Biography reveals Johnny Cash in all his complexity
"Johnny Cash: The Life" by Robert Hilburn; Little, Brown (688 pages, $32)
Nobody who heard the rich timbre of Johnny Cash's baritone voice could delete it from the sound track of the brain; nobody who paid attention to his arresting lyrics could deny their rhythmic poetry. When he died a decade ago, Cash was one of the most influential singers in the country, embraced by audiences across musical genres despite his country roots.
As for Cash's life offstage — well, it seemed larger than life, even to casual music consumers. He was the "man in black." And hadn't he served prison time?
Making revelations in a biography about a life so familiar seemed unlikely. And yet, Robert Hilburn, the insightful veteran music writer for the Los Angeles Times, suspected much of the Cash saga was yet to be revealed.
He asked Lou Rubin, Cash's manager, how much of the singer's story had been told. "Only about 20 percent," Rubin replied. After four years of research, Hilburn found that Cash's life was far more complex than he had imagined. "And some of the more troubling discoveries caused me to question just how much the public needs to know about an artist," he said.
Hilburn faced a classic biographer's dilemma: If the primary reason for a subject's fame is artistry — in this case, songs performed by and often written by Cash — does it matter to the millions of fans whether the artist is also a drug addict and a breaker of marital vows and a frequently inattentive father, among other flaws? Evaluating Cash's life off stage became especially complex because he was at his core a devout Christian, a husband who loved his wives, a father who loved his children, a friend of intense loyalty to many less fortunate than himself.
The result of Hilburn's wrestling with his subject's life and with his own moral compass is perhaps the richest biography of a musician I have ever read, and one of the best biographies I have read, period.
The insights into Cash's music are profound and anything but murky — an accomplishment of great note given the difficulty of employing words on paper to describe something as vibrant as the aural quality of songs. The insights into the business side of popular music are every bit as educational and enthralling. Furthermore, Hilburn knows how to organize a life in print skillfully, usually following chronology, but departing from it when useful. Plus, Hilburn is a first-rate stylist. His sentences often sing.
About Cash's famous Folsom Prison concert in 1968, Hilburn writes: "Cash once again demonstrated his ability to immerse himself in his subject matter, a sensitivity so strong he could virtually take on the personality of the people he was singing about ... But never had he empathized with his themes as completely as he would at Folsom. Cash knew what it was like to be in jail, to stand before his loved ones in handcuffs, and to walk through the seedy parts of town in search of drugs. He knew the deep pain of breaking his mother's heart and the numbing ache of facing a future without hope."
As for Cash's character offstage, Hilburn is filled with adulation and criticism.
Deciding which salacious details to include and which to omit, Hilburn reveals he relied on Cash's own words.
"Time and again he said he wanted people to know his entire story — especially the dark, guilt-ridden, hopeless moments — because he believed in redemption and he wanted others to realize that they too could be redeemed no matter how they had stumbled," Hilburn explained.
The story starts in rural Arkansas.
Born in 1932, Cash knew as a child he wanted to write and perform songs in front of large audiences. He had no connections to draw on and no knowledge of the music industry, but he possessed determination.
Following a stint in the Air Force after high school, he traveled to Memphis and caught the attention of recording impresario Sam Phillips at Sun Studios. Slowly he began to make his mark.
The rise to stardom was not exactly meteoric. When fame happened, though, it happened big.
Radio play, concerts, television exposure, appearances in Hollywood movies — it seemed Cash was everywhere for a while. Eventually that stardom diminished a bit, perhaps due to overexposure and addiction to amphetamines. But he reached stardom a second time later in his life, thanks in large part to a collaboration with music producer Rick Rubin and his American recordings, which reached a new generation of listeners.
Hilburn captures the rise and the fall and the second rise in a long book that never seems like too much.