Very Personal Jesus


The journal First Things has a long and interesting appreciation of Johnny Cash's religiosity. A snippet:

About three years ago, my wife and I took a weekend trip from Durham to Wilmington, North Carolina, where she was to attend a conference related to her work. One of her colleagues also traveled with her husband, a gourmet grocery store manager and guitar player, whose musical tastes tend toward dark, brooding Germanic bands with wicked-sounding names like Einsturzende Neubauten and Godspeed You Black Emperor (both of which I had never heard of). He has little use for religion, except as it pertains to Egyptian archaeology. Over a whiskey in the bar at the Hilton Hotel in Wilmington we chatted about music. Eventually the conversation turned to Johnny. At one point he raised his hand, pointed his finger at me for emphasis, and said, ?If I were going to believe in God, I would believe in the God of Johnny Cash.?

Whole thing here. The writer, Peter M. Candler, Jr., throws a couple of well-deserved hosannas at Cash's last studio album, The Man Comes Around, giving most of his attention to Cash's stunning cover of "Hurt." Oddly, he makes no mention of an equally compelling–and overtly religious tune–on the same disc: Cash's cover of Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus."

I suspect that besides Bob Dylan, the only other current recording artist whose death will inspire as wide-ranging a reaction will be Willie Nelson.

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  1. I never would have thought that DEP would be mentioned at H&R. Calculating Infiniti is by far their best work.

  2. Some people have their facts wrong.

    Cash kicked drugs in the late 1960’s and never went back. He was vital and forceful for many many years following–check out any concert footage from the 1970’s onward. By the time Cash reached the 1990’s he was just a man aging gracefully, far from a burnt out wreck. Cash’s 1960’s work was drug enhanced, not the work he did in the 1990’s.

    His resurgence in popularity was due to the fact that he was one of the very few figures in modern music to exert a cross-generational appeal (having the voice of God didn’t hurt either).

    Music made by Kurt Cobain and Johnny Cash do not appeal to people for similar reasons.

    Cobain developed the style of guitar heavy punk rock that evolved in the 1980’s in to a more pop-oriented form. Nirvana’s success was based on Cobain’s music paired with a wicked rythm section and a little luck. Nobody ever bought a Nirvana CD or went to a show to see Cobain wasted on heroin, they did it despite the fact, because they loved the music.

  3. “I suspect that besides Bob Dylan, the only other current recording artist whose death will inspire as wide-ranging a reaction will be Willie Nelson.”

    I have a hunch that Tommy Chong will inspire much reaction as well. There would be those that say drugs led to his eventuall death, and others will say, despite his drug usage, he lived a long on prosperous life. Meanwhile, his family and friends will laugh to themselves knowing that besides a toke on a joint now and then, Tommy wasn’t the druggie his persona made him out to be. Oh yes, Tommy did record a few classic albums himself.

  4. Who can say what constitutes good music? I can. Cash rules!

  5. “Cash kicked drugs in the late 1960’s and never went back.”

    Odd, then, that he checked into the Betty Ford clinic in the 1980s to treat an addiction to pain killers.

    I would bet that there’s a big overlap between people who have Nirvana CDs and one or more of the later Cash CDs in their collections. All taste is personal, of course, but I’d say that had Kobain gone on living and replaced his addiction to heroin with a reliance on moon pies, there wouldn’t be nearly so many lawyers employed in overseeing Nirvana’s legacy.

    Sorry, trainwreck, I just think there’s a lot of soul suckers out there, and some of them were feeding off of Cash towards the end.

  6. Okay so I was wrong; Cash had some drug related relapses. But what I’m reacting to is the presumptuous suggestion that Cash didn’t firmly grasp what he was doing over the past decade–he and he alone bears responsibility for his art, whether it appeals to you or not.

    And I think you are right, Nirvana wasn’t appreciated for their musical values, but for their ass kicking energy. No need to make up some wierd spectacle theory, though (Kobain cult?).

  7. IIRC, Cash had dental surgery that turned out very badly in the 1980s. As a result, he was in constant pain, and he started to use painkillers to deal with that pain.

    I don’t know enough about his situation to say whether the painkillers were intefering with his life, or whether, thanks to his past problems and anti-drug hysteria, he and his family confused necessary use with abuse.

  8. GSYBE is “Germanic”? When Germany annex Montreal?

  9. well, they are dark and brooding. though how they’d get lumped in with EN is beyond me.

  10. GSYBE is one of those groups that have every thrift store shirt wearing Fine Arts major name-dropping on a regular basis. I try to give this stuff a chance, but every time I find myself falling asleep with the headphones on. Give me Thrash, Black Metal, Death Metal, Punk, Hardcore and good old-fashioned rock and roll over avant-garde post-minimalist gothic yadda yadda anyday.

    The best song on ‘When The Man Comes Around’ wasn’t that lame NIN song, it was the song with the same name as the album

  11. From Jeebus to Jesus.
    Over the holidays, H&R is going down down down into a burning ring of fire.
    Save us!

  12. Johnny Cash was a musical genius. Starting as a C&W artist, he broke through those barriers into popular music. He did this without concious effort, but simply by following his muse. The fact that, in the latter stages of his life, he could produce original music, and adapt songs from other genres to his style, and attract an audience crossing all demographics proves that he was among the greatest recording artists the United States ever produced. PERIOD

  13. I think we should respect our elders, but I don’t particularly want to hear them sing. Johnny Cash made a lot of great records but to my ear they were long ago, and certainly not in the past 5 or so years. Clearly the drug-taking he did over the years took its toll on his body and his artistic abilities, to the point where he could barely hit the right notes in a tune, and frequently didn’t.

    Obviously, Cash had a strong and appealing personality that often came through in his music. Unfortunately, I think the new-found popularity he enjoyed in his later years had a lot in common with the Kobain cult — it was based more on a morbid fascination with the burnt-out wreck than it was on any admiration of musical values.

    Hate me if you will. I just don’t get any joy out of hearing a once-great artist singing out of tune.

  14. GYBE is insane live, however. i could see how some people might find them boring, but i like ambient music and i like wuss rock, so they fuse the two quite well.

    speaking of spazz metal, i just picked up “irony is a dead scene” by the dillinger escape plan. very good cover of “come to daddy” by aphex twin.

  15. If you’re interested in that off-kilter metal sound, Human Remains, from New Jersey, were doing it back in the early 90’s. Harsher and “tougher” sounding than Dillinger Escape Plan with eerie guitar effects and insanely fast, technically proficient drumming.

  16. “But what I’m reacting to is the presumptuous suggestion that Cash didn’t firmly grasp what he was doing over the past decade…”

    Exactly where did I suggest that?

  17. Douglas,

    You’ve opined that Cash in the 1990’s was a burned out husk, that people were fascinated with the spectacle of watching him rather than with his music, that there are “soul suckers” propping him up for the audience and feeding off of his fame, and that Nirvana was only popular because of some Kobain worship cult. What am I supposed to do with this stuff? It’s all subjective, based on the opinion of one who clearly doesn’t like the music.

  18. Might tack on Neil Young with Willie and Dylan…might not.

  19. Singer, Songwriter, poet, actor,
    Cash transended his art into a persona
    who inspired and attracted a wide range of talented people and their adoration.

    Cash seemed fated to be a man of his times,
    such pre-legend associations with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins,
    his marriage into the legendary Carter family,
    early recognition & promotion of Kristofferson,
    acknowledging the genius of Dylan and
    promoting the right thing even while being consumed by the wrong.

    Cash was the Man in Black, a symbol of one who stood without hesitation,
    spoke-up for the downtrodden — American Indian to the imprisoned —
    and wasn’t shy about speaking out about his faith, his belief, and his love of his God.

    He didn’t have a great singing voice, but his voice was great!
    He wasn’t an expressive actor, but his presence seemed bigger than the screen.
    He dressed a preacher, stood with stature, knelt in all humility, and found his pulpit to the people, who respected him almost as an institution in six decades. Johnny Cash was a giant of entertainment because he was always taken as a whole, as a constant, as he introduced himself, with a “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

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