Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Truth “Hurts”—Why Johnny Cash was Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash was an artist. Maybe one of the last remaining on the scene.

Johnny ran with a no-bullshit, hard-living, hard-partying crowd of artists. Forget the label
“Country”—it could be argued that the Highwaymen—Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie
Nelson, Waylon Jennings—defied any label. Kierkegaard said, “Once you label me, you
negate me.” Johnny and his gang wouldn’t be negated—battles with record companies,
fighting to have their music heard the way they knew it should be, private battles they
were never ashamed to make public—they fought to communicate what they felt, no
matter what it might mean.

That, to me, is the heart and soul of Art.

I think the epitome, the sheer embodiment of what it meant to be Johnny Cash—man and
musician—can be found in the song and video for “Hurt.” I talk to my acting students
about Truth—what it means to have enough conviction and faith to stand naked in front
of the world and just Be, whatever that means. So many performers are just that—
Hollywood “bad boys,” scantily clad buxom bimbos who wouldn’t show their
intelligence in public for anything, temper-tantrum athletes, and smarmy politicians.
Everything is so carefully considered and staged and scripted that there’s no hope of
communicating any Truth, and that’s probably not their aim. They have moved so far into
Character/persona that there’s no person, no connection, nothing but a big glossy finish
and desire to make everyone else feel Small.

I can’t imagine Johnny had much patience for that crap.

I don’t think I need to rehash all the lyrics or do a frame-by-frame analysis of the song
and video for “Hurt.” If you loved Johnny, you know both of them quite well. Those
thundering Am and F chords in what might be called the “chorus” (it’s all so solitary,
chorus seems a grossly inaccurate word for that moment in the music) invade and pull
and talk until a mirror rises up and I am suddenly considering myself within those words
Trent Reznor wrote.

Johnny was good at making you think about yourself with his simple, personal story-
songs and piercing eyes.

The song is short—like life; like most messages of Truth. If you consider that Rumi could
say in 16 lines what it takes the entire New Testament to fumble thru you’ll see just what
I mean. The video visually resonates through no more than five or six repeating images—
the table of uneaten food, the closed-up Cash Museum, Johnny and June, instruments and
awards, shots from younger days. But isn’t that the way? I find myself picking up my
guitar in odd hours of the day and night and picking out those opening chords over and
over—Am/C/D, Am/C/D—all the while playing out my own narrow catalogue of
scattered yet connected images over and over, wondering at my own roads, my own
choices, paths, and opinions. My own empire of dirt—all those I’ve let down and made
hurt.

Somehow watching Johnny’s shaky hand pour out that glass of blood-wine over those
piles of untouched food makes it easier to be upfront about my own shortcomings and
decisions and all the hurt they’ve caused.

That’s Art, to me—like gazing into a painting of Pollack’s and seeing all your own stacks
of stuff in there.

Maybe it’s age, or the coming to terms with death, that allows a man to go so far on the
eternal record book that is film, but I’d like to think that Johnny could have made that
video any time he wanted. He just knew when it’d be best.

Johnny seemed to understand some things about that rotten bastard Time.

Losing Waylon must have been a bitch (Everyone I know goes away in the end), and the
commercialization of Country music to the point of insincerity and unrecognizability had
to have made him shake his head and long for elder days (I know it does for me) but then
again, there’s always a danger in trying to analyze and theorize about what a man means
when he decides to sing someone else’s song.

So I think I’ll leave that where it lies.

(Yeah—I think that is a pun...)

I miss Johnny Cash. He’s on a very short list of contemporary Artists that come to mind
when I press myself for other examples. Forget actors, man—there’s rarely a sincere one
in the bunch. Kristofferson is still out there, and he does the acting thing, too—but he
seems to come alive and dance closer with his dharma with a guitar in his hands. I heard
him in a phone interview the day after Johnny died and I swear I heard that Am chord in
the scratchy, weathered drawl that is Kris. He’s gonna miss the Man. No denying that. No
other musicians really come to mind—well, none you’ve ever heard of, I don’t guess—
and I would bet the same could be said of all the living writers that come to mind.

It’s easier to work in the hues and tones of Truth in a basement where no one sees your
work. That kind of Truth is easy.

It takes a Johnny Cash to bring true Art into the Light, unchanged and at full potency,
like Bacchus beneath the moon. If the world can handle it—fine. If not, maybe it’s just as
well.

Maybe the disciples always have to be the select.

I miss Johnny, though I’m glad to have his tapes. I’m glad to have a Dad who shared
Johnny’s tunes with me when I could barely walk. I’m glad I learned to play guitar so I
can pick out those great low-note intros to so many of his songs. I’m glad to have that
image of him as a young musician standing in an open boxcar traveling to who knows
where and damned near everywhere.

In the end, I guess the lyrics do say it best: If I could start again/A million miles away/I
would keep myself/I would find a way.

Cause it don’t matter what you may have done as long as you knew it was you every mile
down those tracks.

Johnny Cash taught me that.

I wish I’d thought to let him know it before now.

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