I've often said that if God speaks to humanity, he does so through Johnny Cash. Unfortunately for the rest of us, Cash passed away in 2003, officially of diabetes-related complications, but more likely because he was unable to stand this world any longer after the death of his wife, June Carter Cash, a few months earlier. Today would have been The Man in Black's 78th birthday.
Having grown up in Tennessee, I've heard Johnny Cash's music my whole life. Yet, it wasn't until I picked up a guitar for the first time, at the age of 19, that I really fell in love. I think "Ring of Fire" was one of the first songs I learned to play. Like most of Cash's songs, it's just three basic chords, one simple story, and a well-worn metaphor in the service of one powerfully, intensely complicated truth: Love is a burning thing. "Ring of Fire" wasn't even written by Johnny Cash (June Carter Cash wrote it, about Johnny), but he was the one who heard it in his head with those now-famous mariachi horns and popularized it, and it's probably the song most people associate with him. That's probably an appropriate association, as love was just one of many things that burned, burned, burned Johnny Cash throughout his life-- there were also the pills, and the booze, and the temper, and the money, and the fame. But that rode-hard-and-hung-up-wet life made him the irresistable, gravel-voiced siren that we fell in love with, and it's what we miss now that he's gone.
In a fitting and serendipitous turn of events earlier this week, iTunes announced that it had sold it's 10 billionth song, which was Johnny Cash's "Guess Things Happen That Way." This is one of my favorite songs of all time. It's a kind of stoic ballad, a concession to the vicissitudes of life and love, with a tempered and mild expression of dissatisfaction about it all. The refrain-- "I don't like it, but I guess things happen that way"-- is delivered with about as much conviction as a pro forma complaint, and the imposition of that generic form somehow strangely makes it all the more universal and, consequently, all the more potent. "Guess Things Happen That Way" is a sad song, but it's sad in that way that Bob Dylans's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" is sad-- that is, as a demonstration of the utter failure of the principle that sadness can be shrugged off. (Btw, you can read more from me about sad songs here.) Weeping and wailing is sad too, of course, but not as sad as: "You ask me if I'll get along? I guess I will, some way." Anyway, here's the man himself:
Happy birthday, Johnny Cash. You're gone, and I don't like it... but I guess things happen that way.