'You've got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend
When I was down you just stood there grinning.'
SO sings Bob Dylan in Positively Fourth Street, the slice of musical invective he spat in the direction of his former 'folkie' friends in Greenwich Village in 1965. Sadly, those lines now could be sung to Dylan by Johnny Cash from 'down' in his grave. Why? Because in a Rolling Stone interview, which was reprinted in last week's Sunday Times, Bobby, baby, finally revealed himself to be a musical illiterate, in one quintessential sense, when he stupidly dismissed as "low grade" everything Johnny Cash recorded after leaving Sun Records in 1958.
What, exactly, did Dylan say? Asked by interviewer Douglas Brinkley if he missed Cash, Dylan admitted he did, then added: "But I started missing him about 10 years before he actually kicked the bucket." When pushed to elaborate, he proclaimed: "I tell people if they are interested that they should listen to Johnny on his Sun Records and reject all the notorious low-grade stuff he did in later years. It can't hold a candlelight to the frightening depth of the man you hear on his early records. That's the only way he should be remembered."
Put bluntly -- and this I say as a Dylan fan -- that is bullshit. Worse still, it is a disgrace to the memory of the man Johnny Cash, who I was blessed to know, however peripherally, and to the remarkable legacy of the music he recorded, from his first single Hey Porter, to his last, Hurt. And from his first album, Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar, to the last released when he was alive, and his finest, The Man Come Around.
Yet lest anyone take seriously Dylan's half-assed thesis on Cash, let's look at what the guy actually said.
Though I should come clean and declare that I, too, love Johnny's Sun recordings. In fact, the night Cash and I met to do our first interview in 1990 -- at my own expense, incidentally, because even Hot Press regarded Johnny as passe at the time -- he said from a stage in Glasgow: "I'd like to sing the next song for my new friend from Ireland, Joe Jackson, who loves the Sun cuts."
Then, as if I wasn't already blown away by meeting the man, and even by hearing him speak my name in public, he sang Big River for me.
That said, I know enough about Johnny's work, in general, to be able to say it is patently ludicrous of Dylan to claim that Cash's later work can't compare to the "frightening depth of the man you hear on his early records".
Indeed, even if we take a cue from Dylan and reduce all points of comparison to the question of psychic depths that are revealed through his music, yes, there are in Cash's early recordings echoes of the primal pain that defined the man. And that probably can be traced back to the time when he was 12 and his older brother, Jack -- whom Johnny loved deeply -- was nearly sliced in two by an electric saw and died a week later. But those echoes really are kid's stuff compared to the soul cry that sits at the centre of Meet Me in Heaven, which is directly addressed to Jack, from Cash's 1996 album Unchained.
And I am taking my cue from Dylan's analysis because, I, too, believe that the true value of music, or any art, should ultimately be measured by the psychic depths it reflects. This is where Dylan's dismissal of nearly 50 years of Cash's art, really pisses me off. It also where I myself come back into the story. You see the last time I met Johnny, in Branson, Missouri -- not to do an interview -- he gave me the present of box set of his recordings and said: "Thanks for helping me hook up with U2." Cash was referring to the role, however peripheral, I played in bringing himself and the band together to record The Wanderer, a track from U2's 1994 album Zooropa, which introduced him to a new 'hip' audience and, in effect, reignited his career.
But what I love about this story is that The Wanderer is, in essence, a gospel song. In other words, the kind of music the evangelically driven Cash longed to record from the start of his career but Sam Phillips, owner of Sun, wouldn't allow him to. So Johnny moved to Columbia records, where he felt he finally fulfilled his true vocation by recording albums such as Hymns by Johnny Cash.
And it was his spiritual recordings of which Cash was most proud, he once told me. Though he also tellingly, and truthfully, added that all his recordings were, in a sense, spirituals.
Maybe in my opinion, most spiritual of all are the final five albums Johnny recorded, American Recordings; Unchained; American 111: Solitary Man; American 1V: The Man Comes Around and the posthumous American V: A Hundred Highways.
So, forget what Dylan said, that is the music for which Johnny Cash would, I believe, want to be remembered.