Tag Archives: Johnny Cash

Remembering The Man in Black

I missed the anniversary of his death a few days back, but it’s still hard to believe that Johnny Cash died eight years ago. A year or so before he died I watched the video for “Hurt” with some friends in college. “He’s going to die soon,” Someone said. Everyone was silent. He had said what everybody else was thinking, but no one wanted to acknowledge. We were possibly witnessing what could very well be Johnny Cash’s final moment on screen.

About a decade earlier, when I was in middle school I got my first introduction to Johnny Cash. I was watching a music special on PBS with my parents. The announcer said the performer’s name was “Johnny Cash” to a loud applause. I laughed a little bit at the thought. That can’t possibly be that dude’s name, I thought. When Cash actually appeared on screen, he was totally different than anything I was expecting. There was something commanding about him. The look in his eyes exuded a certain coolness.  Slinging his guitar across his shoulder, he launched into “A Boy Named Sue”.  To say, I had never heard anything like it would be an under-statement. It had everything – revenge, a misunderstood kid and a sense of humor.

I borrowed a collection of Cash’s greatest hits from my brother. Musically, it was different than anything I was listening to at the time. I did not want to listen to anything remotely associated with country. Billy Ray Cyrus and Garth Brooks were still huge at the time. I would never admit to any of my classmates, but I secretly liked it. There was an element of danger in Cash’s lyrics. He took a shot of cocaine? Damn, this guy is out of his mind. And then he shot his woman down? 

Thanks to Rick Rubin’s American series, by the time I got to college it was cool to like Johnny Cash again. Several of the American albums were constantly played in the background as parties winded down. The stripped down covers brought out the best in Cash’s aged voice and sometimes even bettered the original – “Personal Jesus” being a perfect example.

The night after he died, I went to see Bruce Springsteen in DC. When we running a bit late, but as we climbed the stairwell we could hear Springsteen open up the show with a solo rendition of “I Walk the Line”. It was a beautiful arrangement, and a poignant moment. Springsteen’s voice seemed to ache as he sang the words. “I Walk the Line” was transformed from a declaration of love to a goodbye.

It seems that in the eight years since his death, Cash’s popularity has only increased. He was of the few American musicians whose influence and adoration reaches across generations and genres. Country artists love him as much as hip-hop artists. The photograph of Cash with his middle finger in the air, face snarling has become such a popular t-shirt image that it has almost replaced the Ramones logo shirt in popularity.  It’s also obligatory for people to say they like all kinds of music but country  – “except for Johnny Cash”.  Even my mother likes Johnny Cash – which is totally surprising.

Certainly Cash’s outlaw image has played a significant part in this popularity so. His infamous “Reno” line has become something of the musical equivalent of Scarface. But more than that, Johnny Cash represents a certain defiance with an every-day attitude. Playing for prison in-mates wasn’t just an act of going against conventional wisdom, but one of solidarity.

And that, I think is the real reason people love Johnny Cash so much. You never got the idea that he was faking it.

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Vinyl Love!

I’m a big fan of vinyl.  Even in the age of digital convenience, I still prefer the pops and hisses that only vinyl can provide.  There’s also a warmth and depth to the sound that is lost.  I’ve been collecting records for about 5 or 6 years now and have managed to find quite a few of my favorite albums either in record stores or by chance in thrift stores.  Some others have also been give to me by siblings an friends.  For special selections which I must have, I go to Baltimore’s Soundgarden and pick up re-issues of classic albums.

As my collection has grown I’ve ended up with about 60 records in total.  Many of them are personal favorites (Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, U2, Johnny Cash), but others are just odd and random selections (German Beer Hall Music, Eastern European Gypsy Music, the soundtrack for The Sting).

A few months back, my girlfriend and I started what we like to call Record Night, which funnily enough was inspired by a scene from the movie Easy A.   Every Wednesday night we sit down, pick a record and sit down and listen to it.  Since a lot of music listening is in the background for many listeners (in the car, on the subway, running etc) it’s refreshing to actually to be able to just listen and digest the art for what it is.

Here’s what we’ve listened to so far.

The Sounds of SilenceSimon & Garfunkel

Irish Favorites – The Best of the Mummers – “Aqua String Band

Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits

This is Johnny Cash

No Jacket RequiredPhil Collins

High NoonTex Ritter;  Smash HitsThe Jimi Hendrix Experience

She’s So UnusualCyndi Lauper

Get Happy!! – Elvis Costello and The Attractions

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Joe Strummer – Art Rock & The X-Ray Style

Usually I hesitate to listen to solo albums by the frontmen of bands I absolutely love.  Too often, the singer indulges himself and the album leaves you wanting the restraints the band put in place.  I first got into the Clash sometime in 1999, and wanted everything that they ever put out.  (I don’t count Cut the Crap as a Clash album in case you were wondering.)  Sometime later, I discovered that Joe Strummer put out another album with a new backing band dubbed the Mescaleros.  It couldn’t possibly be good, I remember thinking.

About a year or so later, I finally did break down and buy Art Rock & The X-Ray Style. I knew right away it wouldn’t sound like The Clash or be as good as their debut or London Calling. What possibly could?  (Even the band themselves never reached those heights again.)  But what shocked me, was how much it didn’t sound like The Clash.  Except for one song (“Techno D-Day”) there’s nothing on the album that even sounds remotely like The Clash.  Instead, Strummer takes on the listener on a laid-back groove that’s part folk, part world-beat that could only be made by the man who fronted a band where every single genre imaginable was tried on Sandinista!

“Has anybody seen the morning sun?” Strummer asks on the opening track “Tony Adams”.  For anyone else, this line might sound trite, but Strummer had been lost in the wilderness for years following the demise of the Clash.  Now, he’s revitalized with an album that actually sounds perfect for a late 40-something year old man.  The morning sun has come up to him, and he’s taking you on the road to rock and roll.  The song “On The Road to Rock and Roll” was originally written for Johnny Cash, but I’m not sure that it would fit Cash’s style stripped down style that he perfected late in life.  Strummer’s version takes blends two pieces of of rock and roll together – it’s led by a country/folk riff but the backing band plays a hip-hop beat.

I often find myself listening to Art Rock & The X-Ray Style whenever I can’t find something particular that I want to listen.  Every single track is of high quality.  Strummer is still political in parts throughout the album, but he doesn’t beat you over the head or demand something of you like he did with the Clash.  It’s him enjoying music, and its infectious for the listener.

His other two albums with the Mecaleros weren’t as focused.  Global A-Go took the world-beat of Art Rock, a bit too far and Strummer seemed to forget about the songs.  Streetcore could have been very good, but as it wasn’t completed at the time of his death in 2002, it feels too much like the collection of out-takes that it was.

Even if the world wasn’t listening like they were with London Calling, Strummer achieved a renaissance late in life with Art Rock & The X-Ray Style worthy of a legend.

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Favorite Cover Songs

A while back, I bemoaned certain songs which should be banned from further covers.  Now I’ve decided to list my favorite covers.  I’m only counting studio versions.  (In no particular order other than what comes to mind first.)

Jimi Hendrix – All Along the Watchtower (Bob Dylan)

The Waterboys – Sweet Thing (Van Morrison)

Johnny Cash – Hurt (Nine Inch Nails)

The Pogues – Dirty Old Town (Ewan MacColl)

Van Morrison  – It’s All Over Now Baby Blue -(Dylan)

Patti Smith – Gloria (Them)

Eddie Vedder – Hard Sun (Indio)

The Clash – I Fought The Law (Bobby Fueller)

The Beatles – Twist and Shout (Phil Medley/Isley Brothers)

The Rolling Stones – Just My Imagination (The Temptations)

Elvis Costello – I Can’t Stand Up (For Falling Down) – Sam & Dave

Ray Charles – Eleanor Rigby (The Beatles)

What are your thoughts?  Any really good ones I missed?


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Hellooooo Everybody!

Happy Birthday Sesame Street!  Followed by The Wire and Mad Men, Sesame Street is my third favorite television show of all time.  I know it seems absurd that a children’s television show is put into a category that contains a show about the drug-trade and another about a sexist work environment.  But the common thread among all three shows is they are all brilliant.  

Earlier this year, I read Street Gang – The Complete History of Sesame Street.  It wasn’t exactly what I expected it to be.I  I was expecting a run-down of the origins of the Muppets.  In fact,  they are barely mentioned. The first 150 pages focus just on the show’s conception. For instance, it began as a way to bring educational programming to inner-city youth.  This is why Sesame Street is kind of dirty and dingy.  It was designed to portray a world that inner-city children could relate to.  (That’s why I dislike the *new* Sesame Street where everything is sanitized, and Cookie Monster only eats “cookies sometimes.”)  It kind of takes away from the original idea.  

Obviously, I loved Sesame Street as a kid.  But when I got the “Old School” DVDs, I was surprised at how much I still like it at 27.  The humor that makes learning fun for kids is also entertaining for adults, but the perspective of it has changed for me.  Forget all of this Ernie and Bert are gay bullshit.  What I want to know is – how did they pay rent?  Kermit and Grover have jobs, so why don’t they?

When I was younger, I used to love Ernie (and I still do).  But now I like Bert more in all his up-tight glory.  His reactions to Ernie’s pranks never get old.  In every skit, you know he is going to blow his top and get pissed – but the laughter comes from his reaction.  The same with Cookie Monster.  You know he is going to go crazy over cookies.  But it’s hysterical to watch him devour everything from a truck to a type-writer in the process.  

Sesame Street was,of course ground-breaking on many levels.  It made learning fun.  A lot of kids learn more when they think they’re not learning.  I’m not suggesting Sesame Street tricked them into learning, but it took them on a ride where learning could be fun and engaging.  And let’s not forget the multi-racial cast.  Everyone at Sesame Street was made to feel welcome and that was exactly the point.  No one is excluded.  And here’s the real magic of Sesame Street: It made kids smarter, but also made adults feel like kids again.  No one so many celebrities and musicians showed up from time to time. 

And for proof here’s one of my favorite clips featuring Johnny Cash:

And another where Cookie Monster goes on a classic rampage:

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