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.’ ”

The Best Christmas Music: Tim Minchin's "White Wine in the Sun"

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Like Tim Minchin, I'm not religious but I love Christmas. I love Hanukah, too! Neutrality has its rewards.

 

And there is no better "I'm-an-atheist-but-I-still-love-Christmas" song out there than Minchin's funny and sweet "White Wine in the Sun." Apart from the often-skipped first verse of "White Christmas," it's the only warm weather Christmas song I know. Minchin is from Perth, Australia, and this vision of a midsummer Christmas depicts that Antipodean holiday reality: Christmas on the beach.

But it's not a song about summertime or even Christmas; it's about family and loving one another. I cannot get through it without crying, not even once. Can you?

If you haven't seen it, watch it now. Lyrics are below, because they're just too good not to read twice.

xo BJ

WHITE WINE IN THE SUN

by Tim Minchin

I really like Christmas

It's sentimental, I know, but I just really like it

I am hardly religious

I'd rather break bread with Dawkins than Desmond Tutu, to be honest

And yes, I have all of the usual objections

To consumerism, the commercialisation of an ancient religion

To the westernisation of a dead Palestinian

Press-ganged into selling Playstations and beer

But I still really like it

I'm looking forward to Christmas

Though I'm not expecting a visit from Jesus

I'll be seeing my dad

My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum

They'll be drinking white wine in the sun

I'll be seeing my dad

My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum

They'll be drinking white wine in the sun

I don't go in for ancient wisdom

I don't believe just 'cos ideas are tenacious it means they're worthy

I get freaked out by churches

Some of the hymns that they sing have nice chords but the lyrics are spooky

And yes I have all of the usual objections

To the mis-education of children who, in tax-exempt institutions,

Are taught to externalise blame

And to feel ashamed and to judge things as plain right and wrong

But I quite like the songs

I'm not expecting big presents

The old combination of socks, jocks and chocolate's is just fine by me

Cos I'll be seeing my dad

My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum

They'll be drinking white wine in the sun

I'll be seeing my dad

My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum

They'll be drinking white wine in the sun

And you, my baby girl

My jetlagged infant daughter

You'll be handed round the room

Like a puppy at a primary school

And you won't understand

But you will learn someday

That wherever you are and whatever you face

These are the people who'll make you feel safe in this world

My sweet blue-eyed girl

And if my baby girl

When you're twenty-one or thirty-one

And Christmas comes around

And you find yourself nine thousand miles from home

You'll know what ever comes

Your brothers and sisters and me and your Mum

Will be waiting for you in the sun

Whenever you come

Your brothers and sisters, your aunts and your uncles

Your grandparents, cousins and me and your mum

We'll be waiting for you in the sun

Drinking white wine in the sun

Darling, when Christmas comes

We'll be waiting for you in the sun

Drinking white wine in the sun

Waiting for you in the sun

Waiting for you...

Waiting...

I really like Christmas

It's sentimental, I know...

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.

You've read the book... now watch the (2-min) movie!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7Jprn7tP_4That's right; it's not just the big Hollywood movies that get their own fancy trailers - now it's books like Shaking the Family Tree, too! The 2-minute video is now available on YouTube right here.

Many of the *real* people featured in the book are also in this film, as well as many of the far-flung places I visited during my research.

Huge thanks to the geniuses at Madhouse Muse for making this lovely film, as well as Matthew Meschery and Billy Bouchard for their contributions to the audio and music. It's so great to have talented friends.

Hope you enjoy it!