03 February 2012

Johnny Cash is a Sufi Saint

"Johnny Cash rules the world."

—Jehangir Tabari, The Taqwacores (film, 2010).
I grew up with Johnny Cash. My maternal grandfather, the grandparent whom I most resemble in personality and appearance*, was a big fan of country music, and Johnny Cash was one of the musicians he sang along with. Johnny Cash had an iconic status which I did not entirely understand at the time. I grew up to realize that his rebellion appealed to people least likely to rebel: the folks who only wanted to work, earn the fruits of their labors, and go to church on Sundays to praise the Lord. Most rebels were seen as trying to destroy the culture; he was trying to redeem it by re-infusing compassion for the common man into its heart.

A couple of years ago I read A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears by Antonino D'Ambrosio. The book relates the social milieu in which Johnny Cash chose to write and have produced Bitter Tears, an album entirely dedicated to the situation of indigenous North Americans, their strength, their betrayal by the US government, and their endurance. Finding myself with a free hour one afternoon this week I went to the NMAI, and bought a copy of Bitter Tears in the shop. I listened to it on my commute in this morning, and laughed out loud at the lyrics to "Custer". It's a really good album.

I've heard hiphop artists refer to Johnny Cash as an "original gangsta"; punk rockers praise him for being proto-punk. The man transcended his genre. In the film The Taqwacores, Muslim punk Jehangir Tabari goes on about how amazing Johnny Cash was, and how Jehangir wishes he could be Johnny Cash, but didn't feel adequate. Jehangir felt small in comparison to the man he admired, but didn't consider that Johnny Cash too had once been a frustrated, troubled 'punk' who'd found a way to move forward.

Johnny Cash lived hard, sinned greatly, prayed fervently, changed his life, loved deeply, and cared immensely for people, both those who were his friends, and human beings in general. He had a great heart. In his autobiography, he recounts how at the lowest point in his life he went deep inside a cave near his home and essentially asked God to end his life; and yet he survived, emerged and moved forward. The story haunts me still.

Johnny Cash transcended religious dogma. He was about love, forgiveness and justice. He had vision.

His cover of Trent Reznor's "Hurt" reveals this. I read that when the video was finished, his producers sent a copy to Trent Reznor for him to review. Reznor happened to be in the studio with Zack de la Rocha (of Rage Against the Machine fame), and they played it. When the video was done, moist-eyed and speechless, the two of them silently went outside for a smoke break. He had taken Reznor's song and elevated it to a higher plain.

Johnny Cash rules the world.

*Although I freely admit I exhibit personality traits of all my grandparents, e.g., maternal grandmother, a tendency to cry over anything sad and/or sweet, even if it's on tv; paternal grandmother, a tendency to talk to myself when working alone, so I can order my thoughts and processes; maternal grandfather, a love of telling stories and of chatting with animals directly; and paternal grandfather, a tendency to put a stoic, wry face on when confronted with human absurdity.

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