Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn - book review: dark and light of a rocker who refused to walk the line

  • @tompeck

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.