Weidenfeld & Nicolson £20. Order for £16 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030.
Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn - book review: dark and light of a rocker who refused to walk the line
Anyone with a passing interest in music or Hollywood cinema knows that John R Cash was born a white, country cotton-picker in 1930s America, and died revered by millions but an enigma to many of the few he loved.
It's a story that, thus far, has been told through the means of autobiography, that enforcedly limited art. Cash wrote two before he died a decade ago, and there has been no shortage of memoirs since, from wives and children, and various others, all too aware of the more literal meaning of their subject's surname.
Robert Hilburn knew Johnny Cash, too. He should do – he wrote about him for 35 years as music editor and critic for the Los Angeles Times. JR never went to prison, as countless people falsely imagine, but the pair did spend a historic day in one together, when Cash sang about the cocaine blues and shooting a man in Reno, in a performance that elevated him from the merely brilliant to the important. Hilburn was the only journalist at that now near-mythical Folsom Prison gig.
If the pair had a friendship of sorts, Hilburn keeps a reasonably scholarly distance here. The temptation to talk of Cash in terms of contradiction overwhelms most popular culture writers who don't know their subject a tenth as well; the light and the dark, the devout Christian and the profound sinner, the quiet family man and the infernal hell-raiser. There is a loftier goal in sight in this book.
Cash readily admitted to the bleakness of his deathly romance with drugs, but he made it sound like a hell of a lot of fun; ploughing a camper van straight through the front of a Las Vegas hotel, getting sued for more than a million dollars (in today's money) for blowing up an RV in the middle of a wildlife refuge, or starting a near fatal fight with an ostrich.
From outside Cash's skull, where Hilburn generally remains, the story is starker, more compelling, and probably more true. The furious telegram from his near-broken manager Saul Holiff is nothing if not to the point: "YOUR BEHAVIOUR IS TOTALLY REPREHENSIBLE, SHOWING A COMPLETE DISREGARD FOR THE RIGHTS AND FEELINGS OF THOSE AROUND YOU."
Life is longer than a country song, and more complicated. Those who love Cash's music might not like the man they meet here. The facts, many of them new, are too loud to speak quietly. That he betrayed his wife for her sister, or that he violently pursued his dead friend's widow.
Whatever is said or written about him, Cash's spell will last a long time yet, but this illuminating book leaves things lighter, if not brighter, for the Man in Black.
ReviewThese heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).TV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Jack the Ripper: Scientist who claims to have identified notorious killer has 'made serious DNA error'
- 2 Ebola outbreak: What is bushmeat – and is it to blame for the disease that has killed thousands?
- 3 Star Wars memorabilia called a 'bit of plastic' on Antiques Roadshow by Fiona Bruce valued at £50,000
- 4 Meet Thea, Norway's 12-year-old child bride
- 5 Russell Brand might seem like a sexy revolutionary worth getting behind, but he will only fail his fans
Breaking Bad season 6 is still not happening
Downton Abbey review series 5, episode 5: Period drama falls disappointingly flat
Doctor Who, Flatline - review: Clara isn’t half bad as the Time Lord
Alfred Hitchcock's unseen Holocaust documentary to be screened
X Factor 2014 results: Chloe Jasmine and Stephanie Nala sent home
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Sorry Judy Finnigan – Ched Evans is no less sickening than an alleyway rapist
Residents should throw a street party and mix with immigrant neighbours, councils told
Workers 'could be forced to pay £5 a week' to get benefits
Russell Brand threatened with arrest after filming outside Fox News headquarters
Amal Alamuddin calls for the return of the Elgin Marbles from Britain: 'Injustice has persisted for too long'