Fixing the light on the man in black

MUSIC GREAT: Johnny Cash.
MUSIC GREAT: Johnny Cash.


By Robert Hilburn Hachette

The limelight is a double-edged sword. It singles out the man at centre-stage and obscures his support. But its brightness can also flatten definition, blast out the wrinkles and fix his stardom in a two-dimensional poster pose.

So it has been for Johnny Cash. In the decade since his death in 2003 at the age of 71, that glare has continued to simplify the image of a once craggy, rugged man now best remembered through a 1960s prison performance, a lifelong drug habit, the continued broadcasting of his 2002 Nine Inch Nails cover of Hurt and the airbrushed Hollywood biopic Walk the Line.

What Robert Hilburn's intense biography - made with the blessing of the singer's family and friends, and from a 35-year relationship with Cash as a music journalist with the Los Angeles Times - seeks to reveal is more of the wrinkles, more of the grit and dirt.

The reader first meets JR - he wasn't known as Johnny until his recording career dictated a more memorable handle - as a kid in a "federally assisted farmhouse in rural Dyess, Arkansas" dreaming of being a cowboy film star and singing gospel songs with his cotton-picking family or to calm his nerves in the snake-filled nights.

From there Hilburn deals with Cash's admission that he "never let facts interfere with a good story" by harvesting tales from a wide range of family sources and his own fat notebooks (Hilburn was the only newsman at the 1968 Folsom Prison concert and has clearly enjoyed an intimate relationship throughout the singer's boom-bust career).

The already well-documented early episodes (his brother's gruesome table-saw death; military time spent in Germany; the failed marriage to Vivian; the breakthrough hit I Walk the Line; the glorious Sun Records era alongside Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins; the introduction to amphetamines; and his meeting with lifelong love June Carter) are peppered with additional info helping to chart why or how those events are linked to Cash's best-known lyrics.

Other mythologised events, such as a 1968 drug-addled suicide attempt - later interpreted as a spiritual epiphany and addiction watershed by Cash - in Tennessee's Nickajack caves are shot down by a mixture of research and honesty: the cave was flooded when Cash was supposed to have been there, and Cash continued to use pills.

After the initial burst of skyrocketing fame, the biography tends to mine a long middle-third seam focusing on pills and tour squabbles, but there are nuggets of honesty such as June searching his dressingroom for drugs, a huge fine for killing dozens of endangered condors after Cash blew up his truck in a nature reserve, a fight with an ostrich, a rumoured affair with June's sister Anita, and a long run of dreadful music choices (it's worth Googling Strawberry Cake and The Chicken in Black to see how low Cash's career fell).

Hilburn fights the smoothing effect of the limelight by his continual return to the music and lyrics of Cash's most important songs. He emphasises the biographical elements of hits such as Hey Porter and Five Feet High and Rising, and charts Cash's continual struggle with Christianity through the release of spiritual songs and inclusion of religious imagery in his folk-country crossovers.

This reliance on Cash's music helps underline the constant emotional battles he felt he was fighting: the love of two women, spiritual calling versus earthly pleasures, touring versus family life, even the simple genre dilemmas about where his music fitted - did he fit into the country, folk, gospel, or, in later life, MTV canon?

But it also shows how these battles fed his creativity right up until his death. When Rick Rubin - founder of hip-hop label Def Jam - decided to work with Cash in the 1990s, their American Recordings introduced an old man to a young rock crowd then submerged in grunge culture and receptive to Cash's growling stories of addiction and self doubt.

These final years give The Life a nicely biblical or Shakespearean tone, adding catharsis and redemption to what had been a life of hubristic highs and tragic lows.

It's certainly not an airbrushed ending - our hero dies riddled with medication and infection - but it is an ending which, like so many country singers, Cash had foreseen and fore-sung throughout his career.

Cash didn't like the featureless stage-star standing in the glare of the limelight - his best lyrical moments detailed the struggle of American underdogs and "the mud and the blood and the beer".

Even at the height of his career in 1969 he recorded a song by the then young Kris Kristofferson, To Beat the Devil, which summed up his vision of the country star.

"I was born a lonely singer, and I'm bound to die the same, but I've got to feed the hunger in my soul.

And if I never have a nickel, I won't ever die ashamed, 'cause I don't believe that no-one wants to know."

Sunday Star Times