I never did make it to see Johnny Cash.
My wife Emily, our friend David and I had tickets for his show in Reno, the place he made mythic. It was October of 1997, and although Johnny had already started to take ill, we had no idea it would be one of his last performances. If we had, you can bet we would have turned a blind eye to the law and taken the shoulder of I-80 around all the other suckers caught in stand-still traffic approaching the pass near Tahoe. Instead, the fluke early snow shower— which had enabled the road racketeers to require chains— turned our four-hour drive into an eight-hour one.
By the time we got to Reno, we were glad that we weren’t in Phoenix, but extremely bummed to find that Johnny’s short set had ended.
It pains me to this day to think what I missed. My friends who made it to the show that night assured me that Johnny was more a troubadour in his twilight than a balladeer at his best. But so what? Nothing can match a genuine aura.
Like many of his more recent fans, I became immersed in Cash’s music after American Recordings was released in the spring of 1994. At the time I was doing a lot of research on California prisons, meaning I soon gravitated to his classic recordings at San Quentin and Folsom. That Cash uniquely understood the prisoner’s mindset would be confirmed to me a couple years later, when I began teaching at San Quentin.
One of the cardinal rules on the inside is that "you do your own time"— which essentially means that you should never ask a prisoner about what he did in order to be put away. I couldn’t help but wonder about my students’ crimes, though. For all I knew, any one of the men sitting before me in the classroom had "shot a man in Reno," before he’d been prosecuted over the border here in California. In most cases, the less I knew, the better.
But the more comfortable I got, the more curious I became. One night, during a break in class, I struck up a conversation with a particularly dedicated participant in the college program. "Frankie" had acquired a Ph.D. in engineering before coming into the joint, and he now sat in on virtually every class in order to keep his mind alive. "So, I’ve been meaning to ask you something," I said to him. "What exactly did you do to get in here?" Startled, Frankie paused for a minute, before launching into an extremely convoluted story full of descriptions like "so he came after me" and "the gun went off."
All this is my way of saying that Cash’s classic line about shooting a man in Reno "just to watch him die" profoundly captures the average prisoner’s mentality. This specific act is senseless, utterly nihilistic, and yet at the same time completely imaginary. In my mind, the line actually means "I made a terrible, foolish mistake, but it’s up to me to deal with it. And thanks for not asking, pal."
As the timeline goes, after their marriage in 1968, J.C., as in June Carter, introduced J.C., as in Johnny Cash, to J.C., as in "Lord and Savior." Yet what was good for Johnny’s own life was not necessarily good for his music. Prior to his rebirth, Cash had left the answers about how to seek redemption, forgiveness and the like up to each individual. In prison that savior can be Jesus, Allah, a gang, books, or, conversely, nothing at all. But in music, as in theology, the answers are rarely as interesting as the questions.
Put another way, I’m glad for his own sake that he saw the light, but I’m even more thankful that Johnny ventured into the darkness.