Love, God, Murder: Johnny Cash

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Book Review: Johnny Cash: The Life, by Robert Hilburn (Little, Brown), 679 pp.

This review originally ran in the Boston Globe on October 27, 2013.

The three words chosen for the title of Johnny Cash’s 2000 compilation — “Love, God, Murder’’ — told you everything you needed to know about the contradictions that defined the man and his obsessions; he was just as comfortable whipping the felons of Folsom Prison into a frenzy with his famous lyric, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” as he was testifying to the power of Jesus at prayer rallies with his good friend the Rev. Billy Graham.

Cash called his first autobiography “Man in Black”; his final book was “Man in White,” a novel about the Apostle Paul. His struggles with drug addiction and his stormy relationship with his second wife, June Carter Cash, are well known. Now Robert Hilburn, the longtime pop music critic and editor for the Los Angeles Times, delivers his new biography, “Johnny Cash: The Life.” Is there anything left to reveal?

According to Hilburn, despite two memoirs, an Oscar-winning biopic, and numerous books by family and friends, only “twenty percent” of Cash’s story has been told before now. The singer told Hilburn that “he wanted people to know his entire story — especially the dark, guilt-ridden, hopeless moments — because he believed in redemption and he wanted others to realize that they too could be redeemed.” One wonders whether Cash understood that his fans loved him because of his faults, not in spite of them.

Hilburn’s biography, based on interviews with Cash and those close to him, unearths new details about Cash’s personal problems, from his guilt at not being a better father to decades of bad behavior and occasionally bad music. But Cash’s conviction that no one knew the depths of his wickedness merely underscores the depth of his Southern Baptist spirituality and his lifelong view of himself as a sinner: Nothing in “Johnny Cash: The Life” will shock anyone who knows even the outline of the man’s career or those already inclined to love the singer or his songs. And the book’s best sections are those concerned with the music.

Cash spent the first three years of the 1950s in the Air Force dreaming of music stardom. As soon as he got discharged he headed for Memphis’s Sun Records, which had released Elvis Presley’s first recordings a few months earlier. Cash and his hastily convened band, the Tennessee Two (Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant on guitar and bass), had more ambition than musical skill, but they convinced producer Sam Phillips to give them a shot. The primitive, halting sound they produced, a stuttering boom-chicka-boom, was reminiscent of a freight train and just as powerful. “It wasn’t that they thought they had discovered something; it was just about the only way they could play,” Hilburn writes. Yet that spare, propulsive rhythm combined with Cash’s authoritative bass-baritone voice and fire-and-brimstone lyrics created a signature, timeless sound.

Cash’s songwriting and charisma carried him through the next several decades of performance and recording, and Hilburn charts it all, from the county fairs and prison concerts to Cash’s beloved gospel albums, recordings with the Highwaymen, and all the TV shows and schmaltzy Christmas specials in between. Like the touring schedule, Cash’s cycles of drug abuse, health scares, repentance, and relapse were unending; they exhausted those who knew him. After several hundred pages of day-to-day details they become something of a blur. Happily, Cash’s career and the pace of the book pick up again in the last decade of his life.

In 1993 Cash believed “his recording career was over.” Then hip-hop and rock producer Rick Rubin called. Cash was skeptical, but the Rubin recordings were a watershed, six albums of intense, painfully stark, and often solo performances “that sounded like it was coming from someplace deep inside of him,” Rubin said. “It was epic, and that’s what Johnny was to me — epic.”

After two decades of subpar records and halfhearted touring, Rubin’s American Recordings label brought Cash acclaim and his first hits in decades. They also reminded a world of music lovers that he was still relevant. “Rick made me think I might have a legacy after all,” Cash said, “I vowed not to let it slip away again.” They continued recording until just a few weeks before Cash died of diabetes-related complications in 2003.

Cash’s legacy as an icon of American duality had been restored: an outlaw with an angel on his shoulder; a holy prophet with a back-up plan. U2’s Bono spoke of his admiration for Cash and his music. “I think he was a very godly man, but you had the sense that he spent his time in the desert. And that just made you like him more.” He remembers sitting down to dinner at Cash’s home. “Johnny said the most beautiful, most poetic grace you’ve ever heard,” Bono says. “Then he leaned over to me with this devilish look in his eye and said, ‘But I sure miss the drugs.’ ”

A Dirty Monk with a Vision

Book Review: The Lost Carving: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, by David Esterly. (Viking: 2012) 281 pp.

Orig. published in the Boston Globe, January 4, 2013.

The Lost Carving is a memoir about woodcarving. There are precedents, of course: Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance (1974) called itself “An Inquiry into Values,” and the more recent Shop Class as Soulcraft (2010) by Matthew B. Crawford was subtitled “An Inquiry into the Value of Work.” David Esterly’s book is a “Journey to the Heart of Making.”  Inquiry or journey: what’s the difference? For the most part, pretensions: Esterly doesn’t have any. He’s not trying to convince the reader of anything (though the reader may end up convinced), he’s simply trying to understand his own path from English Lit graduate student to becoming the world’s greatest living practitioner of high relief naturalistic wood carving, an art form previously thought to have reached its peak in the early eighteenth century in the work of the Dutch-born carver Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721).

Esterly begins his story with two conversion moments. As an American student at Cambridge in the 1970s he happened to walk into St. James’s Church in London and spotted Gibbons’ carvings above the altar. “A shadowy tangle of vegetation, carved to airy thinness. Organic forms, in an organic medium. My steps slowed, and I stopped. I stared. The sickness came over me… The traffic noise on Piccadilly went silent, and I was at the still center of the universe.” [44] Instantly obsessed with Gibbons, Esterly resolved to research his work and write about it. But research wasn’t enough. “More than the mind needed to be deployed,” [53] he thought, so he bought himself the raw materials used by Gibbons himself: chisels, gouges, and limewood – the preferred medium of high relief woodcarvers. “I found that as the blade moved through the wood my whole body moved, too, with it and against it at the same time. A wave of pleasure passed through me.” [58] Esterly was in love. He turned his back on the academic life and taught himself to carve.

Years later in 1986, now a master woodcarver, Esterly was called back to England, to Henry VIII’s palace at Hampton Court, where a fire had recently destroyed many of the original Gibbons carvings that decorated the royal apartments. Esterly was hired to the team of artisans who would repair the lost carvings. He recognized the significance of the project; it was a culmination of Esterly’s life work (what Matthew B. Crawford would call soulcraft) and a reunion with his great teacher and master, Grinling Gibbons. It was also a reckoning: would he really be capable of repairing this masterpiece?

Some of the challenges he faced were technical – before the invention of sandpaper, how did carvers smooth their finished pieces? – but even more of them were bureaucratic, as Esterly navigated the cliques and politics of the British heritage industry. Along the way he reveals some of the lessons he’s learned through the practice of his craft. The wisdom that comes from making mistakes, for example, and the way in which “disaster allows nature to take control, to create its own order. Disaster can be a fine designer.” [67] He learns to be humble in the presence of a block of wood. “The wood began as submissive, put-upon thing, then gradually came to life,” he writes: “A carver begins like a god and ends as slave.” [176] The Lost Carving is a book about the rewards of hard work and learning to appreciate one’s limits. It’s also an exploration of the ways in which great art can enrich our lives in the most tangible ways. This is a serious, beautiful book about craftsmanship written not by an aspiring philosopher but, as Esterly proudly describes himself, by “a dirty monk with a vision.” [258]