It’s 1991. We’re driving through the cavity between Christmas and New Year’s Day on our way to Lake Tahoe. Anthony is asleep in the back of the truck as Jason and I chew Redman tobacco, and the rain twists into snow. We linger in the frozen traffic lost in our private reveries and cheap nicotine highs. I look forward to edging past Auburn into the blizzard we were warned about on the radio. Into the New Year. Into the future...
Jason’s mix tape plays in time to the windshield wipers: Garth Brooks, Lynryd Skynyrd, Charlie Daniel’s Band and now A Boy Named Sue by Johnny Cash. We are both unaware that we will revisit and savor these moments in the years to come. I think the song is ridiculous and childish, but I listen along and say nothing. I have no idea that the song was written by Shel Silverstein. I know Jason loves it, so I listen quietly as I shift the tobacco from one cheek to the other and try not to spin to the point of vomiting.
I am sharing this story now because this was my first exposure to Johnny Cash. Years later, I pitied the man and felt embarrassed for him watching his aging face sing Depeche Mode songs. I knew little about his life, except that Rick Rubin had taken an interest in this living corpse and had released several albums. When he died in the summer of 2003, I mourned minimally because although I never cared for his music, I understood that he was a legend, and the world is always worse off when it loses one of its icons.
But being a huge fan of the Behind the Music bio-pic genre, there was never a doubt that I would see Walk The Line; the only surprise was how much it effected me. The film itself is better than average and well executed, but not mind blowing. Both Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Whitherspoon deliver commanding performances, both as actors and singer, but the film as a whole was not very original. It follows the same narrative pattern as 2004’s Ray. Don’t get me wrong; it was a great movie. I guess I am just trying to say that Cash’s story was bigger than the artistry of the film. The film doesn't reveal a bad-ass man in black, but rather a shy, insecure loner lost at the bottom of a bottle and high on pills trying to prove his worth with a guitar in hand, standing in the spotlight on a stage anywhere people will listen.
The formula of a rock star has become quite predicable: boy has troubled childhood, is awkward as an adolescent, finds comfort in music, becomes a star, can’t handle fame due to shy nature, starts drinking, hits rock bottom, sometimes dies, and other times makes it out a better more complete man. (See Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Mozart and yes Ray Charles) I have always loved the rock-star story becauseI find parallels to my own life story in it. Yes i know, I have never become famous, I am not musically talented, and although I have been close I have never actually hit rock bottom, but I did have a troubled childhood, I was awkward as an adolescent, I found comfort in music, I had my bouts with the bottle and I would like to think I have made it out to be a better more complete man. I think I was effected by Cash’s story because he was such a plain soul. He was no musical genius. He was simply a man who found a way to connect to the world somewhere between the G and C chords. And like all dreamers I suppose, we still sometimes entertain the notion that we too are simply a song away from being stars.
Watching this legend in his prime was enough to wipe away the feeble images I had in my mind of him attempting to sing Nine Inch Nails covers. Since watching the film, I have bought a collection of Cash songs and often catch myself tapping my feet and singing along. I have even pulled out my guitar to sing A Boy Named Sue, Walk The Line and many others. I find comfort in the simplicity of a good Johnny Cash song.