Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back / Up front there ought to be a man in black."

It's hard to wrap your head around the facts and figures of Johnny Cash's career: He got his start at Sun Records with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the birth of modern popular music. He was the youngest inductee of the Country Music Hall of Fame. He racked up eleven gold and platinum records, won his first grammy in 1968, and his seventeenth posthumously in 2008. Through the years in between, Cash stood at the heart of popular American music while remaining one of it's great innovators.

Two books explore his incredible career and stormy personal life: Johnny Cash's own autobiography, Cash and Reinhard Kleist's graphic novel, Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness.

Cash is one of the few celebrity autobiographies I've read that feel like they were written by an honest-to-God human being and not some PR machine. Looking back honestly and often regretfully, he tells grim tales about his failed first marriage and drug addiction. But he also talks about his second wife, June Carter, with tenderness and love, the inspiration for many of his songs, and the faith that carried him through his darkest moments.

Cash doesn't shy away from talking about his struggles with religion, either. Even through the addictions and arrests that earned him his outlaw image, he remained a sincere, if deeply flawed, Christian. After cleaning himself up, his faith only grew stronger. Nearly destroyed by the trappings of fame, he now wanted to use that fame to do good. He launched his comeback with a live album from Folsom Prison. Stephen Miller wrote that afterwards, "Cash was showered with awards and accolades. . . Through it all he used his position to support the underdog; his name being associated with prisoners, Native Americans, the oppressed and ordinary. No longer just a singer and songwriter, Cash became an American icon."

Reinhard Kleist's Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness focuses on Cash's "outlaw" period. (The same period covered in the biopic I Walk the Line. Everybody loves a good redemption story.) Kleist's spare, noirish illustrations flow between Cash's life and interpretations of Cash's songs, exploring how an artist's personal battles affect their work.

Kleist seems to have used Cash's autobiography as his primary source, so there aren't too many new details or revelations Cash hadn't already covered himself. Still, the book is full of pictures of Johnny Cash strutting around looking badass, and the world can always use more of that.

Johnny Cash is an American icon. These two books celebrate that legacy, while keeping the flesh-and-blood, flawed-but-beautiful human being underneath in sharp focus.

Cross-posted on my blog.

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