Books: Colourful story of the man in black
Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, €28.99, Hardback)
One of the most famous names in American music, Johnny Cash had an unlikely start. He grew up in Dyess, a town near Arkansas, Texas, so small and impoverished that even today it has just over 400 residents. Cash's father fought hard to get government housing under Roosevelt's New Deal programme and the family were among the lucky few, obtaining a small farm in rocky scrubland where Cash and his siblings lived, a far cry from the glamour of LA or the musical traditions of Nashville and Memphis.
Cash died in 2003 and there have been plenty of assessments of his life, including two memoirs written by Cash himself, one by his first wife Vivian, and the 2005 film Walk the Line. This biography will be a welcome addition to the collection. Robert Hilburn, for three decades the chief music critic and pop music editor at the LA Times, offers a rich and comprehensive survey of the arc of Cash's career, with its dizzying rollercoaster of highs and lows. Cash was both a gifted musician and a tortured man who had a messy personal life, a tale with all the right ingredients for riveting biography.
Tragedy marked Cash from an early age, notably the death of his beloved older brother. Jack was the golden boy of the family, handsome, clever and generous. While sawing wood at the school workshop he accidentally stabbed himself in the abdomen and died a few days later.
This catastrophe, which occurred while Cash was still a boy, marked a turning point in the family's life and in Cash's. Jack's absence was deeply mourned by Cash. "When he thought about the man he'd like to be," Hilburn notes, "he thought of his older brother Jack, and never his father." Unreasonably, his father blamed Cash for the death. Johnny had wanted his brother to go fishing with him that day but failed to persuade him, as Jack had dutifully insisted on attending to his woodwork instead. The episode is an early instance of the dysfunctional relationship between father and son. Decades later, Cash would still be seeking his father's approval, which was always deferred or withheld.
Hilburn steers the account expertly on towards Cash's time in the army and marriage to his first wife Vivian, who was a great beauty, according to the photos. They were young and in love -- Cash named their first daughter, "Rosanne", after Rose and Anne, his petnames for Vivian's breasts. But the innocence and idealism of those early days of the marriage contrasted starkly with what was to come.
Despite his raw talent and ambitious dreams of singing on the radio (supported by his mother, derided by his dad), Cash's future in music was hardly guaranteed. One night, Cash attended a concert by Elvis Presley and afterwards chatted with the singer. He became determined to sign with Sun Records, which was handling Presley at the time. When they auditioned, he and his band, The Tennessee Two, were pretty ragged, but Sun Records' founder Sam Phillips spotted their potential. "Sam wasn't big on polish," Hilburn notes. "He was into feeling."
Cash had been brought up a Baptist and was anxious about one aspect of the music industry in particular. He wanted to be faithful to Vivian. Temptation, though, was everywhere. His early smash hit, I Walk the Line, was written in part to reassure Vivian of his devotion to her. Soon, however, Cash would fall off the wagon entirely, engaging in multiple infidelities and becoming addicted to pills. His was an excessive nature.
What makes this biography so successful is the depth and range of its research. Hilburn gained access to dozens of Cash's relatives and friends, as well as to Cash himself. So we learn in convincing detail of how tough life was for the daughters from his first marriage, who were forced to watch its painfully slow dissolution. His daughter Kathy recalled that her mum was worried to death when her dad was not at home, and even more worried when he was. Vivian's weight dropped to 95lbs through stress. By this time, Cash was intimately involved with fellow musician June Carter, who reportedly rendered Vivian speechless with the statement: "Vivian, he will be mine."
By the mid-sixties, Cash was out of control, missing scheduled concerts and recordings and disappearing for days as he binged on pills. One chapter, which recounts the worst of Cash's drug-taking as well as the peak of his musical career, is aptly titled "The Deathwatch".
After his divorce from Vivian, Cash married June Carter, and the couple often performed together. On the outside their relationship was blissful. But his drug-taking and philandering ways continued to cause problems and resurfaced periodically until old age. A memorable example: while June was pregnant with Cash's son, he embarked on an affair with her sister, Anita.
Hilburn's knowledge of musical history allows him to draw a deft picture of the backdrop to Cash's flops, as well as his successes. During the Seventies and Eighties Cash became increasingly preoccupied with his Christian beliefs, and he neglected songwriting so utterly that his career came to a standstill. A chance encounter with U2 during a trip to Dublin led to his presence on the group's Zooropa album (in the song The Wanderer), and helped to set him on a better track. His collaboration with the record producer Rick Rubin had a further positive effect and boosted his confidence. In the late Nineties Cash returned to relevance, with a slew of great songs including The Man Comes Around and Hurt.
Johnny Cash: The Life offers a fascinating glimpse of a fragile, rather tortured and difficult man. His music touched a chord because fans felt that he sang from experience.
In an obituary in Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan, who knew Cash, captured the essence of his charm. "Blessed with a profound imagination, he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul."