Page 45 Review by Stephen
This biography of The Man In Black fittingly begins with a startling, silent sequence in which a stylishly dressed but grim-faced guy, brow furrowed, eyes narrowed, speeds towards Las Vegas in a low, finned motor, a gun tossed on the passenger seat. By the end of the prologue he's shot it three times into a man's body. Chapter one begins in prison.
To be exact, it begins in Folsom prison where an inmate called Glen Sherly begins his wait for January 13th 1968 when Johnny Cash, June Carter and co. famously (and bravely!) performed there for a live recording which culminated in Cash singing Sherly's own penned song. This forms the climax of the book, anticipated by a thread which runs throughout, before a final chapter in which an aged Cash takes a break from his final recordings to sit alone in his garden and experiences a terrifying vision of Ghost Riders In The Sky.
I mention this because the real strengths of this work are the often surreal interludes in a variety styles in which Kleist interprets Cash's songs as and when relevant to the juncture in Johnny's life, the frightening hallucination brought on by cold turkey from all the amphetamines the singer kept necking, and his revelation, alone in a cave he'd crept in to die, involving his favourite, dead brother. In short, that it has a focus. It's not an all-encompassing biography but an inspired impression of a man who rose from a childhood of poverty given great dignity by his parents, who left those cotton fields for a stint in the Air Force, married in haste, recorded his first songs with Elvis Presley's producer, toured exhaustingly (300 gigs a year at one point) and allowed himself to fall prey to a lethally addictive combination of Benzedrine and liquor just to keep up with the pace.
His family are the first people to suffer (there's a telling scene in which his daughter knocks on their bedroom door to ask who the strange man is, passed out downstairs and reeking of booze: "Oh, that's your father, Kathy"), but then so do his fellow musicians and his audience, as the great man's behaviour spirals out of control, just like the car he crashes and the bush fire he starts, wiping out whole colonies of nesting condors. It's only a myth that Johnny Cash ever served actual time, claims Glen Sherly in Folsom early on in the book, but Reinhardt thereby sows seeds of doubt in the reader's mind as to whether Cash will wind up in prison before 1968: did Johnny perform there out of empathy for the underdog and the marginalised, or because he'd been banged up himself?
It's an attractively drawn book in black and white, and utilising a single grey tone to provide an astonishing variety of light. The countryside scenes reminded me of ESSEX COUNTY, while a single one of the songs had me jotting down names like Marc Hempel, Kyle Baker and Marjane Satrap!