UG Articles Archive

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why every rock and metal fan should listen to Johnny Cash

Today's post will be the 100th blog post here at Weaponized Wisdom, and I'd like to thank all of you who have stuck with me since the beginning.  Also a big thank you to all of the readers that have gotten on this crazy train somewhere between then and now.  This is a lot of fun for me to do, so don't expect me to quit posting new content anytime soon.  With that out of the way, today's topic: Johnny Cash.

You often see homages to The Man in Black from rock and metal bands and personalities.  I've seen Cash gear on members of small bands like Boston's HOWL (sludge metal, played in Madison recently) all the way up to Corey Taylor of Slipknot and Stone Sour.  Three Days Grace used Johnny's "God's Gonna Cut You Down" for intro music as they took the stage in Madison last January.  I've seen interviews with Mastodon where bassist Troy Sanders is wearing a Johnny Cash T-Shirt.  Clearly, the man is held near and dear to the hearts of many in the rock music industry.

Why, you ask?  Johnny Cash, to me, is the original rock star.  People can say what they want about Elvis Presley, call him the King of Rock and Roll and what have you, but you'll need to prove to me that Elvis was more of a rocker than the guy who went and played free concert in Folsom Prison.  Though his music may have been considered more country than rock and roll, Cash had the attitude of a rock star and lived a lifestyle that would have made the guys in Guns N Roses blush, trying "every drug there is to try" and becoming a heavy alcoholic. 

He remains the only man ever to have been sued by the U.S. government for starting a forest fire; his truck caught fire in California, killing 49 of its 53 California Condors, an endangered species.  When asked why he started the fire, Cash replied: "I didn't do it, my truck did, and it's dead, so you can't question it."  He was unrepentant about the condors too, telling the judge " "I don't care about your damn yellow buzzards."  

He cultivated the image of The Man in Black, contrary to the rhinestones and bright colors worn by other popular artists of his time.  He wore a knee-length black coat over black clothes while on tour, in order to remind people of the poor, the hungry, the beaten down.  It was also in dedication to those lost in Vietnam, saying: "I wore it 'in mournin' for the lives that could have been.' ... Apart from the Vietnam War being over, I don't see much reason to change my position ... The old are still neglected, the poor are still poor, the young are still dying before their time, and we're not making many moves to make things right. There's still plenty of darkness to carry off."  This somber image resonated with rock and metal bands to come later, who by and large dress overwhelmingly in black.

Cash continued making music til he died in 2003 from diabetes complications, and his music got more somber and melancholy as he got closer and closer to the end.  His cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" is one of the most emotional and powerful songs in the American musical catalog.  The previously mentioned "God's Gonna Cut You Down" is a song about God taking his vengeance on sinners and bad men, and how no one can escape Death when he comes calling.  It's very metal.  Similar themes can be found throughout metal music, which deals heavily with the themes of death and its inevitability.  His final two albums, American V and American VI, are, like some metal, difficult to listen to because of the overwhelming sadness and depression emanating from the artist.  Johnny was clearly in a dark place, and it shows through on the records.

From his lifestyle to his music, Johnny Cash WAS rock and roll.  He lived hard and fast, played music that is both invigorating and emotionally heavy, and never compromised.  His devil-may-care attitude and somber appearance have been imitated, but never duplicated.  Johnny Cash deserves all of the homages he receives from rock and metal bands, but if he were still alive, he probably wouldn't recognize it.  Because he just doesn't give a damn.  And that's metal.