Standing on the stage of New York's Hammerstein Ballroom, the old man looked broken, beaten down, a scream reduced to a whisper. It had been almost two years since he had last performed in public, after announcing in October 1997 that he was suffering from Shy-Drager Syndrome, a form of Parkinson's disease. He had been in and out of hospitals during much of that time, his diseased body failing him a little more with each passing month. As he weakly smiled his thanks to the standing and applauding crowd, the man some still called Big John seemed frail for the first time, small enough to fit in your back pocket.
"Hello," the man said in his familiar baritone. "I'm Johnny Cash."
He was clad from head to toe in his signature black, and his unruly white hair looked as if it were fleeing from his rugged, lined face, like cotton spilling out of a wrinkled paper bag. He was usually sharp and focused with a guitar in his hands and a microphone in front of his face. But as he eased into his first song, "Folsom Prison Blues," he looked confused and tentative, as if he'd just been roused from a yearlong nap by a baseball bat cracked against his skull. Describing his appearance as "a shell of his former self" would be giving him too much credit. The end loomed near, his musical obit nearly complete. It was sad, like watching the once-fluid Muhammad Ali stumble to put a few words together.
Then, a small wonder occurred. Capping off the TNT network's An All-Star Tribute to Johnny Cash in April 1999 -- following appearances by Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, U2 and others -- Cash's surprise performance was a bittersweet homecoming at first, going back to the house you grew up in only to find its paint chipped and faded, its walls rotting. But as he led his former backing group through "Folsom Prison Blues," and continued into "Ring of Fire" and "I Walk the Line," Cash's voice steadied, his signature gaze returned -- the look his wife, June Carter Cash, once described as "black eyes that shone like agates." All of a sudden, he was alive again.
"My first time onstage in 19 months," he said after finishing his short set. "It feels good, it feels good, it feels good."
Fifteen months later, the good feeling remains: Cash is working on his first album in four years (his long-awaited yet unexpected follow-up to 1996's Unchained), and even plans on playing a handful of shows when the disc is released later this year. The gig at the Hammerstein Ballroom appears to have rejuvenated him; his doctors are taking a "more positive approach to his illness than they used to," according to his manager Lou Robbin. Though it seemed as if Cash's recording and performing careers were over two years ago, his third album with producer Rick Rubin (following Unchained and 1994's don't-call-it-a-comeback American Recordings) should be wrapped up in the next few months. Cash's life can't be separated from his music, and he wouldn't want it to be. As long as he's alive, he's making music.
"I wake up with a new song every day," Cash told New Times in a 1997 interview. "The song comes from me somewhere. I woke up yesterday singin', "A penny a kiss/A penny a hug/Gonna save my pennies in a big brown jug' -- a song from 1949. Just this mornin' it was "Lucky Old Sun.' I mean, these songs keep comin' through me, recyclin' through my brain. There's no gettin' away from the music if I wanted to. It's there. It's part of me. I go to sleep with a song on my mind every night, and it might be a song I don't especially like. I never thought about bein' without it. I couldn't imagine not havin' music. I can't imagine bein' alive and not havin' a song in my head."
Which makes now a perfect time to reexamine Cash's past -- he has a future again. Columbia Legacy, the reissue arm of Columbia Records, began the process last year with the release of an expanded, uncensored and remastered version of his classic live album, 1968's At Folsom Prison. Cash's 1969 back-in-the-joint disc Live at San Quentin has received the same treatment and was released along with a clutch of other "American Milestone" reissues of classic country albums this week. But the biggest part of Columbia Legacy's repackaging plan is a three-disc box entitled Love, God, Murder. Also available as three separate albums, the set is arranged thematically (love songs, hymns and murder ballads), with a track listing hand-picked by Cash himself, and essays by June Carter Cash (Love), U2's Bono (God), and director Quentin Tarantino (Murder). Bono, who met Cash when they collaborated on "The Wanderer" (a track off U2's 1993 album Zooropa), hasn't known him long but understands his appeal as well as anyone.
"Johnny Cash doesn't sing to the damned, he sings with the damned, and sometimes you feel he might prefer their company," Bono writes. "So the sugar is turned to salt and the triumphalism is quieted by the brokenness of a voice that knows the compromise of real life. Big John sings like the thief who was crucified beside Christ, whose humble entreaties had Jesus promising that night he would see paradise.
"Johnny Cash is a righteous dude, and he keeps righteous company with June Carter Cash and the Carter Family," he continues. "But it's the outlaw in him we love . . . the "thief' who would break and enter your heart, and leave you with a nagging question, "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?'"
Tarantino, who used Cash's "Tennessee Stud" in his film Jackie Brown, is more succinct in his opinion of Cash and his music.
"In a country that thinks it's divided by race, where actually, it's divided by economics, Johnny Cash's songs of hillbilly thug life go right to the heart of the American underclass," Tarantino writes. ". . . I've often wondered if gangsta rappers know how little separates their tales of ghetto thug life from Johnny Cash's tales of backwoods thug life. I don't know, but what I do know is Johnny Cash knows."
Of course, Cash himself sums it up best: "At times, I'm a voice crying in the wilderness, but at times I'm right on the money and I know what I'm singing about," he writes in the liner notes for the God disc. "It's about sharing, praise, wonder, and wisdom." At some point on Love, God, Murder, there is a perfect example of all three, whether it's when he's pleading for "Redemption," confessing that "I Tremble for You," or strung out on the "Cocaine Blues." Still, it's strange to see and hear them segregated, since Cash's songs have never been that black and white. Even though he'd shoot a man in Reno "just to watch him die," he'd hang his head and cry -- from loneliness, sure, but mostly from guilt -- when he wound up in prison. His characters were much like he was: They tried to do the right thing, but rarely did. For a large chunk of his career, Cash was a devout Christian and an even more devoted abuser of drugs and alcohol, a self-destructive combination that led him to the brink at least once or twice. In 1967, he even crawled into a cave in Tennessee, expecting never to crawl out again.
While Love, God, Murder consists almost exclusively of previously released material (four of the set's 48 tracks -- a mono version of "Delia's Gone," "The Sound of Laughter," "My Old Faded Rose" and "I Tremble for You" -- were unavailable in the United States before this collection), it does offer something truly new. Though Cash's name has graced dozens of best-and-rest-ofs, never before has his entire career been represented, from his mid-'50s beginnings on Sun Records to his mid-'90s resurgence. Better yet, for the first time in forever, his songs are removed from behind the thick museum glass and allowed to breathe fresh air.
If nothing else, Love, God, Murder is proof that Cash is as vital today as he was when he first recorded "Cry, Cry, Cry" for Sam Phillips' Sun Records in 1955. More recent tracks such as "The One Rose (That's Left in My Heart)" and "The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea" are every bit as strong and vibrant as "I Walk the Line" and "Folsom Prison Blues," both of which were recorded more than four decades ago. In fact, Cash's lived-in voice makes those songs even better, each word wrapped around a baritone warm and deep as a mother's love. Cash hasn't hung up his guns yet; he just doesn't have to use them as much.
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Listening to Love, God, Murder, it's impossible to separate then from now -- Cash's voice and stranglehold on each song were always there. Actually, you could just compare the previously unissued version of "Delia's Gone" on Love, God, Murder to the one he recorded for American Recordings. Though more than three decades separate them (the one on Murder was laid down in July 1961), you'd never know it from listening. Well, maybe the 29-year-old Cash sounds a little more likely to shoot the "lowdown and triflin'" Delia.
Other than that, both versions sound like each other . . . and nothing else. All the years, trends and drugs that came and went, and none of it has affected him, because he's always just been Johnny Cash. He has been inducted into both the Country and Rock and Roll halls of fame, yet he's never fit comfortably into either category. Whether he was backed by Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant (his original band, the Tennessee Two) or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (who accompanied him on Unchained), it has always sounded like Johnny Cash. Whether he was singing 19th-century spirituals or songs by Glenn Danzig, Tom Waits and Beck, it's always sounded like Johnny Cash. Whether it's just him and a guitar or him and U2, it's always sounded like Johnny Cash. He's his own genre, definitely his own man.
"If I hear something that's comfortable to me, I'll do it," Cash told New Times. "I've got an open mind and an open heart for music. It's the closed minds in this business that limit the potential, and there's so much of that out here in Nashville. Minds are closed down to whatever's not gettin' on this gravy train and ridin' today. And I just hate that kind of thing. I just always have and always will. I've always been a Memphis rebel. I never did do it the way they do it down on Music Row."
Cash has never done it the way they do it anywhere. And he probably never will.