Sometime in the mid 80s I was living in Dublin and still diligently reading the NME every week. It was past its style bible 70s heyday but it still had cultural cachet or clout. If the NME decreed something to be hip, then one had to at least investigate this alleged hipness and measure it up for size.
One week the magazine gave away this compilation cassette, called I think Neon West, the purpose of which was to convince thin people in black leather jackets that country music was hip, a tall order in the 80s. Neon West introduced wannabe rednecks to new kids on the block like Steve Earle, Townes Van Zant, and Rodney Crowell, but the star turn, by general agreement, was the veteran, somewhat out of commission, Johnny Cash.
At that moment in time it wasn't exactly Johnny Who? But for most people it was, 'Wow! Johnny Cash! I haven't heard him in ages.'
He'd just been dropped from Columbia's roster during a season of madness which also saw them drop Miles Davis. The wonder is that they didn't drop Bob Dylan while they were at it. This, remember, was the 80s; troublesome spirits and makers of turbulent music were out of style. It was hip to be square.
Cash signed to Mercury Records and, through the late 80s and early 90s, struggled valiantly to reposition himself, to regain his onetime uber status as the ace reporter from the frontline of the human spirit. That's why he was showing up on free NME cassettes.
That cassette was worn to shreds by the time I quit Dublin and moved into a Brixton squat in the late 80s. In the squat, I listened all the time to new Cash albums like Johnny Cash is Coming to Town, Boom Chicka Boom, and The Mysteries of Life. My life revolved around the grungy punk rock that the band I managed, the Baby Snakes, was making as they climbed the greasy pole of the London live circuit. The Def Jam hip hop of LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys became the other soundtrack to my life. I'd also bought, down Brixton Market at a ¬£1 an album, a six-LP collection which featured the entire unadulterated Sun Sessions which Cash had recorded before he'd signed to Columbia back at the start of his career. These recordings had the taut elegance of real art, reminded me of poets like Villon or of New York art-punk like Richard Hell or Patti Smith.
Then out of the blue it was announced that Cash would be playing a gig at London's legendary National Ballroom, Kilburn. If the TV Club in Dublin was "the home of with it dancing", the National in Kilburn was the home of the opposite. This was where you went if your favorite reading material, having lived in London for thirty years, was the Tipperary Star or The Kerryman. This was not where you went if you'd been living in Brixton squats for years on end, driving around in uninsured Volvos, and taking as your credo the words of Iggy Pop, 'Show me a bill they can make me pay!'
So off myself and Frank Rynne, the lead singer in the Baby Snakes, went to see our hero. I don't know if we'd ever been to Kilburn before. It was everything we'd run away from Ireland to escape; bacon and cabbage, Allied Irish Banks, the Gaelic Athletic Association, Lyons Tea. Freshly packed and full of flavor, Lyons the quality tea.
The show Cash did will be remembered forever by everyone who saw it. It was certainly a turning point in my life, I think it was in Frank's, and I image it had a profound influence on Cash too. He played that night in front of a 70% Irish crowd who were also refugees from the land of bacon and cabbage. This was a hip educated cosmopolitan Irish crowd that listened to Nick Cave or Lou Reed or Green on Red or...ohnny Cash. They egged Cash on to an entirely triumphal night of rockabilly intensity. I think he had to do four encores. He was clearly not used to this kind of reaction in recent years. June Carter had to come on stage, look at the foot stomping crowd, and go fetch him back. Many years later, when I opened up a newspaper one morning to see her totally unexpected obituary, I instantly recalled how beautiful she looked that night, dancing lasciviously and lifting her skirt to reveal long frilly crimson-red Victorian bloomers.
The show lead to many hours of fevered talk between Frank and myself back home in Brixton, and to many more hours playing the recent albums on CD and the Sun sessions on vinyl. Out of that the Baby Snakes decided to do a number of shows playing punked up interpretations of Johnny Cash material. These shows began to draw good crowds and, to some extent, it all got a bit out of hand, as commercially successful things sometimes can.
And then one day we found ourselves on the road to Cardiff, on our way to meet Johnny Cash.
I'd negotiated this on the phone with Cash's manager Lou Robin, significantly a California manager - not a Nashville or a Memphis manager - and significantly too a veteran of the Woody Guthrie radical political folk music scene. I'd been given Robin's number by Jack Clement. I'd been given Clement's number by one of the Green on Red guys - I thing it was Chuck but it might have been Dan.
Like his client, Lou Robin was a most civilized man. I organized it all while throwing entire battalions of coins into the coinbox phone around the corner from our squat, where the phone was temporarily cut off.
The meeting with Johnny, backstage before his show in Cardiff was entirely unforgettable and dine outable. Here I am dining out on it right now. I remember how powerful he looked as he strode into the room, surrounded by outriders and flunkies. His main outrider was his only son John Carter Cash who was, like any young man, looking out for an ageing father.
Cash was serious, self-confident, judgmental, tough, not the adorable grandfather of rock that the industry has sought to promote since his decline and death. Every second of our meeting was filmed by the professional film crew which we brought along. This didn't faze him. He'd lived his adult life in a goldfish bowl
He had that slightly uptight, somber, air that one associates with known users. His hard eyes sized you up like he was a lifelong street junkie and you were a teenaged pimp new to the sin business.
I think he was later dropped by Mercury Records too. They couldn't work out the angle either. Rick Rubin eventually rescued Cash, placed him in a good context, and did some LA rock industry things for him like making good videos. Rubin just knew which cool buttons to push.
I'm not quite so sure that - musically - he knew what to do with this granite rock of an artist. Every single thing that Cash every recorded before he worked with Rubin had a beat to it. A beat laid down by his drummer of over thirty years - the wild WS "Fluke" Holland - who was significantly absent from all the twilight years American Recordings which I find sometimes dull and sometimes deliberately arty.
Dylan said of Cash that he found it very easy to be true. Dylan said that he was like the Northern Star, that you could set your sights by him. Nobody could ever improve on his beat - a remorseless beat that was urban and rural, country and western, city and eastern. It was real simple and universal like the beat of the human heart. It just went, Johnny Cash just went, boom chicka boom chicka boom chicka boom.
(Video of Johnny Cash's last ever live appearance from YouTube)
Joe Ambrose has written 14 books, including Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. Joe is currently working on his next book, Look at Us Now - The Life and Death of Muammar Ghadaffi, which is an expanded version of a story first published in the anthology CUT UP! Visit Joe's website for all the latest info: JoeAmbrose.co.uk.