Editorial note: with this post, CP contributors DiStefano and Ellison begin a semi-regular series on Nothing. Or, perhaps better said, about the variety of forms human life takes when it loves, worships, or unconsciously idolizes negation, destruction, contradiction, and Nothing in ways both small and great. This is NIHILISM, both the expressly self-conscious ideology of Nothingness and the unreflective, unthinking life devoted to nothing in particular.
If you know the songs of Johnny Cash, you are already familiar with the posture of “ironic nihilism”. In song after song from around the time of his evangelical conversion in the late 1960s until his death, the Man in Black sings in persona scelerati, first-person songs about criminals narrating or reflecting back upon their crimes with stoic, unsentimental directness. Far from embracing the moral chaos depicted in these songs, Cash puts his believability in the role of the murderer to dramatic and therefore ironic purpose.
Eironeia, as the Greeks understood it, was not at all a kind of sarcasm or intelligent mockery, and it had nothing to do with the kind of shocking reversal often called by the name in our popular language (“Dude, that is so ironic: one of the guys who shot Michael Jordan’s dad was wearing a Michael Jordan jersey!”) In the original sense, irony is a kind of dissembling self-deprecation–the habit of making oneself look and sound worse than one is. Socrates was of course known for his proverbial irony–adopting a posture of ignorance for the sake of teaching a lesson, and Cash’s “murder songs” are squarely in this tradition.
The archetype is Cash’s 1968 live record At Folsom Prison; the San Quentin LP from a year later is really a cut below in quality, due in no small part, at least in this listener’s ears, to the absence of guitarist Luther Perkins–the inimitable inventor of the boom-chicka-boom-chicka sound had perished in a trailer fire a few months after the release of Folsom (a death alluded to in a scene in the film Walk the Line in which the Perkins character falls asleep with a lit cigarette in his mouth.)
At Folsom Prison appropriately opens with what subsequently became of Cash’s best known original tunes, “Folsom Prison Blues”, a song he first cut in a mellower arrangement for Sun in the 1950s. This recording is the song’s apotheosis:
When I was just a baby
My mother told me, Son,
Always be a good boy
Don’t ever play with guns.
But I shot a man in Reno
Just to watch him die.
This seminal LP, recorded live in front of an audience of 2,000 California cons doing time, also features a version of an old 1940s tune called “Cocaine Blues”, rendered here by Cash and his band in a boisterous, hot-rod, two-step version, driven by the unmistakable Perkins guitar sound, a rendition which seems to contain in ovo the entire genre of punk-rockabilly:
Early one morning while makin’ the rounds
I took a shot o’ cocaine and I shot my woman down.
I went right home and I went to bed–
I stuck that lovin’ .44 beneath my head.
On this tune, Cash is amping up the psychopathy for his convict audience—singing like an exuberant, violent hellraiser; the real Johnny Cash was a bit of a meth fiend at one point, but he never shot anyone–not even when he was in the army. This is what I call ironic nihilism: Cash dissembles, pretends—he puts on a mask, the persona of the murderer, and sings his role with a power so convincing it can tempt the listener into supposing that the singer is glorifying the sin of which he sings—but what he is really doing is standing the celebration of crime on its head, giving dramatic form to the fallenness of the world and the need for repentance and redemption.
It’s of course much easier for fallen creatures to describe Hell than to paint a convincing portrait of heaven, as Dante Alighieri might not have admitted, but which his readers know well. Singing such believable tales of murder is playing with fire, and when Cash sings an explicitly cautionary lyric:
Come on you’ve got to listen to me
Lay off the whiskey and let that cocaine be
it sounds a little hollow next to the unapologetic venom of
99 years in the Folsom Pen
99 years beneath that ground
I can’t forget the day I shot that bad bitch down.
(In other words, “I’m sorry I got caught but I ain’t sorry I done it.”)
One of the most powerful songs on Cash’s Folsom Prison record is “Long Black Veil”, another cover tune. In this quiet, sad ballad, Cash sings in the voice of a man hanged for a murder he didn’t commit–convicted because, while he had an alibi, honor prevented him from disclosing it. (The moral drama of this song reminds one of Hitchcock’s I Confess, in which a priest hears a murderer’s confession—and is then bound by the seal of the confessional when the murderer cunningly frames the priest for the crime.)
The judge said, Son, what is your alibi?
If you were somewhere else, then you won’t have to die.
I spoke not a word, though it meant my life—
We can already guess that it involves the woman in the refrain, who is visiting the grave of the falsely convicted and hanged, wearing the mourning veil of the song’s title:
I’d been in the arms of my best friend’s wife.
At this point on the Folsom Prison recording, the mood is broken, and the veil of Cash’s irony is forcibly lifted—upon hearing these words, in the middle of a somber, unmistakably MORAL song that has brought 2,000 inmates to a reverent hush, some prisoner in the audience lets out a celebratory YEEEEAHHH! at the mention of adultery. Cash is caught off guard, and can’t help but chuckle; “Did I hear somebody applaud,” he asks incredulously while continuing to strum his big Martin D-35. The beautiful tension of the song is broken; the rest of the audience joins in the cheer for the falsely accused character of the song, not to honor the stoic and heroic silence that purchased a woman’s good name at cost of his life, but to approve of his having gotten some. Listen to it at around 1:10.
I find this moment in the recording to be far more dramatic and instructional than any of the deeds of the fictionalized, first-person criminal characters in whose voice Cash has ever sung: the calculated, assumed/dissembling posture of a celebrity singing LIKE a criminal, brought face to face with the authentic and spiritedly-nihilistic whoop of the real deal.
Was Cash’s chuckle on the record a nervous one? “Hell, I only SING about bad men—these guys are really DANGEROUS!”Share on Facebook