From the Gallows Pole to the Mercy Seat

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Johnny Cash went out with a bang, having put out
four of the best and best-received albums of his career in the last decade of his life with the Rick
Rubin-produced American series, which he was still working on right up until his death
in 2003.

 

Capitalizing on Cash’s new wave of popularity (which began with his
appearance on U2’s Zooropa but mostly stems from his cover of the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt,"
which became an MTV staple) is Michael Streissguth’s new Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison: The Making
of a Masterpiece.

 

The book is mostly about the recording of Cash’s 1968 Folsom Prison concert,
which first broke him through to a pop audience. While it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the book’s
main purpose is to prime Barnes & Noble passers-by for the coming Cash biopic, Streissguth
gives himself an odd double task in the meantime: to debunk some of the mythology around Cash and
the Folsom show, while at the same time touting it as one of the century’s seminal musical events.
After all, if the show’s reputation is undeserved, why would anyone buy the book?

 

In the liner notes to Folsom Prison, Cash brags that "I have been
behind bars a few times Each time, I felt the same feeling of kinship with my fellow prisoners."
Streissguth dwells on the well-known fact that Cash drew mostly on Hollywood prison melodramas
and a little Christian empathy (and on other people’s songs) for his rough-and-rowdy ways songs,
rather than on the day or two he spent inside drying out.

 

However much kinship Cash felt with his fellow prisoners, they related
to him as a performer, not a peer. Streissguth details the TV-style audience prep and post-production
manipulation which the studio employed to create a sound of maximum rowdiness.

 

After taking the piss out of Folsom Streissguth, of course, claims that
it is an underappreciated album, and even as he cuts against Cash’s cred, he can’t help but rave about
what a man of the (violent and imprisoned) people our hero is.

 

Worse still is his half-assed claim that Cash’s "sociopolitical" album
was a greater accomplishment than those of Lennon and Dylan, accusing the two giants of "self-indulgence"
and preoccupation with "abstract realms of personal experience," thus implicitly claiming that
Cash’s record is more real.

 

This is stupid. You can hear on Folsom how much Cash is getting off on having
the prisoners think he’s hardcore like them, singing about unrepentant murders ("I shot that bad
bitch down") and goading the prison guards ("mean bastards, aren’t they?")

 

The truth is that Folsom is actually an overrated album, relying
on its mythos of violence as much as any gangster rap album. While Folsom became the Straight
Out Of Compton
of its day, Cash’s prison follow-up, 1969’s Johnny Cash At San Quentin,
is a far better album (The Chronic?), wild enough to supersede any question of legitimacy
or nagging knowledge of studio tricks.

 

"I think prison songs are popular," Streissguth quotes Cash as saying
early in his career, "because most of us are living in one little kind of prison or another."

 

It would take another 30 years, though, and the nearness of death as Cash’s
health gave way for him to fully invest his prison metaphor with the heft it deserved. In the space
between the gag humor of Folsom’s gallows humor "25 Minutes to Go" and American III‘s powerful
death row ballad "The Mercy Seat," Cash found the weight that was lacking from his earlier efforts.

 

The problem with writing about Cash is that it’s difficult to explain
that he wasn’t an outlaw, but that he wasn’t a fraud either, and Streissguth’s blowjob with teeth
just tries to have it both ways at once. Cash was in the spirit of Harry Smith, Hunter Thompson, Bob
Dylan and a handful of other bullshit artists who to steal a line from Bono (who’d love to be on this
list but isn’t) were even better than the real thing.

 

 

 

JOhnny cash at folson prison:
the making of a masterpiece

 

By Michael Streissguth

 

Da Capo Press

 

191 pages, $24

 

 

 

A Fine Whine

 

How sheep shit got cute.

 

 

 

D’ont let the studly pin-up fool youMichael
Wex wasn’t born to be bad. He was born to kvetch.

 

Having heard Wex lecture, I didn’t need an entire book to know that the title
was true. He is a shrewd linguist, sociologist, historian, playwright and skilled native Yiddish
speakerand a heck of a whiner.

 

Wex is a beloved fixture at KlezKanada, a summer program devoted to Yiddish
music, theater, and language. And there, in the backwoods outside of Montreal, I have heard Wex
complain about everything from the quality of the cholent (a long-simmering beef and bean stew),
to the cruel distance of his trailer from the bathroom (not unrelated grievances).

 

Even those with no prior exposure to Yiddish can follow Wex’s clean and
clear prose as it weaves through explanations of the roots of particular words and of whole expressions.
Wex greatly appreciates just how layeredhow masterfully evolvedmany Yiddish
expressions are.

 

A favorite example of mine is the phrase "nisht geshtoygn un nisht
gefloygn
," it didn’t climb up and it didn’t fly. As Wex explains, the origin of this phrasewhose
import is "yeah, right"is a reference to the Christian notion of Jesus climbing onto the
cross and later winging his resurrected way into heaven. The author explains:

 

"Each individual word of nisht geshtoygn un nisht gefloygn would be
comprehensible to a German-speaker, but it’s unlikely that the German would ever guess what it
really refers to, even if he or she caught the meaning of ‘bullshit.’ And that’s the point: Yiddish
started out as German for blasphemers, as a German in which you could deny Christ without getting
yourself killed any more often than necessary."

 

Such complexities to Yiddish turns-of-phrase and wordings, though
not always related to religion, are the substance of this book: are part of what Wex means by kvetching.
He writes: "If the Stones’ ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ had been written in Yiddish, it would
have been called ‘(I Love to Keep Telling You That I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (Because Telling
You That I’m Not Satisfied Is All That Can Satisfy Me).’"

 

To illustrate what he’s driving at, he gives the example of a joke involving
a man complaining just to be a nuisance, and explains:

 

"He knowsthat in a world where indifference is the best that
can be expected, the principle of aftselakhis (very literally, ‘in order to provoke anger’), the
impulse to do things only because someone else doesn’t want you to, is sometimes essential to the
world’s moral balance. And the old man understands how aftselakhis works: alone in the history
of the world, Yiddish-speaking Jews long ago broke the satisfaction barrier and figured out how
to express contentment by means of complaint: kvetching becomes a way of exercising some small
measure of control over an otherwise hostile environment."

 

This placement of Complaint at the center of the whole language is something
that many, if not most, Yiddishists and Yiddish-speakers would disagree with. But for Wex, it is
the ideal springboard for a scholarly discussion of the language, and also for his own idiosyncratic
sense of humor, which successfully walks the precarious line between witty and grating.

 

Lots of New Yorkers sprinkle their schmoozing with some Yiddish words;
but, if they knew what they were actually saying, perhaps they might think twice. Many of the words
that are used casually in English, in the original Yiddish would have been unsuitable in respectable
conversation. In his chapter "’Bubkes Means a Lot of Nothing:’ Yiddish and Nature," Wex explains
how bubkes, a word meaning, literally, "sheep shit" became an acceptable alternate in English
for "nothin’." He discusses why it’s true that "Like so much of the Yiddish that has found its way
into English, bubkes has been downgraded from vulgar to cute; but unless you were discussing barnyard
waste, you’d try to avoid the word in polite Yiddish conversation."

 

All in all, it’s a great read for those who know and love Yiddish, and those
who just drop the occasional "schmuck" into conversation. Whine on, Wex, whine on you irresistible
hunk.

 

 

 

Born to Kvetch

 

By Michael Wex

 

St. Martin’s Press

 

320 pages, $24.95

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