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Wanted Man

Johnny Cash may just be a legend, but he's never sounded better

It was due in stores by July, but a lifetime of memories does not come easily to a man whose first hit came 41 years ago, when he was a member of a Sun Records roster that included Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and a boy named Elvis. So the world will have to wait a few more months, likely until January, for Johnny Cash to put his memories to tape recorder, for a writer to take those recordings and transcribe them on paper and for Harper San Francisco to take that paper and turn it into a book. But a few months, after all, are nothing in the grand scheme of Johnny Cash's life -- the blink of a blink of an eye, really, especially when there are more important things to be concerned with than telling the same old stories one more time.

Cash didn't even want to write his life story. He's already got the boxed sets and the surgeries to remind him of his age and mortality, and he's already got the one book -- 1975's Man in Black, published by a religious publishing house around the time Cash got off the pills and got hooked on Jesus -- to explain a life lived well and lived hard. Plus, Cash shrugs, he gets tired pretty easily these days, those 65 years (Lord, is that all?) catching up with him; better he spends a day fishing than remembering all over again those Million Dollar Quartet sessions or the day he wrote "Folsom Prison Blues" or the time he got busted in El Paso for smuggling Dexedrine over the border.

"Man in Black was written for Zondervan -- a Bible publisher, a religious publisher -- and so many companies wanted me to write a book that would cover the secular rather than the spiritual side of my life," Cash says from his Nashville-based offices, the House of Cash. "I just never really have wanted to do another book, and I was just determined that I wasn't going to until this past year. Two or three big companies were really interested, and somebody finally made an offer I guess I couldn't refuse. On top of that, Billy Graham called me up out of the clear blue sky and said, 'I wish you would write a book.' And I said, 'What would you want me to write about?' And he said, 'About your life and experiences.' He said, 'You should do it now, while you've got the energy to do it, while you feel like doin' it.'

"And I'm enjoyin' some of it. Some of it's fun, but some of it's painful. It's painful to go into the amphetamine years, when there was so much damage to my psyche and my spirit and the people around me. It's painful remembering that all over again, dragging that back through. But there's a lot of funny things and interesting things that have happened that were definitely not covered in Man in Black, and I'm enjoyin' writin' 'em.

"But the book comes at a time when I'm really havin' trouble squeezin' in the time for it. It's been hard to find time for everything I want to do and still have a little time left over for me -- which I made my first priority. I made an agreement with my God and my wife and myself that I would take care of myself first and that all the rest would follow. It's hard to find time to take a week or two off to go fishin' or whatever when there's so much that people want from ya."

Not that Cash is complaining. Not at all. He is in fact grateful to be so busy, to find his time limited by the demands of others. Just a few years ago, the man who once wrote "Wanted Man" with Bob Dylan was anything but wanted. Instead, he was merely another country music legend who suited up for the old-timer games, a museum display who performed in front of the fanatics who only wanted to hear "I Walk the Line," "Ring of Fire," "A Boy Named Sue" and "Folsom Prison Blues" for the thousandth time. With wife June Carter and the Carter Family behind him, Cash would hit the road and play the dinner theaters and the honky-tonk theme parks. He'd walk through the hits and moan through the misses, wrap himself in Old Glory and sing to Jesus Christ; he was doing his part for God and country.

Somewhere along the way, Cash -- like Willie Nelson, George Jones, Waylon Jennings and so many other country greats -- slipped from superstar status to be-come a cult icon. Ignored by age-discriminatory country radio, he was an exile in his homeland, turned into an oldies act even after proving he's capable of producing new work that rivals any old favorite.

For most people, Cash simply disappeared during the 1980s. His career was sucked into a black hole known as Mercury/Polygram, where Cash was signed in 1986 after his relationship with Columbia Records had run its 27-year-long course. Though he released some of the finest records of his career during his stint on Mercury/Polygram, including Water from the Wells of Home (which featured the likes of Paul McCartney, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris and the Everly Brothers) and Mystery of Life (which contained a classic performance of "Wanted Man"), Cash had begun to feel like an old man trapped inside history books. He was the outlaw who couldn't get arrested.

"I was at a session in downtown Nashville one day, and somebody came in from Randy Travis's record company," Cash recalls. "I said, 'What's goin' on over there?' and he said, 'Aw, we're just lookin' for another Randy Travis.' I said, 'What's wrong with the one you got? You got a good one, you oughta keep him and let people know about him.' I heard demographics so much I wanted to vomit."

In retrospect, Cash's signing to American Recordings in 1994 was a stroke not of desperation, but of genius. American's head honcho, Rick Rubin, was Cash's kind of guy -- someone who treated Cash not as a waxwork display, but as a performer whose best years were still in front of him. Rubin was probably smart enough to know he wouldn't make much money with Cash, but he was also sharp enough to know he'd make a great record with the Man in Black.

Their CD, American Recordings, released three years ago, has proven to be perhaps Cash's oddest -- and, in some twisted way, most fulfilling -- work from start to finish. Even its cover seemed to warn of what was contained inside: With a wide-open sky behind him and two hellhounds by his side, Cash stands cloaked in nightmare black. He props his guitar case in front of him and looks straight at -- straight through -- the camera. It's as though he's daring you to listen to what's inside -- an unholy assortment of murder ballads and religious hymns and war stories, music that drips with blood.

Cash and his guitar are the only two sounds heard, and he sings the words of Nick Lowe, Glenn Danzig, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and others -- not to mention a few of his older, lesser-known songs -- and wrings the life (and death) from them. And so he murders his woman ("Delia's Gone") and whups her family ("Tennessee Stud"), never once apologizing for "The Beast in Me." He's the Vietnam vet haunted by visions of past deeds, and he's "The Man Who Wouldn't Cry." And eventually, as Cash sings in a voice that seems to travel back and forth between heaven and hell, "You'll be washed of all your sins and all of your crimes," because the only sure thing is redemption.

Cash says he recorded 70 songs for American Recordings, only 13 of which ended up on the final product; 14 more, though, have turned up on the highly sought after American Outtakes bootleg. That CD is every bit as good as the official release -- perfect even in its raw, unfinished form as Cash easily strums his acoustic guitar and moans country-folk hymns in Rubin's Los Angeles living room. It's startling and haunting, but somehow more at ease than its "predecessor": Cash's voice is piercing and doom-saying as he sings of lonesome drifters and penitent sinners and battles between flesh and blood and God and the Devil. Particularly remarkable is Cash's take on the harrowing "I Witnessed a Crime" (one of the only songs from the American Recordings sessions to feature a guest musician, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons on electric guitar) and his cover of Dolly Parton's "I'm a Drifter."

"The Dolly Parton song is one of those songs on that bootleg that's a really good thing," Cash says. "I'm really proud of that performance. That particular song Rick suggested to me. I don't know where he had heard it. But all the songs we did together come from everywhere. They came from the back of my mind somewhere, most of them. They're all the old titles I've had on a list of songs I've wanted to record for years and years, and Rick started suggesting things for me."

If last year's Unchained -- featuring the likes of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Flea, Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood -- seemed somehow less satisfying, it was because American Recordings was the record Cash had always wanted to make. He had long dreamed of doing a solo acoustic album and had been told by Columbia and Mercury execs he couldn't, and so American Recordings reverberated with the echoes of passion and perfection. Unchained was bound to pale in comparison because it was more like any other record, less like a personal statement.

Cash was even skeptical of the whole affair from the beginning -- worried, for example, that Petty and his band would use their opportunity backing Cash to shine, nervous about whether the Heartbreakers would be able to interpret his vision for Unchained.

"For this record, it was about recording with some musicians I was really comfortable with and to get the whole music flow and the feeling I had as one person," Cash says. "When we were recording 'The One Rose,' everybody had the same goal in mind; everybody was in one accord emotionally, spiritually and every other way. It was like this whole song, from all the instruments, came through me. It's like I took everything they were giving me and put it through my soul and out my mouth. That's the way these songs had to work. They had to feel like they could be a part of me. Like 'Folsom Prison Blues' is a part of me. There's no separating me from that song. Well, I had to feel that these songs on this album were that way -- that they were that good.

"If I hear something that's comfortable to me, I'll do it. I've got an open mind and an open heart for music. It's the closed minds in this business that limit the potential, and there's so much of that in Nashville. Minds are closed down to whatever's not gettin' on this gravy train and ridin' today. And I just hate that kind of thing. I just always have and always will. I've always been a Memphis rebel. I never did do it the way they do it down on Music Row."

Cash recently told daughter Rosanne in Interview magazine that working with Rubin recalled the "freedom" he experienced at Sun -- a freedom he wasn't necessarily looking for, he says now, but one he's frustrated he could never find before. He insists he will continue to record with Rubin and American Recordings "to the end"; they have already begun discussing a third album, one filled with gospel songs and spirituals. It's only appropriate payback for a man who makes promises to God.

"I've got a producer and a record company who believe in me, and, more importantly, I believe in myself more than ever," Cash says. "There comes a time when nobody wants you that got so long you get to thinkin' nobody wants you at all. There was so much apathy on the part of my record company that I got that way too -- I got very apathetic about recording. I would wonder, 'Well, what's the point if I go and record an album and they press 500 copies and that's it?' I mean, I don't need any more lessons in futility. If I sell a lot of records or not, it doesn't seem to make a lot of difference to the record company or Rick because I'm doin' what I should be doin' -- and what I feel right doin'.

"I wake up with a new song every day. The song comes through me from somewhere. I woke up yesterday singin', 'A penny a kiss / A penny a hug / Gonna save my pennies in a big brown jug' -- a song from 1949. Just this mornin' it was 'Lucky Old Sun.' I mean, these songs keep comin' through me, recyclin' through my brain. There's no gettin' away from the music if I wanted to. It's there. It's part of me. I go to sleep with a song on my mind every night, and it might be a song I don't even especially like. I never thought about bein' without it. I couldn't imagine not havin' music. I can't imagine bein' alive and not havin' a song in my head.

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