I've been wondering what to say and how to deal with the death of Johnny Cash. You see, it's hard to pin words on someone who was literally a living legend for so long. Now that he's gone, it seems almost a waste of time to try and quantify and categorize what Johnny Cash meant to the world of music. Writers and critics have been trying for years, so how could it possibly be any easier now? It's a daunting task, but I hate to leave the subject alone. Cash meant a lot to me, and his music meant a lot to a great number of people. So, in my own way, I'd like to pay tribute to that legacy.
To me, Cash was more than just the rebellious Man In Black, his mysterious persona that so many recognize. I see him more as a tragic figure, almost Southern gothic. The man torn between right and wrong, wanting to stay on the straight and narrow, although deep down he wants to venture off into worldly pursuits. It always seemed like he was tortured in his soul, as if it took all of his energy and effort to be the good, upstanding man he wanted to be. Perhaps it was his love for his wife, or his love of the Lord. Either way, once he set his feet on the path of "righteousness," he stayed there and didn't seem to waver. Even though it looked like he wanted to.
In the Bible, Jesus said that people who are well don't need the doctor, the sick do. I think this is evident in Johnny Cash. He needed the Lord, because he was in sin and knew it. That's a humility that so few people posess. It's easy to look up to a man who thinks that way, because you feel like if they're that honest with themselves, then they'll probably be that honest with you. That's why prisoners loved him, why rebels cherished him, and also why God-fearing Christians felt comfortable listening to his music. They knew he was real, and that's about as good as any average human being can get.
Later in life, Johnny Cash surprised us all. While others his age were fading away, he seemed to become more relevant, more important, more involved than ever before. The later albums are stark and reverent. He sings songs by Beck, U2, Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails like they were gospel hymns, giving them a strange power which is inexplicable. It's not easy to listen to. The music makes me kind of uncomfortable, as if the stark nakedness were embarrassing, exposed and cold. When I think about it, it seems like Cash wasn't so much covering those songs as much as he was uncovering them. He stripped all the shine off and showed us what was underneath, yes, what we are underneath. The sin, the sweat, the tears. Nothing to hide.
If there is a legacy from Johnny Cash, it will be more than just songs about trains and prisons, more than interesting interpretations of songs by other people. More than the cowboy dressed in black, and more than the bitter country star who couldn't get played on the glorified country pop stations. For me his legacy will be about a very human man who knew he was human, one who tried his best to find solace in music and in family.
So long, Johnny Cash. So long.