Today would have been Johnny Cash’s 80th birthday. That’s worth noting; I’m not a great connoisseur of country music, but Cash somehow transcended his genre, becoming an iconic figure, especially in his later years.
For me, someone with limited musical knowledge, my favourite Johnny Cash songs have a weight to them that goes beyond the music. ‘The Man Comes Around’ sounds like someone gave a biblical prophet a guitar and told him to hitchhike round small-town America, preaching Cassandra-like about the imminent Second Coming. It’s all tied up with Cash’s faith, sincerely held and vital, driving a man who, even so, could still sing about prisoners and outlaws and the damned.
Then there’s the song for which Cash will be remembered among my generation. His cover of ‘Hurt’ by Nine Inch Nails is heartbreaking in its beauty, and if just hearing it is emotionally draining, watching the video is devastating, an old man surrounded by the relics of his life. There’s a moment where the lyrics drop out and footage of Cash in his earlier years kicks in; “Stay the hell away from me” he growls, looking straight at the camera and making the viewer feel like a voyeur into a man’s darkest memories, an intruder in an empire of dirt. This is a song you listen to when you know things have gone to hell and when you need music not to cheer you up but to understand you.
Johnny Cash was a legend. But he was also a human being familiar with weakness and failings. And sometimes that’s what you need from the guy standing before you with a guitar, not the icon but the man. Someone who knows what it’s like to be in hell; someone who knows there’s a way out.