Hard Cash and soft men

What Johnny Cash means to the Nick Hornby generation.

Andrew Calcutt

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The man in black, the con’s ex-con, father-in-law to British country-pop-rocker Nick Lowe, and patriarch of a country music dynasty in the USA, Johnny Cash died on Friday 12 September, aged 71, of diabetes complications and Shy-Drager syndrome, a Parkinsons-type disease.

He will be much missed in the UK, not least by Hornbys – the thirty- and fortysomething males who see themselves reflected in Brit-author Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch and especially his High Fidelity, the story of a life lived according to a record collection. Catalogue these guys under ‘vicariously’: the persona of Johnny Cash – independent, self-controlled (just), hard on the outside and melancholy inside – is the mythical man they wish they had the guts to want to be. Sometimes.

Although the Cash icon embodies autonomy and self-reliance, the real Johnny Cash was largely a product of social engineering. Born in 1932, during the Great Depression, at the age of three Cash was taken by his father, an impoverished cotton farmer from Arkansas, to a government resettlement colony.

Having been brought up in one federal institution, after a brief spell sweeping floors in a Detroit car plant, at the age of 18 Cash was transferred to another – the US Army. As a GI stationed in West Germany, he came into contact with a wider range of music than would ever have been available to him back home. He started to write songs and began to move slowly away from the gospel tradition in which his mother had schooled him.

On his return to the USA, Cash signed up for yet another national institution – the country music scene. Yet his entry into it coincided with one of country music’s rare moments of experimentation. Cash the conservative (not so in areas other than music: he opposed the Vietnam War and campaigned for civil rights) found himself sharing Sam Philips’ Sun studio in Memphis with arch-innovators Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.

‘The Pelvis’ summed up sex, and Jerry Lee dramatised the flight from rationality in all its vainglory. The performers spoke of and to the new mood of the moment, to the sense of heightened and uncontrolled speed which characterised the USA in the 1950s, and which was further accelerated (culturally if not industrially) in the UK in the early 1960s, prior to being resold in the USA by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and, latterly, The Who.

This was the fast lane of modernity, characterised by Ian MacDonald as ‘simultaneity’ – the transmission of simultaneous pulses as opposed to the serial communication of sequential messages (1). It was a fast lane which Johnny Cash never entered as a performer, although in his personal life he paid a big enough toll when he adopted amphetamine as his ‘drug of choice’.

If Elvis initiated sensory overload and The Who took simultaneity to the point of self-destruction, Cash remained singular and solid. His narrative songs continued to describe a chronological chain of events, instead of collapsing into the moment, crashing into the here and now like Townshend and his Tommy. Similarly, although partially amplified and electrified, the instrumentation on Cash records never took on that timbre, only accessible above a certain volume, where guitar strings are seemingly asking to be bent, and sound becomes somehow liquid and transferable. This was never noise but necessarily notation, albeit of a largely unwritten kind.

The Cash persona was a throwback, too. While pop music played with the erosion of boundaries and the collapse of self, Cash represented the restatement of selfhood. To another tune and with different lyrics, his was ‘My Way’ both before and after Frank Sinatra. Cash’s original audience may have been blue collar, but the black suit he wore was the classic costume of bourgeois man, the self-constituting individual who in this instance happened to have been brought up in the bosom of the state.

If popular music had continued in its mid-1960s mode, Johnny Cash would surely have remained marginal to it. But the end of the 1960s was characterised not by further acceleration but by a new deceleration. In 1968 the Beatles went retro with ‘Lady Madonna’ – original in that they wanted us to know they knew it sounded like them covering the Marvelettes a decade earlier. In Britain grammar schoolboys discovered the Blues, preferably played by geriatrics.

In Mystery Train the American critic Greil Marcus describes the moment when The Band – ex-backing band for Bob Dylan, the singer who previously dropped folk, went electric and turned existential – set out to find their rural roots (2). This was the opportunity for Cash to turn retro into repo: the anachronism of recent years was suddenly in possession of the moment. While his live album recorded at San Quentin Prison outsold the Beatles, Cash bestrode the newly nostalgic music scene as the kind of father figure whom pop’s prodigal sons had previously disowned.

Cash personified a myth – the supernormal image of a real man who had acquired his masculine self-control the hard way, by temporary loss of it and painful reclamation in prison. That Cash had only spent a few nights locked up – for amphetamine possession and for stealing flowers – is irrelevant to the general resonance for such a myth and for his particular rendition of it. We cannot ask of performers that they be empty of artifice, or else theirs would cease to be a performance; only that their pretence be true either to our experience or to the ideas we have of the experiences we never had.

Odd though it may sound, in recent years Cash’s standing may even have been raised by the attack on masculinity. Today the UK is run by a generation of men which has made vices even out of the virtues Cash represented, yet cannot afford to dispense with them altogether.

Thus autonomy and self-reliance are not only rewritten as masculine hubris and emotional illiteracy; they are also relocated to the past, where their status as virtues is conditional on their relegation from the present. In this context, a nexus was formed of the Cash legend and its anachronistic character. Like Humphrey Bogart and Philip Marlowe, Cash was doubly profitable: for his representation of manly virtues and for confirming how ancient and out of date they are.

He only died last week, but the Hornbys had long ago sent him to the graveyard, there to erect a monument to him providing he walks the other side of the line between present and past.

Andrew Calcutt is the author of Brit Cult: An A-Z of British Pop Culture, Prion Books, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); Arrested Development: Pop Culture and the Erosion of Adulthood, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA); and White Noise: An A-Z of the Contradictions in Cyberculture, Palgrave Macmillan, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). He is also coauthor of Cult Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, Prion Books, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

(1) Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, Ian MacDonald, Pimlico, 1998

(2) Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, Greil Marcus, Faber and Faber, 2000

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