A former coworker used to have a massive poster of Johnny Cash in her office. It was a photo obviously taken during the same session that yielded the cover shot for 1994’s magnificent, Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings, Cash’s musically spare but potent comeback album. The poster was practically life-size, but for a larger-than-life figure such as Johnny Cash, it was still about 10 feet too small. In the photo, he’s standing in a field that’s apparently somewhere between Canaan and Dodge City, preparing to stare down a cyclone. And he looks carved out of weathered stone.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s the last of three images of the man that my mind carries, each one associated with a different Johnny Cash. The first Cash is the, well, young one, the one who recorded for Sun Records and then moved to Columbia in the late ’50s, the one present at the birth of the “boom-chuka” sound and “Hey Porter” and “I Walk the Line.” My preferred shot from that period adorns the cover of the Complete Million Dollar Session album, a picture that finds Cash surrounded by Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley. (Depending on what you read or whom you ask, either Cash ended up not participating in the recording session or he did, but his mic wasn’t on.) In that picture, he’s a 23-year-old with an 18-month-old daughter named Rosanne and a full, and then some, life ahead of him.
Now put those two photos in a double frame, the young, pre-Man in Black father and the aging Wild West prophet, and chew on the question, What took place in the years between those two captured moments?
The answer is, of course, a hell of a lot. Here’s a random list–there could be a dozen others of near-equal weight–in no particular order: the two prison albums, the Highwaymen, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” drug addiction, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” a weekly television variety show, Silver, marriage to soulmate June Carter, “A Boy Named Sue,” the movie “A Gunfight,” my favorite underrated record Rockabilly Blues, “What Is Truth?” It was a time of great celebrity for Johnny Cash, and it’s the period of his that I most connect with. Like the New York Mets and the space program, Johnny Cash was something that I grew up with, a cultural constant whose beginnings (careerwise, in Cash’s case) and arc roughly parallel mine.
My Cash image from that period is a bit odd, and it’s footage, not a snapshot. He was in a mid-’80s “Saturday Night Live” audience (sitting next to Waylon Jennings if I remember right), and Billy Crystal was doing his Fernando bit. Crystal Fernando’d up to him and asked, “Does Jack Lord know that you stole his hair?” Cash laughed hysterically. For some reason, this was final proof for me that Johnny Cash was an honest-to-God celebrity–not to mention a good sport.
In the form of Johnny Cash, we got a unique, genre-blurring singer and songwriter, a bona fide triple-threat performer, an appeal that spanned at least four generations (consider that his first producer worked with Elvis Presley and his last with the Beastie Boys and System of a Down) and a presence that grew more iconic with the years. He had a disarming directness, both onstage and off, and a personal warmth that’s been celebrated in seemingly every posthumous remembrance. All told, these talents and traits were the makings of a true American giant. Emphasis on all three of those last words.