by Carl Wilson
I’ve learned from books by, for example, Pete Townshend and Steve Earle that the qualities one loves in a songwriter often don’t survive the transition to prose. A line that would be pithy and perfect landing as the final rhyme in a verse or the hook of a chorus, for example, can die of dehydration on the arid page, leaving a trite, hollow corpse behind. The craft of a song such as Rosanne Cash’s “Rules of Travel” relies on the sly way she adapts an old folk-music “counting song” form to a more mature meditation. Books have other tricks. So I started reading her memoir with caution.
Also, there were all the Rosies to think of: My friend Gordon (brilliant, lovely, funny, gone) once titled the sides of a mixtape “The Girl Who Put the ‘Cunt’ Back in Country” (Cash as hard-edged 80s new-country hitmaker and cow-punk clotheshorse) and “The Queen of Greenwich Village” (Cash as 90s introspective singer-songwriter with a slight new-agey streak) – the Nashville Cash and the New York Cash, the Cash of the years when she was married to tight-jeaned country star Rodney Crowell and the Cash who is married to guitarist-producer John Leventhal.
And then there’s the recent Rosanne in Mourning, who has reflected powerfully on the deaths of her parents – the famous one and the not-famous one, plus her semi-famous stepmother (now iconic herself after being played in Walk the Line by Reese Witherspoon – Cash is withering about the movie in the book, as I guess anyone would be seeing their childhood traumas turned to entertainment).
How would all those Rosies fit between the covers of a slim memoir and not be done wrong in one way or another by the summing up of life lessons? And was the book going to be somehow part of the Johnny Cash memorial industry?
The nice surprise about Cash’s book is that, like Bob Dylan before her, she doesn’t worry about telling her tale in order, but writes a series of loose vignettes and tangents – less eccentrically than her dad’s friend Bob, of course, but still more island chain than road movie, the gaps letting air in. The tangents are often the best part – for example when she starts talking about how country songs today have narrowed to songs about romance and love and largely neglected other traditions such as family songs: “Mostly hidden from view are the other potent relationships, forged of blood and shared history, rich with emotional content, ripe for exploration.”
The 80s fashion vixen (as well as the songwriter’s ear for detail) shows up when she one by one, with a crisp tone of disconnection, names what expensive designers’ outfits and handbags she was wearing when she delivered the eulogies at her father’s, mother’s and stepmother’s funerals (extraordinary addresses reprinted here in full), and how her Prada shoes gradually stained deeper with mud from funeral to funeral, never cleaned. Some younger country songwriter should set that vignette to music. (Taylor Swift, here’s your homework for the next two years.)
As with any well-written famous person’s autobiography – unless they’re just wonderfully unhinged like Katherine Hepburn’s – the overall effect is humanizing: We follow Cash’s struggles with major health problems and family issues.
But I like it most when Cash is well aware of her rarefied position (as in those funeral-fashion moments) and dares to ask us to sympathize with, for instance, the fact that she’ll always regret that she was too little to remember meeting Patsy Cline at a family party, or that she was pissed off at her dad for ordering her home from an early youthful adventure working in the record business in London. Or her insecurity when she found herself surrounded by assertive male musicians making her early albums, which of course was partly because she was a young woman but mainly because she was so well-connected that rather than pay what folks call dues, she was almost immediately working with the hottest session players in Music City.
Cash can’t be expected to account for the extraordinary level of privilege at which her career and personal experiences have transpired – all those “what’s it like to…” questions no one can answer because they are the given conditions of your life. “What’s it like to have been born in the 20th century?” some teenager might ask you a few years from now. They won’t actually know what they mean and neither will you.
Some reviewers have complained about how nice, unwild, polite, unscandalous Cash’s book is, as if she’s holding back. But I got the sense that the limit she was observing was not so much protective as respectful – that she was well-raised enough not to write like a whiny spoiled bitch, but also badly raised just the right way to have been forced as an adult to learn to forgive or even be grateful to the world for what it didn’t see fit to provide.
That’s the pleasure of spending time with her and her memories, and letting pass the little bits about “bringing her sorrow to the ocean” for rich-lady-style rituals, etc.
Well, that and the fact that every time Johnny Cash shows up to say something it comes with this extraordinary elemental presence that (a) makes one a little tempted to believe that angels sometimes walk among us; and (b) grabs the breath out of your throat to think this woman dared to take up the same career.
She presents the hinge between the Cunt-in-Country phase and the Greenwich Village Queen as a dream she had in which Linda Ronstadt was having an animated conversation on a couch at a party with an old man (of course: was he wearing black, Rosanne?) named Art – who looked her up and down and spat, “We don’t respect dilettantes.” The dream haunted her, she says, and changed her life.
Of course, fans like me would argue that the person who wrote and sang a song like Seven Year Ache was no dilettante, and she didn’t have to get self-consciously Artier to prove anything to withholding subconscious patriarchs. (Much less to Linda Ronstadt!)
But most people who come up the way Rosanne Cash did are dilettantes.
So instead of the artist’s standard challenges of pounding on windows and doors to get attention, she had the struggle of living up to the vocation she’d been handed, which is hard to see properly through gold-tinted glasses.
Maybe that’s the story those who “arrived” a little too easily have to tell the rest of us, to keep wary of what’s easy: I jokingly call myself a dilettante pretty often, and maybe I should admit the coverup going on in that laugh.