I have a conflicted relationship with Johnny Cash. I suspect many others do, too. On the one hand, I gotta love the guy – I’m an American, and it’s pretty much the law; has been since the first volume of American Recordings came out. (Even though only the second volume in that series, Unchained, was anything really special.) On the other hand, as I’ve already started to admit, his latter-day output was pretty deadly at times. No one should sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Ever. Period.
But can you fuck with most of the earlier stuff people know him best for? I submit that you cannot. The live version of “Cocaine Blues” from Folsom Prison is one of the most aggressive and harrowing musical performances I’ve ever heard, in any genre. And “Sunday Morning Coming Down” is simply beautiful.
I just got a three-CD set of Cash’s Sun recordings in the mail from Time-Life this week. The box, compiled and liner-noted by Colin Escott (who put together a superlative Hank Williams triple disc last year) advertises itself as featuring the rawest versions of these songs available – so, in some cases, backing vocals and strings that were tacked on after the initial session have been shaved away, revealing the songs as simple guitar-guitar-bass rumbles. And in that form, they’re astonishing. Stark, convulsively alive, and almost impossible to stop listening to once you’ve begun, these 61 songs are a chunk of on-the-fly brilliance up there with the Hot Five sides or the BYG sessions of August 1969. There are classics identified with Cash – “Cry, Cry, Cry,” “Hey Porter,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk The Line,” “Guess Things Happen That Way,” and a shitload more – but there are also takes on canonical cuts like “I Forgot To Remember To Forget,” “Hey, Good Lookin’” and “Rock Island Line,” among others. What’s more, they posit Cash as someone who emerged into the world virtually fully formed. His image as a stoic, somewhat gloomy and haunted man was in place from the first note he rumbled into the microphone.
Similarly, Roy Orbison was who he was almost from the dawn of his career. Sure, there were a couple of upbeat rockabilly-esque tunes early on (“Ooby Dooby,” “Go, Go, Go”) at Sun, but by the time he landed at Monument, he had found his path to glory. Where Cash was stripped down, his monochromatic wardrobe indicating his artistic single-mindedness, Orbison was a high priest of torment, and dressed the part. I recently wrote that most emo bands were singing the same old lovelorn lyrics that have been on offer in pop music from Frankie Lymon to Ian Curtis, but Roy Orbison took teenaged torment to a level perhaps imagined by, but utterly out of reach of, all peers and putative competitors. His frankly unearthly voice – again, the opposite of Cash’s nearly subterranean rumble – inflated his lyrics to operatic scale. The Essential Roy Orbison, 40 tracks on two CDs out this week from Sony/Legacy, gathers all most will ever need from the guy, and listening back to his classic singles is a breathtaking experience. If teenagers from time immemorial have believed their love problems to be unlike those experienced by anyone before or since, they have their eternal anthem in his track "Crying." At the climax, when Roy Orbison sings, “Yes, now you’re gone/And from this moment on/I’ll be crying,” with the strings rising almost to a roar behind him, it’s like the fucking Apocalypse. Cash was manly restraint, but Orbison was equally masculine in his florid ecstasies of agony. And while both men worked with producer Rick Rubin, Orbison got the better results. The last song on Disc Two of The Essential Roy Orbison is “Life Fades Away,” from the soundtrack to the movie Less Than Zero. Co-written by Orbison and third-generation dark rocker Glenn Danzig, it’s got all the soaring strings and thundering drums and acoustic-guitar-the-size-of-a-building of the classic Monument sides, along with a lyric that takes off from doomed love, incorporates a little “Seasons In The Sun” I’m-dying-now-but-remember-our-love weeping, and winds up as sort of the ultimate Roy Orbison track because it’s so clearly aware of all the ones that led up to it. And when he, by then middle-aged, hits the incredible high notes on the song’s final chorus, if chills don’t run up and down your body, check your pulse.
So yeah – Johnny Cash, American icon, noble guy, cooler than a very cool thing, yeah. But it’s that very coolness, that far-from-effortless façade, that makes his work something I only listen to once every few years. Roy Orbison, on the other hand, tore open his chest and exposed his bleeding heart on every one of his classic singles (okay, maybe not “Workin’ For The Man”), and that kind of lush, grandly quixotic statement seems to me somehow even more quintessentially American, and something I’m much more likely to wallow in on a regular basis.