It’s been about eight years since Johnny Cash died. I talk a lot about punk rock here, but I’ve been a die hard Johnny Cash fan since the early 1990s, when Rick Rubin revived his career for a new, younger generation. Of course, Cash was punk rock before the word was invented. And an icon. Sid Vicious became an icon in death, but in life his sum total contribution to the human heart at war with itself was a pretty good sneer and a funny version of “My Way.”
Cash, though, was mythic in life. And his career was a leviathan to behold. Much like other great artists.
I’ve watched a series of biopics recently. One on Bob Dylan, another on comedin Bill Hicks, and tonight there was a Johnny Cash documentary. Lots of things in common, lots of things different. What struck me was how dedicated they all were to their craft. Hicks knew he wanted to be a comedian from a young age, started when he was about sixteen, and was a veteran by the time he was twenty two. Similar dedication defined the early days of Dylan and Cash. All of them went through intensive periods of work, of creative feast and famine, and generated careers that had stages. Periods defined by who they were in the moment: Dylan’s finger pointing songs; Hick’s early, clean material; Cash’s fruitful final years, writing eulogies to his own life. All were periods of careers that did not rest on the laurels of yesteryear, but evoked who they were then. Related to where they were in the past, but really critters of the moment.
I think about this sometimes. The need to take the long view. To know your career, whatever path it takes, contributes to an overall body of work that is, in its own way, a road map of your life. I admit to a thrill when I read a new author, and I see a list of prior work, and it’s rich and diverse and while each one may be an old rest stop or carnival attraction on that map, at one time they were the destination. And the map grows full of these little cities of the brain, and you get the joy of traveling to them if you’re so inclined.
I guess, when my time comes, I want to leave behind that kind of road map. One people can find and use to take them to my imaginary cities, little shadow worlds of who I was back in the day, each one (I hope) worth the journey.
Uh, I don’t have sage point to round this up. So here’s the Cash singing a song that still makes me tear up.