Cash: The Autobiography
“When death starts beating the door down, you need to be reaching for your shotgun,” Johnny Cash advises near the conclusion of Cash: The Autobiography. “And when you know he might be in your part of town, which is true for anyone my age, you should be taking care of business. Quit gazing out the window and start telling your stories.”
The Man In Black wrote his latest book before he announced to the world that he has Shy-Drager syndrome (a neurological ailment related to Parkinson’s disease) and before pneumonia landed him in a Nashville hospital, but even without that sobering context, Cash: The Autobiography is filled with the sense that Johnny Cash knows all too well that death is kicking around his neighborhood. From the moment he tells us, in just the book’s third paragraph, that his grandfather died from Parkinson’s in 1912, until he concludes the book by describing how vigilantly he must now conserve his energy even to make it through one more evening concert, death seems rarely absent from this book for more than a few pages.
And so Cash, 65, gets busy telling his stories. In fact, unlike his early ’70s autobiography The Man In Black, this new book is more a collection of musings and remembrances than an actual life story. Sometimes he’s plowing old ground, as when he recounts his cotton-pickin’ youth in a Federal Emergency Relief Administration community, or when he recalls the series of addictions that have hounded him, on and off, for most of his adult life.
Other times, Cash is intent upon wrapping up unfinished business. At one point, for example, Cash explains how hard it has been to finally come to terms with the memory of a father who never once said he loved his son. Later, when he races through a chapter’s worth of family members and music business friends who he has loved over the years, it’s as if he’s determined not to leave this plane without making it clear exactly how he feels.
Throughout, collaborator Patrick Carr has done a fine job of capturing Cash’s conversational voice, and though the book occasionally rambles without any clear focus, this off-the-cuff quality is also its chief charm. Cash is just telling us stories, and you get the feeling he’d like to go on and on.
Mainly, though, it’s death that’s on Cash’s mind: his brother Jack’s violent death, his family’s near death during a Jamaican robbery, the suicides of Faron Young and Carl Perkins’ brother Clayton, the deaths of Johnny Horton and Luther Perkins and Roy Orbison and so many more — and, of course, the increasing realization of his own mortality. “I can feel the rhythms of the earth,” he says, “the growing and the blooming and the fading and the dying, in my bones. My BONES.”
Johnny Cash does not simply loom large in the history of American popular music; he’s one of the icons we’ll take with us into the next century, whether he’s able to join us there or not. Though this book ends with Cash still out on the road, preparing to walk onstage for another show, it mainly reads like the last word from a busy man who’s pausing now, just briefly, to say goodbye.