Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Because You're Mine...

...I Walk the Line.

Actually, I walked the line last night and finally got a chance to watch the big-screen biopic of Johnny Cash that was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.

My thoughts, not that they're totall relevant anymore, but here goes.

I've never been a big Johnny Cash fan. I love the song, "Ring of Fire" and enjoyed hearing some more of his music during the film but I've never really connected with it. Cash was part of my household's country music repertoire as I was growing up, along with Tammy Wynette, The Statler Brothers, Dolly Parton and Tanya Tucker. But other than that one song, and a little bit of "Walk the Line" I wasn't familiar with much of his music. So I went into the movie with a bit of a blank slate.

To briefly summarize the movie, Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) rose from cotton-growing obscurity to country/rock/bluegrass stardom in the 50's and 60's, touring with future greats like Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and oh yeah, some kid from Tupelo named Presley. And of course, future wife June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) joined in here and there. Johnny was married with kids at home while he was on the road, all the while flirting with and chasing June from town to town. Eventually the booze and the pills catches up to Johnny - he loses his family, his fame, his self-respect and bottoms out face down in the rain. Only with the love of a good woman, Carter, and her famous down-home family does Johnny come in from the storm. And the rest is history.

The most famous plot in history is the story of a guy with good intentions who screws up his life, turns it around, and finally redeems himself. Most every story or movie ever created has this theme in some fashion. Of course, no story about a musician could be any other way (or VH1 would have no programming) so we see Johnny follow his dream of being a singer. Since being a rock-n-roll musician is in the blood of people like Johnny, it's in his soul and it's his fire, and it can never be quenched. Being a salesman and supporting his young family is secondary to him - the music in his heart cannot be denied so he cuts a record, goes on tour and leaves the responsibilities behind to his wife. We're all expected to "get it" how some musicians have to express those fires in their soul through their music, and how wives and family are just supposed to deal with their absence and grow up without them.

Sure, as Johnny gets big he sends home money that puts his wife and kids in nicer houses but he never spends emotional time with them or participates in their lives.

But hey, as long as he has the music...

Then we see his continuing infatuation with June Carter - he resists the impulses at first, but an attractive young groupie and a friend with an envelope full of pulls start him down the road to standard musican carousing. Wine, women and song lead him around and around the charts, greater success and closer to June while his family waits at home.

Even those of us unfamiliar with Cash's life know he's headed for an inevitable crash. And it happens. Johnny wanders about in a half-withdrawal/half-addled haze for the latter part of the movie, making half-hearted attempts to reconnect with his family and June at the same time, neither of which succeed. Finally at an ill-fated Thanksgiving in his new lake-side home in Hendersonville, TN with all his family present (minus his wife, who has since left him) Johnny is finally allowed to confront his tortured demons. June, of course, ministers to him - takes him to church, incidentally, where apparently Johnny finds God - cleans him up and they both live musically ever after.

So the moral of the story is - no matter how bad it gets, you can always crawl back out from under. And if you have the fire of music in your soul it has to come out or it will eat you alive. And the love of a good woman conquers all.

Johnny, your tortured struggles to overcome the bad things that happened to you in your life are legendary. Do I feel a surge of triumph for you when you end up coming out ahead in the end?

Nope. Not really.

It's interesting to try and understand this American concept of the "fire in the belly" that often punctuates movies about musicians. Most Elvis movies have it, it's probably in the Buddy Holly story, "La Bamba", "Great Balls of Fire" and a hundred others. It's even part of "Amadeus", although he was just bonkers. For some people there is a real or imagined torture in their lives that they identify with and somehow feel performing music is the only way to purge it. Even Cash's tortures were in some way imaginary - he sang about being in prison when he'd never been in one until later in life. That they were metaphors for the "prison" of an unhappy childhood were obvious (his father preferred his pious older brother to him and rejected Johnny after the older brother was killed in an accident) and it supposedly fueled that righteous rage and anger within him.

It's a common American story theme. We're supposed to admire such people with such passions, cheer them on as they struggle against the oppression of fate and sympathise with the soul-sucking hand they've been dealt in life.

I say too freaking bad for you, pal.

He had what he needed - a beautiful wife, two beautiful daughters. And he turned his back on them. He turned his back on them to chase some Impossible Dream. Johnny's windmill was country/rockabilly music and it didn't matter what he had at home. It didn't matter what responsibilities he'd willingly accepted as long as chased his dream. What, his wife wouldn't support him completely? Raise the kids by herself? Be quiet and quit complaining when he sent home the checks every week and stopped back in for a visit when not on tour? What did she want from him, anyway? He had a dream to pursue and demons to excise. Captain Cash had to hunt his whale...

Well fine, dear. Since you're being so unreasonable he'll just take up with the little Southern Jewel herself, Miss June Carter. And start taking pills. And drink himself plastered every night. Hey, he's taking responsibility for his life, right?


I knew Johnny eventually marries June. That's part of history. So I knew his marriage to his wife would eventually fail. Seeing how he just lets it slip away was maddening, no matter how sweet and lovable (and fairly noble) June was. She did truly love him and was able to bring him back out of the depths to a bigger success later on but I never got the impression Johnny loved anything or anyone but himself. He loved himself so much, and he loved those demons so much, and he loved that "fire in his soul" so much that he sold out everything he had to please himself and his own ego. And maybe later in life, after the scope of the movie he came to realize what a jerk he'd been earlier but it's not really evident in the movie. And there are also stories of how the first wife wasn't entirely blameless in the whole situation, but I'm going by what's in the film itself.

So Johnny, you get no sympathy from me. I assume the movie-makers intended to get it by the end of the movie but I feel pity for him. He destroyed a woman who loved him, ignored his kids and avoided seeing them grow up, was a drug addict, an alcoholic, a philanderer. But as long as you "redeem yourself" in an American movie, all is forgiven. But not by me. If he'd avoided all the temptations or made restitutions for all his infractions along the way he'd be a much nobler character. But not this way.

I've recently been going back through the home video I shot of my kids, from birth to learning to walk, to first words, to birthdays, to Christmas....everything. Seeing BrainyBoy as a 2-yr-old again brings back particular emotional flavors of love and pride I haven't felt in years, and they're very very sweet. I wouldn't trade those years with my kids and wife and family for anything.

But some people choose to ignore those years, because they have a fire in their soul. And we're supposed to cheer them on for it.

Hey, enjoy yourself pal. Go Walk your Line. But you'll never get that life back.

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