I saw Johnny Cash play once, just about 10 years ago, when he was on the cusp of his final comeback courtesy of rap mogul Rick Rubin. It was at the Ex, believe it or not, right here in Winnipeg, and it was just Johnny, his entire family, and no more than 150 Winnipeggers, all huddling together in the stadium on the coldest June day I've ever experienced. Johnny probably thought it was typical.
The audience was an eclectic bunch, as might be expected when the show costs only three dollars. There were a few younger folks wrapped not just in blankets but in protective layers of irony, believing themselves to be at a kitschy novelty act. There were folkies for whom the highlight of Johnny's career was probably either his duet with Bob Dylan on Girl From the North Country (a beautiful song), or the bad hippie poem he'd written for the back of the Dylan album from which it came. There were plain, ordinary Johnny Cash fans. There were newer converts, like my friends and I, who just a few years earlier might have been among the irony-swathed lightweights at the top of the stands. And the front row was all people in wheelchairs -- that complicated sort of wheelchair that doubles as a life-support system -- who'd been brought out on some sort of final farewell field trip.
There were almost as many people on stage, it seemed, as in the audience. Besides Johnny, there was his wife, June Carter, who predeceased her husband by only a few months. With the Carter Family, she'd of course been a country music force in her own right. Their son, John Carter Cash, was playing guitar off to one side, and dozens of other hard-bitten country veterans -- not the famous kind but the hard-working kind -- filled the rest of the large platform.
Johnny was, of course, wearing his head-to-toe black suit and hat, which was gratifying, but he was also sporting what appeared to be a necklace made of crushed tin cans. After some initial puzzlement, I decided it must be a slightly oblique pro-environment statement: an unspoken exhortation to recycle; and my respect for him deepened as he launched into the first of the many hits he would play that day.
June was, not to put too fine a point on it, drunk. Between songs, or even during solos and guitar breaks, she would totter upstage as far as she could get without toppling into the wheelchairs and soliloquize to their inhabitants on a variety of subjects. She talked about her legs, which had gone to fat, she admitted ruefully; but then it wasn't really fat, was it? "It's just water, right girls?" she crowed, hitching up her skirt to show off her bulging gams. The old ladies just stared. In the background, Johnny and his son conferred as they played, stabbing their guitar-ends angrily in June's direction as they tried to figure out how to rein her in. But by now she was part of the show, and anyway she wasn't shirking her duties. She knew her parts in songs like Jackson as well as she knew her name, and she sang them beautifully.
Despite all this, Johnny, class act that he was, put on a hell of a performance, taking us from Folsom Prison to the Orange Blossom Special and right on down the line. He might well have considered his time in Winnipeg to be the single most ignominious show of his career, but I'll never forget it.
And where is Johnny now that he's gone? Has he indeed fallen into a burning ring of fire, or is he crouched at the right hand of God, amusing him with a rendition of The One on the Right is on The Left? My opinion is that Johnny is in death every bit as sui generis as he was in life: neither in heaven nor in hell, not quite country, not quite folk, not quite rock 'n' roll, but in a new place, singing his own kind of song, waiting for the rest of us to punch our tickets and join in.
Caelum Vatnsdal is a filmmaker and writer living in Winnipeg.