The premature deaths in the past year of Warren Zevon, Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer ought to be enough to make the most pious among us angry at The Man Upstairs. In our prefabricated popular culture, these three stood out not only as artistic pioneers but also as icons of uncompromised integrity. They reached into our souls because they spoke from their own.
Together with his mates in The Clash, Joe Strummer reinvented rock ‘n’ roll in the late 1970s by combining punk energy with musical artistry and angry but intelligently politicized lyrics. As the political folksinger Billy Bragg correctly notes, “Were it not for The Clash, punk would have been just a sneer, a safety pin and a pair of bondage trousers.”
While never mega-successful commercially, The Clash remain an unanswerable rebuke to those who demand a wall between art and politics. The angrier their songs about imperialism, inequality and institutionalized violence, the higher they soared musically. And while Clash lyrics necessarily simplified issues–they were not, after all, writing essays for The Nation–rarely did they oversimplify. On Sandinista!, for instance, “Washington Bullets” is actually a backhanded compliment to Jimmy Carter for refusing to intervene to save Nicaragua’s Somoza.
But The Clash were more than just rhetorically political. They remained permanently indebted on their royalty statements because they demanded that the triple disc Sandinista! be priced at the cost of a single LP. Strummer would have slit his own throat before setting ticket prices at a Stones-style $350. (“Sir Mick”–whose knighthood would also make Strummer wretch–even bragged about the big bucks to Forbes.) It wasn’t for lack of vision or commitment that Strummer and the band failed to overthrow the structure of a music business that thrives on “turnin’ rebellion into money.” They fought the law, and the law won.
Warren Zevon fought cancer, and he won. Well, the cancer won too, but not before Warren taught the rest of us a lesson in death with dignity. After he got the bad news, Zevon thanked his friends, hugged his family and created–working in fits and starts as his health would allow–his finest record since his self-titled major-label debut back in 1976. This self-educated son of a Mormon mother and Russian-Jewish gangster father was perhaps the most casually literate lyricist in rock this side of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. How many writers, of any kind, can find inspiration simultaneously in the work of Rilke, Stravinsky, Philip Habib and Boom Boom Mancini?
Zevon’s passing, Ry Cooder observed, was “unbelievably sad and unbelievably brave.” Brave because Zevon kind of got to attend his own funeral–Huck Finn style. Letterman devoted a whole program to him; Springsteen chartered a jet to appear on the album; Dylan played three of his songs in one show. Sad, because Zevon was too sick to make it to the end of the Dylan show. And because the guy who wrote “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”–a party animal’s paean to imagined immortality–went to bed too early, for once, decades after he had beaten back his various demons and addictions.
A guy whose death makes the cover of both Time and People doesn’t require a Nation columnist to sign off on his cultural significance. “Johnny Cash” is a two-word answer to anti-Americanism everywhere. If money and crass commercialism have warped this nation’s soul beyond hope, then how is it that this angry, unvarnished truth-teller with a voice filled with gravel became that America’s unofficial national poet? Cash, who opposed the war in Iraq, was not noisily political, but his integrity forced him to speak out just the same. This symbol of American patriotism questioned the Vietnam War as he simultaneously entertained the troops in the field and told their story at home. He threw himself into the cause of Native Americans when, at the height of his success in the mid-1960s, he released an album animated by their plight called Bitter Tears. The record contains an unforgettable version of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” a song about a heroic American Indian soldier who helped raise the famous flag at Iwo Jima but died in a haze of alcoholism induced by anti-Indian bias at home. Cash also sang of a US government that “broke the ancient treaty with a politician’s grin.” Columbia Records did not want to release it, but they did not want to lose Johnny either. It came out and received almost no radio play, leading Johnny to risk career suicide with a full-page ad in Billboard accusing record companies of wishing to “wallow in meaninglessness.”
Well before Clear Channel’s stranglehold on commercial radio, Cash attacked the industry for its “craven worship of the almighty dollar.” Despite the inescapable monotone of his voice, he managed to embrace virtually all kinds of music. He introduced Bob Dylan to his country music audience on his TV program in 1969. He sang with U2. He recorded Bruce Springsteen songs and recently had a hit on MTV with one by Nine Inch Nails. He inspired rappers and rockers. And guess what? John Nichols reports that we’re about to get Johnny’s version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” in which he is joined by a one-time mohawked punk named Joe Strummer.
Peter Guralnick reminds us that the hardscrabble cotton farm boy “John Cash” was raised in the federal “colony” of Dyess, Arkansas, “‘a social experiment with a socialist set-up, really,’ as Cash described it, ‘that was done by President Roosevelt for farmers that had lost out during the Depression.'” One of his strongest memories “was the day that Eleanor Roosevelt came to town to dedicate the library.” It was in that public library that Johnny Cash learned to love history before deciding, with the help of Sun Records’ Sam Phillips, to go make some of his own. And come to think of it, it is the library–as much as the roadhouse or concert hall–that empowered these three very different men to spin personal passion into art, and then back again.
Postscript: I also mourn the passing of my friend and teacher Edward Said. I learned much from his brilliant scholarship, his moral courage and his sparkling conversation.