An early memory of mine is listening to my Uncle Idris play Johnny Cash songs on his guitar. Particularly he did a great rendition of ‘Ring of Fire’, though without the Mexican trumpets, Mexican trumpeters being singularly rare in the town of Warsop in the 1960s. Back then, Cash was a big name, although I’m not sure that he was ‘cool’ – more mainstream. And he became more known for his novelty songs like ‘A Boy named Sue’ and ‘One Piece at a Time’, and his TV show, than his more straight forward country / rockabilly songs.
Figuratively speaking, Johnny Cash wandered in and out of my life over the years; he showed up as a murderous singer in Columbo; I’d see his name on the credits of various TV shows and films and also became aware of his conversion to Christianity and his near constant battles with drug addiction. I admired the guy; in attitude he reminded me of people like Neil Young – ‘not bothered what you think of me, I’m just going to do my music’ – in appearance he vaguely reminded me of some North American Indian version of my own father and uncles.
I loved his appearance in ‘The Simpsons’ episode ‘The mysterious voyage of Homer’, where, under the influence of “The Merciless Peppers of Quetzlzacatenango! Grown deep in the jungle primeval by the inmates of a Guatemalan insane asylum” Homer undergoes a spiritually rich hallucination in which Cash play’s his spirit guide, a coyote. By now I’d grabbed a few CDs of his music, and also read his biography, particularly intrigued by his conversion to Christianity and his claim that he was still one of the biggest sinners he knew.
With the ‘American’ recordings, he became something of a cool icon – the black dress, the sparse musical performances – especially with the cover he did of the NiN song ‘Hurt’. Even now, it’s a song that reduces me to tears.
This was around the time that I started taking a more serious interest in my own spirituality, a process that eventually led to my being confirmed in to the Church of England a few years later. I started looking at Cash’s back catalogue – his spiritual songs, gospel music – and also finding out more about his life. He was definitely no angel – but he was a man who was honest with himself and others – what you saw was indeed what you got, warts and all. ‘Hurt’ is indeed his epitaph, but I often think that the lyrics to the U2 song ‘The Wanderer’ – which Cash sang for the band – sum his journey up:
I went out there
In search of experience
To taste and to touch
And to feel as much
As a man can
Before he repents
And as he put it in his own song ‘Man in Black’:
Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on.
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.
I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.
Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought ‘a be a Man In Black.
I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin’ for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.
And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believen’ that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believen’ that we all were on their side.
Well, there’s things that never will be right I know,
And things need changin’ everywhere you go,
But ’til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You’ll never see me wear a suit of white.
Ah, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything’s OK,
But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
‘Till things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black.
Shortly after my own confirmation, I was asked to think about my own journey to Christ, and who influenced me on the way. Three names popped up – my Aunty Harriet, CS Lewis, and Johnny Cash.