Johnny + June

Johnny and I saw Walk the Line on Friday night. What a freaking great movie - so well done! It ought to win numerous awards, I hope. As you know, I foam at the mouth regarding Johnny Cash. Seriously, he is one of my forever-to-be heroes. I think this blog entry is most interesting (thanks, Sweets), and I wrote the following tribute for my old job's web zine:

“I am persuaded that nothing can separate me from my love of my God, my wife, and my music.”
-Johnny Cash (1932-2003)

This is not an average music review; rather, a tribute to a man I have admired for several years. Early on the morning of September 12th, my husband woke me up to tell me he heard on the radio that Johnny Cash had passed away. I missed him instantly. It is strange because I never knew this great man personally, but he was one of my heroes, and always will be. Last night I realized that I was not alone in my grief as a friend and I visited a favorite coffee shop. I noticed the staff had propped up Cash’s first autobiography, Man in Black, on the bar surrounded by a few candles. They played nearly every Cash CD all night long. As my friend and I talked, we would stop every once in awhile as we heard that distinct voice, look at eachother knowingly, and say, “I miss him.”

Because of my age, I am more familiar with Cash’s recordings from 1994 onward with producer Rick Rubin. I was instantly smitten with this country legend who could pull off covers by Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Beck, Soundgarden, Tom Petty, and U2. Then I came across the book, Cash: The Autobiography, where he chronicled the good, the bad, and the ugly of his life. I was struck with the stark, honest retelling of his vicious struggle with drug addiction that he overcame more than once. And admiration for the man in black was indelibly imprinted on my heart when I read Cash’s words, “I’m still a Christian, as I have been all my life. Beyond that I get complicated.”

And he does. He cannot be easily explained, and I loved this about him. If I had to pick just one collection of Cash songs to keep forever, I would readily choose the 3-CD set Love, God, Murder. It somehow helps me to understand the paradox of Johnny Cash; he was a bad boy with a heart of gold. Each of the CDs is a collection - of love songs, of Gospel songs, and yes, songs about murder. Cash’s late wife, June Carter Cash, penned the liner notes to the Love CD which is perfect because they loved each other something fierce. I laugh to myself when I pull out the Murder CD - only Johnny Cash could get away with a CD set including songs about God and murder. Cash profoundly and comically comments in the liner notes, “The first murder recorded in the history of man was when Cain killed his brother Abel. No doubt people wrote and sang songs about it, and we’ve been doing it ever since. These songs are just for listening and singing. Don’t go out and do it.” And, these songs never glorify the criminals, instead, somehow I get the sense that Cash indentified with the sinners and wanted to proclaim a better way.

This was another aspect of Cash that I deeply admired - his ability to live out his faith shamelessly, yet not compromise his art one bit. He did this until the end. His most recent CD, American IV: The Man Comes Around, turned out to be his final gift. The opening song, “The Man Comes Around,” is a masterpiece about the book of Revelation, and it is full Cash style. He defies any one genre again, covering tunes by Paul Simon, Sting, The Beatles, Depeche Mode, The Eagles, Hank Williams, and Nine Inch Nails - the now famous rendition of “Hurt.” A video was made to accompany this song, and as my friend Frank says, “it is the reason videos were made.” Each time I watch it, the images break my heart beautifully. Cash is sitting in the old museum House of Cash which has been closed for many years. He looks aged and weathered. In one scene June stands behind him, and scenes from every decade of his life flash on the screen. It is a telling finale, revealing the decay of his fame and his health, with the momentary scene of the Crucifixion portrayed, matching the lyrics:

I wear this crown of thorns
upon my liars’ chair,
full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair.
Beneath the stains of time,
the feelings disappear.
You are someone else,
I am still right here.

What have I become
my sweetest friend?
Everyone I know
goes away in the end.
And you could have it all,
my empire of dirt.
I will let you down,
I will make you hurt.

If I could start again
a million miles away,
I would keep myself,
I would find a way.

As I watched that video for the first time, I knew it was a foreshadowing, though I did not want to admit it. I selfishly wanted Johnny Cash to live forever, to keep on singing. When June Carter Cash passed away in May, I knew it was only a matter of time before his passing. Now that he is gone, the song I cannot get out of my head is a duet he did with his late wife on her Press On CD. As he crossed my mind the past few days, I heard Johnny and June singing:

I’ll be waiting on the far side banks of Jordan
I’ll be sitting drawing pictures in the sand.
And when I see you coming
I will rise up with a shout ,
and come running through the shallow water
reaching for your hand.

1 comment:

Christine said...


That is such a beautiful post. I absolutely loved "Walk the Line". I saw this quote from Johnny Cash and thought I'd post it on here...I wish I'd followed his life as you did.

"What June did for me was post signs along the way, lift me when I was weak, encourage me when I was discouraged, and love me when I was alone and felt unlovable. She is the greatest woman I have ever known. Nobody else, except my mother, comes close."