined, The Book of the Dead) - praise of life in the arms of aching pain. Johnny Cash's last three albums are Folk in its purest form, tragic and exciting. Each of his songs sounds and feels like a piece of himself set free, invoking the places where he lives. It is praying by an unmade bed, cabins in Tennessee, driving in beaten-up trucks, wrestling with an instrument to give form to what the fingers know. One man, one guitar, and his truth to tell. On the recordings, silence is as articulate as sound, and at times, if I close my eyes and give myself over, it feels as if the music doesn't even exist in the outside world at all, but that it has taken root and found existence only inside me. It becomes like an addiction, trying to find a space were honesty and music can form themselves freely. How healthy that is, I don't know, but I do know that other people give me strength, and their dignity to face themselves more than anything else, and that it is, at least for me, as necessary to know that other people live or have lived in acceptance of the darkness and the light of their souls as it is to breathe in and out. Make of that what you will.
A friend of mine described Johnny Cash's music as appealing to the lowest common denominator in a positive way, but I can't reconcile myself to the associations of that phrase. It makes me think of studio technicians uniting people through vacant manipulated beats. I prefer to think of Johnny Cash as appealing to the highest common denominator, not necessarily through complexity, but through raw, stripped to the bone, power. When I start listening to his 90's recordings, I can't stop, not until the bitter end, when there is just dead silence in the room. And in the silence I feel a question forming, a challenge taking shape: "That was his truth. What is yours?" And I think that it's terrifying to feel so terrifyingly alive.
© Ruvi Simmons 2002