I had a chance in 1996. I was living in Austin at the time, a couple of months shy of graduating from college, a couple of years from figuring out what to do after that. Never had any money back then--between paying rent and keeping up with a pack-a-day habit, I had just enough left over to keep from dying of starvation. Even that was touch and go most of the time; the rumbling in my stomach was so loud, it woke me up in the morning.
But when tickets for JC's show at the Frank Erwin Center went on sale, I prioritized. Had to. A ticket to that show--14th row, dead center--came before everything else. Rent could be late. Food could wait. I could always live on free samples from Whole Foods if it came to that. (And it did.) Dropping the bulk of my limited bankroll on that ticket was absolutely necessary.
When I was growing up, Johnny Cash was my idol, my own personal Jesus, if you will, and nothing had changed. If anything, my hero worship had increased in the intervening years, thanks to a late-career resurgence--1994's American Recordings and 1996's Unchained--aided and abetted by producer Rick Rubin. The night before the show, I was so excited, I was vibrating. It was almost making me nauseated. I made a run for the border, hoping a low-cost dinner of a bean burrito and a Dr Pepper would calm me down.
That's when it happened. The announcement on the radio: "Hey, if you've got tickets for the Johnny Cash show tomorrow night, you better sell them back. The show has been canceled." The voice of the unrelentingly glib DJ on 101X still echoes in my head like a shotgun. I immediately went home and barricaded myself in my room, lights off, stereo blaring with the songs I wouldn't get to hear in person. I knew then I never would.
Cash kept making records--2000's American III: Solitary Man and last year's American IV: The Man Comes Around, both produced by Rubin and both as striking as anything else he ever recorded--but he never really toured again. He spent the last years of his life battling various illnesses, and the last months of it dealing with the loss of his wife, June Carter, who died in May. It wasn't surprising when Cash died September 12 from complications from diabetes. That he lasted so long was.
His battles with drugs were as legendary as his string of hits. In his 1998 autobiography, Cash (which, like High Fidelity's Rob Gordon, is my "favorite all-time book"), he talks about crawling into a cave in his native Tennessee, strung out on amphetamines, a scrawny 150 pounds on his 6-foot-plus frame, hoping he would never come out. Cash came back from that, clean and sober for a time, but he never lost his taste for pills. Last year, in an interview with People magazine, he admitted it was still hard for him to be around any kind of prescription medication without wanting to gobble them up.
It was this kind of frailty that made every word he sang, whether he wrote it or not, ring with absolute truth. He was, perhaps, the premier interpreter of other writers' material; two of his best-known songs--"Ring of Fire" and "A Boy Named Sue"--were written by June Carter and Shel Silverstein, respectively. He was one of the first singers to record songs by Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson, and he had his way with tunes by everyone from U2 to Glenn Danzig. Once he sang their words, those songs belonged to him. He was a fine songwriter in his own right--"I Walk the Line" is one of the most perfectly formed songs in existence--but with his lived-in baritone, he didn't need to write a note. The voice of God and the devil lived inside him.
Cash's final hit, his cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," was an inspired choice, his creaking voice wrapping around Trent Reznor's words like they were his life story. And, in a way, they were: "I wear this crown of thorns/Upon my liar's chair/Full of broken thoughts/I cannot repair." Mark Romanek's video for the song, improbably nominated for a handful of trophies at the recent MTV Video Music Awards, underscored this point, weaving together archival footage of a younger Cash with tear-wrenching scenes of the broken and battered older model, singing the song with wife June in the background. Even before June died, Cash looked as though he was saying goodbye in the clip for "Hurt." You could say the same about American IV.
"We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when," he sang on the album's final song. "But I know we'll meet again, some sunny day." I hope that's true.