Reflecting on Johnny Cash

Today I was driving along in the black truck and on the radio I heard the song that Folsom Prison Blues was copied from. It was an old blues song, and the lyrics were changed just enough to shift it from a kind of sensual longing toward the good life, which is probably the good life with its head cut off, to the guilty pleasures of a man who'd cut off your head and laugh while your body ran around like a Don Juan's chicken, dancing his last warrior dance.

The lyrics shifted again when a born again Christian objected to the only real contribution Cash made to the song: "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die." Being a man whose anima spoke to him, and she always speaks in thees and thous, having slept for thousands of years now, he flirted with her by being a good boy. "My brother Johnny," he said, "killed a man. And what'd he kill'em fer?" He leans over and spits a stream of Red Man. "He said it was just to watch him die. Ain't no good in him."

He changed the lyric to, "They said I shot a man in Reno, but it was a lie."

Let's shoot the video. The cold stone prison is redesigned so that there are hot water pipes running inside them and they radiate a soft, warm glow. The prisoner is innocent, and so protects innocence out of self love. "I ain't saying nobody's guilty, you understand? Evil's real, and I know it when I see it. And you know a lot of people might argue with me on this but I'll pull the switch myself to do away with evil. I'm on God's side and there's no two ways about it."

Earlier I was writing to someone and relating that what we remember with the most certainty, because they are memories we have pulled up over and over again, are fictional. It turns out that memories are like a medium being reproduced from an original, and with each copy it degrades a bit. So the more copies you run the further away you are from any actual experience being accurately reproduced. The mind turns to confetti, which you notice with a lot of very old people. The stories are the last vestiges of the memory.

I'm burning down the barn to roast the pig here, but as I was listening to how blatantly Cash used somebody else's song and got a platinum album off of it, having to pay the writer only $75,000 in a settlement, I began to wonder who he actually was. And on cue, (I think it was Terry Gross) began to talk about Cash as possibly being so interesting because he was actually several different people. He was the killer and he was the angel. But of course he wasn't, really. He was a center which could hold in the presence of the killer or the angel (though it appeared to be touch and go for awhile).

I thought back about my own relationship to Johnny Cash, from when I was a kid, and saw him dressed in a black cowboy outfit, on an album cover. I remember my uncle singing, "I Walk The Line." And I would hear songs on the radio. What made Johnny Cash get my attention was that he had a center, some solid core that was being served when he was singing songs, or talking. It was the voice of a man who had a river running way down deep underground, and could make you remember you have one, also.

There was a sincerity in Johnny Cash that would have made him a great preacher or con man or salesman. His voice did not leave home without him. He would put some mana into it, some intention to touch you with a moment of Grace. He was so masculine in his frame and his features he was almost Lincolnesque. He was a conventional man in a conventional church married and with children. He had a wife who held the feminine side of that life.

The problem with the conventional is that it tends to be conservative, and Cash aspired toward legend. He was literally spiritualizing his life, as sorcerers will do. When he left his family he suffered a fall. I watched him fall, literally. He'd be on stage and singing John Henry, using a couple of steel bars to make that hammer sing, and smash his thumb and drop the bars and just lose it. And then the shadow energy came in. It was something he had to go through, just like he had to realize that no mortal woman could hold him. He had to marry legend if he was to become one with the abstract. He married into the Carter Family. And when he was exhausted in his yearning toward heaven, he opened the gates of hell and went platinum at Folsom Prison.

Robert Johnson gave a lecture on the shadow in which he related going to a conference and realizing he just couldn't go on the stage. He was exhausted. One of the psychologists there told him to roll up a damp towel, go into the bathroom, and begin to beat it against the floor and, if he could bear it, to yell in outrage.

He did so. When he came out, he said, "I had fire in my eyes." There is always energy stored in the shadow, where there is an unlived life.

Johnny Cash was from a conservative Christian background, with a tendency to sing about Jesus and the simplicity of faith. He was a simple man. But his shadow was partying down with women, drugs, booze and open to suggestion. The entire world was invited to watch the spectacle. When he was out of energy there was always energy in the deeper, unused layers of the shadow. Identification with the killer sentenced to life in prison was high octane. And he was on the move again.

And today I find out the song underpinning it all was a blues song penned by Gordon Jenkins, and that it was adapted by Cash way back in 1956 or so. He'd written, "Cry Cry Cry," and was under pressure to come up with some more songs. His contribution to the song: "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die," was pure shadow. He had to go way out in the other direction to hold the center. He wrote a novel, "The Man in White," about St. Paul, with whom he also identified.

When Robert Johnson lectured on the shadow, one of his images was the teeter totter. The ego and shadow are on this teeter totter and have to stay in balance. If you add weight in one direction you don't even have to look to know that an equal and opposite amount of weight has been added to the other side to maintain the balance. They have to stay in balance just like the blood sugar. If you get the extremes too far apart you have a breakdown in the middle and cannot function. If you manage to get more weight on one side than the other you "flip out," and the ego and shadow change position.

This is a mainstay of theater, watching the transformation from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde, or from Leland Palmer to Bob. That's because it is the struggle beneath civilization, the setting up of rules which exclude personifiable aspects of the psyche, which have to be accommodated, by marginal, illegitimate or illegal enterprises, so that there is always a symbiosis between the human animal and the culture, a dance of guilt and indulgence, sin and salvation, madonna and whore.

I watched Johnny Cash go through this and heard him sing about it, right up until he was ready to die, attended by Rick Rubin, doing a Nine Inch Nails song about a cutter. I don't care much if he sang a song he got somewhere and treated like his property. It sort of balances off that preacher in black telling morality stories. Cash was several different people, but they were in orbit around a central core, I believe, which was the only thing that could have been left after he went through the black hole.

I guess what I'm saying is, he was authentic, even down to the details of setting a place at the table for aspects of himself a lesser man would have hidden in other people, less than himself. His thief was there as well as his killer and adulterer. But he remembered himself from his fall, as is required to cross into legend. In his own way he understood the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus, and he completed the foundations of the legend into which he could escape, into the western lands.

Posted: Thu - February 19, 2009 at 04:08 PM