Johnny Cash Sings “Hurt”

Listen to this track by venerable country-folk patriarch and one-time Man In Black Johnny Cash. It’s “Hurt”, a song as taken from his 2002 album American Recordings IV: The Man Comes Around, Cash’s 87th (!) studio album, and last to be released in his lifetime.  As may be ascertained, that album was one in a series starting from the 1990s that had Johnny Cash working with producer Rick Rubin, showcasing material that on the surface seemed to be unlikely candidates for songs for Johnny Cash to cover.

This is certainly one of those songs, written by Trent Reznor the creative fulcum behind industrial rock outfit Nine Inch Nails. Upon hearing that Cash would cover his song, Reznor was flattered. But even he thought it might be an awkward fit for the guy who once had a hit with “A Boy Named Sue”. And yet, even Reznor would discover that through this new version of the track from an unlikely, and some might say mismatched, connection between artist and material, that there were hidden layers of meaning that could be brought out in his own song. Cash’s take on the song was a hit, as was the album off of which it had come; his best selling, non-compilation album in decades. But by the time this song was recorded, Johnny Cash was not a well man, suffering from neurodegenerative disease Shy-Drager syndrome. It shows on this performance. It certainly was demonstrably true as evidenced by the gut-wrenching video that accompanied it.

This goes well beyond the realm of commercial success of course. This remains to be one of those songs that goes beyond its writer, and in many ways also beyond Johnny Cash. And maybe that’s why it had such impact. Read more

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Nick Lowe Sings “The Beast In Me”

Nick LoweListen to this track by former Johnny Cash son-in-law and seasoned singer-songwriter Nick Lowe. It’s “The Beast In Me”, a highlight from his career-shifting 1994 record The Impossible Bird.

This record would represent something of a comeback for Lowe, at a time when he’d cut any hope of being a “pop star” loose, and embraced those influences that had inspired him to become a songwriter and musician in the first place instead. One such influence was Johnny Cash, who by the late 1970s had also become his father-in-law, since Nick had married Carlene Carter, Cash’s stepdaughter.

This song was written after the spark of an idea spurred its author to work on a new song well into the night, with the help of three bottles (or so) of wine. The results took a while to gestate, and not without a modicum of pain and embarassment first. Read more

Johnny Cash Sings “Cocaine Blues” At Folsom Prison

Johnny Cash At Folsom PrisonListen to this track by the original outlaw and country-rockabilly badass Man-in-Black Johnny Cash with the live version of his take on T.J “Red” Arnall’s “Cocaine Blues” as taken from his titanic  1968 At Folsom Prison album.  This is a monumental track from an historic record that mixes two warring ingredients that drove Cash up until then, and arguably continued to drive him; violence and spirituality.

Here’s a tale of the former, the story of wife-killer and cokehead Willy Lee, who shoots his other half and high-tails it, too slow as it turns out, to Juarez Mexico, only to be picked up by the Law. The song is barked out by Cash, who is hoarse and enthusiastic as the narrator of this tale of outlawry, delivering it to a roomful of men who may well have been guilty of some of the same things as the ill-fated Willy Lee.

But, what is happening with the performance of this tale of drug abuse and murder is actually the exact opposite of that side of human activity: this is ministry.

Thus, the song represents both sides of Cash’s coin, just by the sheer audacity he had by singing it to the prisoners of Folsom Prison. Performing this tale of murder and desperation becomes an act of empathy, and compassion.

Read more

Johnny Cash Bio-pic ‘Walk the Line’ Extended Cut

Johnny Cash Walk the Line MovieRead this review of the the recently released 2 disc set of the 2005 movie now available, with extended scenes of the film and deleted scenes, extended scenes, and a number of featurettes which gives the uninitiated a view into the element which made Cash the man he was as a musician, and as a human being too.

Joseph Campbell talked about the hero cycles of ancient myths, that every mythic tale follows the same pattern. We love to hear stories again and again because they resonate with our perceptions of the human experience. Walk the Line (Extended Cut) shows that not much has changed. We still want to hear and see stories about the heroes and titans of our time, to discover the humanity behind the legend. Recently, the movie Walk Hard proved that the music bio-pic is pretty easy to make fun of. That’s because even the most interesting tales of the lives of some of our most beloved musicians follows a pattern too. This usually involves a dreary backdrop of poverty and boredom, often in a dull small town or dangerous inner city. It often involves a depressed childhood too, or some childhood trauma that shapes the man. Then, we have the stuggles to become known, the meteoric rise to fame, the relationship difficulties, the drugs, the decent into hell (whatever form that may take), and the redemption from it. Along the way, a love story helps too.

With the story of Johnny Cash and June Carter, we get all of this. And with some Hollywood intervention and stretches of the truth in places, we get a box office smash aimed at the casual music fan as well as at the casual movie goer who likes a bit of romance, tragedy, human failures and weaknesses, and the healing power of true love as well. But, if you’re looking for a portrayal that sheds light on who Cash was, as far as this film goes, you’ll have to find it elsewhere.

The real Johnny Cash stands as a paragon of musical integrity. When he sings, you believe every word, even about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die. As such, Joaquin Phoenix had big boots to fill, and he doesn’t quite make it, despite his obvious talent. The impression one is left with is a man who is doing a good job of portraying Cash, but not really inhabiting him or helping to give dimension to the legend. Phoenix plays Cash as a vulnerable man-child. Phoenix’s Cash is easily led, easily hurt, and is generally weak willed. We see none of his strength, his integrity, his sense of purpose. This part of it for me was disappointing, particularly considering that the real Johnny Cash was involved in the script, working with director James Mangold.

Here’s a video except taken from one of the featurettes from the extended cut of the movie which talks about the strength of the man, the core characteristic which made him such an admirable figure among his peers:

Fortunately, Reese Witherspoon’s June Carter adds the strength of character the story requires of a hero. Carter is a woman growing up as a modern day princess in the Carter Family, the key architects in forming what is known as country music for everyone who would follow them. Again, the mythic significance here is pretty powerful, with Cash as the questing hero trying to win the heart of the princess. Yet, it’s the princess who does the saving here, not the hero who is a lost little boy ultimately looking for approval. Witherspoon rises to the challenge in a role which demonstrates her range as well as reminding us just how watchable she is. It may well be the Phoenix’s portrayal was felt to be necessary in order to add to how important June Carter was to his redemption. But, that’s a fine balance that really needed to be struck.

Walk the Line Johnny Cash movie Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin PhoenixTo me, we still needed to see that Cash was a pioneer, a mover, and someone who took risks not out of petulance or selfishness, but because he had an inner strength to do what was necessary, despite his flaws. The film suggests Cash’s redemption comes about because he was saved by love. Where this can’t entirely be sidelined – it is a compelling element to Cash’ life – making it central to the story means that Cash’s strength of character is all but absent here. Instead, he becomes a romance novel fantasy figure – the bad boy who only needs the love of a good woman to redeem him. The emphasis on his drug habit hurts the film in this regard too, much like an Elvis picture would if it concentrated on how many peanut butter and banana sandwiches the King ate. For my money, we need to see what made Cash great in spite of the drugs, and in many ways despite June Carter too.

Overall, the retelling of this story is compelling because of the romance angle. Ultimately, this is why this story was made into a movie to start with; good actors in Phoenix and Witherspoon portraying two people in love who must overcome prejudice and their own human failings to preserve that love. And there’s no denying the talent of the two leads, who also do their own singing (Witherspoon in particular is very convincing in this department…) under the tutelage of Americana go-to guy T-Bone Burnett. For this, the film is recommended. And the extras included in this edition of the DVD are outstanding.

If you want to find out who Johnny Cash is and what drove his darkly compelling and intensely believable musical voice, the extras included here shed a bit of light on the man from the point of view of some of his peers and followers. The addition of the featurettes makes this new 2 disc set a worthy purchase in an of itself. Even as a lesson in musical history, from Cash’s touring days, the history of the Carter Family and June Carter’s background, to Cash’s Folsom Prison live album, this makes for interesting and dare I say educational viewing. Even if you’re not a fan of country music, if you care about music in general, the extras here make for some pretty compelling viewing.

Johnny Cash

Johnny CashWhen I was growing up, country music was music for old people. It was a world that had nothing to do with me in my childhood introduction to music of my own; as important and as interesting as income tax and home insurance – it belonged to grown-ups who didn’t have the wherewithal to love the Beatles, Blondie or Gary Numan. But there was a certain power to it that did reach me in places, although I was too young to admit it at the time. One of the major proponents of this undeniable power was the voice, and face of Johnny Cash. I remember his lined, frowning face on weathered album covers and the deep resonance of his voice, embued with a sort of alien beauty. He was, to me, like Elvis’ older and less convinced brother, visiting from another world of trains and of prisons which stood as shadowy counterparts to Elvis’ joyous “Jailhouse Rock”. His music was for grown ups as well, and yet in a different way from other country music I’d ever heard. It wasn’t about irrelevance. It was about ideas that were beyond me at the time; despair, tortured love and redemption.

I suppose the old cliché comes to mind when reading about a legend that has past – that we really don’t know what we had until it’s gone. I think this is certainly true of country music’s establishment in Nashville, who effectively supplanted him and many of his contemporaries from country radio in favour of the big-haired and big-hatted younger artists, many of whom had ironically admired the man from their own childhoods. There is nothing particularly marketable about an old man singing about death from the standpoint of commercial radio and yet this is where country music comes from; a world of isolation, poverty and violence, not unlike the place out of which hip-hop springs. Many of the murder ballads that Cash sang during his 50 year career predated his own birth and were complete with the kind of raw imagery which would later be reflected in numbers like “Folsom Prsion Blues”. Perhaps it is this that former Def Jam founder and producer Rick Rubin saw in Cash before undertaking the now critically acclaimed American Recordings. The thug life was older and more far removed from Compton and Bedford Stuy than he, or anyone else, thought.

Johnny Cash’s death hit me harder than I ever suspected, I suppose because his music has only recently begun to make sense to me. Cash, having come out of a tradition which eluded me for most of my life, has in the end proven to be everything I think an artist should be – impassioned, frank, open-minded, and with a unique voice that is entirely compelling.In the end, Cash saw no walls musically, generationally or otherwise. To Cash, the kind of heartache found in Hank Williams’ “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry” and Trent Rezor’s “Hurt” are the same kind of heartache. Cash could see that the genres in which the sentiments are expressed are merely the vehicles for the ideas, and older than those genres themselves. This is an example of his genius as an interpreter, the kind we’ll never see in the same way again. Here is a man who has seen and done much, both positive and negative, and has lived out the consequences of both. Even if no autobiographical information existed, we would believe him because of the authenticity of the voice. We as listeners believe him because he operated within the province of the universal – loneliness, the need for redemption, the drive to harm and the equal drive to stop oneself from harming. Never have such themes been managed with such nakedness and lack of artiface. This is, in the end, entirely relevant to everyone and if such an overused term as “relevance” can be applied to music, surely this is the most meaningful.

Johnny Cash image courtesy of Roberto Garcia