Something short of the biography that the Man in Black deserved

Review Biography

September 17, 2006|By David French | David French,Los Angeles Times

Johnny Cash: The Biography

Michael Streissguth

Da Capo Press / 320 pages / $26

The Man in Black. It was a corny moniker straight out of a Western comic book or a Gene Autry movie. On anyone else it would seem like pure showbiz hokum - pretentious and ridiculous. Yet on Johnny Cash, somehow, you believed it. Or you accepted it because you wanted to believe it.

With his weary, haunted face, his dark eyes and, of course, that resonant bass-baritone voice, Cash could sing about the extremes of love and death, ruin and salvation with the authority of someone who had lived them.

As he grew older, Cash and his cloak of black became more symbolic. In the plastic blandness of corporate America, Cash seemed like the last authentic man, a rugged reminder of an earlier, albeit perhaps imagined time when all those words that politicians like to throw around actually meant something.

In Michael Streissguth's third book on the singer, he acknowledges the scale of the Cash legend, noting how often Cash was compared to Mount Rushmore and suggesting that he "came to embody the American spirit." Parsing the man from the myth is a challenge because Cash was both a savvy self-mythologizer and a man who, in person, often lived up to the hype.

Standing more than 6 feet tall, with patriarchal gravity and charisma to burn, Cash had been formed by the kind of upbringing - poor, hard-working, rural and marked by religion, loss and country music - that is a publicist's dream. As far back as the early 1960s, it seemed to Bob Dylan and others on the folk scene that Cash was the real deal, the kind of man's man most of them only knew about from Woody Guthrie records.

Cash was born in Arkansas in 1932, the son of an impoverished cotton farmer, and grew up in a New Deal farming community. One older brother was a part-time musician; another - who died in 1944 after a power-saw accident - intended to be a preacher. Both profoundly influenced Cash. He joined the Air Force after high school, knowing he did not want to be a farmer. While stationed in Germany he spent much of his free time playing music and writing songs.

Upon his discharge in 1954, Cash moved to Memphis to be near his brother Roy. It was a remarkable case of being in the right place at the right time. Elvis Presley was just beginning to cause a stir with records recorded locally by producer Sam Phillips. Cash hounded Phillips for an audition, and by the middle of 1955 had a song on the radio and was touring alongside Presley. When Phillips sold Presley's contract at the end of the year, Cash was his next big thing.

Songs like "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line" soon made Cash a star. He relocated to Los Angeles, dabbled in acting and continued to score hits backed by the steady boom-chicka-boom of his band, the Tennessee Two. He became increasingly interested in folk music and befriended Dylan, proving that he was no slave to Nashville conservatism.

By the mid-'60s, however, Cash was living on pills and missing as many gigs as he made. A 1965 drug bust barely slowed him down. When he finally hit bottom, it was his second wife, country singer June Carter, who helped him begin to pull himself together. They married in 1968. It wouldn't be the last time drugs threatened to take over his life.

The blistering 1968 album At Folsom Prison was a return to form and a surprise hit. A new generation of fans responded to Cash's music and his rebel image. Hosting a TV variety show, he lost the rough edges, becoming a major celebrity but drifting into musical flaccidity.

The '70s and '80s yielded little memorable music, and Cash often focused on religious projects. He got a correspondence-school theology degree, wrote and produced a feature film on the life of Jesus and published a novel about the apostle Paul. By 1993, he needed his faith to ward off depression as he played to half-empty houses in Branson, Mo.

A back-to-basics collaboration with producer Rick Rubin in 1994, "American Recordings," reinvigorated Cash and redefined the aging star as an old-school badass for the MTV generation. He continued to make records with Rubin to a chorus of critical appreciation and to perform live to outright hero-worship. As he approached 70, however, health problems began to severely limit his activities. He died in 2003 just a few months after June.

Streissguth has written a compelling and sympathetic life of the person at the core of the Man in Black persona. Cash was a restless and driven man, who often seemed torn between light and darkness. Interviews with childhood friends, family members, musicians, business associates and people who knew him through shared religion add shading to the multiple facets of this complex man.

Accounts from Cash's children allow the author to construct a truly affecting portrait of Cash in his final months, working to the point of exhaustion to ward off his pain and sorrow. His nobility in decline, revealed here, only reinforces the Cash legend.

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