Friday, October 14, 2005
Bill Friskics-Warren week, day 5
We'll end up our week of extracts from Bill's new book I'll Take You There: Pop Music and the Urge for Transcendence with the following (very moving) passage about Johnny Cash. I hope you've enjoyed reading these segments from the book as much as I've enjoyed working on it. As an author, Bill is an absolute pleasure to have on board. I hope we can do his book justice.
Johnny Cash spent much of his life standing in solidarity with the suffering, forgotten likes of Ira Hayes and the inmate in “Folsom Prison Blues.” And not just at arm’s length, but by visiting people in penitentiaries, hospital wards, and on battlefields and reservations, as well as through spontaneous acts of kindness and generosity. Cash’s brother Tommy often tells the story of when, before a show at a high school gymnasium back in the 60s, he found his brother alone in the boys’ locker room, peering into the mesh-wire lockers and holding a rolled up one-hundred-dollar bill between his thumb and forefinger. He was looking for the “dirtiest, rattiest” pair of sneakers, figuring that the owner of the locker in question could use the money the most.
Another time Cash is said to have stopped his car to help an old man with a crutch who was hobbling along the shoulder of the road in Nashville. Without telling the man who he was, Cash put the stranger, who was homeless, up in a hotel and arranged for a car to take him to the hospital the next morning so that he could be fitted for a prosthetic leg. “Those are my heroes: the poor, the downtrodden, the sick, the disenfranchised,” Cash told me in an interview, his own health failing, a year before his death. “I just heard a new song by Guy Clark called ‘Homeless,’” he went on. “It’s really a good song. I’m going to record it. ‘Homeless, get out of here / Don’t give ’em no money, they just spend it on beer.’”
“Ain’t no end to street people,” Cash continued, short of breath, his eyesight fading from the effects of glaucoma brought on by diabetes. “There’s no end to the people on the margins. There’s no end to the people who can relate to that, people on the margins of economic situations, and of the law. How many people have we got in prison in the USA now, 1.3 million?” The figure at the time was closer to two million, but numbers aside, Cash knew that it was vastly larger than it should have been and, just as urgently, he knew that whatever the number was, it certainly would grow.
Johnny Cash’s attunement to such things—his identification with the lonely and the oppressed, as well as the stubbornness with which he took their side—is the very thing that made him the “Man in Black.” In the comments that he made to me the day that we spoke, he might as well have been paraphrasing his hit single of that name, a statement of vocation that, besides citing all of the classes of people that he mentioned during our interview, includes those going through crises of faith, those who are aging and alone, and those whose lives have been laid waste by drugs. Invariably, the song reaches beyond them as well. Listening some fifteen years on, Marc Almond heard and adopted the line, “Each week we lose a hundred fine young men,” as a requiem for the legions of people who were dying of AIDS. Explaining in “Man in Black” why he always dresses in somber tones, Cash, in a rumbling baritone, sings, “I’d love to wear a rainbow every day / And tell the world that everything’s okay / But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back / Till things are brighter, I’m the Man in Black.”
Just as it was for Curtis Mayfield, Cash’s was essentially a prophetic and eschatological orientation toward the world. His was a posture rooted in empathy, but ultimately one that went beyond his participation in the suffering of others to call the rest of the world into account. Cash’s was a world in relation to which it was and still is impossible to remain neutral, just as the monolithic specter of his lanky frame draped head-to-toe in mourner’s black cannot be ignored, even now that he is gone. Like the outsized and outwardly quixotic gestures of some of the Hebrew prophets—like, Hosea, who married a prostitute to demonstrate divine love, or like Jeremiah, who, to convey hope, bought a plot of land just as it was being seized by invaders—the force of Cash’s witness to what is and what could be remains undeniable. Born of the poverty that he knew as the son of Arkansas sharecroppers—and later, of the tyranny of his addiction to drugs—his vision of dignity and justice compelled him to stand unwaveringly with oppressed, beaten down people and to bid others to join him. His sometimes dour persona and the priority that he gave to the lives of downcast people might not radiate the positivity of Mayfield’s “We’re a Winner” or “Move On Up,” yet Cash’s witness offers a powerful word of uplift just the same. Throughout his embattled life he lent a voice to those without one and, with it, a glimmer of hope, a glimpse of transcendence.
Like Mayfield, Cash was a man of faith, one with deep roots in the Baptist church who, despite periods of dissipation and doubt, remained a Christian throughout his life. His identification with people on the margins, though, tended to stem more from his hard-fought inner struggle than it did from a theologically grounded vision of transcendence like that of the beloved community or train to glory that inspired Mayfield. Cash’s striving was rooted in faith, certainly, and its implications for human community are many and far-reaching. Yet more than anything, his hunger for transcendence was tied to his ongoing fight for self-integration, to his basic but far from simple urge for wholeness. Only from there did his struggle seem to open outward—and prophetically—onto the larger world.
Nowhere did Cash articulate his quest for wholeness more indelibly than in “I Walk the Line,” the follow-up to “Folsom Prison Blues” that became a No. 1 country and Top 20 pop hit for him in 1956. He wrote the song as a pledge of fidelity to his first wife, Vivian Liberto, while he was stationed in Germany with the US Air Force. Over the years, however, his vow to keep the ends out for the tie that binds took on much greater existential significance. His message driven home by the obdurate beat of the Tennessee Two, Cash seemed to be confessing just how desperately he wanted to unite the disparate strands of his conflicted self.