Outside on the streets of San Antonio, the water is two feet high and rising. But that don't matter much now, because Johnny Cash is sick. The Man In Black is 70 this year, and if his health doesn't hold up, he won't make 71. His music, though, will outlive us all.

Well, we're doin' mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin' cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there oughta be a Man In Black.

Born February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas, Cash was blessed with the kind of voice that makes most people jump, and the beat to keep 'em hopping. Although he came into the world as the poor son of a cotton farmer, Cash may end up being the most influential voice in country music history (besides Hank, of course). With 11 Grammys to his name, he has ridden in millions of cars as they made their way along the American road, helping truckers keep the rhythm of the highway and helping families keep the peace. As an inductee into both Music Halls of Fame (Rock and Country), Cash has done more to meld the disparate strains of American music than almost any musician, and has reaped the rewards. This is the man, after all, who outsold the Beatles in 1969.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.


Cash's music never seems to have left the Arkansas bottomland; and while he lives in Nashville, his heart seems to have stayed in the country. Always wearing his politics on his (black) sleeve, his harmonies are those of the working man. What Springsteen is to the blue-collar laborers in Asbury Park, Cash is to the coal miner and the cotton picker of the South. And yet he is so much more. His music, though sympathetic to the afflicted, goes beyond simple compassion for callop 33 used hands; his songs chronicle the price of hard living, the benefits of constant prayer, and the complexities which arrive when one tries to reconcile the two. As a musical activist and supporter of such causes as prisoner's rights, the Native American movement, and literacy, Cash has supplemented his repertoire with dozens of ready-made anthems for anyone from death row inmates to boys named Sue, forgotten Indian fighters to cocaine-addled Jesus freaks.

I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin' for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.

To the estimated 500 albums that Cash has released, add one more: Johnny Cash at Madison Square Garden. Released as part of his 70th birthday celebration, the concert allows fans to hear Cash at the top of his game: It was the winter of 1969, and he was the hottest act on the planet. His popular television show was moving into its second season, and the best names in country music, folk, and rockabilly were collecting around Johnny Cash like barnicles on a sturdy hull. On the night of the show, Cash trotted out everyone from Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers to the Carter Family - in-laws both by marriage and musical bent. Original standards such as "Big River," "Folsom Prison Blues," "I Walk the Line" are liberally mixed with others' work ("Worried Man Blues," "Cocaine Blues," "Suppertime") to form a musical mosaic of the direction country - not to mention folk and rockabilly - was heading at the time.

Thirty-three years later, Johnny Cash is no longer on top of the world. He has suffered a series of setbacks in the last few years, all of them health-related. Autonomic neuropathy, a disease that makes him susceptible to pneumonia, has put him in and out of the hospital a number of times. Last year, after a period of hospitalization, he went straight from the sickbay to the studio to cut an album. Three weeks ago, he was in the hospital again because of an allergic reaction to his medication. He got out a week later, and I expect another record any day now.

Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything's OK,
But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
'Till things are brighter, I'm the Man In Black.

Get well, Johnny. From all of us.

Johnny Cash at Madison Square Garden
Featuring Cash, the Carter Family, Carl Perkins, and the Statler Bros.
(CD, Columbia Records)

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