Paint it black

A prayer for his holy hipness, Johnny Cash


David Bowman
December 5, 1997 2:35PM (UTC)

Only a few of us know about Jackson Pollock's lost years in the late
'50s/early '60s, the painter's "amphetamines days" where every morning he'd
down handfuls of those little white Benzedrine tablets scored with crosses.
Then blaze all day. The artist driving the back roads of the rural South with
Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins in the car -- all those boys howling at
the sun and the moon. By midnight, Pollock would always be alone, holed up in
some Days Inn motel room. Maybe he'd take a power saw to the furniture, just
for kicks. Other nights he'd paint the whole room aquamarine blue. Then wait
for the paint to dry reading the Gideon Bible. Under the influence of the
epistles of Paul, Jackson Pollock began painting his motel rooms black.
Everything black. The walls, the desk, the bed. A decade later he'd joke that
he was the original Man Who Paints in Black, five years before Mark Rothko.
Now, even later then that, ex-wild man Jackson Pollock has been lying in Baptist
Hospital in Nashville with double pneumonia, fighting for his life.

I lie. Jackson Pollock is long dead, of course. The man I write of is
Johnny Cash, aka The Man in Black. I figure you've all heard stories of Cash's wild
days, the ones that started in the Elvis Presley 1950s, when Cash also made
records at Sun Studios. And ended in 1967, when Cash crawled into Nicajack
Cave in Tennessee wanting to die. (Or maybe ended a little later, after
Cash was addicted to painkillers after performing for troops in Vietnam.
Or ended even later in the '70s, after Cash became Billy Graham's right-hand
man.) Whenever Cash's wild days ended, I wanted your first image of Cash to
be that of an
iconoclastic artist. I know that many of us picture Johnny Cash as just an
entertainer who does "Mom and Dad's music." I know the rest of us now see
Cash as one of America's most poignant artists -- a righteous singer-songwriter
with the persona of some Old Testament prophet.

Advertisement:

Just before Halloween, that old prophet had been performing in Flint,
Mich., singing chestnuts like his 1956 hit "Folsom Prison Blues" -- with
it's Mickey Spillane line, "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die."
The Man in Black also performed a good sampling of
his recent acoustic "heavy metal" (or maybe "heavy prairie") songs about
Jesus and tattoos and shooting any unfaithful bitch who betrays you, and how
Judas Iscariot was spotted carrying John Wilkes Booth. In the middle of
the performance, Cash dropped his pick, then stumbled as he reached for
it. Reportedly, the audience laughed, thinking he was doing slap-slick. But
then Cash stood at the mike and announced that he had Parkinson's disease.

The next morning, he was in New York City, intending to hawk his new
HarperCollins autobiography, "Cash," on a talk show. But just before the
cameras rolled, Cash found he could no longer talk. It was no frog in
his throat. It's like the nerves in his vocal chords just went dead. His
family rushed him off the set, pulled the plug on the book tour and flew
the singer in a private plane back to Nashville, where he was put on a
ventilator in Baptist Hospital, just down the hallway from Waylon Jennings
(not the first time this has happened), who was recuperating from a stroke.

It doesn't seem that anyone in Nashville is going gentle into any goddamn
good night.

As we wait hoping that J.R. Cash will recover (he was born with only
initials
for a name), let's take stock of his life from his lively just-published
autobiography. "Cash" is his second memoir, and it's written in the same
stream-of-consciousness style as his first, "The Man in Black" (1975). In both
books,
we jump from explanations of why Cash dresses in black (back in 1954, when he
formed Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two with Luther Perkins and Marshall
Grant, show-biz etiquette dictated that they wear matching clothes. And black
was the only color common to their wardrobes ... "Anyway, black is better for
church," writes Cash) to chapters dealing with "I clearly remember the first
mood-altering drug to enter my body." His new book also tells us how Bob Dylan
wrote him letters in the early '60s, a correspondence that Cash stores in a
safe-deposit vault. We find out that Cash was the first American to learn
that Josef Stalin has died (Cash was in the Army transcribing Russian Morse
code). The new book also assures us that Cash has never done time in
prison, an assumption thousands of fans still harbor. Cash admits to spending
a night or two in jail, but he doesn't go into the charges -- which, for the
record, include smuggling narcotics across the Mexican border, getting busted
in Mississippi for being under the influence of bennies and picking flowers
in the middle of the night ("Come along wild flower child, don't you know
that it's 2 a.m.?" Cash once sang of the event). And my favorite: burning
down a national forest in California. Johnny Cash has done all this, but he's
never been in the pen except as a performer.

Fellow singer Merle Haggard has described being a con in San Quentin and
seeing a Cash Christmas show in '58. Haggard told me that Cash followed a
striptease number (as impossible as that sounds). Whether or not it was a
combination of naked women and Johnny Cash, or just Cash alone, Haggard was
so moved that he vowed to go straight.

I know firsthand that seeing Cash perform can change one's life. I saw
him for the first time last year in New York City. Although the man did not
follow a striptease show, and I myself am not a criminal in need of
redemption (yet), I found myself -- much to my surprise -- standing there with
tears rolling down my face. The power Cash radiated astonished and move me.

Advertisement:

His power and his pain. It was as if Johnny Cash were James Dean crawling
from
the wreckage of that long-ago car crash. Have you seen recent pictures of
the singer? It looks like he's carrying rocks in his mouth. The man must be
in constant pain. The word is that in the '50s, some cracker
dentist stitched a metal plate in Cash's mouth, and now the metal has fused
with bone and tissue. It can't be removed. "But I can be in pain, go on
stage and my pain disappears," Cash once reported. "Doctors have said it's
because of adrenaline. As far as I'm concerned, it's a power that comes to
you from God."

I don't doubt the sincerity of Cash's vision of power and glory, but I
wonder
if his "metal plate story" was just a dodge to cover the onset of
Parkinson's? Although knowing the way life works, it would come as no
surprise that Cash would be stricken with both afflictions. "Kid's stuff
compared to what Job suffered," he'd say if he could read this.

If he could talk.

Reports out of Nashville indicate that Cash has something called "Shy-Drager
Syndrome," a Parkinson's-related disease that among other things destroys the
nervous system so the victim can't speak. This seems an unbearable tragedy
for a
singer. It might seem bitterly ironic that Cash's last statement may be a
book, not an album, but becoming an author has always been important
to the man. In 1965, he told Music Business magazine, "I'm going to disappear
into a cabin in the woods and start writing a book. The first will be science
fiction because I'm a bug on that. The second, if I ever have time to finish
the first, will be all about what I've seen and learned about people -- and
that's a lot." Cash never "bugged" out and wrote that sci-fi tale, although
he did write a novel about St. Paul, "The Man in White," along with two
memoirs of what he's seen and done. The man has seen a lot of sickness and
pain.

Advertisement:

We all know the mantra "die young and leave a good-looking corpse," but Mom
and Pop never warned us that the majority of our cultural heroes would get
old and sick and die off just before we did the same. Of course, most of our
parents weren't hip. "Hip" was invented right after World War II, but didn't
go national until Elvis did Ed Sullivan. So that now, at century's end,
we find ourselves suddenly surrounded by all these hip -- and old -- men:
Cash, Ray Charles, Dylan, Mick and Keith (one of the old goats posing shirtless on
the cover of the new Rolling Stone). Another magazine, Time (or was it
Newsweek?), informs us that we're all going to live into our late 70s, which
is good news if we're looking forward to quality rocker time in some old
folks home. Otherwise, we need to start preparing for our dark senior years
with some role models.

Like Johnny Cash. He is demonstrating the mortality or immortality of hip. This isn't to say that the man is "out." Not by a long shot. Two days ago he went home from Baptist, not the first starch white hospital room the man has walked out of alive. I have to laugh when I read how in '88, just before he went under the knife for double bypass surgery, he took a drag off a cigarette. Goddammit, the man is terminally cool ...

But I want Cash to live forever. And keep making records. I want to
turn this piece into an Annie Dillard-style essay convincing us all to pray
for the recovery of Cash's health. But I have no idea how to write something
like that.

Advertisement:

I've never had the faith to pray.

What I can do is encourage you to track down and read Cash's liner notes for
"American Recordings" -- a six-page, hand-written facsimile in which he
rhapsodizes Zen-like about the guitars in his life. What they felt like.
How his fingers moved over the frets. "It doesn't matter to me that I only
know three or four chords," he writes. "With the left fingers on the frets,
the heel of my right hand hugging the body of the guitar, letting just my right thumb lead and
drive the rhythm, sometimes it's magic, and I just believe that when it all
comes together, it's the right way for me to do it."

Read that, and then, if you can, picture the heels of your own hands
touching, with the fingers on the right hand slipping between the fingers on
the left hand. Then maybe you can say a small prayer for Johnny Cash. If you
have trouble with that, maybe try to play a little Cash music on your sound
system this week, and the vibes will somehow reach that old soldier over in
Nashville, Tennessee.

Advertisement:

David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

MORE FROM David Bowman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Johnny Cash Music




Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •