For as long as I can remember, death has been my biggest fear.
Not death I guess so much as dying. Sure, the idea of all-consuming blackness and ceasing to exist as a person while laying stiff as a board inside a wooden box and worms devouring the remains of your earthly husk is pretty awful, but I’ll be dead and won’t be able to perceive any of that anyway.
No, it’s that long, slow, inevitable march to the grave that gives me the shivers.
It would creep up on me in the form of nightmares as a small child, but I first started thinking about it heavily after my Uncle passed away in my middle years of high school. He’d been in a motorcycle accident, and I’d been told the story of how a bystander had held his hand until he was gone. The emotions and the realities surrounding that story floored me. The idea that one day I too will find myself slipping, whether accidentally or naturally, into that blackness and there’s nothing I can do to stop it; it’s terrifying.
Right now I’m young, and death is still (hopefully) far away. There will come a time though when that blackness is just around the corner and that’s the time I dread the most. Waiting. Knowing but not knowing. It’s been enough to induce panic attacks on occasion. Enough to be something I thought about constantly in my late teens and early twenties, completely unable to go even a few hours sometimes without feeling it in the pit of my stomach. Both fascinating and a living nightmare.
In times like that I’ve always turned to music, and in this time I turned to a unique record. Part of his American Recordings and arguably the most famous from that anthology being the very last to be released before his death in September of 2003; I turned to American IV: The Man Comes Around by Johnny Cash.
It was unlike anything else in the charts at the time of its release in 2002, then full of boy bands, nu metal and pop punk and young faces like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at their pinnacle. Yet here was an old man from a long-forgotten time singing tear-stained ballads with a country twang, and people still listened. This was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century after all and a man who had enjoyed an almost unprecedentedly prolific career spanning six decades.
Cash probably knew he wasn’t long for this world even as far back as he started his American series in 1994. Having dealt with addiction for much of his life and looking every bit of the 62 he was, Cash was dealt a huge blow being diagnosed with Shy-Drager syndrome, a neurodegenerative disease, just three years later and told he had but 18 months to live. His touring days were over. He was in and out of hospital. It was all he could do to record new music.
It was incredibly confronting then to hear some of those American albums, III and IV especially. To know that you were actually listening to a man whose death was looming just around the corner. To even physically hear it in his inimitable voice; now shaky and worn down where it had once been booming and full of vigour. IV has perhaps the darkest tone of all, and I remember thinking when I first heard it that this must be as close to what dying sounded like as you could get.
Cash looks at death on American IV through a wide spectrum of different lenses. Opening with his jaunty yet terrifying visage of the end times and Judgement Day on The Man Comes Around, rattling off warnings of the Four Horsemen’s arrival ripped straight from the Book Of Revelations. One of just three originals on American IV and one of the last songs Cash wrote before his death, The Man Comes Around is the sound of a man going into the ground believing it won’t be for long. Cash, a devout Christian all his life, chillingly humanises the terrible prophecies of the Bible on The Man Comes Around, leaving us all a little uncomfortable at best and terrified for our souls at worst.
He looks at the consequences of murder and what death feels like for someone waiting for it in the gallows in the somber narrative (originally Sting-penned) of I Hung My Head and his rendition of traditional English folk song Sam Hall. The contrast between characters in these songs is stark, feelings of shame and remorse in I Hung My Head to howling, bitter and spitefully ‘damn your eyes!’ at his onlookers and executioners as the titular character from Sam Hall and going out with sheer defiance.
He looks at death from an outsiders perspective too, relaying the dying words of both a prison escapee in Give My Love To Rose and those of a gunned down cowboy in the traditional Streets Of Laredo. Like the lady who held my Uncle’s hand as he passed, Cash narrated, from the perspective of a passer by, the deaths of a pair of characters he probably saw a lot of himself in. It struck an unimaginable chord with me.
Cash covers old and new on American IV with equal aplomb. His renditions of Simon And Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water and the Eagles Desperado, two of the many patches on the quilt of quintessential American songs, are sparse and delicate, Don Henley giving Cash’s failing voice a leg-up on the latter. It’s his dusty, Southern saloon blues cover of Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus (helped along by John Frusciante) that is one of the album’s standouts. It finds Cash breathing his own weathered but unbreakable spirit into a song so vastly different from his body of work, a testament to his hall of fame talent as a musician.
He looks inwards and backwards in another cover with his soft, fraying rendition of The Beatles‘ In My Life, lamenting the many people who had come and gone. Though his wife June Carter Cash wouldn’t pass away until May of 2003, Johnny Cash already sounds like a broken and lonely man on much of American IV. His cover of the Hank Williams original I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, warbling the tales of the whip-poor-will ‘too blue to fly’ or the weeping robin losing the will to live alongside Nick Cave in heartrending fashion. No matter which one of them would run out of time first, he knew he would lose the love of his life in one way or the other.
Never was this feeling more palpable than on Cash’s version of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt. A cover so masterful that it moved its original writer Trent Reznor to quip “that song isn’t mine anymore”. The original has been interpreted in so many different ways: as a suicide note, as a protagonist searching for the will to live against all odds. Stripped to its barest of bones on American IV though, I always felt that Hurt found Johnny Cash at the end, surrounded by the ruins of everything and everyone he knew in his life crumbling around him. Helpless and broken and his soul laid bare at the end of a hard life.
It felt like a swan song.
Hurt encapsulates everything I fear about death and dying. Listening to it has shook me to tears on more than one occasion. It may be the best cover of all time. It may be the most harrowing piece of music ever recorded. The video, nominated for a stunning six VMAs in a ceremony traditionally dominated by young faces (eventually winning best cinematography) was shot just three months before June Carter Cash passed and features her gazing down at her husband as he strums the chorus.
It was shocking to see the true extent of Cash’s sudden frailty juxtaposed with images from the prime of his life and it is still utterly haunting to watch and to know that Johnny and June, cornerstones of a relationship that survived through thick and thin for over four decades, would be parted by death so soon after.
By the time Cash closed the door on American IV (and unknowingly his living career) with the optimistic and cheery We’ll Meet Again, it feels like a turning of the last page in a sprawling biography. The fitting end of a long and winding road of both an album and a life. It wouldn’t be the last Johnny Cash record released, American V and VI would be cobbled together posthumously as well as some lost 80s recordings released as the Out Among The Stars album, but there was a palpable air of finality on American IV that just wasn’t present on anything after it.
It was suggested that Cash’s condition accelerated after June’s death, the effects of a broken heart. If he wasn’t ready for the end after recording American IV, he surely was with the passing of his wife.We’ll Meet Again then felt like the happy epilogue and I always pictured Johnny and June slow dancing to it somewhere in the afterlife, reunited again. The way soldiers and their families in the Second World War when that song was originally written probably imagined as they waved goodbye to each other.
An enormous amount of credit has to be given to producer Rick Rubin; the mad scientist behind the works of some of the most groundbreaking and influential artists of the late 80s and early 90s like the Beastie Boys and Slayer. His work, vision and direction on the American Recordings series, and American IV in particular, is so omnipresent and yet so restrained and nuanced, delicate even, that it feels on a lot of tracks as though Cash has simply pressed record in an empty, creaky old room with his guitar in hand.
With Rubin’s help though, Cash was still able to do what he did best. His body may have been sick and weary and his hands and voice weakening slowly, but he was still The Man In Black and he still made every song on American IV unequivocally his own.
Johnny Cash may have lived a life of contradictions and certainly lived a lifelong battle with many demons. There were both good and bad sides to the man yet, say what you will about him and his mistakes, here at the end of all things on American IV he stood up and sang until the very end. Even bereft of his health and with death knocking at his door, he never shied away from his fate. He looked it dead in the eye, tackled it head on and seemed to understand it inside and out.
If I could go out at the end of a long life I’d want to do it the way Johnny Cash did on American IV. Frail yet quick-witted, vulnerable yet defiant, heartbroken yet free of fear, his own man to the very end.
Johnny Cash met death on American IV, as we all do, and embraced it as a part of life.