In the world of popular music, one generally becomes a “legend” only in death—as if death accomplishes for a musician all that he was unable to do for himself in life. Legends are often made in the manner of their death—in a helicopter crash, say, or collapsed on the bathroom floor. But Johnny Cash’s death at seventy-one on September 12 was decidedly un-legend-like: silent, slow, and unspectacular. Yet “legend” seems, if anything, not big enough a word to describe Johnny Cash.
We all knew the end was coming, particularly after June Carter, to everyone’s shock, beat him to it. But the impact of the news was not thereby diminished. On that Friday we lost possibly America’s most singular individual. I don’t think that it’s too much of a stretch to say that in Johnny’s death a little bit of what is best about America died, too.
The only word that seems to suffice here is magnanimity . The OED defines it poetically: “In Aristotle’s sense of megalopsuchia . . . loftiness of thought or purpose, grandeur of designs, nobly ambitious spirit. Now rare.” That was Johnny Cash: great-souled, rare. Everything about him was as big and black and broad as the Arkansas delta, from his physical stature and persona to “that” voice.
Yet his life cannot be reduced to a metaphor. It was more than just one of noble ambition or grandeur of design; Johnny’s virtues were just as hard-fought as his vices. In life Johnny Cash struggled for and against the God whose grip on him was so frustratingly and thankfully relentless that it was able to absorb all that fierce rage and all those addictions. Johnny could sing about murder and God in the same song and with the same voice because to do otherwise would have been dishonest. At the same time, he let that despair, agony, and rejection stand on their own—he lent them integrity. There was no serious salvation unless there was first some serious sin. Cash echoed St. Paul: “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” But there is at least one thing that Cash never was, and that is a moralist. He did not chalk doubt up to a misunderstanding. Rather, Cash showed that doubt is itself proper to faith. A God who could not stomach the darkest moments of His creation was not worth our worship, much less a song.
About three years ago, my wife and I took a weekend trip from Durham to Wilmington, North Carolina, where she was to attend a conference related to her work. One of her colleagues also traveled with her husband, a gourmet grocery store manager and guitar player, whose musical tastes tend toward dark, brooding Germanic bands with wicked-sounding names like Einsturzende Neubauten and Godspeed You Black Emperor (both of which I had never heard of). He has little use for religion, except as it pertains to Egyptian archaeology. Over a whiskey in the bar at the Hilton Hotel in Wilmington we chatted about music. Eventually the conversation turned to Johnny. At one point he raised his hand, pointed his finger at me for emphasis, and said, “If I were going to believe in God, I would believe in the God of Johnny Cash.”
Johnny could serve as a mediator of friendship, the kind of personality that could reconcile the most disparate of people. So there we were in the bar of the Hilton, he a reformed heroin addict and son of a Durham cop, wearing a keffiyeh, and I, the theology geek from Buckhead. We became friends, not least because of Johnny Cash.
But more than that, Johnny was the kind of person who could simultaneously hold in tension the conflicting parts of his personality and communicate to those who are alienated by a deeply counterfeit culture—particularly a counterfeit Christianity. Cash could preach to offenders and the defenseless alike, and make faith believable in a way that most of us never can. We seem to prefer the smile that conceals an inner deception to the honest purgative truth about ourselves. But with Johnny it was otherwise.
That’s because he lived, sang, and played truthfully. There was in him no hint of fraud. At a time when he could have resurrected his career by riding the coattails of others’ popularity (as is the trend today), Johnny did the reverse. On 1994’s American Recordings (on the cover he stands in a field wearing a long black preacher’s coat, alone except for two dogs), he did not simply return to the “old” Johnny Cash and commodify himself for a younger audience. Rather, he signed with a punk label and sang about his familiar subjects, but this time with no musical accompaniment beyond his own acoustic guitar. All kinds of audiences ate it up because they recognized that in a world full of fakes, Cash was authentic.
There are so many aspects to Cash’s career that are unmatched in popular music. He is the only person to be inducted to the respective halls of fame for rock musicians, country artists, and songwriters. Possibly more striking than the body of songs he left us are the songs written by others that he covered. Cash was always taking risks here—he was one of the first musicians outside the folk world to cover songs by Bob Dylan. On Johnny’s later records, we hear a musician not content to rest on his laurels or piggyback on others’ record sales. Rather, he took other people’s songs and made them Johnny Cash tunes.
In this sense, a song like “The Mercy Seat” was a Johnny Cash song all along, as if its author, Nick Cave, just tended to it until it found its true voice. This is not to denigrate the original—far from it. Rather, some songs transcend their own authors in such a way that they can only be sung by a particular voice. This was literally the case with “The Wanderer,” a U2 song that the band’s lead singer, Bono, penned and tried to record. He finally gave up, admitting that the only person who could sing the lyrics was Johnny.
The same could be said for Johnny’s last single in his lifetime, a cover of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt.” I doubt whether in time it will be remembered principally for having been written by the frontman for the techno-punk band Nine Inch Nails, because Cash so completely inhabits the song that it becomes his own musical last will and testament. At the end of his life Cash sings,
I hurt myself today / To see if I still feel / I focus on the pain / The only thing that’s real,
The needle tears a hole / The old familiar sting / Try to kill it all away / But I remember everything.
Does the needle deliver heroin or an IV? A narcotic or a painkiller? When Cash recorded “Hurt” in 2002, he had already been suffering from a variety of ailments for several years. There is a poignancy to his frank confession of the reality of pain that rings all the truer for his having sung it.
Critics did not regard the later editions of the American series with the same awe that they did the first. The last one he released while still alive, American IV: The Man Comes Around, was well-received, but some critics wondered why we needed another version of standards like “Give My Love to Rose.” We needed it because, when sung by a seventy-year-old and frail Cash, it is a very different song than the same tune sung by the same man at age twenty-four. For now the character in the song who lies at the side of the railroad tracks is very much Cash himself.
For this reason American IV actually has more coherence and power than his previous two releases in the series. Every song on the record is about death—the title track, “I Hung My Head,” “We’ll Meet Again.” What is “Danny Boy,” after all, but a funeral dirge? It is precisely here that Cash’s final years were in some ways his greatest. On his final album, he was teaching us how to die. And in a culture that by and large loves death but does not know what to do with it—a culture simultaneously repulsed and attracted by it—Johnny’s confrontation with his own imminent demise was largely misunderstood. The critics who complained that his voice was not what it used to be missed the point entirely. It is precisely because his voice was not what it used to be that the songs have such power. The beauty of the record lies in that very frailty, the tremolo in his voice that became more pronounced with each album. Even in his younger days, the inimitable strength and fortitude in his voice was mixed with the occasional moment of weakness, the odd quaver and show of vulnerability. In the last few years those moments became more frequent, and his voice became more diaphonous, disclosing more of the effects of illness.
Yet for that very reason, Cash’s voice was all the more beautiful; it had a weakness stronger than others’ strengths. Nowhere is this more clear than on the music video for “Hurt,” directed by Mark Romanek. As with most of the songs on American IV, the vocals for “Hurt” were recorded dry—without the use of reverb, delay, or other effects. That in itself is remarkable, because recording a voice that way reveals all the idiosyncrasies and flaws that a digital effect might otherwise cover up. Nowadays almost no one records vocals this way. The unadorned character of the voice is echoed visually in the film by Cash’s refusal to conceal, with the use of makeup and other gimmickry, the fact that he is dying. No attempt is made to shoot his face from the most flattering angle, no effort to shun the ravaged face of a once indomitable figure now consumed by disease.
Toward the end of the video, the song crescendos to an intense height, accentuated by the repetition of a single note on the piano. Superimposed on all of this is a rapid montage of footage from Cash’s prime, when his hair was still black and his jaw still square. Juxtaposed beside flashes of his successes are images of the Cash museum in a state of disrepair, broken shards of those successes whose significance is now altogether subverted by the figure of Cash himself, sitting at the head of the festal table. And in between visions of the spry young superstar and the remnants of fame is the recurring image of the crucifixion. The climax of the film comes when Cash, with a crystal goblet full of red wine lifted and trembling in his enfeebled right hand, turns the cup over and empties its contents over the table, baptizing the sumptuous banquet laid out before him.
For Cash there was no empty cross but a crucifix, which neither concealed the horrors of suffering nor prematurely removed the bleeding Christ to a higher plane. In the end, it seems all his life’s vices—and even his virtues—were consumed by the blood of Christ. The truth of Cash’s music, and of his life, lies in the image of the crucified Jesus—who dies alone and forsaken, simultaneously consummating the whole creation and crippled by its weight. For Cash, redemption was not won without a fight: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrew 9:22). He sings,
And you could have it all / My empire of dirt / I will let you down / I will make you hurt.
Johnny Cash died in a way that demonstrated what it might mean to die well. Unlike those who die quickly, he was graced with the company of friends and loved ones, yet he never used his illness as a pretense or a front. His end was slow, painful, marked with tremendous accomplishments (even for a healthy person), but he drew near it honestly and unsentimentally. His spirit was scarred, busted, threadbare, but fearless, peaceable, witty and wise. In his living, playing, loving, and singing, he also sounded out the timbre of the Christian faith and showed how it ought to be lived: stammeringly, tunefully, with no overdubs and no effects. But most of all, with soul.
Peter M. Candler, Jr. is Assistant Professor of Theology in the Honors College at Baylor University.