Johnny Cash died on Sept. 12. It should not have been a shock, but it was.
Cash has been close to death so many times and beaten it so many times that many people started to think he was immortal. And of course, in a way, he is. When you and I are gone and forgotten, people will still listen to Johnny Cash and he'll be talking right to them. I don't think any other recording artist was as good at erasing the distance between the singer and the listener.
Cash's health had been up and down for years. When his wife June died last spring, a lot of people said, "Oh, well, that's the last blow. It won't be long now." As it turned out, that was true. But anyone who thinks Cash let go easily is wrong. During the summer, I got a call from Rick Rubin, his record producer, and he said, "Guess what John's doing? He's writing songs."
Cash had decided to use the gift God gave him and instead of sinking into grief, he began writing and recording with new energy. Rubin played me one of the songs over the phone and it was incredible. Cash took the loss and the loneliness and the overwhelming awareness of the love June gave him and put it all into his music. Again. That's what a great artist does. That's what makes him different from the rest of us, and that's why we need them.
Johnny Cash was just like us, but he could do something we can't do. He could take what we all feel but can't articulate and turn it, even the worst parts, into something beautiful that would live forever.
There are so many tributes to Cash right now that I want to make sure we all remember one thing, too: this is a man who had a great life. Nobody ever made better use of his time on earth than Johnny Cash. Man, he did it all. If the measure of success is to walk with kings and never lose the common touch, Johnny Cash was the top of the heap.
I remember a story he told once. We were on his tour bus driving from North Carolina to Richmond, and he said his two best friends in the world were Waylon Jennings and the Rev. Billy Graham.
I said that was an odd combination — this was around the time of all the evangelist scandals — and he told me that Billy Graham was a righteous man who lived a truly Christian life, took only a small salary, wore suits off the rack. And then he started telling me a story about how he and Billy Graham liked to sit on Cash's porch in Jamaica and listen to the reggae music, and how Graham's such a good man that on the Christmas after Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace, Graham talked Cash into calling Nixon to cheer him up.
Cash didn't want to do it because he thought Nixon was a skunk, but Graham is such a good man that her reminded him that every sinner can be redeemed.
See, there were no barriers to Johnny Cash. Reggae music, Bill Graham, Nixon — not as a cartoon, but as a sinner who had fallen and might yet be redeemed. Johnny Cash did not recognize divisions — not between rich and poor, black and white, high and low, hardly even between sinner and saint. That's why he could speak to so many different kinds of people, and for so many different people.
I'm glad I got to see him play so many times. I'm glad I lived while Johnny Cash was in the world.
And that's the last thing I'd like to say. It's becoming more apparent with every year that goes by that the period from the mid-'50s to the mid-'70s was a golden age for popular music. To have lived in the era when Cash and Presley and the Beatles and Stones and Aretha and Dylan and Miles Davis were all around is like to have lived in Paris during the time of the Impressionists.
That era is moving away. A lot of those people are already gone. But you can still go out and buy a ticket and see Dylan and Aretha and James Brown. You can go to a theatre or even a club and catch Ray Charles and Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. In one week last fall, I saw great concerts by Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and the Who. None of them were going through the motions. They were all on top of their game.
We can take that privilege for granted. We can assume that these musicians who loom so large in our culture will always be around. They won't. We should appreciate them while we have them, because someday we'll turn around and they'll be gone.