Posted in Mental Health, Music, Writing

Facing the Darkness: Happy Belated Birthday to the Man in Black

Johnny Cash’s birthday was yesterday. And I have once again missed my goal to post on Tuesday or Wednesday between 9 am and noon. Oh hell, I think the Man in Black would be understanding – if not downright proud – of all of my day late and a buck short bullshit and procrastination. It’s the stuff of sad country songs and tortured artists grasping at redemption. Johnny embodied both.

I grew up listening to Johnny Cash because my father loved him. But I didn’t really fall in love with Johnny until September of 2004. That’s when my mom died. My dad and my brother played Johnny constantly as we gathered at my parents’ house in the days preceding and following her passing. A multi-disc “best of” set and the first four albums in Cash’s American series were in constant rotation.

The whole American series, especially the first four, released while Johnny (and my mother) were still alive remain my favorites. While American V was great and sixth installment was okay (both were released posthumously) the first four continue to blow me away. And over time, American III: Solitary Man has earned an extra special place in the Cash cannon for me.

The album was not quite as highly praised as the the first American Recordings album which earned Cash one of two spots in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time List or American IV, which also made a lot of “best of” lists, including one of Johnny’s three placements in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. But American III is a great album in its own right. Perhaps more than any of his other albums, it highlights Cash’s simultaneous status as both a Nashville outsider and country music icon.

Since the 1970’s Johnny (along with fellow outliers like Waylon and Willie ) had been seen as an outlaw flipping off Nashville’s Music Row and at the same time, a name that is inescapable when talking about “classic country” music. Together, they redefined a sound, an era, and a whole damn genre. And in the late 90’s and early 00’s Johnny Cash, with a bit of help from Rick Rubin, did it again with his American series. Like his titular cover of Neil Diamond’s Solitary Man suggests, Cash was in many ways a loner. The contradictory themes of Bottles and Bibles has become so prevalent in country music that Tyler Childers named his 2011 debut just that. Yet few people have walked the line between those poles of sinner and saint earnest believer clawing at the arc of redemption with as much sincerity and grit as John R. Cash.

All of the songs here highlight those polarities: in Johnny, in all of us. He is the Solitary Man, Country Trash, and Wayfaring Stranger, who ain’t got Nobody. He envies that Lucky Old Sun that “just rolls around Heaven all day.” And yet in a time when he was facing increasing health problems, Cash was determined to come out of the gate swinging with the help of a whole host of family and friends and his cover of Tom Petty’s Won’t Back Down. He pleads to his lover: Lay with Me (In a Field of Stone). And the very personal liner notes, penned by Cash himself are bubbling with the family names of Carter and Cash as well as a diverse group of friends from Sheryl Crow to Merle Haggard.

It is Johnny’s cover of Will Oldham’s I See a Darkness (assisted by Oldham himself) that is the crown jewel of the album for me. Maybe it’s because my daily music listening habits at the time were evolving to embrace more than Hip-Hop, Alternative Rock and Metal, towards inclusion of Alt Country, Folk and Indie Rock. Cash had previously covered Soundgarden, Danzig and NIN. Now he was covering Oldham aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Maybe it’s because I discovered this album around the time of my mom’s death. Maybe it’s because the previous year I was diagnosed for the first time with Clinical Depression, Anxiety Disorder, “PTSD like symptoms” and a learning disability. But those were just names for struggles I have dealt with my whole life.

This, this is why I fell so deeply in love with the album, this song, and in part why I finally heard Johnny. I have lived that song. I still live that damn song. I’ve always seen the Darkness. And people do not truly survive the darkness alone. Even if our companions are fellow Wayfaring Strangers, outlaws, misfits, other addicts or the fathers and brothers we connect with more through music than with words or hugs. There are no solitary men or women in the darkness, at least not ones who survive. If you are there, if you see the ever-present darkness too, you are not alone. Or at least you don’t have to be. Even when that darkness tries to swallow the light and life screams “death” in your face, we all need a “Buddy,” a “best unbeaten brother.” I choose to survive, to thrive if and when possible. Johnny did, until his body could no longer sustain his will and drive. I hope you will too:

Well, you’re my friend
And can you see
Many times we’ve been out drinking
Many times we’ve shared our thoughts
But did you ever, ever notice
The kind of thoughts I got?
Well, you know I have a love
A love for everyone I know
And you know I have a drive
To live, I won’t let go
But can you see this opposition
Comes rising up sometimes?
That it’s dreadful imposition
Comes blacking in my mind
And then I see a darkness
And then I see a darkness
And then I see a darkness
And then I see a darkness
Did you know how much I love you?
Is a hope that somehow you
Can save me from this darkness
Well, I hope that someday, buddy
We have peace in our lives
Together or apart
Alone or with our wives
And we can stop our whoring
And pull the smiles inside
And light it up forever
And never go to sleep
My best unbeaten brother
This isn’t all I see
Oh no, I see a darkness
Oh no, I see a darkness
Oh no, I see a darkness
Oh no, I see a darkness
Did you know how much I love you?
Is a hope that somehow you
Can save me from this darkness

Let us save! Let us save each other!