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.’ ”

Don't Put Me in a Skirt

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Review: Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties, by Rachel Cooke (HarperCollins, 340 pages).

This review originally ran in the Boston Globe on December 15, 2014.

 

In London, 1951, a crowd gathered as a woman attempted to board a bus while wearing one of Christian Dior’s newest creations: the New Look. “Her skirt was so wide, she couldn’t negotiate the door. At first I laughed along with everyone else,” recalled Grace Robertson, a then twenty-one-year-old aspiring photojournalist. “But then I suddenly thought: are they putting us into these clothes so we can’t get on buses, and take their jobs?” [xix] Only one year into the decade and already some women were starting to get the hint.

In Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties, journalist Rachel Cooke reveals that British women’s experiences during World War II radically rearranged their expectations of what life would be like afterward. Having survived the Blitz and served their country during wartime, the idea of turning their backs on engaged, professional lives was often unthinkable.

Her Brilliant Career aims to dispel the myth of what a “Fifties woman” was: “old-fashioned, unambitious, docile, emollient, inhibited, clenched, prudish, thwarted, frustrated, [and] repressed.” [xii] Cooke tells the stories of ten vibrant, fascinating women who came into their own after the war. While a few of them were frustrated, thwarted, and even repressed at times, they never stopped trying to lead meaningful lives.

Patience Gray, author of the best-selling British cookbook of the 1950s, Plats du Jour (1957), guided a nation emerging from years of rationing (Cooke describes wartime cookbooks that offered recipes for cooking crows, sparrows, and “eggs that are really tinned apricots fried in bacon fat” [3]). Gray is notable not only for her salutary influence on British cooking, but for the unorthodox choices she made later in life.

A single mother who once gave her teenagers money to hitchhike back to London—they were vacationing in Italy at the time—Gray was always a little different. [35] At age 46 she decamped for Italy with the great love of her life, the sculptor Norman Mommens. “We shed a snakeskin of fuss, plans, hesitations, and other people’s claims,” [39] Gray explained, and they left.

The couple lived together “hand-to-mouth” [39] in a rustic Italian barn with no plumbing for the next forty years (“It was with some reluctance,” Cooke writes,[40] that electricity was installed in the 1990s). This experience informed Gray’s next and equally influential cookbook, Honey from a Weed (1986), which predated twenty-first century foodies’ interest in foraging and eating locally, remaining in print and influential to this day. Gray wasn’t totally averse to traditional ideas, however; thirty years after they met, she and Mommens were married. She never returned to England.

Not every woman was as Bohemian as Patience Gray. The pioneering architect Alison Smithson’s adamant sense of modernity, exemplified in the landmark buildings she created with her husband and creative partner Peter Smithson, brought her admiration and controversy. “We’re the best architects in the world,” she liked to say. It wasn’t merely an unusual statement coming from a woman; as one of her contemporaries recalled. “It wasn’t very English at all.” [105]

Film producer Betty Box demanded the same pay as her male counterparts and became one of the most successful producers in history—her nickname was “Betty Box Office.” [206] And while the celebrated archaeologist and author Jacquetta Hawkes enjoyed a series of professional achievements and affairs with both men and women, her life was conducted “with a careful public smoothness” [248] after marrying writer J.B. Priestley at age 43. “Let me have the guts to behave badly,” Hawkes wrote to a friend, and [249] eventually at age seventy, she published a scandalous sexual quasi-memoir entitled A Quest for Love, and did. [252]

It’s Rachel Cooke’s intention to “make people reconsider the ‘lost’ decade between the war and feminism” and to “pull the reader along” with these tales of “derring-do.” [xxv] She succeeds on every count. Thanks to Cooke’s deep research, buoyant storytelling, and her sincere affection for the ten remarkable women portrayed here, Her Brilliant Career is both entertaining and touching. Give it to any enterprising, smart woman you know: although she may never have heard their names, she’ll recognize these women right away. Women who, like journalist Nancy Spain, “didn’t want to meet anyone who would make me put on a skirt.” [52]

The Eleven Commandments of Atheism

My new book, The Inspirational Atheist: Wise Words on the Wonder and Meaning of Life (Penguin Random House) will be published in late December.

In the meantime, here's a little sample of some of the wisdom found inside... The Eleven Commandments of Atheism, each one drawn from a quotation in the book (a version in LARGER TEXT is at the bottom.)

May The Force - or whatever - be with you. Enjoy!

11 Commandments of Atheism text Buzzy Jackson

 

The Ten Eleven Commandments of Atheism

from The Inspirational Atheist

  1. Do unto others twenty-five percent better than you expect them to do unto you — Linus Pauling
  2. Do not destroy what you cannot create – Leo Szilard
  3. Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out onto the verandah and beat them with a cricket bat. —Tim Minchin
  4. We should try to leave the world a better place than when we entered it. — Michio Kaku
  5. I think a man’s duty is to find out where the truth is, or if he cannot, at least to take the best possible human doctrine and the hardest to disprove, and to ride on this like a raft over the waters of life. —Plato
  6. Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me. —Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
  7. You cannot save people, you can only love them. —Anaïs Nin
  8. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. —Roger Ebert
  9. The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of love. –Cheryl Strayed
  10. Well, it’s nothing very special. Try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations. —“The End of the Film,” Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life
  11. There are far too many commandments and you really only need one: Do not hurt anybody.—Carl Reiner

To remain in its arms forever: John Darnielle's WOLF IN WHITE VAN

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Book review: WOLF IN WHITE VAN, by John Darnielle (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: 2014), 209 pp.

I could explain that Wolf in White Van is a beautiful novel about pain. That it's the story of a teenaged boy who tried and failed to kill himself and has to live with the results. Or that it's the map of the world a damaged young man creates, first in his imagination, then in the form of a multiplayer mail-order game called Trace Italian, that saves his life — makes his life possible, after the accident — but kills someone else inadvertently. That's it's a novel told backwards, all action pulling back toward the horrible event itself, the horrible event becoming a kind of black hole of plot, its gravity drawing the reader through the story steadily, relentlessly, finally. Or I could describe it as a study in Zen, though the word is never used in the book, a lesson in accepting reality and letting go of judgment. It's a kind of detachment that's not easy to pull off in any case, but especially when the reaction to your appearance is simply, "Dude, your face."

"People don't usually understand this when I try to explain it, which is why I've stopped trying, nor will ever try again, no not in courtrooms nor in conferences: but when it came down to the actual moment, I was trying to make the right decision." This is Sean Phillips, years later, remembering but not exactly explaining, why he picked up that gun one night in high school. Wolf in White Van is Sean Phillips afterward, the Sean Phillips who found, somewhere in the blank - but not actually blank - white ceiling of his hospital room, a way to keep on living after the fact. "You could let your attention rest there for a while; you could imagine the future of the ceiling, the battles playing out up there, camps pitched when the building was new back in unremembered time… You can see the ceiling in the next room, following the splits of the ceiling in its neighbor, and the one beyond that in turn and then the greater canvas, the sky at night gone flat and painted white, the constellations in the cracking paint, the dust the cracks brings into being as they form, finding free land where none had been before their coming."

In the nothingness that is Sean's new life, he creates something: Trace Italian, a game of strategy in which players try to make their slow, hesitant, dangerous way to the center of an nightmarish North America and Kansas, where the great walled fortress-the Trace Italian- offers safety at last. In the year after his accident, Sean wrote all the possible moves to the game; now, years later, he mails them out, one by one, to long-distance players he'll never meet. Trace Italian is his life, metaphorically and really, his livelihood and his place of safety. His players stalk the imaginary landscape, move by move, but not Sean, master of the game. "I remain in the stasis of the opening scene, bits of gravel sticking to my face, cold night coming on. I am strong enough to endure it. I am strong enough to remain in its arms forever. I won't get up; I have seen the interior once. I'm not going back. One thing I've learned is it's better sometimes, in the weeds, to resist the temptation to stand up and follow the compass."

I can't tell you much more about Wolf in White Van other than this: you should read it. It's a mystery novel, in its own way. As soon as I finished it I was tempted to immediately begin reading again but I stopped myself. I will read it again. But not to solve the mystery, which can't be solved. At least, I don't think so. If I find out something different, I'll let you know.

Welcome to Trace Italian, a game of strategy and survival! You may now make your first move.