By Jack Walsh
This piece was originally written for Song Missing‘s Johnny Cash-themed event “I Walk the Beltline” in Atlanta.
Brethren, open your Bibles with me, would you please, to the book of Revelation, Chapter 6, Verse 1.
- And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, “Come and see.”
- And I saw. And behold, a white horse, and he that sat on him had a bow, and a crown was given unto him, and he went forth conquering and to conquer.
- And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, “Oh, hey. I didn’t see you there. Whassup? I was just… Wait a sec. I just gotta… I just gotta check my messages… Okay, cool. Okay.”
- “Ahem…I have anointed you to bring the word to my people,” said the voice. “Go forth and tell them how, much like a fish washed up on the beach at sundown, Johnny Cash did find himself floundering in his twilight years, going through the motions on sub-par material. But, yea, that one song with Waylon and Willie and Kris Kristofferson about the dam builder and the astronaut and I forget what else was okay…”
- “But I digress!” the voice shouted like thunder as one of the beasts raised a sword. And the sword did have three blades, all aflame. And I hid my eyes in great terror as the voice continued.
- “Tell the people of the whirlwind in the the thorn tree,” it commanded. “Tell them of ‘The Man Comes Around.’”
- “The Man Comes Around.” That is a pretty good song, I guess. And yet I was but a little disappointed. I did apparently put it on my iPod at some point as I found it there a fortnight ago. But yea, let us be honest: it is no “Folsom Prison Blues.” Nor is it “Mean Eyed Cat” nor “Big River.”
- And the voice from the midst of the four beasts did say, “Are you done? Because…” And the voice trailed off, but a limb like that of a gazelle raised up from the midst of the beasts and a paw like that of a lion did tap its wrist with much impatience. And lo, the wrist bore no watch nor other personal electronic device, but, indeed, I did get the drift.
- “Where was I?” asked the voice. And lo, the question was rhetorical.
- “Oh, right… those American Recordings albums. Like John, who was also called The Baptist, Cash did find himself alone in the wilderness, yet one of a more metaphorical sort, re: his career. But then a man of flowing beard, the man who did produce License to Ill, intervened to return Johnny Cash’s message to the world. And a couple of albums did involve Tom Petty and also the Heartbreakers. And lo, that was… that was cool. That was…” And I did wait in silence, with much awkwardness, for the voice to continue. It was then that the voice amongst the beasts did laugh and say “Ha ha. Hang on. You gotta see this thing I just sent you. Ah, that’s funny.”
- And lo, I did check my inbox and saw the image of a t-shirt his dad’s cousin forwarded him, and the caption did say, “Five and Twenty Years Ago We Had Reagan, Johnny Cash, and Bob Hope. Now We Have Obama, No Cash and No Hope.” And it was then that I further questioned my decision to listen to the voice, as he had already sent me a Candy Crush invitation earlier in the week.
Brothers and sisters, when I was fourteen, my youth minister, Mike, told us that when he was our age, he got worried if he ever came home and found no one there. At the time, I would have seized upon a similar opportunity as a chance to go through a purloined Victoria’s Secret catalog I had squirreled away for just such an occasion. But to Mike, an empty house brought with it the nagging anxiety that the Rapture had happened while he was out, and he had been left behind. While one might assume that a quick phone call or, say, a cursory glance out the window would have cleared things up, Mike was so absolutely sure that his family would be among the chosen that only their verified presence would prove that Judgment Day was still some time off.
But how much time? If I ever knew all the signs that would presage the end of the world, I’ve certainly forgotten them. There are passages of the Bible from which I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration. Different parts still mean a lot to me. Revelation is not one of these parts. Revelation reads like first-draft world-building from a poorly thought out tabletop role-playing game. There are mystical final battles involving dragons, six-winged angelic creatures covered in eyes, demon locusts, the sun going dark, the seas turning to blood, fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, earthquakes, volcanoes, the dead rising from the grave. Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria… Actually, I could be conflating some sources here.
But the Bible says that no man knows the hour of Christ’s return – the end of the world as we know it – and then goes on to devote a good number of pages to the clues to help you figure it out. We’ve proven to be very capable of pushing ourselves to the brink of apocalypse on our own, so whatever end of the world scenario humankind finally unspools for itself will most likely happen without the intervention of gods and monsters. Still, If you don’t have at least a passing familiarity with the Bible, I guess a surface-y interpretation of “The Man Comes Around” could place it squarely in the Old Guys Say Some Crazy Shit category.
While Cash bracketed his song with ominous excerpts from Revelation, (prophesies having to do with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse– some of your top-tier end-times imagery, really) the rest of the song very much works the Judgment Day Cannot Be Foretold theme. That weird line about the virgins trimming their wicks comes from a parable Jesus told about how he could come back at any time, so be ready. My youth minister said that we shouldn’t do anything we’d hate to be caught doing if Christ suddenly returned, although I always thought this guideline was a little flawed because it seemed to put things like sitting on the toilet in kind of an iffy gray area.
In “The Man Comes Around,” Johnny Cash paints a picture of a Judgment Day that comes spectacularly and loudly, but also swiftly and unexpectedly, and it doesn’t bog itself down in omens. The one part of the song that seems to suggest an augury of the end times, the line “The Whirlwind Is in the Thorn Tree” comes from something the Queen of England told Cash in a dream. This imagery sounds as if it could be biblical, but it is purely his own, although, I guess the astral projection of Queen Elizabeth deserves partial credit.
But did anyone ever doubt that Johnny Cash would end up a prophet? It seems he was preparing his whole life to be a harbinger: the hardscrabble childhood, the somber clothing, the thunderous voice, his existential struggles as a young man, smashing the lights at the Grand Ole Opry like Moses furiously destroying the golden idol (granted, Cash was completely polluted with booze and amphetamines at the time, so it’s maybe not quite the same).
It’s likely you don’t remember these hell-raising days firsthand. By the time most of us were aware of Johnny Cash, he was well into his Man in Black period: a God-fearing, social justice-seeking, avuncular troubadour, one of the elder-statesmen of American music, up there on the pop-cultural Mount Rushmore with Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra and, I dunno, sure, fuckin’ Bob Hope. Why not? You know: guys who just seemed like they’d been around forever and always would be.
But it was during the American Recordings years when it became clear that Cash wouldn’t. During the later sessions, Cash was in such poor health and so short of breath that, for some songs, he was only able to take them a line at a time, with Rick Rubin stitching them together on tape. “The Man Comes Around” is one of the final songs that Johnny Cash wrote and, by some accounts, he considered it his greatest. It’s a last gasp. Almost literally. A man who knew he didn’t have many breaths left used them to warn us that, for all we knew, neither did we.
And, sure, Cash was probably considering Judgment Day as literally as my youth minister did, but I like to see the song more as an acknowledgment that life is a fragile and finite thing. The end could come when we least expect it. This from a man who fully expected his end any day.
And, goddamn, that’s depressing. I think. Maybe. Or was it a beautiful parting sentiment from a man who had packed a lot of living into his 71 years? 71. My parents are pushing 70. My dad told me the other day, “They just opened up a beef jerky outlet at the mall. Have you ever had beef jerky? I’ve never had beef jerky.” I thought that was a weird thing to say, because how the fuck has he never had beef jerky? Maybe he’s starting to lose it and I shouldn’t ever put off telling him I love him. Or, maybe he should give beef jerky a try pretty soon.
Make the most of every day. Tell the people close to you how you feel. Is one of them sitting next to you? Hell. Do it right now. Is the person next to you a stranger? Don’t make things creepy. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Appreciate the beauty around you. Don’t waste time on stupid shit that’s just going to make you angry. Don’t shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die.
Look, I know, these are trite platitudes you’ve probably heard before, and it’s because I’ve kind of painted myself into a dark corner here, and I’m trying to leave this on an upbeat note. But there’s only so much spin I can put on a song written by a dying man about the end of the world. So, sorry. The whirlwind is in the thorn tree, people. Go ahead and have that beef jerky. But don’t go too nuts, just in case you need to outrun the demon locusts at Armageddon.