Friday, January 10, 2003

Cash On Demand

My dad was originally from a small town near Birmingham, Alabama. he moved to Chicago sometime around 1960 and spent the rest of his life here. He changed quite a bit in that time--his Deep-South drawl softened; his attitudes toward minorities did a complete 180, to the point where, in the end, he counted some of his African-American and Hispanic co-workers among his closest friends; and he eventually gave up drinking and smoking, though too late to reverse the damage he'd done to his body.

Some aspects of his upbringing, though, never did go away. He liked pan gravy and biscuits. He put Louisiana Hot Sauce on everything, from scrambled eggs to perch to the aforementioned biscuits and gravy. He wore increasingly brightly colored floppy hats so that Mom could find him in a crowd. He enjoyed fishing, even if it was just spin-casting off of the then-abandoned Navy Pier with a transistor radio hooked to his belt and at least one of his young sons at his side. And that transistor radio was usually dialed to one of the local country/western stations, thus increasing the odds substantially that he would hear a Johnny Cash song.

Dad liked many C&W players, from Willie Nelson to Loretta Lynn to Hank Williams (Senior, NOT Junior), but he loved Johnny Cash. The only LPs I can recall him owning were discs like Live from Fulsom Prison. And when he got a CD player for Christmas, I bought him a collection of Johnny Cash's greatest hits (re-recorded in the 1980s, a curiously common practice then, but still close in tone to the original recordings), which he played more than any of the other C&W CDs he received afterward.

Dad's love of "The Man in Black" was not unconditional, though. In 1994, the year before Dad died, Cash and producer Rick Rubin collaborated on American Recordings, an album that featured songs (some originals, but mostly covers of other artists' songs) stripped down to the very basics: An acoustic guitar and JC's baritone and that's about all. Most of the songs were recorded in Rubin's living room and Cash's cabin, with a couple of entries taped live at the Viper Room in LA. The result? A collection of spare, darker-than-dark recordings that packed an extraordinary emotional punch capable of blindsiding the casual listener expecting good-ol'-boy country-fried sentiment. I bought the CD as soon as it came out, gave it a listen or two, liked what I heard, for the most part (though Cash's cover of Louden Wainwright III's "The Man Who Couldn't Cry" is a lousy way to end the album, if only because the song itself is so annoying), and passed it along to Dad, with the proviso that if he enjoyed it he could keep it for his own.

The next day, he handed the CD back to me, shaking his head. He hated it.

It wasn't that he hated Cash's singing or Rubin's production. It was the nature of the songs themselves, which focus so acutely on anger, sadness and violence that Dad just got worn out by the downbeat tone of the whole project. I understood what he meant, as did others: When the video for "Delia's Gone" was shown on Bevis & Butthead, one of them asked, "Is this Gangsta Rap?"

I can't help but wonder how Dad would have felt about Johnny Cash's more recent album's, though. I never bought or borrowed American Recordings II: Unchained, so I can't speak to its quality or lack thereof. However, I do own his last two albums--American III: Solitary Man and American IV: The Man Comes Around--and each has moments that can pry open the floodgates and reduce me to heaves and sobs (not as difficult a trick as it used to be, but still...).

Cash has suffered through numerous health crises the past few years: he was misdiagnosed as having Shy-Dager Syndrome, a neurological disease akin to Parkinson's; he's had multiple bouts of pneumonia, one of which dropped him in a coma for eight days; and he suffers from diabetes, glaucoma and asthma. All of these physical difficulties have informed his last couple of albums, making them thematically more meditative, reflective and, at times, downright angry--as if he knows that each album might be his last. His voice has also changed with age and illness: What once was a booming baritone how falters and wavers with regularity. Rather than detracting from the music, though, his vocal strain almost seems to enhance it, make it more emotional, more sorrowful. It sounds more often than not like either he's on the verge of tears or he's trying to get the listener on the verge--and, for the most part, he succeeds.

American III: Solitary Man, which was released in 2000, is an oddball mix of Cash originals, traditional hymns and covers of other artists' songs: He opens the album on a note of defiance with Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" (with Petty himself singing backup). Cash also borrows from Neil Diamond's songbook for the title cut and damn near takes ownership of U2's "One" and Nick Cave's "The Mercy Seat." That latter song is what got me to buy American III in the first place: It's laced with pain, resignation, acceptance of fate, hope for redemption. Other titles--"I See a Darkness," "I'm Leavin' Now"--would suggest that, if this had indeed been Cash's last album, he was ready, if not entirely willing, to accept that.

Just before this past Thanksgiving, though, the Cash and Rubin team presented their latest gift to the music world, American IV: The Man Comes Around. Like its predecessor, American IV is a grab bag of new Cash songs, like the apocalyptic title tune and the sweet, sad "Give My Love to Rose," traditional ballads like "Danny Boy" and "Streets of Laredo," and more recent pop fare. Some choices work better than others. Cash's voice is almost too weak to do proper justice to the Beatles' "In My Life," cover of Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" (one of my all-time favorite songs) just doesn't translate to Cash's country/folk style, even if it does fit thematically with the rest of the album, which touches on religion, redemption and passage from one state of being into another more than a few times.

Other choices, however, blindside you with their power. It might seem mad for Cash to cover Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," but as you listen to it you realize that Cash's voice lends move validity to the pain, regret and frustration expressed than even Trent Reznor did. His baritone is just right for "Danny Boy" and Streets of Laredo," giving each song the right mournful pitch. His duet with Nick Cave on Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I could Cry" is a great meshing of two rough-edged voices, and closing the album with "We'll Meet Again" implies hope, at least on the surface. (Cash could just as easily have been making sly reference to Stanley Kubrick's use of the song at conclusion of Dr. Strangelove, thus giving American IV apocalyptic bookends of two very different kinds.)

But the song that gets to me the most here is one that's always been able to get to me anyway: "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Cash and Rubin take the Simon & Garfunkel classic and transform it into something closer to a hynm, Cash's voice lending uncanny authority to the sentiment expressed--who would know more about "troubled water" than someone who'd sailed on it so many times and survived? Cash is joined here by, of all people, Fiona Apple, whose breathy, almost ethereal backing vocals don't seem right at first, but blend better upon repeated listens; the two dissimilar vocal styles manage to complement and support one another like the emotional support offered in the song. The pairing also fits the thread of passage that runs through American IV: A music rebel from one generation passing a sonic baton to another

I'm not sure what Dad would have thought of either of these albums; he may have been too turned off by the first American Recordings to give the subsequent albums in the series a try. I do think, though, that he would have found things to like here. Dad spent many of the years after he quit drinking and joined Alcoholics Anonymous trying to make up for what he'd done or hadn't done for or to his family in the years before. His regrets, his experience, his pain--they all informed his journey to redemption, acceptance and forgiveness. When he died, he and I were at peace with one another, even if neither of us talked about it much and neither of us wanted him to go as soon as he did. And I believe Johnny Cash is at peace with himself and his kin now, too, though he doesn't sound like he's ready or willing to go just yet.

Today would have been Dad's 68th birthday. So I'm going to play American IV: The Man Comes Around sometime tonight, and Dad can listen in from whatever vantage point he'd be listening from. And maybe, when Johnny Cash gets to "Bridge Over Troubled Water," we can all have a good, hard cry together once more.