Why we still love the ‘man in black’

A radio series on Johnny Cash explains why this singer of dark’n’moody country songs still lives in our affections.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

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Even in death, Johnny Cash remains a rather curious popular icon. Or so it would seem on the surface. After all, his music belongs to that most unfashionable of musical genres – country – while his much-loved miserable dirges continue to beg that old philosophical question: why do we enjoy unhappy music? This is the eternal aesthetic paradox. Like vindaloo curries, horror films or scary fairground rides, the music of Johnny Cash confounds the simplistic pleasure-pain dichotomy.

The Times (London) obituary of 2003 said of Cash: ‘His stature as an artist and his maverick attitude combined to make him the country star who appealed to young rock’n’roll devotees, to conventional folk audiences, to people who don’t like country and to hardcore fans alike.’ Cash still resonates with people who would otherwise give country very short shrift, who associate that type of music with hicks in the American southern states, moonshine, incest, racism, criminality, cowboy hats, the NRA, Nascar and being retarded in general. Cash is to country what Metallica is to heavy metal, or Eminem to rap: the act that it’s socially acceptable to admit you like. He is an exception to a rule.

Johnny Cash performs ‘Ring of Fire’ in 1963.

This week’s radio series BBC 6 Plays it Again: Johnny Cash has been giving us some insight into Cash’s universal appeal. It has reiterated the observation that his allure transgresses age and taste. His songs were all about universals: ‘tragedy, death and disaster.’ The series presenter Paul Gambaccini has been guiding us through familiar territory, regarding Cash’s impoverished background, his depression, his substance addiction, and the fact that his sparse, hypnotic rhythms make you feel like you are on a train.

The series, which coincides with the release of the posthumous album American VI – Ain’t No Grave, is a repeat. But it is no worse for that. It is always worth hearing about Johnny Cash, as much as it is hearing Johnny Cash’s music itself. His life and works remind you about what it’s like to be human.

Johnny Cash performs ‘Walk the line’.

I suppose that it’s difficult to speak or write about Cash without following the ‘drink ‘n’ pills’ formula. And without pointing out that June Carter was the love of his life and he was irrecoverably devastated by her death. And that his songs had religious, metaphysical undertones. Or that he was the eternal champion of the poor and disenfranchised.

And there is no exception to that formula in the BBC 6 series. Yet it has thrown up some fascinating vignettes. I hadn’t realised that Cash did not actually have a proper baptismal name. He was registered simply as ‘JR’, and only adopted the first name ‘Johnny’ when he was required to do so upon entering the US Air Force. I suppose not having a real name as a child would make you a bit screwy in the head.

I didn’t know that Cash was a drug-smuggler and fire-starter, and that the song ‘Jackson’ referred to his conviction for arson and his consequent spiritual rehabilitation thanks to June Carter. I didn’t know that he covered Bob Dylan’s first tunes (which are forgettable, and now, mercifully, mostly forgotten) or that his first political songs were in solidarity not with prisoners, but with indigenous American Indians.

Johnny Cash and June Carter sing ‘Jackson’.

Gambaccini is sympathetic in this series, a warm and authoritative presenter figure who really should be given greater prominence on the airwaves. The four-part series concludes at midnight tonight (Thursday 25 February) and I recommend that you listen to it. The last instalment will undoubtedly be about Cash’s bereaved final years, tortured soul, enfeebled voice, discovery of the works of U2 and Nine Inch Nails, and so on, but I’m sure it’ll still be worth it. Just as the Cash story has eternal resonance, so his music has ongoing vital appeal.

This is not to say that the ‘man in black’ is worthy of unqualified adoration or absolution. Nor is this series. It fell to temptation by indulging in Cash’s performance at San Quentin prison in 1969, comprehending this gesture as a sign of the singer’s desire to humanise the dehumanised. Now, I’m all for rehabilitation, repentance and forgiveness and all that. I’m not even sure that the death penalty is efficacious or morally defensible. But I do think that the murderers who ended up in death row in San Quentin were the scum of the Earth. By appearing at this penitentiary, in the ostensible defence of the defenceless, Cash was putting psychopaths and violent criminals on a moral par with the poor and those who are genuinely disenfranchised through no fault of their own. Rather than San Quentin, he should instead have played a live gig at a hospital, hospice or orphanage.

A live performance of ‘Hurt’ with Nine Inch Nails. Watch Johnny Cash’s video for ‘Hurt’ here.

Perhaps Cash was too much of a damaged character to tell the difference between the deserving and undeserving downtrodden. As he reflected in the song ‘Hurt’, for which he will probably be best remembered, he was ‘full of broken thoughts’ that he could ‘not repair’. In an age when suffering, misery, introspection and self-pity have become the familiar avenues of self-definition, we let artists like Cash get away with simplifying sentimentalism. We indulge Cash because he has become totemic of victimhood, a perception solidified by the 2005 film Walk The Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix – a troubled actor who has suffered his own real-life personal tragedies.

The trailer for Walk The Line.

Yet, there are cultural shifts, and there is the timeless human condition. Yes, we do live in self-pitying, morbid times, but humanity has always been preoccupied by loss, regret, sorrow and death. There always have been and always will be melancholics and depressives, alcoholics and drug addicts, who look upon life as a bewildering, intolerable vale of tears. People still listen to Cash, or the Smiths or Radiohead for the same reason people still read Anna Karenina, listen to La Bohème or watch Hamlet and King Lear. Tragedy in the arts has always been an avenue through which people seek to understand the quandary that is existence. For as long as humanity enjoys being unhappy, we will always have the music of Johnny Cash.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV and radio reviewer. Read his blog here.

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