Friday, September 19, 2003

Alone with the Man in Black

I went to do an interview with Johnny Cash - he so moved me that I gave up my job and became a novelist

Louisa Young
Wednesday September 17, 2003
The Guardian
 So there I was, sitting in Johnny Cash's front room in Hendersonville, Tennessee, about 10 or 12 years ago. He'd been with journalists most of the day and I was the last. A couple, I knew from chatting to them, were hacks with less than no interest in country music. I was worse - I was a fan.

He's looking a little tired, and a little fed up, in a polite way. The room is dim, lots of furniture, glass-fronted cabinets full of June's crystal and cut-glass collection.

"So," I say, "Are you still the Man in Black? Can you tell me why?"

He goes into the stock answer: quoting the song lyrics, about wearing black for the poor and the beaten down. But I know all that - I'm wondering if that's still how he feels, 30 years later. "I mean, are you still doing it?" I ask. "For the same reasons?"

"Now?" he says gently. There's a wry look in his eye. "Now more than ever... "

We get to talking about the evils of the world. I mention a song he recorded: Here Comes That Rainbow Again, by Kris Kristofferson. It's a small drama. A pair of Okie kids, a waitress and some truckers are in a roadside cafe. The kids ask: how much are the candies? "How much have you got?" the waitress replies. "We've only a penny between us". "Them's two for a penny," she lies.

A trucker notices. "Them candies ain't two for a penny," he says, and "So what's it to you?' she replied. Then when the truckers leave "She called 'Hey, you left too much money!' 'So what's it to you?' they replied."

It sounds hokey - but it's not, not the way Cash sang it, and certainly not in its first incarnation - the song is based on an intensely touching scene from Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

I mention this.

"You know that book?" he says, his face lighting up.

"I love that book," I say. "And you know that book!" Why am I surprised that Johnny Cash has read Steinbeck?

"Know that book?" he says. "I was that book." He smiles at me. It's kind of like being smiled at by Monument Valley, or the Hoover Dam. He pronounces it "Grapesawrath", like Rose of Sharon is pronounced Rosasharn.

"You like that song?" he says, and he pulls over his guitar.

What, really?

He tunes up. I can't quite believe my fortune here. He starts to play, and he sings that song. In his front room. That pure, deep, thundery, reverberating voice, just across from me on the other sofa.

"All that was part of my childhood," he says, when it's over. Then he tells me about the flood when he was a kid, that leads to Five Feet High and Rising. "You like that song?" Yes I do.

He sings it for me.

"What else, now," he says. "You like Man in Black, don't ya?"

Well yes, I do. And I Walk the Line, and the Tennessee Flat-top Box, and the Long Black Veil, and Ring of Fire, and the Ballad of Ira Hayes, and John Henry, and some I'd never heard before.

So, we were there all afternoon, in that shadowy room, and it was one of the finest afternoons I've ever spent, and definitely the worst interview I've ever done. We hardly talked. This is how he's choosing to communicate, I realised. By singing. Which from a singer is not unreasonable - in fact it's possibly more right, more true, than answering interview questions. Also - I turned the tape recorder off. Why? A one-on-one personal Johnny Cash concert on the sofa and you turned the tape off? Why? Answer: because I knew this was not something which could be repeated. Couldn't be, shouldn't be.

He did say one thing I remember: "You have to be what you are. Whatever you are, you gotta be it."

And I came out realising that I didn't want to be a journalist any more.

Although it was journalism that had given me this extraordinary day, I didn't want to be the person oohing and aahing on paper about Kris Kristofferson, John Steinbeck and Johnny Cash. I wanted to be the person writing and making the stuff that makes the other people ooh and ahh. Cash loving Kristofferson's song; Kristofferson loving the way he sang it, both of them loving Steinbeck's book. I wanted to be one of them. Yeah, I know. But I might as well admit it.

Somebody took a photo with my camera of Johnny Cash and me standing grinning outside his house, squinting against the low spring sun. He's in black, I'm in green. He has his arm round my waist. He picked me a daffodil from his front garden, gave me a kiss, and then I went home, to give up journalism, bit by bit, and start trying to be what I was: someone who wanted to create.

I had the daffodil on my desk while I wrote my first book. I still have it - a little dried-up papery ghost of a thing, reminding me that that's what integrity means: being what you are.

· Louisa Young's latest book is The Book of the Heart