I saw him for the first time in 1968 when Aunt Fil took me to a concert at Madison Square Garden. She always liked country music, no idea why but she did. And when she learned I liked Johnny Cash, well it just made sense that we would go to see him together; just the two of us. I still have my ticket stub and the program from that concert, and watch clips of it every now and then, happy in the thought that I was there. He was at the height of his revitalized career having of course been huge in the 1950s when Rockabilly reigned. His album recorded at Folsom Prison had been released that year and he was riding a wave of popularity he wouldn’t see again until he was a far older man, when once again he reinvented himself and found a whole new generation of fans.
He was and still is The Man in Black. It’s my favorite color.
I would go on to see him in concert more times than any other artist; I traveled miles for the chance, and went every night when he was anywhere close to home. But that first time, well like all first times….it was special. He started the concert the way he always did. Dark stage, no light at all save for the small red and green lights from the amps onstage. Then one spotlight zeroing in on his dark clad back; he would turn, face the light and say: “Hello…I’m Johnny Cash”; the crowd cheered as the first thumps of bass that introduced Folsom Prison Blues echoed through the arena.
“I hear that train a coming
Coming round the bend
And I haven’t seen the sunshine
Since I don’t know when.”
Aunt Fil was singing along; I was singing along; the thousands of fans were singing along..an explosion of joy prompted by the darkest of songs,
“Well I shot a man in Reno…
Just to watch him die”
That was and is pretty bad-ass stuff even by today’s standards, and he sang it like he had done it, and we believed it because it was what all great country music is, great storytelling. That rumble of bass, that fuck you attitude; it was the pre-cursor of Punk, of Rap, of a whole generation of bad boys waiting in the wings. I of course didn’t know nor think that at the time…I was just a little kid seeing an idol of mine; a hero really for so many reasons. I loved his life story, growing up dirt poor in Arkansas, and working the country circuits, traveling by bus and car from one gig to another, night after night, until fortune smiled upon him. I loved his style and honesty, and as a young boy wrote a poem about him that Mom insisted should be sent to him, so she did in care of The House of Cash, his business address at the time. A nice letter came back, not from him but from a member of his staff, thanking me for my thoughtful and heartfelt tribute; it promised to be put in his hands one day, but I doubted it even then, but it was ok; I would have written anyway. It was personal.
I followed his career and bought his albums and went to his concerts, and joined his fan club; typical I suppose of a rabid fan. I remember when Columbia a label he had a contract with for over twenty-six years, unceremoniously dropped him, saying he wasn’t relevant anymore (by the way, they also dropped Miles Davis that year, further proving their intelligence). Columbia had lured him away from the legendary Sun Records label, which gave rise to Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. His first record with Columbia went to country’s number five, and his second to number one. And then he followed those with album after album of chart-topping records. He had his own television show which introduced the world to the likes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Kris Kristofferson. When Columbia dropped him, he signed with Mercury Records and did four or five records I really love, but were not big sellers. It was when he released “Johnny Cash is Coming to Town” on Mercury and we were living in Minnesota that I met him for the first time.
It was at a book signing for his “Man in White”, a story about the Apostle Paul and it was held at the local mall bookstore. I took the day off from work, waited in line with scores of others, he was seated at a table with a few of his and the book stores staff behind him.
I handed my book to him, told him he was God to which he smiled at me and said: “I don’t think so” but shook my hand and wished me well. And then it was time to take my book and follow the stream of other fans out the back door of the bookstore.
Except I didn’t.
Instead of leaving, in an act of bravado I couldn’t muster today, I simply took my book, smiled at everybody and walked to stand behind him with the store staff. No one said a word, so I just stood there smiling at the fans as if I was part of his entourage. I then realized I was standing next to Bob Wooten, lead guitar in his band. I smiled, put my hand out, introduced myself and asked him to autograph the book as well. He smiled back and graciously signed, not knowing who the heck I was but figuring I must have been a store employee. And then the crowning glory of my improvised scheme. Johnny was drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup the whole time, and when it was finally time for the book signing to end I knew I was going to grab that cup; it was way too important to just be thrown out. Hell, Johnny Cash had drank coffee from that cup, had held that cup; it was my version of the Holy Grail. When the time was right I reached over and grabbed it. And then still part of his party I followed with the rest of them as we walked through the back entrance to his waiting limousine. I started talking to him, it was my only chance; told him I had tickets to both nights he was going to be playing in town. He thanked me; said he would look for me and how much he appreciated me being his fan.
Whoa…God thanking his follower….If I had died then, it would have been ok, except I wanted to see him in concert the next two nights. Of course eventually he had to get into his limo and depart; but of course I had to be the one to open the door for him, pissing off the hired driver. Who cared? Let him be pissed; this was my one time with The Man in Black.
We went to see him and both concerts were as expected fantastic. At the end of each, no matter where I was sitting I was there at the edge of the stage when he would shake hands with the crowd.
Years later I saw him in Springfield, Pennsylvania, and then in Devon, right in our backyard and at the end of each concert, I would reach up to shake his hand and scream: “Hey John, remember me? We met in Minneapolis years ago?!!” and one time at least he replied: ‘Sure I remember everyone I have met” and then he winked at me as he smiled that broad beautiful smile. He didn’t remember me from Adam, and he was telling me that, and that was ok too. One time I shouted back: “I still have your coffee cup!!” and he looked at me confused for just a moment. I met him a score of times after that, mostly after concerts, in parking lots as he boarded his bus. Another time after a concert he shared with Kris Kristofferson at the Valley Forge Music Fair (gone now), we were kept back from the stars as they came out the stage door and went to their buses. I handed a security guy a pen and a piece of paper and said:
“Please buddy..help me out”
And he did. He took the paper and pen to Johnny and Kris, and Johnny signed, and Kris was about to when he asked: “Who is this for?” The security guy pointed to me and Kris shouted out: “What’s your name” I shouted back my response and he wrote: “To Robert, thanks Kris Kristofferson”. I shouted back my thanks when the security guy, a gem, brought me back the autographs.
“Tell John I still have his coffee cup” I shouted, but he didn’t hear.
And I still do.
When I heard he died, I was on a business trip in Florida. I was devastated. I couldn’t do anything that day and stayed in my hotel room in the dark and cried.
I always thought that if I ever heard the sound of Gods voice, it would sound exactly like Johnny Cash.
I still do, and I am looking forward to hearing it again.