Readers, I do what I can to keep my fame days contemporary, but with Switzerland pretty much legalizing apartheid, bloody crackdowns in Egypt, and network giant Cisco cutting 5% of it’s workforce, finding something positive today just isn’t happening. So I figured I’d reach back a bit and pull out a shining beacon of hope from days gone by- my favorite music artist of all time, Johnny Cash.
I grew up listening to Johnny Cash. My father would play his tapes and CDs while washing the dishes.
“Ghost Riders (In The Sky)” was probably the first song I ever heard of his, and really, if a soulful ballad about a mighty cowboy standing in horror at the image of spectral hell-bulls beings chased endlessly across the lurid sky by the howling souls of the damned doesn’t get your attention, you’re probably already dead inside.
And while the hang-’em-high imagery caught my attention, it’s his story that kept it. The saga of some country kid born so poor his parents couldn’t even afford to give him a full name, going by “J.R.” until his enlistment in the air force, when he had to settle on “John” to be allowed in. The legend of the meteoric rise, the fall from grace as Cash grappled with his drug addiction, and painful reformation into that standard of social justice who was the “Man in Black.”
That’s what really and truly clinches it all. Most rock stars who manage to survive the lifestyle seem to either rest on their laurels and slowly fade away or sell out.
Instead, Cash used his second chance devoting himself to taking a stand for the downtrodden and dispossessed. Cash spoke out on the Vietnam War, lamented the treatment of the Native Americans, and personally demanded of Richard Nixon reform of the prison system (Cash’s sympathy for those incarcerated serving perhaps as his most famous cause). And Cash took up all of this long before speaking out on such issues became acceptable, let alone commendable.
Heck, Johnny even had his wife, June, singing along with him in the prisons he’d play for. In spite of knowing the hoots and catcalls that’d be thrown at her, Cash wanted to cut through it all and offer the lowest rung of society a few minutes of unrestricted compassion and grace. Who here would even entertain the idea of letting a loved one be catcalled by murderers in the off-chance of showing them some basic human decency?
But that’s just the kind of man Cash was. Humble, selfless, and brutally honest about his own flaws and his continued struggle with addiction. And of course, the quality of Cash’s music continued to stand equal to the power of his activism. “Hurt”, a cover of- I kid thee not- a Nine Inch Nails song has become so popular as to completely outstrip the original, with Trent Reznor, singer of NIN and the song’s creator, admitting to have been reduced to tears upon hearing it.
And sadly, for having spoken with presidents and prisoners alike and having been one of the most iconic figures in American music history, Cash’s legacy seems to be starting to fade. More and more I’m running into people don’t know who Cash was, or barring that, only know of him in passing. To this I say…
…Well, that kinda gets the message across.
So here’s to the man in black. Go forth now; listen to his songs, hear his speeches, or watch him give metaphysical advice to Homer Simpson in the form of a space coyote.