First I knew about Johnny Cash, when I was, seven, eight years old, was on the radio — my parents’ old-folks station, WATR in Waterbury, Ct., which was always on in the morning when we were getting ready for school, Albie was getting dressed for work and Mom was getting breakfast going.
And this song started being played pretty regularly — some pleasant-voiced Southern guy singing this funny song about a boy named Sue and yelling “My name is SUE! How do you DO? Now you’re gonna DIIIIIIIIE!” It was the first song I’d ever heard with a bleep in it.
It was also a pretty cool bonding moment. And a great introduction to one of the great musicians of my time. Or anyone else’s. And while I wish he could’ve been around for his 80th birthday today, I’m glad he got to know how he impacted people.
My parents were much more socially conservative than I was; hell, I had the shortest hair and dullest clothing in my class for years, which wasn’t helping me much in my quest not to be an outcast. And they didn’t like rock’n'roll. Mom was into Engelbert Humperdinck and Al Martino and Perry Como. Albie’s tastes were all over the place at one point before I was born, but he had settled into country. And we all met in the middle over Johnny Cash. And, eventually, Hank Williams, as well as Frankie Laine.
“A Boy Named Sue,” as I would learn, wasn’t written by Johnny, but by this talented songwriter and artist named Shel Silverstein. And, from watching an episode of “This Is Your Life,” I learned it was the song that resuscitated Johnny’s career after falling into the gutter not more than two or three years before.
And his summer-replacement TV show on ABC in the early ’70s was another familial bonding moment. As a 9-, 10-year-old, it was just another show in a TV Guide full of shows, and it was just a chance to hear that handsome guy in black with the hickory voice. And his beautiful wife, June.
But in retrospect, thanks to the Wide World of YouTube, I’m astounded at the people who graced the stage with Johnny in that short period: Kris Kristofferson (who wrote “Sunday Morning Coming Down”). Bob Dylan. The Carpenters. The Cowsills. Pete Seeger. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Marty Robbins. Willie Nelson. Creedence. George Jones. The Everly Brothers (who also had a summer-replacement show on ABC). Waylon Jennings. Derek & the Dominoes. Neil Young. Louis Armstrong.
All that wonderful talent was coming into our living rooms on a weekly basis. Makes me long for the return to variety shows.
Johnny was a father-child bonding moment for me in adulthood as well. In July of 1990, when I was writing about music at my first newspaper, he came to Toad’s Place in New Haven. No way in hell I was gonna go without bringing Albie. So that evening, we caught the first of the two shows he was performing.
Mike Spoerndle, the club’s late founder/owner, was standing at the door, and when I introduced my father, he said, “Come on with me.” So Mike led us to the VIP skybox, overlooking everything, and when the man himself came out in his black tux and said, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” it was one of those few moments where I got to feel like king of the world. I got to take Albie to see Johnny Cash and, for a night, I felt like a big shot in my father’s eyes. The tears are welling up out of nowhere as I write this.
Johnny, as you can see by the roster of people mentioned above, was into music for music’s sake. The artists whose songs he recorded and showcased spanned a spectrum of styles, sounds, age groups and political persuasions. In that way, he was sneakily, subversively influential on my generation.
After all, the first song Johnny ever sang in public, at a high school assembly back in Arkansas, was “The Whiffenpoof Song.” An Arkansas boy singing a Yale singing club’s supper song. (He told me that in November 1992, when I interviewed him for the New Haven Register; he was to have returned to Toad’s and was to have sung the song with the Whiffs, whose home base was Mory’s, the private Yale supper club next door to Toad’s. Unfortunately, the show was canceled.)
I didn’t know about his rockabilly songs as a little kid; my gateway to his early Sun catalog came in high school through another act known for its electicism: NRBQ, with their version of “Get Rhythm” on one of the first albums I ever bought, “NRBQ at Yankee Stadium.”
It seems many of us alternative-minded rockers glommed on to Johnny and any of a number of reasons — dressing in black, the voice, the legendary Jim Marshall photo of Johnny flipping the bird — but it all came down to eclecticism. To being able to tell the everyday world to fuck off. To forget about boxes and labels. Rockabilly? Country? Punk? Fuck it — if it’s good, it’s good.
And nowhere was this more apparent than in the final, frail, glorious chapter of Johnny’s life. The 10 years of Rick Rubin. (And whatever Rick’s beliefs may be, there’s already a seat reserved for him in heaven — believe me.)
We knew the time would be short. But we didn’t know how much wonderful music would come spilling forth from this unlikely collaboration — a weary, wary Man in Black and the Def Jam co-founder who produced the Beastie Boys and Slayer. But, true to his word, Rick let Johnny record whatever he wanted, while suggesting a song here or there.
So we got Marty Robbins and Neil Diamond and Kristofferson and “Ain’t No Grave” and a host of traditional hymns. But who was expecting Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails? U2, maybe, but not Chris Cornell and Trent Reznor. It was Johnny, and Rubin, telling us once again: Music is music. If it’s good, it’s good. What Johnny had been telling me since I was seven.
But the one song from the final years that has stayed with me was from the posthumous “Unearthed” box set. Johnny, at his home in Jamaica, recording Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” with Joe Strummer. I bought it at Christmastime 2003 and finally opened it to listen to once I moved cross-country the next spring.
I don’t know whether it was because it was such a wonderful musical generational moment — punks of two generations bonding over a third musical rebel — or the fact that Joe died before Johnny, and that just wasn’t supposed to happen. But I sat there and choked up as I first heard it.
And of all the offerings I can offer for Johnny’s 80th birthday, this is the one.
Godspeed and happy birthday, Johnny Cash, wherever you are.