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The Mantra in Black

He appeared exactly 87 years ago this month, then left us a mere 71 years later. Even so, I still have

 

Ten Reasons why JOHNNY CASH Always Matters:

 

  1. “LUTHER PLAYED THE BOOGIE”

Without a red hot and blue band to back it all the way up, even a Man in Black’s powers weaken considerably. That’s why, before first setting out to conquer the world as we knew it, Johnny Cash planted firmly behind him that Tennessee Three so widely known and regarded as Marshall Grant (bass), W.S. “Fluke” Holland (drums), and guitarist-extrordinaire Luther Monroe Perkins (no relation to Carl though).

 

  1. “BIG RIVER”

His brief backstage appearance crooning “I Still Miss Someone” in good pal Bob Dylan’s 1966 Eat The Document severely notwithstanding, perhaps Johnny’s lean, mean vintage performance persona is best exemplified courtesy of that late-Fifties Army recruiting propaganda-fest Country Style USA. The rending therein of “Big River” in particular is absolutely astounding to see and hear even now, as Cash attacks the song – especially its signature G-chord flourishes – with a fervor even Don Everly at his amphetamine crankiest would be heart-pressed to match.

 

  1. “THE MAN, HIS WORLD, HIS MUSIC”

While you’re at the video cache, view that freshly-restored issue of Robert Elfstrom’s Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music. In the great Arriflex-on-the-wall tradition of that other perfectly timeless 1969 documentary Gimme Shelter, the camera tails Johnny as he sadistically fondles a crow in his backyard, rummages through the broken remains of his childhood home, ruminates at the site of the Wounded Knee massacre, waxes extremely philosophic on his tour bus and, you bet, rips it up in front of a typically receptive captive audience.

 

  1. “HELLO, I’M JOHNNY CASH”

Even more riveting than pal B. Dylan’s appearance on ABC-TV’s Johnny Cash Show  was 1971’s special “Johnny Cash On Campus” episode, wherein The Man hauled crew, cameras, the student body of Vanderbilt University and even Neil Young just for good measure directly into the Ryman Auditorium for an evening which climaxed with the first-ever public performance of his brand new signature tune, “Man In Black.” I wear it for the thousands who have died, believing that the Lord was on their side,  Johnny defiantly sang. “Introducing another new single Johnny Cash won’t be able to perform at the White House,” the Columbia Records press release proudly announced the following week.

Johnny Cash Poster

 

  1. “SUNDAY MORNING COMING DOWN”

But Man in Black does not live by social comment alone. Indeed, it was quite common for Johnny to invite his televised guests back to the homestead for a post-taping song swap. One momentous evening when the guitar was duly passed ’round and everyone present was told to try out a new one, Graham Nash offered “Marrakesh Express,” Kris Kristofferson premiered “Me And Bobby McGee,” then the Zimmer Man applied his brand new boudoir voice to a plaintive “Lay Lady Lay.” As if this wasn’t all one night’s entertainment enough though, the inimitable Shel Silverstein then decided to test-drive a strange new number he hadn’t even considered shopping across Music City just yet. Johnny wanted to hear it though…

 

  1. “A BOY NAMED SUE”

“That’s the most cleverly written song I’ve ever heard,” The Man responded, and luckily June Carter thought enough to stuff Shel’s cheat sheet into her husband’s bag before they departed for the next day’s recording session over at San Quentin State Prison. “I didn’t even know the lyrics,” Johnny recalled of making his quickest, biggest hit. “I had to put the words on a music stand in front of me. I told ’em I want to sing a song called ‘A Boy Named Sue.’ Well they laughed, you know, and I said, ‘No, it’s not what you think. Let me sing it to you.’ I read the lyrics off the paper in front of me, and that was the record.” And that summer, only the Rolling Stones and their honky tonk women could keep Sue off the very top of America’s best-sellers lists.

 

  1. “BLISTERED”

But my own fave rave from among Johnny’s voluminous 500-album, 1500-song-and-counting catalog was cut the night of September 10, 1969 at Columbia Music Row Studios, Nashville. By now Carl Perkins (no relation) had just replaced the late great Luther on guitar, yet his patented blue suede notes perfectly matched Johnny, line by lascivious line, in positively sneering Billy Edd Wheeler’s ode to the fairer of sex: What she does simply walkin’ down the sidewalks of that city makes me think about a stray cat gettin’ fed,  our hero snarled,  and I got tiny white blisters in my throat from tryin’ to ease my nervous tension takin’ all them pills. She’s got a body, oh yeah!  Why Johnny, you dirty old egg-sucking dog you!

 

  1. “BALLAD OF A TEENAGE QUEEN”

Still, behind every great man – those in black included – stands a woman who, as John Lennon once observed, makes “the other half of the sky.” For John R. Cash, that woman was, and could have only truly been, Valerie June Carter. He first spotted her when, as a high school senior, his class took a trip to see the Carter Family play the Grand Ole Opry. “You and I are going to get married someday” were among his first-ever words to the already-married young woman. “Really?” she replied. “Well, good. I can’t wait.” And a decade later they were, yes, married in a fever, and remained so until she passed, four months ahead of her man, in 2003.

 

  1. “GOOD OLD AMERICAN GUEST”

It was from the balcony of the inappropriately Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto where I personally first saw both June and Johnny perform together, sometime during those dreaded mid-Eighties. June, hotter than a pepper sprout and then some, joyously high-stepped her dancing shoes clear off and over the wax-painted heads of that austere audience, Johnny bar-stormed through his many many hits at near-Ramone intensity and, ’way over in the corner on the Telecaster? Why, ladies and gentlemen, it was none other than Buddy Holly’s last bass player, Waylon Jennings!

 

  1. “AMERICAN RECORDINGS”

Thank heavens Rick Rubin most obviously picked up on how the Eighties, and Mercury Records especially, had stupidly squandered the abundant Cash bounty on a series of ill-advised “big hat” productions and all-star Yesteryear groupings, and instinctively knew just what to do:  Set Johnny up on a stool in his living room – or the Viper Room, throw up a couple of mics, simply press “record” and let the magic flow. The initial result was that truly alt.-country masterpiece “Delia’s Gone,” and a further five full Rubin-directed discs followed culminating with what is likely to be Johnny’s fifty-fourth (!) and benedictory hit, “Hurt.”  P.S.: and the Old Testament video for that one actually won Johnny a slew of acclaim and awards …which, of course, the man never stuck around long enough to collect.

 
 

“Country music used to represent horses, railroads, land, Judgment Day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love.  And Mother.  And God.”
(Johnny Cash, 1932 – 2003)