Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia is, as I know you all know, the fear of the number 666. For it is a human number. Due to brilliant forward planning on my part I’ve already done Iron Maiden The Number of the Beast 621 LPs ago and my Venom LPs were carried off by a ravening horde from north of the border a while ago – damn you Satan! So in order to combat the dark forces of implacable evil and the fact that I type this on 06.06.16, I have instead reached for the most overtly Christian album I own. Johnny Cash Man In Black from 1971*.
Of course we know the background as to why Mr Cash was on his godly best by this point in his life, his faith having literally saved him from some of the wildest and coolest self-destructive behaviour ever seen in the field of popular music. I mean you or I may have spent time tripping off our tits on booze and pills, but we’ll never be Johnny Cash burning down the Los Padres National Wildlife Refuge tripping off our tits and booze and pills**.
Not that it makes a few of the tracks here any easier to listen to, particularly the opener, the awkwardly titled, ‘The Preacher Said, ‘Jesus Said”, which features a star turn by none other than Billy Graham – possibly on bongos, I’m not totally certain. I find it very difficult to listen to, musically it isn’t up to too much it’s the religious content that makes it hard for me. Not that I want to be a hypocrite here, I have LP after LP full of Rastafarians proclaiming their joy in their faith and I love those. It’s not an anti-Christian thing for me either, I have no axe to grind there particularly. So I think it may just be a bit of a reserved Brit thang going down, I find it difficult to deal with such open proclamations of faith, it isn’t seemly – or at least when not backed by cool reggae stylings. Ditto June Cash’s ‘I talk To Jesus Every Day’ which closes this album.
Theer are some interesting, overwrought tales on Man In Black – the bitter almost spoken word prison lament of ‘Dear Mrs’ and the maudlin ‘Orphan Of The Road’ but for me they live the country clichés a little too well – dead parents, a man buried with a photograph of an undeserving wife; maybe I’m just too much of a cynical urban spohisticate. There’s a lot of Johnny Cash I love and revere but not much here, we are even served a few Cash-by-numbers ditties like ‘If Not For Love’ and ‘Look For Me’, nothing wrong there but nothing too right either.
So if it can be a bit squirm-inducing and/or just a bit melodramatic or boring, why do I keep Man In Black? well there is a reason, two reasons actually, two excellent reasons in fact.
First off is the wonderful self-mythologising of ‘Man In Black’,
Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on.
… and dang it all, if Johnny doesn’t list them for us. He wears the black for the suffering, the unhappy, the sick lonely and old and, although not explicitly stated, those poor bloggers who keep being bothered by their families when they’re trying to write. He feels my pain. It is a magnificent track and the beneficiary of his best vocal performance on the album, hell he sounds like an Old Testament prophet on this one.
Second up is ‘Singin’ In Viet Nam Talkin’ Blues’, where Johnny borrows a big trick or two from his chum Bob Dylan to describe his and June’s trip to entertain the troops in Vietnam. It’s funny and touching at the same time, Cash always was pretty ambiguous over whether he felt troops should be there or not, his line was that he was there to help the boys; when you read his autobiography you find out how much care and compassion he and June invested in the venture. Cash uses a whole range of tricks of phrasing and understatement for maximum effect here, straight from Dylan’s own ‘Talkin New York’ et. al.
Two great tracks out of ten isn’t a brilliant return on an LP, but given what a pair of humdingers they are and that’ll do me this time around. Plus I reckon that’s easily enough to vanquish the ravening rapacious hordes of Beelzebub with, why should I fear him when I have the Man In Black at my side.
Well, there’s things that never will be right I know
And things need changin’ everywhere you go
But ’til we start to make a move to make a few things right
You’ll never see me wear a suit of white
Ah, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day
And tell the world that everything’s okay
But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back
Till things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black
666 Down (makes spooky noises).
*what is it about 1971 that has me so much in its’ thrall.
**if you have never read Cash, The Autobiography then do so immediately, stop reading this drivel and go grab yourself a copy of it.