Sunday, August 30, 2015
The Man In Black
August 30, 2015
For some time my readership has been down to a lean mean handful of folks--John C., Cousin S, Billie Bob, and a few more. I appreciate your continuing interest, even though the blog has long since morphed from a travelogue into sputtering polemics. With each posting the number of hits diminishes, except for one a few months back that got over 6,000, which I'm pretty sure was because of some Asian or Eastern European automated computer scam. I don't pretend to understand how it works beyond the fact that I got a gigantic number of spam comments, and I know they weren't from friends of yours truly. I've talked about the spam comments before--written in Chinese or Cyrillic characters, or in the Western alphabet but in a different language, or in weird or demotic English showing beyond a doubt that the writer's first language wasn't English. At the end of all these comments, invariably, there is an invitation to visit that person's blog, usually with a mildly pornographic name.
So here we are, guys, just us chickens, as they say. This will be short and to the point.
Johnny Cash. This guy, star of television and revered by many, is in my opinion one of the most overrated songwriters and performers of his time and genre. Never mind that he could barely sing--others have had shitty voices and kept going. Bob Dylan hasn't been able to carry a tune in a paper bag since the 1970s, but his ability to write brilliant songs continues unabated and puts him at the highest levels of modern music. Tom Waits sounds like a malfunctioning garbage disposal and has a voice that only a Frenchman could love, but he continues to turn out hauntingly beautiful lyrical ballads (which, I am compelled to say, would be even more beautiful if they were performed by others). Lesser lights, like the abominably overestimated Leonard Cohen, also couldn't sing worth a damn. Truth be told, a bunch of popular singers can't sing well, so never mind that aspect of Johnny Cash. Besides, his deep bass voice did get some people's juices flowing and that made up for his less than one-octave range. Also, after Joaquin Phoenix played him in the movie, some younger people got interested.
My peeve isn't about his voice but with one of his more prominent songs in particular, Folsom Prison Blues, which pisses me off every time I think about it. Johnny Cash dined out on that one for years. But the song makes almost no sense. You might say that Dylan's songs are rather dense at some levels, filled with impenetrably symbolistic word-weaving, but they're always entertaining, usually pleasing, and operate at a level that doesn't suggest a lack of verisimilitude, only that he's thinking on a plane far above that of ordinary mortals. And when his songs tell straight out stories, like The Sad Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll or The Hurricane, they stick more or less to the facts. (The only reason I even bother to mention Bob Dylan in the same paragraph with Johnny Cash is that Bob was enamored of Johnny for a time.)
Back to Folsom Prison Blues. This is ostensibly a song about a guy who is in prison because he murdered someone. But there's something wrong with the facts. He shot a man in Reno, right? So what's he doing in a state prison in California? I checked, and there's no Reno, California, by the way (although some anecdotal info on the internet suggests that people have indeed tried to find a Reno, California, because of that song). Surely if the song's protagonist had been caught in California this state would have extradited him back to Nevada, where the crime took place. And California would be more than happy to extradite him, since the crime was serious and California has more than enough prisoners of its own to deal with. It's not the same as France taking in Roman Polonski because he's an auteur and they don't see the point of prosecuting a guy for having sex with a young teenager. And if, by chance, there was interstate flight involved in this shooting in Reno, or something else making it a federal crime (like maybe the guy he shot was a mailman on his route or a soldier or a U.S. Senator), there are any number of wonderful federal prisons in California and Nevada where he could be housed, rather than in Folsom State Penitentiary.
The other thing that bugs me about Folsom Prison Blues is that damned train. Folsom Prison is located about 20 miles from Sacramento, way up in the north central part of the state. While it is theoretically possible that a train going through Folsom might be headed "on down to San Antone," it would have to switch in a few different places to get there, first traveling the length of the state down to the southern part and then heading east along the tracks of the old Southern Pacific or the Santa Fe, a rather indirect route. How an inmate at Folsom might know that a train passing that prison would be heading to southern Texas is beyond me. Perhaps that tells you how dumb prisoners are in general, but I think it tells you more about how dumb Johnny Cash was when he wrote the song.
But the most absurd premise of all, long a part of his mystique and prisoner-friendly disposition, is that Johnny Cash was himself a criminal of some sort. This was part of the reason he had some credibility with prisoners, and perhaps, in his mind, the reason he wanted to entertain them. The same imprecision went into the creation of this idea as that which contributed to the odd ideas in Folsom Prison Blues. Well, give the guy some credit, I suppose, for the fact that he wanted to lighten the dreary lives of convicts. A real mensch. But here's the story about Johnny Cash himself: he was indeed arrested a few times, however, the longest he stayed in jail was a weekend or so, and the charges were possession of amphetamines, or disorderly conduct, or peccadillos of that nature. He never came close to a real prison, except when he sang in them. He was a criminal in the same way that Ozzie Osbourne or Jim Morrison or Keith Richards were. In other words, not really.
Okay, thanks for letting me get that off my chest. More rants to follow, and sorry it's been so long between postings.