Johnny Cash: The Biography
Everything I really need to know about Johnny Cash can be found among his records and in the steady, proud gaze with which he greeted the camera. I don’t doubt that he was also a difficult, troubled, troubling man; that, along with his faith and his humor, is all to be found within his songs.
But he was somebody I wished to like and, on the brief occasion we once met, he was kind to me and to the strange musicians with whom he found himself playing that day. And so, as with many people I know far better, I have agreed to like him despite his faults.
All by way of suggesting that I am not necessarily the ideal reader of Michael Streissguth’s new feet-of-clay biography which (however unfairly) reduces to: He took a lot of pills and died.
With Johnny and June both gone, it is now possible to write such a book, and inevitable that some will. Streissguth faces several problems in retelling Cash’s long story. First, Cash himself had written two autobiographies, and at least a dozen other biographies are in the marketplace (not counting several slim volumes written by the family cook), so there is some difficulty finding room to move. Second, a great number of the people who figure prominently in this history, who might finally feel free to tell the whole story, are long gone. Marshall Grant (who has his own book), for example, stands in for almost all the Sun alumni. And one very much misses the voices of Johnny and June.
Streissguth’s third problem is that he worked on far too short a deadline (despite having published two previous books about Cash) to earn the book’s subtitle: This is not the Johnny Cash biography. That task awaits a writer as careful, nuanced, and detail-oriented as Peter Guralnick.
What’s new here are largely on-the-record versions of the whispers long shared, or of stories told more politely in deference to the then-living star and his family. Cash continued to fight addictions long after his public sobriety. His father was a son-of-a-bitch, and a racist. Johnny apparently cheated on June. He wasn’t much of a father, at least not until his children were grown.
Most of which isn’t going to come as a huge surprise, but I suspect most of his listeners (OK, most of us fans) responded to the man Johnny Cash tried very hard to be, not to his demons and imperfections.
All that said, some of what’s here is very good. Streissguth does a fine job tracking down friends and neighbors from the Depression-era community of Dyess Colony, Arkansas, and from Cash’s days as a radio operator (and not a DJ) in Germany.
And then there’s the music, which seems too often tangential to other stories. Streissguth chooses the biographer’s easiest path, focusing largely on Cash’s hits and most egregious misses. Surely, even in a great artist’s career, room must be made for the private joys and triumphs and sadnesses that fuel daily life and, thus, his art.
The wheels come off in the 1970s. Here Streissguth’s timeline gets jumbled, and he suffers from having written this book before the Private Recordings were released (they are mentioned only in a brief footnote). The calm and majesty and joy of those home sessions seem, to this listener, to argue for a much more rewarding — and focused — creative life than Cash’s released output suggests. The nature of Cash’s battles with Columbia (alas, Streissguth appears not to have found the mythic “Chicken In Black” video, either) and the vicissitudes of the marketplace aside, I am not persuaded that his artistic vision faltered simply on the evidence of diminishing sales, nor that either takes the full measure of the man.