Andy Kershaw: I remember Johnny Cash

His extraordinary life has now become an extraordinary film, 'Walk the Line' , which has already won many awards and will open here next month. Andy Kershaw recalls a meeting with a giant of American music
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The Independent Culture

Whenever I think back to meeting Johnny Cash, face to face at Glastonbury in 1994, I have to have a little sit-down. Encounters with rock legends have been 10-a-penny in comparison (yes, even Dylan: especially Dylan, come to think of it). Cash, for me, was more than legendary, he was iconic; a man I'd admired since childhood, a voice that was just as compelling, compassionate and humane in the elderly man stalking the fields of a dairy farm in Somerset as it had been back in the Sun Studios in Memphis or on stage at Folsom Prison. No antecedents, no derivatives. If the cliché "the one and only" applied to anyone, it was to Cash. And now, as festival compere and DJ, it was down to me to bring him on before a gigantic crowd. I was terrified.

And so, it turned out, was Cash. For much of the morning I'd agonised over an introduction which would do justice to the occasion and to the man. Nothing came. And the clock was ticking. Cranking up the anxiety was my real fear about how he would be received by this huge, predominantly rock and dance music crowd. Glastonbury had not only grown to the size of a city in recent years but the drug of choice had changed. What was once a gentle gathering of herbalists had become a frenzied convention of freelance pharmacists whose tolerance of country music could not altogether be relied upon. I was worried they were going to boo him or bottle him.

And, as if to erect signposts for the more ignorant and narrow-minded elements, Cash had been booked to play in what had come to be the traditional afternoon novelty slot, previous occupants including those unlikely Vale of Avalon visitors Tom Jones, Rolf Harris and Tony Bennett. It didn't look good. Affectionate ridicule seemed the best we could realistically hope for. Hardcore honky-tonk records I'd played in the run up to his set had been greeted by jeering.

With just minutes to go, I decided to visit him in his Portakabin dressing-room. He was sitting sideways on a plastic chair, wheezing alarmingly and sweating heavily. It wasn't hot. There was little coming and going and a pleasing absence of self-important "security" bullshit. I introduced myself and asked if there was any particular form of words he wanted for the introduction, hoping a stock showbiz intro would get me off the hook. "No, Andy," he said, "say whatever you like." ("Bugger," I thought.)

He chatted gently and modestly as if there were all the time in the world. Physically, he was not as huge as expected. The back and shoulders that once looked on loan from a fighting bull were benignly relaxed. His girth was no longer that of a speed freak but a grandee. And the stern face which once appeared to have been quarried was now amply upholstered, like a favourite leather armchair, and softened by a smiling, avuncular gentility. Then, abruptly, his demeanour changed. "Hey, how many people are out there?" he asked. "Hard to tell," I said. "About 50,000. Probably more." He looked worried. "Are they all kids?" "Not all kids," I replied, not untruthfully.

I climbed the long ramp at the back of the main stage - gallows analogies were unavoidable - and waited by the DJ decks for the big moment. By now, in sheer panic, my mind had gone blank. It had shut down. Emotional overload. I'd just had a private audience with God and he'd chatted like he'd known me since I'd first owned a copy of San Quentin.

The fact is, Johnny Cash was too big a subject to compress into a one-liner. There was too much history about to stride on stage for a flippant introduction. At that moment, strapping on his guitar a few yards away, was the guy who'd been in there at the start of this whole rock'n'roll caper with Elvis, Jerry Lee and Carl Perkins. "Country" was how he became categorised - not many have been inducted into both the Country and Rock'n'Roll Halls of Fame - but he was more than country, bigger than country.

Cash's country - its celebration of the human spirit and all its failings, of love and loss, of struggle and defeat, of desolation and the defiance of the natural outsider, the outlaw, the fighter - has more in common with the songwriting and attitudes of Woody Guthrie, Willie Nelson, early Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, even The Clash than it has with, say, the blandness of Jim Reeves, the corporate soft rock of Garth Brooks or the plasticity and tawdriness of Elvis. Whereas "The King" ended up gushing middle-of-the-road goo to glorified chicken-in-the-basket crowds in Vegas, Cash - despite his own drink and drugs problems - hung on to his dignity and integrity.

In 1965, aged 33, he was playing 300 live shows a year, pumped up by the same country music cocktail of amphetamines by day and booze by night that eventually killed off Hank Williams. Alarming stories of his wayward behaviour began to circulate. At one point Cash was detained after exploding firecrackers in a public toilet. Emaciated and wired he went on stage at the Grand Ole Opry and, frustrated that he couldn't wrest the microphone from its socket, picked up the stand and dragged it across the edge of the stage smashing all 52 footlights. He was quietly informed he wouldn't be able to perform there again, got into his car and drove straight into a tree.

The 1968 San Quentin appearance created its own mythology - Cash as the hardened jailbird, an image that did him no harm whatsoever, though in truth he was only locked up three times, and each of those for only one night - once after an arrest at El Paso when returning from Mexico carrying 1,000 uppers and downers; a second time in Lafayette, Georgia, for "public drunkenness"; the third in Starkville, Mississippi, in 1966, where he was discovered stoned out of his mind and liberating the local flora - prompting some wiseguy to imagine the Cash lyric "I picked a flower in Reno just to watch it die". The pills eventually burnt a hole in his stomach and he was rushed to hospital with severe internal bleeding. At one point in the seven hour operation which "took out half my insides", his heart stopped beating. As he often claimed, and with good reason, "I came as close to death as anyone can come and still remain alive".

He ploughed his own furrow from the start. When Cash arrived to record at Sun Studios in 1954, he apologised to Sam Phillips for his rudimentary sound, claiming he could afford only two backing musicians (Luther Perkins could play only one string of his guitar at a time), but the producer turned this imagined weakness into a strength and made this sparse sound his trademark. It became one of the most distinctive sounds in popular music and had an impact far beyond the confines of country.

Cash vividly recalled a note he received from a teenage Bob Dylan who'd heard his music on the radio. "I got a letter from him saying that he was in Hibbing, Minnesota, and that there was nobody up there but me and Hank Williams, and that he was glad to hear about the world that was out there." Dylan repaid the debt, recording 18 songs with Cash over a two-day session in Nashville in 1969, since widely bootlegged, one of which, "Girl From the North Country", opened Nashville Skyline.

In 1986, Cash was dropped by Columbia Records after 28 years, provoking an outburst from Dwight Yoakam aimed squarely at the label's Nashville boss, Rick Blackburn: "Cash paid for that son of a bitch's office. And that prick sits in it and lets him leave the label. He built the building, man!" Yoakam was not the only highly positioned individual who helped keep the flame alight in the face of corporate indifference. Bono was a tireless supporter, and Cash returned the favour by recording two Bono songs, "The Wanderer" and U2's "One", and the hard-rock and hip-hop legend Rick Rubin jump-started Cash's flagging career by producing four editions of Cash's American Recordings, again deploying the minimalist sound that so suited their dark and confessional choice of material.

Fashions and fads came and went: Johnny was always cool. He could still have the crossover hits in the pop charts without compromising, sticking instead to the stark simplicity of the big voice and the um-chukka um-chukka guitar and to quality material, right to the end. Other Cash compositions (say "I Walk The Line" and "I Still Miss Someone") are now so deeply cemented into our culture they are regarded simply as standards.

He was wrongly diagnosed with a terminal illness in the mid-1990s and began writing songs that anticipated - even accepted - his demise. The doctors eventually admitted they'd got it wrong, and he was to soldier on through another decade, dying at the age of 71 on 12 September 2003 from complications brought on by diabetes.

In defiance of received medical wisdom and a lifetime of abuse he stayed mentally young, perhaps because he never lost the curiosity and enthusiasm of a fan. On his last CD he covered songs from Ewan MacColl to Nine Inch Nails. This was not the desperate attempt of an old man trying to look young. Back in the 1960s, when he had his own network TV show out of Nashville, he introduced Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and even The Who to country music audiences. And just before Joe Strummer's cruel, early death in 2002, Johnny had recorded a version of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" with the former Clash frontman.

Then there was the man of principle and compassion. One cannot imagine any other country star - not even the blue-collared Merle Haggard - adopting a career-long costume of black ("I wear the black for the poor and beaten-down/ Living in the hopeless hungry side of town/ I wear it for the sick and lonely old/ For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold").

In a genre notorious for its misappropriated patriotism, Cash made a stand against the Vietnam War. In an industry which rewards conformity, Cash was always a maverick, instinctively suspicious and questioning of authority. In a community where redneck values were received wisdom, he stood up for the rights of Native Americans and courageously denounced the Ku Klux Klan. Perhaps it was this humanity - and total absence of pomposity - which gave Cash an appeal that trampled across barriers of age, race and musical tastes. (I have seen his cassettes on sale in Timbuktu.) Even those who would say they didn't like country music still liked Johnny Cash.

Perhaps that last thought on his universal popularity should have given me comfort at the side of the Glastonbury stage but shadows were shifting behind the backdrop and the stage manager was giving me the nod. That 10-yard walk to the centre of the stage was one of the longest of my life. As I set off, quivering, I still didn't know what I was going to say beyond knowing I should keep it short and sharp. "Hiya," I squeaked. And, as if a greater force was guiding me, the rest of the words came out of nowhere: "Please welcome a giant of American music and a giant of a man - Johnny Cash." Some 50,000 throats roared back. I turned slightly to my right and the great man was already standing at my shoulder, guitar in place (I swear he was six inches taller than he'd been half an hour before). The applause went on and on. It came in waves, giant rollers of affection crashing over that huge stage. Again and again. Glastonbury, as one, was going daft.

I stepped aside to let Johnny move to the mic. For a moment, he just stood there and looked out either in relief or disbelief. Tears were rolling down those Mount Rushmore features. Tears were rolling down my face too. I darted for the wings. He moved to the mic. "Hello," he said, "I'm Johnny Cash," and the lead guitarist cracked out the familiar twang. We were off into "Folsom Prison Blues" and the roaring never let up. This article first appeared in 'The Word' magazine ( www.wordmagazine.co.uk). ' Walk The Line' is out on 3 February

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