It’s worth pointing out at the top of this review that Johnny Cash is my hero. I am already well-versed with a plethora of albums, books and documentaries connected with the man and his life. Ergo, I picked this particular book up reluctantly. Does anyone, anywhere have anything new or worthwhile to tell us about the Man In Black? Surely the legend speaks for itself by now. What else is there to add?
Quite a lot, as it turns out. Robert Hilburn, a former music critic who was the only journalist at the now mythical 1968 concert at Folsom Prison, has written a monumental biography which will surely go down as one of the definitive works on its subject. It does this by taking a fresh look at Cash’s life and incorporating an unprecedented level of disclosure that is ruthless in its honesty. Cash made his share of mistakes in his career, fighting (and sometimes losing) a series of battles with addiction, infidelity, and creative stagnation. Hilburn fearlessly lays all these conflicts bare in ways that other biographies never have, revealing dark, hitherto undisclosed moments in Cash’s life that may shock even his staunchest admirers, myself among them.
I knew Cash had his demons. What I didn’t know was just how many times, and in what awful ways, they had eaten him whole. Others knew, but they had been too selective, or simply too kind, with the facts. Hilburn has no such agenda; for him, the facts are God. Even Cash’s daughter Rosanne admits on the back cover that the book is “excruciatingly honest”.
With such a refusal to play it safe, the whole enterprise could have achieved character assassination by proxy. Instead, Hilburn’s sense of fearlessness lifts Cash up higher than ever. The picture that emerges from these pages is of a deeply passionate artist, creative genius and staunch humanitarian who, time and again, beat the odds to rise above countless personal defeats. For every trough that Cash wallowed in, he would eventually find his way to an incredible peak. The peaks are well-known by this point, less so the depths to which Cash was capable of plummeting. I found myself raising my eyebrows on several occasions throughout this book as my idol succumbed to his vices in ways I had been blissfully ignorant of before. Just about anyone who was close to Cash had their heart broken by him at some point, some more than others and many repeatedly. These moments can make for uncomfortable reading, but they are vital moments which make up the bigger picture of an incredible human journey.
In the Acknowledgements, the author states that his primary focus for the book was Cash’s artistry but eventually found the man’ s life events to be virtually inseparable from his art. In the four years Hilburn spent on research, he admits that: “I found that John’s life was far more complex than I had imagined, and some of the more troubling discoveries caused me to question just how much the public needs to know about an artist.” It was Cash’s belief in redemption, he says, that inspired him to tell the full story. Hilburn says: “He wanted others to realise that they too could be redeemed regardless of how badly they had stumbled.” This spirit of redemption pervades the book and in turn makes for an inspirational read. The prose is simple but compelling, taking us from Cash’s early years in rural Arkansas to his debut as a young, rising artist on Sun Records, his triumphant prison concerts, an extended artistic drought and finally a stunning creative rebirth and artistic renaissance in his twilight years.
Along the way there are drugs, booze, women and a supporting cast of hundreds. All the different strands are woven effortlessly into the narrative but Hilburn never loses focus for an instant, cutting through the various myths and legends surrounding Johnny Cash with laser-focused clarity. For all his self-aggrandising, he really was just a man after all, but an extraordinary one. This magnificent book does him the justice he so richly deserves.
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