The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

(Illustration by Alex Fine)


At the height of the Summer of Love, in the year of our lord 1967, Johnny Cash was fixin’ to die. Men in black were no longer in fashion. It was the time of the Nehru jacket, when people were fair and had stars in their hair.

Ten years into an amphetamine addiction that started as a crutch but soon became a truncheon with which he couldn’t help but beat himself unmercifully, Cash could no longer walk the line. Up for days, chain-smoking, with dark circles under his eyes, he thought enough was enough.

And so he retreated into the clammy darkness of Nickajack Cave like a dog hit by a car crawls under the house. To die. His plan was simple: Keep walking until the flashlight dies, then he won’t be able to find his way out. He hiked deep into the belly of the earth, where he could hide his shame from friends, family and even the Almighty. Or so he thought. He sat on a rock and waited for death to take him. But death didn’t come.

As he would tell it later, God made it clear to him that he wasn’t done with Johnny just yet. There was work to do. And it occurred to him that you couldn’t hide from God because God was within us. Even a sinner like you, Johnny Cash. And God guided him to the light. A year later he would record At Folsom Prison, and a year after that Life magazine would proclaim Johnny Cash and Muhammad Ali the two most famous people in the world.

How great is that? It’s like red state porn. But wait, there’s more. He never really shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, or did time, but he probably knew what he sang of in “Cocaine Blues.” And there were more than a few punch-ups and nights sleepin’ it off in the jails of Mayberrys across the South, while Andy Griffith types paged lazily through comic books and boasted of Aunt Bea’s pie-making prowess.

He once got busted for trying to smuggle 1,163 pills across the Mexican border in a guitar case. In the ’60s he really got into his train-hopping troubadour image, not just wearing dirty vintage cowboy threads, but packing a vintage pistol, sometimes loaded. And of course he was high as a kite.

If you ask me, Johnny Cash gives Christianity a good name. Hell, they should start a church of Cash for the true believers, the ones sometimes embarrassed to call themselves Christians. Aside from all the gangsta shit-the pills and the punches and the most famous middle finger in showbiz-the man in black was at bottom a man of mercy. He afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted. The poor and the screwed over. Prisoners, Native Americans, nonunion factory workers, fat no-neck crackers at county fairs and people like you and me. Who even tries to cast a net that wide anymore?

It’s all here on Cash: The Legend, a fairly exhaustive four-CD overview of Cash’s career that ends where the Rick Rubin revival begins. Timed to synergize with Walk the Line, the Cash biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix, this box will be the gotta-have this Christmas season. Buy it for anyone who even remotely cares what Jesus would do. And also buy it for the devil worshipper on your Christmas list. Johnny Cash died for their sins too.