To call him a legend would be fair, because legends are generally cloaked in fantasy, with some reality at the core. Johnny Cash was a real man --- generous, driven, macho, curiously naive and easily addicted --- with an aura of fantasy around him. He was enormously talented, but his talents were often victim to his vices. Yet people forgave him and worshipped him. Robert Hilburn, a longtime music critic for the Los Angeles Times, has tasked himself to create a definitive biography of the Man in Black.
The story starts in poverty, in Arkansas, with a curiously American twist; Cash’s family moved to an agricultural commune during the Great Depression. From the voluntary share-cropping lifestyle of back-breaking labor emerged a character determined to get away from the Arkansas swampland where the waters were “five feet high and rising.”
"Hilburn has cut way deep into Cash’s life to carve out this lengthy, gritty tale."
Early on, he began to forge his destiny as a musician. But after the young J R saw the movie Frankenstein, he began to fear that, like the monster in the film, a person might be trying to do good, but “…might have bad parts.” Cash’s “bad parts” began to come out; even as his fame was locking in, he was unable to resist the devilish combination of pills and booze that have presaged many a downfall. Yet when he arrived for gigs stoned and stumbling, Hilburn suggests, the fans saw the Johnny Cash they wanted to see. And perhaps their blindness to his flaws made it easier for him to carry his own banner.
Though he wrote only a few songs on his own, and only a handful of them --- “I Walk the Line,” “I Still Miss Someone,” “Folsom Prison Blues” --- were outstanding, Cash is considered a great songwriter. Though he had dry years and poor choices of material, it is his hits --- “Ring of Fire, “A Boy Named Sue” --- that are cherished. His raspingly deep voice, though at times not tuneful, is praised, like his square-shouldered stance, as part of his stage mystique. His ability to cross musical genres --- folk, rock, country, gospel --- contributed to his bigger-than-life image. He made some gutsy moves, like performing for some of America’s hardest-time convicts, concerts that brought him unalloyed respect. To his divorced wives and oft-neglected children, his thrown-over lovers and his occasionally disappointed fans, through the thin years and even now, 10 years after his death, Johnny Cash remains a towering figure who had the ear of presidents and prisoners alike.
Hilburn has cut way deep into Cash’s life to carve out this lengthy, gritty tale. He reveals the times when Cash only claimed to have found religion, and when he really did; and gives some reasons why he and so many other, different kinds of musicians claimed common ground. He pulls back the bedroom curtains on Cash’s dynamic partnership with the pert, perspicacious June Carter, who at one time was regarded with the same contempt as Yoko Ono. Was she the saucy temptress who stole the big man away from his fans and his happy home in order to further her own career? She finally married him, after years of working with him, despite the fact that he still had not quit the pills, and stayed with him despite his brief affair with her sister. She was his “Wildwood Flower,” luring him back to values he had sometimes abandoned but always cherished, the folkways and simple faith of the Carter family.
JOHNNY CASH: THE LIFE has already received praise from everyone from his daughter Roseanne, to Bono and Keith Richards. But the lives he affected over his long career were not just those of the famous. He derived his strength and built his legacy on the adoration of his fans, people who saw themselves as just like him: trying to do good, despite having some bad parts to deal with.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on November 1, 2013