SECTION TWO

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COLUMN NINETY-EIGHT, OCTOBER 1, 2003
(Copyright 2003 The Blacklisted Journalist)

RETROPOP SCENE:
LOVE THY NEIGHBOR AND MAN CALLED JOHNNY


JOHNNY CASH

[As I keep insisting, true patriotism is not love of your country so much as it's love of your countrymen and countrywomen.

Which is why I profess love for all with whom I disagree in America as well as for all who agree with me. I am not a religious person. I don't believe in God and I don't believe in Heaven. And I certainly don't believe in any such thing as an afterlife. As far as I'm concerned, we all just go back into the same void from which we came. To me, organized religion is nothing but a con. The Bible? A fascinating collection of old wives? tales. The Ten Commandments? I don't even remember if Love Thy Neighbor is one of them, but it ought to be. Love Thy Neighbor is exactly what the divinity in my brain commands me to do, because loving thy neighbor is essential to the survival of all of us.

Jack Kerouac once mused that our solar system might be nothing but a mere molecule in a bridge in a greater dimension. However insignificant this planet may be in this vast universe and however microscopic its inhabitants, we are all neighbors on this earth. Oh, we have terrible arguments among us! Terrible differences! We divide us from one another according to tribes, nations, races, ethnicity, beliefs and in so many other miniscule and meaningless ways.

Proximity is what makes neighbors and, as I said, neighbors are essential to survival. There are good neighbors and there are bad neighbors but in times of emergency you can't tell the difference. And so I love all my neighbors, all my countrymen and countrywomen---even those who find me hateful, even those whom I find hateful. Because, in the end, they are necessary to me. I need them for my survival.

I wrote the following piece about Johnny Cash when Richard M. Nixon was President and we were fighting the Vietnam War---a time very analogous to the present. Not since then has America been so divided as it is now. So polarized, so at war with itself. To me, George W. Bush is nothing but a pitiful second-rate copy of the treasonous Nixon. A dummy carved from the same tree of greed from which all Republicans seem to be carved. They're all petty-minded and mean-spirited, aren't they? To me, they're wooden. They're dummies who can't feel. Not joy, not remorse, not compassion, not guilt, not hurt nor even fear. They don't even know enough to get out of the way of onrushing doom. But I love them because they're my neighbors. The religious or political beliefs of the doctors who saved my life on the operating table never mattered to me just as the affiliations of someone coming to your rescue would be of zero consequences to you.

I'm even willing to love our extremists, even though I consider fundamentalists in league with the Devil. And I mean fundamentalists at the extremes. At both ends, for instance, of the political spectrum. Some fundamentalists are so extreme that they've fallen off either edge. At the left, where my own sympathies have always dwelled, they've gone so far as to become the equivalent of rightists. I call them faux fascists. They?ve certainly done their part to help install a fascist government in America, haven't they? But no, they insist, it wasn't those 70,000 votes for Nader that gave Florida to Bush, it was Bush brother Jeb's thievery. And at the right, they're equally self-contradictory. The Right-to-Lifers, for example, believe in murder as the means to their end.

These are the fringists. Fundamentalists with minds often as petty as they are closed, hardened, dipped in the cement of dogma. They're so unyielding, so unwilling to budge, so chained to orthodoxy, so hidebound to the past that they're unable to move ahead with the world. Change is the most unyielding and dynamic constant in the universe, but even in the face of so obvious a truth, they stand their ground. They crusade is to stop change! They want the world to stand still. They want to march ahead to the past.

But as hateful as I find these neighbors, I still love them. Why? Because, as I said, I need them for my survival. We all need one another to survive. To whom else can we turn to in an emergency but our neighbors? And so, no matter how much I might have disagreed with his ideology, I loved Johnny Cash. I admired him as one of the giants of this world. One of those giants with whom I once had the privilege to sit. 

That occurred about in same month I stepped in dogshit on my way to visit John and Yoko. That occurred because playing head games is my old buddy Bob Dylan's favorite sport. Bob used to play with my head because he knew I loved him enough to let him play with it. So when Bob phoned me from Woodstock one evening to tell me that Johnny was waiting for him in the Limelight, a club on Seventh Avenue in the Village and that I should go tell him that Bob---then some two hours away---wasn't going to be there, I said:

"Sure!"

This is when I'd had a stupid fight with my wife and I was staying with a friend in his Village pad only a block away from the Limelight.

 "I wancha t' go "n tell?m I sent you," Bob says.

When I get to the Limelight, I find Johnny stewed out of his head at a table deep in the club's dimness. I introduce myself and tell him Bob sent me to say he couldn't make it.

"Whaddya mean Bob sent you? Whadda you doin? here? Why you gittin in my face and lyin' t'me??

He scowls menacingly as he rises in his seat. Johnny has a reputation as a mean drunk.

"B,b,b,but, but Bob sent me. He said you'd be here. He sent me to apologize for him."

"Waddya mean, apologize for him? I was just talking to Bob. He didn't say nothin' about sendin? YOU here! What kinda shit you tryin' t'pull? I oughtta punch you out!"

Now at his full height, Johnny clenches a fist as he scowls menacingly at me, . I start getting worried.

"But he called me to tell you he wouldn't be here. I didn't know he called you, too. Maybe he's playing a trick on both of us. Maybe this is the way he wants us to meet."

Looking back, I realize what an asshole and a nerd I must have been. Bob played head games with everybody who hung out with him. Why did I keep hanging out with him? Because I liked hanging out with giants. Yeah, I loved Bob. And in the back of my mind, I knew he was a great story.

Finally, still scowling, Johnny relents and invites me to sit down with him and have a drink. He asks me what I do, how come I know Bob and I tell him I'm a writer for the New York Post.

"Where you from?" he demands.

"Jersey" I smile.

"Y'gotta family?" he asks sternly.

"A wife 'n' kids."

"Yuh came all th'way from Jersey?"

"No," I'm stayin' right up th'block?"

"How come?" he asks darkly."

"Aw, I had a foolish fight with my wife?" 

"Over what?"

"Cause I made a fool of my self over another woman."

"Hmm," he contemplates in silence for a moment. Then he says:

"Every man is destined to be a fool for at least one woman in his life. I pity the man who never fulfills that destiny."

Afterwards, there isn't much conversation that I remember. I have a drink with Johnny, tell him how happy I am to meet him and then get out of there as fast as I can. Johnny was really pretty drunk, as I recall.]

It isn't just bullets that can shoot a man down, and when you saw Johnny Cash walk into the room, you knew immediately what Jesse James and Doc Holiday and John Wesley Hardin and maybe even Clyde Barrow had fought to become, if only they could have survived.

Johnny's career has taken him through almost 20 years of the kind of gunfighting that isn't done with guns, and if, you couldn't see the scars this life had given him, the reason had to do with the miracle of learning how to drink all night and not fall down, how to be kicked in your manhood and laugh at the hurt, how to be calloused by sledgehammers and still leave a touch as gentle as a Christ.

He was dressed in his usual outlaw black, with his long country jacket, as much a young man from the muddy bottomlands of Dyess, Arkansas as he was at home in New York, having spent enough time in this city to know both its towers and its ratholes.

We were on the 21st floor of the Hotel Warwick, and he was just a little nervous at meeting a few select members of the press, but he strode right over to the canap? table and helped himself to the only supper he would get this night. It was only a couple of hours before his concert at the Garden, and he was bringing the country to the city with an authority that nobody else possesses in this fragmented nation.

Johnny Cash knew how to talk to prisoners and to presidents. He knew, as a matter of fact, how to talk to all of America.

"I just about say and do what I want," he said when someone asked him about his TV show.  "I think I know what's in good taste."

Only Johnny knows how many times he's been shot down in this life, but he has kept picking himself up to become a folk figure so real, so heroic and so American that he could, as he did later that night, endorse Richard M. Nixon's conduct of the Vietnam war and still give a "V? sign from the same stage.

At the press conference, the questions were all friendly. Nobody asked him about the pills or the dope you can hear him joke about on his San Quentin album.  Nobody even asked him about the war, although, later, on the arena stage of the Garden, he said the war was the one question that reporters brought up most.

"I?ll tell you exactly how I feel about it," he announced. 'this past January, we brought our whole show to the air base at Long Binh, and a reporter asked 'that makes you a hawk doesn't it?' And I said, 'No, that doesn't make me a hawk, but when you watch the helicopters bringing in the wounded, that might makes you a dove with claws."

"If, a year ago, someone had spoken up and said, "Follow me and I will show you a path to follow that leads to peace," l would have followed him. But the only man I can see to follow now is our president."

The ovation that filled the garden for Johnny's Vietnam announcement lasted longer than it did for any of Johnny's songs, which were certainly worth as much. It is perhaps America's commentary on itself that Johnny drew an even greater ovation when he announced that his TV show had been renewed.

Still, the rebel yelps and truck-driver howls, the law-and-order ladies leaping to their feet and the


The pot smokers
loved Johnny,
too


gray-suited CEO-types whistling through their teeth, the foot-stomping of the Wallace segregationists and the screaming of the lesser conservatives must have been terrifying to the longhaired pot smokers who also helped fill the Garden with a record crowd of more than 21,100,

The audience had come mostly from Johnny's TV fans in the suburbs, overburdening the parking garages in the Garden area, where drivers had to wait in some cases for more than an hour to get their car s back.  But if the minions came in from country music strongholds in Pennsylvania and Jersey and Upstate New York and Connecticut, they also came from Alphabet City on New York's Lower East Side, where the Underground---the cultural avant-garde---breeds Johnny Cash fans who are no less devoted.

If anyone felt uneasy, Johnny dispelled the discomfort and vindicated himself to the Underground by flashing the peace sign as he sang:

"Last night, I had the strangest dream I'd ever known before. . . I dreamed that all the world agreed to put an end to war."

Actually, the concert needed no vindication. Could Johnny's deep baritone ever have been put to greater songs with a clearer or more tuneful authority? He sang Blue Eyes and he sang about the floods of Arkansas:

"How high is the water, Mama? Two feet high and rising. . ."

He introduced his 72-year-old father and his kid brother, Tommy, who also sang.  Johnny sang Orange Blossom Special and A Boy Named Sue and he sang with the Statler Brothers and the Carter Family---minus, unfortunately, his wife June, who's expecting another child. He sang about the Alamo and he sang about Ira Hayes and he sang prison songs and he sang Wreck of the Old 97 and he sang John Henry.

He sang and sang and sang and he sang so well that even if he had stayed on the revolving stage another two hours it wouldn't have been enough for me.

'the cities were looking for something and I think they found it in country music,? Johnny had said at his press conference. "I think they found it in the realism and the truth."

Certainly New York has found it in Johnny Cash.  ##

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