The Man Comes to Town

NY Times, CNN, BlogCritics, Plastic, and others: Johnny Cash passes on, from respiratory failure (stemming from a complication of diabetes), and Shy-Drager syndrome, and probably some lingering after effects of his bout with pneumonia. It took all that to bring down the Man in Black.

I’m sad but unsurprised; Johnny has been preparing for death for years, since his diagnosis of Shy-Drager syndrome, and his last album (Cash IV: When the Man Comes Around) sounded like it was recorded from the other side. Still, I somehow thought he’d outlive all of us, until June Carter Cash passed. Then I knew, with his rock gone, it would only be a matter of time.

And they were so in love. This, I think, is part of the enduring greatness of Johnny Cash: that as much as he was a great outlaw (giving the finger to the music business, abusing himself and his associates), so much was he in love with his unlikely savior and lifelong soulmate, June. And so much was he steeped in conversation with his God.

And I think that his eternal struggle, his eternal toughness, his refusal to wear the rhinestones of Nashville even as his songs plumbed the deepest depths of this country’s psyche, explain his universal appeal. I’ll never forget sitting across from a gay friend of mine in a Dupont Circle bar one evening: when “Folsom Prison Blues” came on, we both started singing along:

I hear that train a-comin’, it’s rollin’ round the bend
And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when
I’m stuck in Folsom Prison, and time keeps draggin’ on
But that train keeps a-movin’ on down to San Antone.

Johnny Cash’s train has come and taken him away. Hallelujah, amen.