With The Man in Black
went to do an interview with Johnny Cash - he so
moved me that I gave up my job and became a novelist.
there I was, sitting in Johnny Cash's front room
in Hendersonville, Tennessee, about 10 or 12 years
ago. He'd been with journalists most of the day
and I was the last. A couple, I knew from chatting
to them, were hacks with less than no interest in
country music. I was worse - I was a fan.
He's looking a little tired, and a little fed up,
in a polite way. The room is dim, lots of furniture,
glass-fronted cabinets full of June's crystal and
I say, 'Are you still the Man in Black? Can you
tell me why?'
goes into the stock answer: quoting the song lyrics,
about wearing black for the poor and the beaten
down. But I know all that - I'm wondering if that's
still how he feels, 30 years later. 'I mean, are
you still doing it?' I ask. 'For the same
he says gently. There's a wry look in his eye. 'Now
more than ever... '
get to talking about the evils of the world. I mention
a song he recorded: Here Comes That Rainbow Again,
by Kris Kristofferson. It's a small drama. A pair
of Okie kids, a waitress and some truckers are in
a roadside cafe. The kids ask: how much are the
candies? 'How much have you got?' the waitress replies.
'We've only a penny between us'. 'Them's two for
a penny,' she lies.
trucker notices. 'Them candies ain't two for
a penny,' he says, and 'So what's it to
you?' she replied. Then when the truckers leave
'She called 'Hey, you left too much money!'
'So what's it to you?' they replied.'
sounds hokey - but it's not, not the way Cash sang
it, and certainly not in its first incarnation -
the song is based on an intensely touching scene
from Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
know that book?' he says, his face lighting
love that book,' I say. 'And you know
that book!' Why am I surprised that Johnny
Cash has read Steinbeck?
that book?' he says. 'I was that book.'
He smiles at me. It's kind of like being smiled
at by Monument Valley, or the Hoover Dam. He pronounces
it 'Grapesawrath', like Rose of Sharon
is pronounced Rosasharn.
like that song?' he says, and he pulls over
tunes up. I can't quite believe my fortune here.
He starts to play, and he sings that song. In his
front room. That pure, deep, thundery, reverberating
voice, just across from me on the other sofa.
that was part of my childhood,' he says, when
it's over. Then he tells me about the flood when
he was a kid, that leads to Five Feet High and Rising.
'You like that song?' Yes I do.
sings it for me.
else, now,' he says. 'You like Man in
Black, don't ya?'
yes, I do. And I Walk the Line, and the Tennessee
Flat-top Box, and the Long Black Veil, and Ring
of Fire, and the Ballad of Ira Hayes, and John Henry,
and some I'd never heard before.
we were there all afternoon, in that shadowy room,
and it was one of the finest afternoons I've ever
spent, and definitely the worst interview I've ever
done. We hardly talked. This is how he's choosing
to communicate, I realised. By singing. Which from
a singer is not unreasonable - in fact it's possibly
more right, more true, than answering interview
questions. Also - I turned the tape recorder off.
Why? A one-on-one personal Johnny Cash concert on
the sofa and you turned the tape off? Why? Answer:
because I knew this was not something which could
be repeated. Couldn't be, shouldn't be.
did say one thing I remember: 'You have to
be what you are. Whatever you are, you gotta be
I came out realising that I didn't want to be a
journalist any more.
it was journalism that had given me this extraordinary
day, I didn't want to be the person oohing and aahing
on paper about Kris Kristofferson, John Steinbeck
and Johnny Cash. I wanted to be the person writing
and making the stuff that makes the other people
ooh and ahh. Cash loving Kristofferson's song; Kristofferson
loving the way he sang it, both of them loving Steinbeck's
book. I wanted to be one of them. Yeah, I know.
But I might as well admit it.
took a photo with my camera of Johnny Cash and me
standing grinning outside his house, squinting against
the low spring sun. He's in black, I'm in green.
He has his arm round my waist. He picked me a daffodil
from his front garden, gave me a kiss, and then
I went home, to give up journalism, bit by bit,
and start trying to be what I was: someone who wanted
had the daffodil on my desk while I wrote my first
book. I still have it - a little dried-up papery
ghost of a thing, reminding me that that's what
integrity means: being what you are.