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Johnny Cash and the price of darkness

Diers: Modern-day brooders look pale by comparison
/ Source: contributor

I laughed out loud when, in 1998, I noticed an image of Johnny Cash tacked up on a co-worker’s cubicle wall, torn from a current issue of Billboard magazine. It was the now-infamous shot of the Man in Black brandishing his middle finger and scowling into the camera, his mouth contorted into a defiant suggestion of the letter F. The accompanying text read: “American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support.”

It was just the kind of sarcastic kiss-off that folks of my generation — the one born in-between the moon landing and Iran-Contra — could instantly appreciate.

As teens, we’d been groomed for the “alternative” explosion, an exercise in commercial self-awareness that allowed rockers and deejays and ravenous CD consumers alike to redefine themselves as part of a bigger, broader, more user-friendly counterculture. We could blast old-school perceptions of success in the process of reaffirming them. Bands could be huge and still be edgy; rappers could be ghetto and live in Brentwood.

As for a Grammy, it didn’t mean a damned thing … unless it was being awarded to a crinkly shitkicker like Cash (his “Unchained” had just been voted ’98’s Best Country Album), in which case it was a hipster coup that flew in the face of Shania Twain mania and the Technicolor bubblegumming of mainstream country.

But the bird-flipping pic itself, taken at a 1969 concert in San Quentin prison, reflected more than just a sweet bit of music-biz comeuppance.

For decades, Cash had been flexing his ominous, earthy drawl in the service of popular music’s existential essentials: love, guns, religion, drugs and death. His ’90s comeback was merely the latest verse in a long and bittersweet lamentation, concurrent with a string of formidable health problems. Even at his most artistically and commercially vibrant moments, Cash walked a hard road, encapsulated vividly in the video for his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” (honored with an MTV award just last month).

For baby boomers and diehard country connoisseurs, there will be no shortage of reverent remembrances this month. Meanwhile, younger and more casual fans — those who never thought much of Cash until producer-mogul Rick Rubin helped to reinvigorate his canon — ought to consider whether current purveyors of “dark” pop music can hold a candle to this original MIB.

The stoic killer
In the 15 years since N.W.A. flew their own middle fingers on the anthemic “F—- The Police”, Cash has been regularly referenced in conversations about violence and drug use in hip-hop. If Cash can wax melodic about sniffing cocaine and putting a bullet or two in his own girlfriend without getting hassled by censors, then why can’t rappers from Eazy-E to Eminem indulge themselves on a chronic-puffing, pistol-packing musical joyride now and again?

It’s an apt comparison that should edify free speech on both sides, regardless of how much penitence pervades the artists’ personal lives. But in terms of emotional payload, Cash’s stoic killer packs a wallop that few modern-day MCs can match, perhaps because the killing never boosted his ego, instead driving him deeper into the darkness.

Where rock is concerned, every generation has a bevy of bands whose melancholy offerings gel perfectly with the clinically dreary clockwork of adolescent angst. Whether it’s Marilyn Manson’s exhibitionist doomsaying, the overproduced self-loathing of a Staind album, or the most bummingest sing-along ballad on Dashboard Confessional’s latest, listeners need only pick a flavor and dig in.

But when it comes to Johnny, less is morbid. Especially on the Rubin-produced efforts of recent years, his spare guitar and stripped-bare narratives cook the gloom down to its mortal essences.

Maybe it’s just easier to sound lonely when you’re playing solo. Or maybe the facts of Cash’s truly fraught past summon a dour integrity that puts Adidas- or Converse-clad rockers at a hopeless disadvantage, no matter how doomed or drug-addled they might feel. (In any case, I shudder to think what the inmates at Folsom Prison would have done to Chris Carrabba — tattoos or no tattoos.)

At once an obstinate outsider and a compassionate populist, Cash never characterized himself as anything more than a man, which can’t be underrated. As distinctive as his voice may have been, he strove to represent the common voices and complex spirit of others.

In liner notes for the Columbia/Legacy reissue of 1968’s “At Folsom Prison,” likeminded country-rocker Steve Earle writes, “He was a badass. He wore a lot of black and he sang about murder and dope and adultery and ghosts. He had genuine attitude.”

In lieu of the music, that’s one of the more lovingly succinct profiles you’re likely to find. But in those same liner notes, Cash himself offers a deeper glimpse into his own dark ruminations, describing in detail the experience of an inmate-not only tactile images of cold steel bunks and counting prison bars, but elusive moral questions about kinship, forgiveness, and the penal system itself. He confronts the darkness on unabashedly human terms, never positing quick answers or easy exits. He feels it in his audience and strides forth to meet it. That’s more than we can say for Linkin Park, let alone Toby Keith.

On the whole, hardcore country purists don’t have much need for Cash’s latter-day cover material, borrowing from the unlikely likes of Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, and Soundgarden. There’s plenty in the catalog to trump those remakes, to be sure.

Still, they’ll continue to serve as a bridge by which lovers of morose modern rock can appreciate the timeless transcendence of that darkness and, hopefully, a humanistic figure who understood it as well as anybody before or since. And the next time they see their favorite lead singer hoist a middle finger at paparazzi or paying concertgoers, maybe they’ll remember which black-clad guitar slinger flipped it best.

James Diers is a freelance writer living in St. Paul, Minn.