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Steve, You’re Way Behind Time

Cash Was King

September 15, 2003

Letter from Brooklyn my ass. Johnny Cash is dead.

I wake up Friday morning and check Internet headlines: Three’s Company star John Ritter gone at 54. Tommy Chong arrested for selling bongs. Man in Black passes at 71.

Nobody’s completely real, but a few have the ability to convey realness. Talent explains a gift to evoke emotion, but when that sense transcends and the relationship between one and many takes on powerful, idiosyncratic tone, it’s something else. Johnny Cash was mine. He was, in no particular order, masculinity, irony, pain’s humor, spirituality, sensitivity, speed, and a strong link to my mom. He was also my first sense for poetry and music, and a precursor to a particular form of autism I would unconsciously pursue.

I don’t know if it’s an ear for nothing, but it is a strange gift. I have the ability to store and recall auditory experience, be it words spoken, lyrics sung, or sounds heard. When I was seven, I would sit in the downstairs room of my parent’s home wearing funky, red, 70s headphones with thick black foam cupping both ears. There were two records I played more than any others – “Johnny Cash’s Greatest Hits Volume I” and “Johnny Cash at San Quentin.” I didn’t consider the extent of my fixation until years later, while reciting lyrics and banter from the San Quentin LP for a friend. She observed that not only was I repeating the words verbatim, but also reproducing the pops and scratches on the vinyl.

People come and go and this hits with varying impact in each case. On Friday they played a lot of Cash on the radio, or at least that’s what I’m told. I went to an interview for an internship in Manhattan, then came home and listened to Neil Young’s “On the Beach.” Couldn’t bring myself to put anything else on. This one’s between John and me.


September 11. I make my way back to the Fall Cafe to meet my ex subletee and exchange keys for deposit check. Just over three months into New York and I already have an ex. It’s the little things that mark one’s arrival. Someone’s left two bits on an armrest, and I notice it’s the New York issue quarter with the Statue of Liberty and Gateway to Freedom on Washington’s flip side. A rather simplistic sentiment, with no mention made of whether the gate’s locked or where the key might be. There’s only so much room on a quarter. Might be time for a special-issue dime with further instruction.

Sinatra sang that if you could make it here, you could make it anywhere. The same must hold true for all levels of existence. Surely only select few can pass Frank’s standards. So, if you can exist marginally here, you can exist marginally anywhere. This, I think, is the real miracle- the numbers hanging on, working the pavement, running the Kinko’s and doing it over the next day.

Cash sang about drunken Native American war heroes, boys named Sue, and dysfunctional folk groups. His exchanges with prisoners on the San Quentin recording reflect both command and courtesy. He understood the fine line between fortune and despair, and didn’t condescend. He towered, but was never quite comfortable. As someone remarked to me at a show we took in from close range in ‘93: “he’s not sure what to do with his hands.”


And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when

The move to Park Slope extended my F Train ride three stops and brought it above ground. The elevated rail airs out between Seventh and Carroll, offering beautiful perspective of both Manhattan and Brooklyn. There’s the majesty of the island’s distant skyline and the warmth of the borough’s red brick, orange lights and pizza joints just below. Out past the point, Liberty carries a torch in the harbor, either shining the way or providing discouraging illumination on what lurks in the shadows. The view is fleeting, and the car steams on. Call it what you will- subway, underground, tube – it is still a train, and despite urban conditioning, works on all levels, metaphorical and otherwise. Johnny would be proud.

2003 Rick Monaco All Rights

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