by Robert Hilburn
Johnny Cash died September 12, 2003, at the age of 71. My memories of this event are pretty vague. I had just been in a major bike accident, spent a week in the hospital, and was on the verge of starting my first year of high school- two weeks late. I also wasn’t a huge Cash fan at the time, but it was all over the news, and Time magazine memorialized him on the cover. For a while after, if you’d asked me what I knew about Johnny Cash, my reply would’ve been that he died while I was hurt. That’s it. The Cash biopic came out a few years later, but when I saw it I pretty much agreed with Jon Stewart: “Ray with white people.”
Cash didn’t make an impact on me until my 20th birthday, when my dad gave me a guitar. I don’t lay claim to any musical ability, but for a while the guitar was a fun pastime for me (I really need to get back into it), and one of the first songs I learned was Cash’s “I Walk the Line.” I don’t remember why; maybe because it’s distinctive enough that even if I fucked it up, people would still recognize it? I dunno. The point is, though I knew nothing about Cash when he died a decade ago, I have been converted. I’m a fan.
Hilburn’s Johnny Cash tells the man’s story, from his childhood in Arkansas through the end of his life. He covers Cash’s stint in the Air Force, rise to stardom in the 50’s, troubled relationship with June Carter, problems with drugs for most of his life, struggle for relevance, and declining health in later years. While Hilburn’s writing should be enough to keep you interested, I found that much of my enjoyment came from being a fan of Cash’s music. Seeing the origins of “Folsom Prison Blues,” and then watching it climb the charts, just wouldn’t work as well for me if I wasn’t listening to the song on repeat in my head- and then comparing Hilburn’s story to the end product. As a fan, this is great, and it keeps a pretty hefty autobiography fresh and enjoyable, but it makes me wonder whether a non-fan would be able to get through the book.
Whether you’re a fan or not, though, I’m guessing that there might be a few things that will grab you like they did me. Cash’s drug abuse, for one. It’s scary, at times, to trace his transformation from a road musician, who turns to pills to help keep him up for concerts, into a self-destructive addict who can barely take care of himself, let alone his family. The cycle of addiction, with alternating periods of rehab and relapse, took its toll on me; I found myself rooting for him to succeed, and disillusioned when he would inevitably fail.
This pattern was reflected in other aspects of Cash’s life as well. It probably won’t surprise you that his drug addiction took its toll on the music. His career, starting off so well in the 50’s, would get out of hand pretty often- he could almost instantly go from genius to hack in the public’s mind. Sometimes going years without inspiration, Cash nevertheless felt compelled to keep putting out record after record that wouldn’t make a dent in the charts, often borrowing the styles of contemporary musicians or using a formula that had worked for him in the past, such as the horns that made “Ring of Fire” stand out.
All of this takes place in the context of Cash’s steady progression into old age, probably accelerated by his on-and-off drug addiction. It’s tough to watch the guy who had been a young gun in country music turn irrelevant over the course of a few decades (and just a few hundred pages), his attempts to revive his career looking more and more desperate. And I, for one, didn’t realize how sick he actually was for the last decade of his life, barely able to make music and completely unable to tour.
Cash’s story would simply be one of fading glory were it not for his reinvention in the 90’s, courtesy of hip hop producer Rick Rubin. Cash and Rubin worked on several albums together, and what must’ve struck many as yet another gimmicky ploy turned out to be the perfect pairing. Often drawing inspiration from contemporary artists, these records are simultaneously vintage and modern Cash, and the product is all the more impressive considering his fragile health. His cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” and the accompanying video are a haunting account of his final years, underlined by the images of Johnny and June just months before their deaths.
I definitely know more about Cash than I did before. Is all of this new information necessary? No, probably not. I didn’t really need to know his first wife’s name, or what years he was stationed in Germany, or exactly how many cycles of relapse and recovery he went through. On the other hand, this stuff provides context for Cash’s music, so as a fan I absolutely appreciate it. Hilburn is thorough, but he doesn’t get caught up on irrelevant factoids; he makes sure that if he’s dropping some information, it’s relevant to the larger story of Cash’s life, which is powerful enough to stand on its own.
Johnny Cash was a fascinating man and Johnny Cash is a fascinating book, so I’d recommend it to anybody interested in Cash or his music.