Tuesday 23 June 2015

David Kamp's "American Communion"

"As Rubin progressed from his 30s to 40s, and Cash from his 60s to 70s, the two became confidants and sounding boards on matters spiritual as well as musical -- a sort of Tuesdays with Morrie scenario, without the slush and hokum, and with a more reciprocal exchange of wisdom between the dying man and the younger man."

In the early 1990's, Johnny Cash was washed up.  After decades of making country music, he had been dropped by his record label, Columbia, a company which he helped build.  His career needed a boost.  It came in the most unexpected form:  "a ZZ Top looking dude" who had founded the hip hop label Def Jams.  The Man in Black and his new producer, Rick Rubin, would made a "decade's worth of astonishing albums" and forge an enduring friendship in the process.  

Johnny Cash was a self made man.  His father was an Arkansas cotton picker during the Great Depression.  His brother died in a saw mill accident, one that Johnny blamed himself for as he had been fishing at the river rather than helping his brother on that fateful day.  His mother raised him with a strong faith in God.

The hardships that Johnny faced as a child and young adult are weaved into his songs.  One theme consistent to his early records was the train; his dad used to ride the rails when he couldn't get work picking cotton.  "Trains were in Cash's veins," says David Kamp, evident in the "boom chicka boom rhythm of his early records" like Ride this Train and All Aboard the Blue Train.  

Cash continued to write about his life in his songs, evident in "I Walk the Line", about being tempted by other women during his marriage, or "Folsom Prison Blues", although he never served more than one night in jail.  Johnny rocketed to fame, and with it, the temptations.  He battled an addiction to both amphetamines and barbituates.  His anger reared its ugly head when he kicked the stage lights out at the Grand Ole Opry one night.  

It was June Carter who led him to Christ, and helped him conquer his addictions.  Already making music together for years, they married in 1968 and had a son together.  The 1970's saw Cash produce album after album.  But by the mid 1980's, his creativity had dried up.  

Enter Rick Rubin and his unorthodox methods.  He suggested to Johnny that he branch out from his country roots:  Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire", Danzig's "Thirteen", Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" and Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" (Cash said that he wished he had written the latter song himself).  And it worked!  Johnny had the "gift of making any song his own".  The Rick Rubin albums became known as the "American Recordings".  Cash started touring again for the first time in ages.  "Out on the road it started feeling like 1955 again," he recalled.

But Rubin and Cash didn't just click musically.  They discovered that they were kindred spirits, holding long conversations about spirituality.  Rubin mentioned a sermon about communion delivered by Dr. Gene Scott that had inspired him.  Growing up in a Jewish household, Rubin had never taken communion.  One day, he asked Cash if he would act as the pastor, and the two of them could celebrate the Last Supper.  Cash found some crackers and grape juice, and performed the ceremony.  It became a daily ritual for the two friends.  When they were apart, they shared the ritual over the phone.

Cash struggled with his health in the later years, forcing him to give up touring.  But he continued to make music at his homes in Tennessee, Virginia and Jamaica.  In 1997, he was hospitalized for pneumonia; the doctors put him into an induced coma from which he would not come out.  After twelve agonizing days, June, a prayer warrior, appealed to his fans at johnnycash.com.  Within hours, Johnny was squeezing her hand.     

Their love affair ended in 2003 when June passed away.  Rubin said that Cash sounded worse than ever.  However, he stood firm:  "My faith is unshakeable!"  Four months later, he passed away.  John Carter Cash, his son, sent Rick Rubin a gift with a note.  It was a communion kit.

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