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Music Reviews

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Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
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Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
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The Walkmen - Lisbon
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Lisbon
Fat Possum
Michael Streissguth
Johnny Cash: The Biography
Da Capo Press

Rating: 7/10 ?


August 25, 2006
With each year since his passing in 2003, Johnny Cash's legacy continues to shine on brightly. Just last month Cash's posthumously-released work, American V: A Hundred Highways, topped the Billboard album charts, marking the first time the Man in Black had scored a #1 album in 37 years. That, along with the recent biopic Walk the Line and a Levi's television commercial featuring music from "I Walk the Line," speaks to the Man in Black's impact not only on music, but also on popular culture.

Because he was such an iconic figure as the chronicler of the human condition, Cash's fans believe his stoic and chiseled likeness is the only thing missing on Mount Rushmore. It is a point well made in the introduction of Johnny Cash: The Biography, a new 320-page hardcover book by Michael Streissguth, who previously authored Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Reader. While it is no surprise that a larger-than-life figure such as Cash would be the subject of several biographies, not to mention two autobiographies from the Man in Black himself, Streissguth's book is the latest and most relevant and, more importantly, can be regarded as unique. Drawing from recent interviews with family members (including his daughter, the singer Rosanne Cash), reminisces of former colleagues, and a dearth of resources, Streissguth paints a fairly objective portrait of Cash, warts and all, by presenting the facts without mythologizing.

Johnny Cash: The Biography touches on the familiar aspects of Cash's history: his childhood in Dyess, Arkansas; his time at Sun Records in the 1950s (as a stable-mate to Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins); his hit songs such as "I Walk the Line," "Ring of Fire," "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," "A Boy Named Sue," and "Sunday Morning Coming Down"; his triumphant performance at Folsom Prison in 1968; the late 1990s career renaissance that saw him reach a younger and hipper audience; and his loving and devotional relationship with his second wife, singer June Carter Cash.

The book also contains new revelations of Cash's life, including his stint in the U.S. Air Force before he became a singer; the encouraging influence of his older brother Roy; and a drug addiction that most assumed he kicked after 1968, but continued on through the rest of his life ("John had this thing, probably in his entire life: If one's good, twenty's got to be really good," remarked his son-in-law Jimmy Tittle).

Whereas it might have been very tempting to get caught up with hero worship, Streissguth to his credit avoids that trap by documenting the King of Country Music's share of difficulties, such as the failure of The Gospel Road, a film about Christ that he financed in the early 1970s, and an artistic rut before his '90s reemergence that saw the aging legend playing in Branson, Missouri, road's end for fading country music stars. But Streissguth also captures Cash's humanity by touching on his interest in prison reform and his use of his popular late 1960s television shows to address social messages such as war and peace, drugs and religion.

The most poignant aspect from the book is Cash's final years, a period marked by illness and the death of his beloved wife June in 2003. In one touching episode, according to his daughter Cindy, Cash visited his late wife's gravesite and hollered, "I'm coming baby. I'm coming." Sadly that wish would be fulfilled a few months later with his own passing. Yet during that time when he was in frail health, he willed himself to record more music.

And it was the music that defined Cash. As if it needed any further reiteration, Cash's artistry is enlightened in the book from the signature sound he forged with the Tennessee Two in the '50s to his recordings with producer Rick Rubin, a golden period beginning in the '90s and lasting almost literally up until his death. More than just a successful and consistent presence on the country singles charts, Cash, according to Streissguth, was also sort of a historian who recorded concept albums about the common man, the West and the history of the nation (i.e. Ride This Train and Bitter Tears). The author best expresses the essence of the man and his music in the introduction: "[Cash's] inherent ability to distill in simple and incisive verse complex feelings, historical drama, and real-life travail set him apart in the world, as did his magnificent powers of interpretation."

Johnny Cash: The Biography probably won't be the final word on the Man in Black's life, as more books and articles will certainly be written about him. But these future works might be hard pressed to match the clarity, objectivity and detail presented in Streissguth's informative and entertaining work. With all the facts laid out here, however, there is still something mythic about Cash that continues to feed our appetite and need for authentic American heroes.

Reviewed by David Chiu
no biographical information is currently available.

See other reviews by David Chiu

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