- I’m pleasantly surprised by the amount of press coverage Johnny Cash’s death is generating. But I also wonder how much his overemphasized “comeback” has to do with it.
It’s been weeks since Johnny Cash doffed his earthly black garb for heavenly white robes, but there’s no way you could have forgotten him. The press coverage has been enormous and, frankly, higher-profile than I would have guessed or hoped. In addition to scads of newspaper eulogies and TV tributes, Cash made the covers of Time and, fittingly, Rolling Stone – inexplicably, Johnny, a country and rock legend, never made the cover of the rock bible during his lifetime.
Of course, Cash richly deserves all the attention. “Icon” is a word thrown around pretty casually these days, but Cash really was one, an inimitable figure who encapsulates the 20th Century as wholly as – perhaps better than – Frank Sinatra.
Johnny Cash’s death was one of the least surprising in music history. I doubt I’m the only one who saw the heartbreaking footage of him at the funeral of his wife, June Carter Cash, last May and quietly bet that Cash would follow his legendary missus before the year was out.
As if the stage couldn’t be better set, this year Cash was also the subject of the most intense, if accidental, farewell tribute ever. His latest single, a cover of Nine Inch Nails’ dirge “Hurt,” became a minor radio hit last spring and a major MTV hit; the video (quite simply one of the greatest ever made) featured a broken, morose, mesmerizing Cash reflecting on his life as images from his storied career flashed by. The video was nominated for a slew of MTV awards, but when Cash didn’t make the awards show, the public received its final hint that Johnny was not long for this world. So the press had ample time to prepare its coverage – it’s as if the research had been done for them. All of which explains why the Cash tributes were so thorough.
Celebrity deaths routinely generate an avalanche of press coverage, much of it out of proportion with the stature of the deceased luminary. (I believe it was The Onion that offered the all-too-real headline, “Co-Star on Family Ties Killed in Plane Crash; 250 Others Also Confirmed Dead.”) Media outlets fall over themselves to tout the passing of anyone even semi-famous, and it usually takes a few days or weeks to weed through the media coverage and accurately gauge a dead celebrity’s stature.
Rock deaths, in particular, are also measured by a more precise cultural barometer – the charts: a deceased act’s latest album or best-of inevitably sees a massive sales boost. (This instant-postmortem phenomenon rarely happens with movie stars, who usually don’t have a movie in theaters at their moment of death, and whose body of film work can’t be easily summarized on video.) Just this year, CDs by Barry White, the Bee Gees (Maurice Gibb) and Warren Zevon flew up the Billboard album list the instant their deaths were announced. Two years ago, Aaliyah’s plane crash happened so soon after her latest album’s release that the hit-bound record shot to #1.
As for Cash, two of his albums stormed up the charts in the days after his passing. A formerly low-selling hits package, The Essential Johnny Cash, made its first appearance on any chart last week. More impressively, his latest studio album, American IV: The Man Comes Around, reached a new peak, just outside of Billboard’s top 20 – Cash’s highest chart rank in nearly 30 years.
The Man Comes Around is the fourth studio album by Cash since his 1994 “comeback.” That year, American Recordings, the first record in a series produced by Rick Rubin, came out and galvanized the attention of rock journalists and hipsters, who had all but forgotten that this legend still walked among them.
It didn’t hurt that American Recordings was actually a stellar record – a dark, moody collection of murder ballads and folk dirges, some penned by contemporary artists like Beck and Glenn Danzig. I myself fell in love with the record (my second-favorite that year, behind Guided by Voices’ Bee Thousand), and I must confess that, sucker for hype that I am, the album succeeded in giving me a newfound appreciation for Cash.
The thing is, much like the wildly overhyped Tony Bennett “comeback” of the ’90s, the Johnny Cash comeback was insider-ish and mostly illusory. I was not emblematic of a trend. Millions of young people did not “discover” Johnny Cash in 1994, no more than they did when he’d sung on a U2 song the year before. American Recordings didn’t even make the top 100 of the album chart, and until recently, none of the American albums ever went gold. (The Man Comes Around finally did this year – Cash’s first gold album in three decades.) As for “Hurt,” it never crossed over to any major radio formats, and the only MTV award it won was for its cinematography; most of that night’s awards went to the likes of Good Charlotte. Thousands of kids have gotten a history lesson on Cash this year, but I doubt many of them invested time or money in his records.
I bring all this up for fear that some of the column inches Cash is earning are motivated by demographics-obsessed editors, who’ve decided that his recent pop-culture currency makes his death somehow more marketable to people under 40. (Rolling Stone, in particular, with its virtually monthly Britney and Justin covers, seems to focus on people under 20 these days; I’d love to have been at the meeting where they decided to risk newsstand sales and let Johnny have the cover.) The media has created the image of Johnny Cash, comeback kid, which is something of a laugh – Cash’s comeback was a success artistically, but not commercially. Call me cynical, but I think it’s fair to say that if he’d died in 1993, before his first American album, Cash might have received about the same level of coverage as, say, Robert Palmer. Or at best, John Ritter.
If this supposition of mine is true, well, screw it – the joke is on the editors. Cash deserves all the honor that’s coming to him, and if it took a media-created late-’90s comeback to make it happen, then I say, go media hype. Johnny Cash’s image in the Zeitgeist has finally been affirmed.
In the late ’70s, when I was a kid, Johnny Cash was a punchline. My cousins and I used to use his name in Mad-Libs when we needed a funny name of a celebrity. I’m pretty sure I’d heard “Ring of Fire” by then, but to a kid, that flamenco-fied pop hit only made Cash funnier.
As I got older, I learned more about Cash’s legacy at Sun Records and hell-raising ride through the ’60s, from juke joints to jail cells. No teenager who sees Jim Marshall’s famous picture of Johnny at San Quentin flipping the camera the bird can be any less than shocked and thrilled.
What thrilled me even more about Cash as I learned his music and story was his effortless poise. As you get to know that voice, you love its cadence and develop this weird respect for the self-awareness behind it. “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” was, of course, the man’s signature line – but what amazed me the more I heard it was its combination of boldness and humility: Cash stood tall, but he offered you himself guilelessly. There wasn’t a shred of bravado in the line.
What finally sealed Cash’s stature for me was his appearance at a tribute concert held in his honor in 1999. Johnny wasn’t guaranteed to show up – only two years earlier he’d been diagnosed with a rare form of Parkinson’s that often left him homebound in the final years of his life. An array of country and rock stars performed covers of his material, all expecting that Cash might only see the show on tape later – if he made it out of bed at all. Then, suddenly Johnny appeared onstage, Lazarus-like, decked out in his trademark black, while the house band played on. The crowd went wild, but Johnny just loped up to the microphone and looked the audience square ahead: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
That two seconds was one of the greatest live moments I’ve ever seen, suffused with witty understatement, delicious irony and dignified grace. It was followed by a couple of songs, but I already felt I’d seen the night’s great set piece.
Here, at last, is what none of the eulogizing press will tell you: Cash became a legend by being himself. Sure, the music lives on – but so does the man, seared into memory. Being Johnny Cash was his greatest performance.