Issue #224 / February 2023
I’ve recently been listening to your duet of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” with Johnny Cash, on repeat. Whilst it’s melancholy, the harmonising that’s happening just makes me feel so comforted, warm, fuzzy and happy. Do you have any stories that you could share with us about recording this song with Mr. Cash.
DANIELLE, SHOREHAM-BY-SEA, UK
Yes, I do have a story about Mr. Cash, some readers may have heard it already, my apologies if so.
It was early 2002 and I was sitting in my hotel room in Los Angeles when the phone rang. It was the record producer, Rick Rubin, wanting to know if I’d like to come down to his studio the next day to sing a song with Johnny Cash. Now Johnny had been a hero of mine since I’d watched The Johnny Cash Show on TV in Australia when I was about ten years old. As a kid I had been genuinely transfixed by the ‘Man in Black’, as he was known, thrilled and intimidated by his dark, grave voice, thinking he was truly scary, like an outlaw or something. He went on to have considerable influence over the songs I wrote in The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds and, of course, the way I would sing them. So, I was very excited to be asked to sing with him and I said to Rick Rubin, Yeah, you know, of course, it’d be an honour. I asked him what song Johnny wanted to sing and he said that it didn’t matter and that I could decide. And that was that, he hung up, whereupon my mind immediately descended into worst-case scenario mode and all the misgivings I had about my own voice, which were considerable at the time, rushed in, and I started wondering how the fuck was I going to contend with the voice of Johnny Cash, so deep, so soulful, so beautiful. How was I not going to be totally annihilated by his brilliance?
I start panicking and so I go down the corridor to Warren’s room and he’s lying on the bed in his underwear listening to Hank Williams and I say, Fuck, dude, Rick Rubin just called and he wants me to go into his studio and sing a song with Johnny Cash! Warren says, Far out, man, and I say, Yeah, I know, but what if I sing out of tune? Warren says, Don’t worry about that, mate, what are you going to sing? I said, Rick Rubin says I can do whatever I like. Sing this, Warren says, as Hank Williams starts crooning ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’. I say, OK, great idea, but what if I sing the song fucking flat?
That night my mind goes into full-on overdrive, and I’m tossing and turning and worrying about this and worrying about that, and worrying about being out of tune, and being flat, and I can’t sleep, and by the time I get to Rick Rubin’s studio the following morning I’m basically a wreck. I sit down in the control room with Rick Rubin, while the guitarist goes through the chords to the Hank Williams song, as we all wait for Johnny.
Someone eventually announces that Johnny has arrived and we sit there for a moment and then the door opens and Johnny Cash appears at the top of a long flight of stairs that lead from the street down to the control room. I’m immediately confused because Johnny doesn’t look like Johnny anymore, he looks unbelievably old and his hair isn’t black, it’s white and he seems very frail. Johnny has his hands out in front of him like a ghost or spectre or something as he descends the stairs, led by his wife, June Carter Cash. I later find out that he has a condition where he is temporarily blinded when he goes indoors from sunlight. He keeps saying in a weird, shaky voice, Are you there, Nick? Are you there, Nick? And I’m thinking, Oh my God, because Johnny seems seriously debilitated, and how the fuck is he going to sing a song? I’m here, Johnny, I say. I’m here.
Johnny sits down and I talk to him for a bit and every time he says something inspirational, which is often, June says, Hallelujah! or Praise Jesus! Johnny says, What do you want to sing? and I say, How about ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ Johnny says, Oh yeah, I love that song, and June, who I’ve taken a real shine to, shouts, Praise the Lord! Sweet Jesus!
So we take our seats in our separate booths and the band start up the song and I can see Johnny through the glass partition and the moment the music starts I see before my eyes a sudden, radical and absolute transformation. I am not exaggerating. Johnny comes alive. He is quite literally taken by the spirit, as the years fall away and he begins to glow, growing powerful and possessed by some kind of thing and when he starts singing, his beautiful voice just runs right through me like a celestial force and I start singing and I’m sounding all right, and I’m deeply moved, you know, I’ve got tears in my eyes, and June is over there swaying and smiling and praising Jesus, and Johnny is singing his heart out in his dark, measured style, and it’s one of those moments that just imprints itself upon your very soul.
We finish the song and there is a silence, and I can hear my heart thumping, and the blood running around my veins and I’m wiping the tears from my eyes, as all of us inhabit a kind of breathless spiritual suspension. All remains silent. Then Rick Rubin’s voice comes through the headphones. We gotta do that again, gentlemen, he says. And my heart just plummets, like through the fucking floor, and I say, I’m flat, right? And Rick Rubin’s voice says, Nope, Johnny’s flat. And Johnny smiles and says, Yeah, I was a little off there, Nick, I’m sorry. And I say, Hell, that’s all right, Johnny, it happens to the best of us, as June shouts, Praise Jesus!
That day we recorded ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry ’and a few other things, of which I think only the folk song ‘Cindy’ survived. It was to be Johnny’s last album, June died the following year and Johnny a few months after her. I’ve heard Rick Rubin criticised from time to time for pushing Johnny to record those last records at the very end of his life, but whatever you may make of them, I saw with my own eyes, a man brought back to life by the sheer rescuing power of music, a testament to the deep healing force of this most transformative of art forms. Danielle, on a personal level, occasionally things happen in life that hold a special kind of resonance and this day, spent with my hero and his extraordinary wife, is one that will live with me always.
One last thing, as this seems somehow connected to the story – as I was walking up the hill to Rick Rubin’s studio that morning, I saw a handsome man, dressed in black trousers and a red shirt with the sleeves rolled up, leaning against the hood of a big American car, smoking a cigarette. The man looked like he’d stepped out of a movie. It was Joe Strummer from The Clash. Hi, Joe, I said. Hey man, he said, what are you doing here? I’m going to sing with Johnny Cash, I said. Joe nodded and smiled and sucked on his cigarette. Then he gave a little slow-motion wave as I went inside.