"JOHNNY CASH-THE LIFE" by ROBERT HILBURN



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"JOHNNY CASH-THE LIFE" by ROBERT HILBURN

Postby Moshe » Thu Dec 19, 2013 10:26 pm

After reading this mighty tome, I think I now know more about Johnny Cash than I will ever want to know.
The book details Cash's life in excruciating detail, & the picture that emerges is not a pretty one, certainly not a happy one.
Johnny Cash made some of the most compelling music of the twentieth century and he became a gigantic figure in American culture.
But the man behind the music & the image was a deeply disturbed & disturbing figure. His self-destructiveness was only exceeded by his destructiveness to those about him. He could be downright vindictive & nasty, causing his one close nephew to refuse to have anything to do with him for close on a decade.
But there were also a side of Cash that was full of compassion, and wanting to do good and to be a better person. And it was in the love for his mother that his deepest feelings emerged, rather than of his wives, Vivian or June.
Cash's darkest days were the Sixties when he was most overwhelmed by his drug habit and also at his nastiest and most destructive to all those about him.
Things got better in the Seventies when Cash temporarily overcame his addiction & was determined to be a real dad to his son with June Carter, John Carter, that he had failed to be to his daughters' with first wife Vivian. Towards decades end, Cash was back on the pills and almost as mad as ever.
Many credit June Carter with saving Johnny's life, and there may be some truth to this.
But June was no stranger to drugs herself, though- until later in her life with Cash- she never let them control her the way they did her husband. The real hero in the battle to save Cash from death by drugs is his long time bass player, Marshall Grant. For his tireless efforts to keep the show on the road, Marshall was sacked by Johnny who further libelled the bassist by claiming he was stealing from him, a claim Cash himself would later admit was a lie. Just as he libelled his nephew, who saved Cash's life after Cash set fire to his camper & a national park. Cash told everyone that his Nephew had abandoned him to save his own skin. Something Cash again would later admit was a nasty lie, which he blamed on the drugs.
The person I feel sorriest for in this sorry tale is Vivian, Johnny's first wife. His early courtship of her was bad enough, where he would taunt her with his tales of sexual alliances with other women while threatening her when she timidly told him she'd been invited out on a rather innocent date. But things would get much worse.
June herself was no innocent. She had already a couple of husbands behind her when she met Cash &, just as Cash was a serial adulterer, June had cheated on her husbands. But it was Junes' nastiness to Vivian that showed the worst side of her.

So far, I have concentrated on the less important side of this story as far as music fans are concerned. The real story is the music. Hilburn is particularly impressive in the way he details Cash's early life & musical influences and his development as an artiste under Sam Phillips' direction at Sun records.
As great as Cash's Sun records were, I doubt Cash could have developed much more as an artiste had he stayed with Sam.
Sam was not interested in albums, certainly not in concept albums. He would no way have let Cash do an album of train songs, or of Gospel songs. Phillips was completely focused on one thing- HIT SINGLES. He wanted the up-tempo bopping tunes that sent teenagers crazy & rushing into record stores.
The story of long time Cash manager, Saul Holiff is an interesting one. Saul saw Cash as his best chance to make a million, and he did. But it was hard work. Along with everything else, Saul had to struggle with an increasingly dysfunctional Cash who missed tour dates & just about everything else due to his drug dependency.
But Holiff's masterstroke during the folk boom of the sixties was selling Cash as a folk artiste, rather than just a country singer. And Cash can really be viewed as both a country & folk artiste. As well as his love of the country greats, Cash loved & knew American folk and blues music, and gospel. Johnny Cash & the rising star of the Folk Boom Bob Dylan formed a life long mutual admiration society. Cash was a Dylan fan from Dylans' first, self-titled album.
I admit I skimmed through the last chapters of the book. I think I had over cashed, & I needed to finish the book by Friday so I can return it to the library by Saturday. It is reserved, so unrenewable!
Hilburn, somewhat unfairly in some cases (IMO) largely dismisses Cash's Seventies & 80's albums, while joining in lauding the rather over-rated (IMO) American Recording albums.
Yes, there were some good tracks on these albums, but to my ears much of it was fillers.
My favourite tracks on the American Recordings albums are the hilarious "SAM HALL" and the barking "WHEN THE MAN COMES AROUND". "HURT" is effective, but not so ground breaking as is often suggested, and as for Cash's reworking of the much recorded folk song "Delia's Gone", it's greatest selling point was the shock value via the truly dire video nasty that was made of it for MTV. The video's director claimed the video, which features violence torture & murder, was "anti-violence", which is laughable. Rubin loved the shock around the "Delia" video which, as intended, generated massive publicity.
So, an impressive book and a powerful portrait of a contradictory character. It certainly makes for a fascinating read. Hilburn includes the lyrics of several songs from the Cash repertoire to illustrate his development.
I will close this review with a song not included in the book, but written about Cash by his friend, the songwriter, (& fellow "Highwayman") Kris Kristofferson.

See him wasted on the sidewalk in his jacket and his jeans
Wearin' yesterday's misfortunes like a smile
Once he had a future full of money, love and dreams
Which he spent like they was goin' out of style

And he keeps right on a-changin' for the better or the worse
Searchin' for a shrine he's never found
Never knowin' if believin' is a blessin' or a curse
Or if the goin' up was worth the comin' down

He's a poet, oh, he's a picker, he's a prophet, he's a pusher
He's a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he's stoned
He's a walkin' contradiction, partly truth, partly fiction
Takin' ev'ry wrong direction on his lonely way back home


Well, he has tasted good and evil in your bedrooms and your bars
Has traded in tomorrow for today
Runnin' from his devils, Lord and reachin' for the stars
And losin' all he's loved along the way

But if this world keeps right on turnin' for the better or the worse
And all he ever gets is older and around
From the rockin' of the cradle to the rollin' of the hearse
The goin' up was worth the comin' down


He's a poet, he's a picker, he's a prophet, he's a liar
He's a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he's stoned
He's a walkin' contradiction, partly truth, partly fiction
Takin' ev'ry wrong direction on his lonely way back home
There's a lot of wrong directions on your lonesome way back home

From the rockin' of the cradle to the rollin' of the hearse
The goin' up was worth the comin' down
Cor Blimey, Guv'nor! 8)
Moshe

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Re: "JOHNNY CASH-THE LIFE" by ROBERT HILBURN

Postby kev » Fri Dec 20, 2013 6:30 am

Well done Clive - big book, big review! I think Cash must be the most written about country music star, certainly either him or Hank Williams! It's a shame really that the drug taking and its related problems seem to be what interest so many people. Obviously if you're writing about someone's life you can erase parts of it but, as you suggest, it's really the music I'm interested in these sorts of books.
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Re: "JOHNNY CASH-THE LIFE" by ROBERT HILBURN

Postby Moshe » Fri Dec 20, 2013 6:50 am

Kev, I agree, the drugs tend to be focussed on when writing about Cash.
But they really did have a major input not just on Cash, but on his music and career. There were a number of points in the Sixties when Cash's career was almost over due to his inability to perform as a result of heavy drug use.
I think Hilburn has got the balance about right, here, tying in everything that was happening in Cash's life with his music.
I thoroughly disliked the picture of the drugged up Cash that emerges. It was something of a relief when, as the Seventies dawned, Cash cleaned up and seemed to stabilise. Perhaps the best thing for Cash's own life would have been for him to leave his music career to the side at that point, rather than relentlessly seeking more hits and career highs.
Unlike the author, I rate some of Cash's Seventies albums. I liked "Silver" & especially the track "Lonesome to the bone". I also rated his first Mercury album in the Eighties, "Johnny Cash is Coming To Town".
Cor Blimey, Guv'nor! 8)
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