on November 12, 2013
I've read Robert Hilburn for more than 35 years, and have always found his writing to be accurate, fair, and passionate. While I've never been a big fan of country music, I've come to appreciate Johnny Cash more and more over the years - especially his American Recordings albums with Rick Rubin.
I learned so much about the origins of Sun Records, Cash's passion for underdogs, his battle with addictions, his need for affirmation, and his physical ailments at the end of his life. As a Christian, I was interested to see how Hilburn handled Cash's faith, which was quickly glossed over in the film Walk the Line. In my view, Hilburn bent over backwards to represent Cash's faith and love for gospel songs in a way that would have pleased Cash no end. I didn't sense one syllable of ridicule for Cash's beliefs.
Hilburn's extensive interviews with Cash's family members, friends, and females were enlightening and contributed toward a well-rounded portrait of the man. Their commentaries on key events in Cash's life added emotion and insight to his sometimes erratic behavior.
But what I appreciated most about this book is that Hilburn continually focused on Cash's music, quoting Cash's lyrics at key junctures and letting Cash explain why he wrote and played certain songs. Cash was always at its best when he was authentic, which is why I love the American Recordings albums so much ... usually just the man and his guitar. Since there are hundreds of Johnny Cash albums available on CD - many of them compilations - Hilburn's recommended purchases at the end of the book will save readers much time as they seek to delve into his music.
I appreciated Hilburn's previous book Cornflakes with John Lennon and love this book as well. Because Hilburn respects both his subject and his audience, this book deserves a wide readership. I tried, but couldn't put it down ... and most likely, I'll pick it up again soon. Like its subject, this book is a winner.
"He is what the land and the country are all about, the heart and soul of it personified...". Bob Dylan.
"It's called country music and western music, but the truth is it's American music. It speaks in story about America in a way that speaks to all of us, north, east, west, and south." Richard Nixon at a White House concert.
With the holiday gift giving season fast approaching, there's no surfeit of books on musical artists. Books on Charlie Parker, The Beatles, Duke Ellington, Robert Plant, Jimi Hendrix, and no doubt others will be on the bookshelves. But certainly one of the best is Robert Hilburn's book on Johnny Cash.
Hilburn began this book in 2009 when Cash's manager told him "only about twenty percent" of Cash's life had been told. While previous books on Cash put his life and music in some kind of perspective, Hilburn takes a slightly different approach. He reveals not just Cash's life in and out of music, but why Cash matters. This book is a penetrating look at the man behind the "Man in Black" myth. And Hilburn never lets the myth get in the way of the facts. He has known, interviewed, and simply talked with Cash during his long (50 years) music career. Using interviews from both the past and present Hilburn has gone deeper into Cash's life, and has shone a light on both the real Johnny Cash and his music.
The book is broken into five parts, each dealing chronologically with a specific period and events from that period of Cash's life. Events like Memphis and Sam Phillips, Columbia Records, the tune "Big River" and pills, June Carter, drugs and Carnegie Hall, Folsom Prison and marrying June, losing the muse, Rick Rubin, and the final days are just a few of the many headings of events in the five parts chronicled in this book. There's 16 pages of b&w photographs from throughout Cash's life, including an early photo of Cash in his Air Force uniform playing a fiddle. And another photo from 1980, of Cash and his wife facing away from the camera--her arm around Cash's waste--his hand squeezing her buttock. Also included are 5 pages of a "Guide To Recordings And DVDs", 16 pages of Source Notes, and an Index.
The book begins early in Cash's life in Dyess, Arkansas and his rural 1930's upbringing. From there Hilburn, in a no nonsense, straightforward writing style, constructs Cash's life not only as a musician, but as a man with human failings, wracked with guilt. But also here is Cash "the practical joker", the man who wanted to buy his parents "...a nice place so they could have modern utilities...", the man with pressures in his personal life (which in one instance led to Cash's love song "I Walk The Line"), and the man who abused narcotics (and the price he paid for that). But Hilburn also notes Cash's other "addictions"--reading scripture everyday, his devotion to music, and a man who cared about his fans (Cash, learning of fans who had traveled far to see his concerts, would pay their room and board). As Marshall Grant said of Cash--"He'd give you the shirt off his back, and if he was straight, everything else he had in his possession."
Hilburn also notes Cash's guilt at not being a better father and husband. Roseanne Cash was very helpful, giving Hilburn a better look at her father--even to the detriment of Cash and the family. Cash was in a never ending circle of "wicked behavior" and then deep repentance. Cash wanted to redeem himself so others might feel they too could be redeemed. But there was also the father who named his daughter after pet names for his wife's breasts--"Rose" and "Anne". The author also weaves the Carter family into the picture and the their effect on Cash both musically and personally. He also reveals that June Carter had failings of her own to deal with.
In tandem with a detailed look at Cash the man, Hilburn has also delved extensively into the music side of Cash--using the same straightforward clear prose. For me the book is at its best when Hilburn goes into detail about the business side of Cash's life. He essentially begins with Cash going to Memphis and hooking up with Sun Records, and continues with his early recordings and hits, leaving Sun and signing with Columbia Records, Cash admitting that some of his albums weren't very good, recording gospel albums which took the pressure off Cash to write more secular songs (and hopefully hits), the many concerts he gave (including of course the Folsom Prison concert which Hilburn attended), being dropped by Columbia and not doing well on the Mercury label, worrying that his music would be forgotten, the fact that the 70's and 80's were not a good time for Cash, that Cash wrote approximately 1,000 songs, and his meeting Rick Rubin at a time when Cash felt his career over.
The book begins to wind down with Cash returning home because of his worsening Parkinson's Disease, and the passing of June Carter--as Rick Rubin said at the time--"I didn't know if he was going to make it past this." But not before Cash recorded a large cache of songs with Rubin as producer/facilitator, including "The Man Comes Around", and "Hurt". Hilburn gives the reader enough details that help put Cash's music in a much clearer light--from both Cash's and his fans perspectives. Nothing seems romanticized--everything rings sure and true, interesting, and informative. Having such attention to detail brings both parts of Cash's life into a sharper focus than in previous books.
While some previous books have done a good/adequate job with Cash's life story, none have really put everything in such clear terms--his life outside of music, and the music itself. Its Hilburn's leaving aside the myth, his attention to detail and his unflinching way of laying everything out--good and bad--that makes this book the one to read if you're interested in a look beyond the "Man in Black."
"His most enduring legacy is that his message continues to spread." John Cash, son of Johnny Cash.
on October 30, 2013
Biographers of musicians tend to face the same basic problem: outside of their music and antics, musicians tend to be as boring as anyone else (and for many the music isn't of much interest). Johnny Cash was different. He was an intelligent man, devouring books on history and religion. He was an iconoclast, when musicians' views are more often as predictable and conformist as they are simplistic. He had a deep abiding love for and commitment to gospel music, despite resistance from the music industry and a spotty record of church attendance. He did, like so many musicians, have serious drug problems, but Hilburn doesn't make that the focus of his biography. Rather, he keeps the focus exactly where it should be--on the music. It's a testament to the strength of Cash's songwriting that Hilburn can include so much of so many songs. They work as well as poetry as they do as songs, even the ones I wasn't yet familiar with.
Cash was a titan of music. What other musician could you write a 700 page biography on that would feel shallow in parts. Cash's career spanned across so many decades (from the 50s on) and trends in music (rockabilly to folk to outlaw country) and he interacted with so many other great musicians (from Elvis to Bob Dylan to Kris Kristofferson) and public figures (Nixon and Billy Graham) that inevitably something will leave you wanting more. Hilburn hits the most important points well, though, from the prison shows to Cash's passion for the downtrodden to his drug addiction (at too great length, that, but that's Cash's fault) to his triumphant final act with Rick Rubin. The book is packed with vignettes, like Cash being one of only three musicians to write Steve Earle a note while he was in jail for cocaine and weapons possession. Hilburn writes it all well and with a deep knowledge of the music (if with = a hint of snobbishness).
Disclosure: I received a complimentary e-copy of Johnny Cash: A Life via NetGalley.
on January 14, 2014
It has been a decade since Johnny Cash left us. The Sunday after his passing I preached a sermon called “Cash Got Grace” an later would write an article with the same name but different content. Johnny Cash is one of those larger than life figures of my, and millions of other American’s, life. We always thought he would be there. When I saw that there was yet another biography of Cash, it was tempting to pass. I have already read three plus his own two autobiographies. Was there really anything new to be written?
Most people who are even remotely familiar with Johnny Cash know the basic outline of his life. We know that his older brother’s young death haunted Cash for a lifetime. we know of the childhood poverty and church background. We know Sun records, the army, the fist marriage and divorce - affairs, drugs, booze. we know of his profound return to faith in Christ and his marriage to June Carter. Then, in the end, his music was found by a new generation, as an old man Johnny Cash was once again seen for what he was - authentic.
“Johnny Cash: The Life” by the Los Angeles Times Music critic Robert Hilburn is very good. The book is far and away the most insightful, entertaining, comprehensive, and well-told Cash biography I have read. However, Hilburn does what many may not feel comfortable, he reveals the man as opposed to the legend. The husband who was unfaithful. The father who scared his children. The addict who never was free from pills. He reveals a layer of Cash that has never been fully revealed.
It is often not a pretty picture. Hilburn shows us a Cash who could be petty and insecure, and who was sheltered and self-centered in ways that only wealthy celebrities get away with for long. Cash got away with it, mostly, for much of his adult life, which is not at all to suggest that he and those closest to him weren’t paying heavy prices for his behavior.
The “Man in Black” was, if not a consummate liar, then at least a chronic embellisher according to Hilburn. Cash treated his first wife with an intense cruelty and complete disregard for her or their children. He had a not-so-secret affair with Billie Jean Horton, the widow of his dear friend Johnny Horton, and a longstanding publicly humiliating affair with the woman who became his second wife, June Carter. His pill-popping nearly killed him on several occasions, and it persisted late into his life.
Perhaps, if I had been reading about anyone other than Johnny Cash, I would not have been able to finish the book simply because of the unlike ability of the subject. But, of course, he is Johnny Cash, so I like him very much, flaws and all. Maybe because even before I got there, I already knew how the story ends. Maybe because I read as someone who is, as I suspect most readers will be, deeply affected by not only Cash’s music but by his legend. However, I have always had a theory that Cash’s popularity has to do with his authenticity. He was a bundle of contradictions with flaws so deep that apart from God’s grace there was no hope. So many stick with Cash because we see a part of ourselves in him. Most of us are afraid to show the darker parts of our human nature. Cash was not and for that we admire him.
The story ends with a man redeemed, and a life restored. One of the most powerful sections of the book is Hilburn’s accounting of Johnny and June’s final frail days together which is tremendously moving. Their dedication to one another and to God with them is rich and almost unheard of today.
The letters to his two wives, his children and his step children, and the annual notes he for years scribbled out to himself around Christmas, are another reason you will root for Cash, even when he’s just been at his worst. “Yes, congratulations John Cash on your superstardom,” he chides himself in a 1972 note. “Big deal!” He cops to his faults and beats himself up for his failures. Again and again, the letters show a man trying very hard—imperfectly, and only intermittently—to be a better father, a better husband and Christian, a better man. “You stayed off pills but you’re still awfully carnal,” he tells himself in 1968. “You know what those little vices of yours are … You need to pray more. You hardly ever pray. Big deals ahead in 1969, possibly a network TV show, but the biggest thing you’ve got is your family and home. You’d better hang with God … ”
Unfortunately, Hilburn, like so many other biographers of Cash and the Oscar winning film on his life, skips over Cash’s profound spiritual side. Hilburn mentions his faith and cash’s friendship with Billy Graham but only in passing. He misses the central driving force of who Johnny Cash was and who he became the second half of his life. It seems more and more you can read a book devoted totally to cash’s faith or one about his life almost minus his faith, either is inadequate of who Johnny Cash was. Hilburn nailed Johnny Cash the sinner but missed Cash as a man who was a sinner yet redeemed. In the end, this is perhaps overall the best biography on Cash yet; however, it is still incomplete which means I am still waiting.
on November 16, 2013
L.A. Times critic Robert Hilburn spent a lot of time researching this book and it shows. This is the most complete and exhaustive bio of the Man In Black you will likely find. It doesn't shy away from controversy--such as Johnny's continued pill use after his supposed reclamation by June (as portrayed by the movie) or June's own addiction; and Hilburn talked to everyone Cash knew, it seems.
So why not five stars from this intrepid reviewer?
First, Hilburn falls prey to the "then he did this gig, then he recorded that song" that pop bios devolve to. Admittedly, when your subject spent as much time on the road or in the studio as Cash, it's not easy to avoid this trap. Still, the eyes glaze over when reading of the many venues Cash played in his life, and the many marginal songs he recorded. These could have been condensed and about 75 pages shortened from a long book.
More disturbingly, though Hillburn repeats over and over that Cash is significant because he spoke for the common man and was uncompromising in his artistry, there is little analysis of Cash's place in the long stream of American music--ironic, because this is usually Hillburn's strong point in his newspaper work.
I might further add that the prose is clean and workmanlike, without the merest hint of poetry. Sadly.
But this is ultimately a compelling and unblinking look at the man. Indispensable . Highly recommended.
on December 20, 2013
The hype about this book excited me -- promising to deliver an objective biography of one of the most interesting and influential singers ever.
The book didn't deliver.
Maybe I’ve read too many Cash biographies. But the PR promised lots of heretofore unknown biographical details, yet the most explosive “revelations” — about Cash’s return to drug use, marital strife with June Carter and final illness — have been published before, most notably in the Streissguth and Turner biographies. A glance at the notes confirms Hilburn relied heavily on previously published works — so how can there be much new here?
There was no saving this book for me once Hilburn repeated an ugly rumor published post-mortem in the National Enquirer about Cash and sister-in-law Anita Carter having an affair. The rumor is neither confirmed nor refuted, merely repeated. Once you use the National Enquirer as a source, you can’t regain your biographer’s credibility.
Contrast this book with David Cantell's biography of Merle Haggard, The Running Kind. Beautifully written and masterfully weaving Hag’s life story with analysis of his finest songs, this is how a music biography should read.
on June 10, 2014
If looking to read about Johnny Cash start with this book. Author Robert Hilburn spent over four years researching the life of "The Man in Black" reading his journals, letters and interviewing anyone who worked closely with Cash during his career. Even though so much research was done this book does not bog down in details but rather Hilburn tells a great story. If anything slows down the reading process it is wanting to put down the book and listen to the different classic Cash song as you read the descriptions of how they were recorded.
The book is divided into five section and each section is divided into chapters. Section five is interesting because it focuses on the last years of Cash's life when he started recording with super producer Rick Rubin on the American Recordings collection. I suggest that if you do not already own this five disc collection you might want to purchase it because Rubin really gives great information to how songs were picked, how they were recorded and while listening to the different songs you are reading Cash's opinions of the music. It is a very interesting way to listen to the music.
on December 19, 2013
I've read Mr. Hilburn's work for many years, though not nearly as many as I've listened to Mr. Cash's music. So I figure I can put in a bit to the discussion.
In terms of writing, Mr. Hilburn is what he should be doing. The prose here is not flashy, very straight to the point, no histrionics, no "style" for the sake of style, much as the best of Mr. Cash always was. I feel the subject was treated fairly; none of the occasional Hilburn hagiography. I think the subject raised Mr. Hilburn to a new height in his already substantial career.
What we're left with, thanks to this superior volume, is a Revelation. I think we all kind of knew it, but Cash was neither a pure saint nor a pure sinner. He predates the New Testament he worshipped. He was pretty much an Old Testament prophet: equal parts monstrous awfulness and sublime decency. He was as the worst of men and the best of men, often within moments. This really comes out in the book.
I used to love Johnny Cash from afar. After reading this book, I don't. I respect him. I'm amazed by him. And I'm pretty scared of him. But to the point, I admire the fact that he forged great art from the fires of an extremely fierce and conflicted personality. In the end, I guess the art's what matters. And the art, not the man, is who I came to more deeply appreciate through this unvarnished biography.
There's really nothing in the universe quite like Cash. Never will be again. Hilburn gets this, and so should we all, I feel.
on January 17, 2014
Johnny Cash has always been my favorite singer of all time. He was a hero to me when it was growing up, and this book brings him to life. From his early days at Sun to the American Recordings, from the early trials of a young musician trying to break into the music world to the trials of a superstar hooked on drugs, it's all here. I was dismayed at his lack of hits in the 1980's, and confused when he went to American with his albums being produced by a hard rock/metal label. For the most part I refused to listen to those recordings, feeling that they couldn't be the music that Cash really wanted to sing. This book clears up those misconceptions, and made me realize that Rick Rubin probably did more for Johnny Cash than any record company since Sun. I saw part of the "Hurt" video when it came out, and have refused to watch it since. I saw an aging hero who was a shell of his former self, and I felt he was being taken advantage of by a greedy record label who just wanted to capitalize on his past stardom. Again, this book made me see that I was wrong, and I intend now to really listen to those albums produced by American, and, go back and watch "Hurt" again, now that I know the full story.
If you are a Johnny Cash fan, this is a must read book. If you don't know his story, or didn't grow up listening to his music, read the story of an Icon of the American music world.
on June 9, 2014
My husband is the Cash fan in the family, but I really enjoyed this biography. What a complex life he and his family led. In spite of success and many failures, both personally and commercially, he never gave up. There are lessons to be learned here. Good read!