Thursday, October 3, 2013

Johnny Cash: The Life

Johnny Cash: The LifeJohnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Johnny Cash: The Life is a biography of Johnny Cash.

I've been a Johnny Cash fan for couple decades but most of what I knew of the man was from his music and Walk the Line and a couple VH1 specials so when I saw this come up on Netgalley, I thought I'd give it a read.

The Life is a well-written chronicle of Johnny Cash's life and career, starting from his childhood in Arkansas to his time in the army and his steady rise into a music icon to his death. Walk the Line was just the sanitized tip of the iceberg.

This is no white-washed account of things. Maybe because most of the principal people involved are dead, this book doesn't pull any punches. While I knew Cash had a drug problem, I had no idea how big it was. Fifteen Dexedrines a day for almost a decade is crazy. Did you know Johnny Cash once let a fire get out of control in a drunken and drugged haze that killed some endangered condors? Or that he had lots of affairs, not just with June Carter, while he was married to his first wife Vivian? Or that he cheated on June with her sister? Or that he wasn't too keen on Elvis?

There were a lot of good things as well, like donating money to people he read about in the paper, or getting Glen Sherley, the guy who wrote Greystone Chapel that Cash performed on the legendary Live at Folsom Prison album, paroled.

Cash's career had its share of ups and downs, stemming to his drug use, and later, alienating a portion of his audience by focusing on religious themed music, sliding into irrelevance with the dawn of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, and other outlaw country acts that he inspired.

One person I feel bad for, aside from his family, is Marshall Grant. Not only did Marshall play base for Johnny for decades, he also kept the ship running smoothly and kept Johnny from dying on countless occasions. I wasn't surprised when Marshall later sued Cash. I would have sued the bastard, too.

Honestly, the book got sadder and sadder as it went. Everyone knew Cash's best days were behind him once 1980 hit except for him. By then, all the abuse he'd put his body through had caught up to him. Going from Columbia to Mercury didn't help much.

After a few surgeries, going bankrupt, and getting dropped by Mercury, things didn't get good for Cash until meeting Rick Rubin. From there, the American recordings, and the end of the trail for both June and John.

The story of Cash finishing American IV on sheer willpower reminds me of Warren Zevon, who died the same week as Cash, forcing himself to finish his final album before the curtain fell.

The Life was a very informative look into the life of Johnny Cash. And now, since I can't think of another way to wrap this up, my ten favorite Johnny Cash songs, in no particular order. Yes, I'm aware that a couple of them are only covers.

- Ring of Fire
- One Piece at a Time
- Orange Blossom Special
- Folsom Prison Blues
- A Boy Named Sue
- Long Black Veil
- Give my Love to Rose
- Cry, Cry, Cry
- Hurt
- When the Man Comes Around

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