Johnny Cash at the End of the World
December 15, 2008
So today I’ve learned, more or less, what it was Joan Didion meant when she wrote about how walking around for a year with certain lines from Yeats’ “Second Coming” repeating in her mind drove her to write “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” I’ve had such “certain lines,” as well as the first sentence of Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, swirling around in a doom-and-gloom mishmash all day. I do believe that I’m growing more pessimistic about the future by the hour.
Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I cam to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last?
I’m quite tempted to say it is “the greatest” or some such nonsense of all American opening lines, or of all I have read. I will settle instead for the truthful statement that it is the most vivid and haunting of those I have read; it was rooted in my mind before I read the novel (which has been a quite recent experience), since I first opened the cover one day in a bookstore and read the first half page.
After some fumbling around among CDs and albums at the end of the day, I settled on Johnny Cash’s American IV. and settled down listening to it. The sound of his voice on the album — something like the auditory equivalent of the flavor of a piece of cool summer morning road gravel popped into your mouth at age eight just to see what it tastes like — was the sound of my first encounter with it. It took me some time, I must admit, to grow used to the sound of his younger voice.
When I say that Johnny Cash’s greatness lies in the honesty and truthfulness of his voice, I don’t mean that of his young voice, though it is present even then. I mean the honesty of his voice at the brink of death knowing it is at the brink of death, but still full of vibrancy and love. I think his voice has more life to it on this album than any other. Those last sprigs of health, the knowledge that June Carter is still holding his hand for just a little while longer yet, give it a strength not quite there on the vocal tracks of American V (but Dear Lord — the shock of his voice from beyond the grave booming out of my car stereo the day WFPK started playing songs from it!).
I hear him standing on the verge — the precipice? — of the twenty-first century, having visions of the Apocalypse, and singing. But what’s interesting is the choice to acknowledge that vision, but not to be governed by it. The album’s first three songs guarantee that it is a “sad” album, a death-infused, death-conscious album, but none of this is approached with pessimism. It’s not an album about death, but death as an element of love and life. Somehow, it’s optimistic — due in no small part to the closing harmonies of “We’ll Meet Again,” the whole family singing together.
It is, on days when ice storms are slowly moving towards Louisville and you’re sitting inside shivering more from the thoughts of what, exactly, this future may hold for us all than from the cold, a firm hand on one’s shoulder.