Saturday, March 08, 2014

When The Man Goes To Ground

So my good friend Heather tells me she finished the copy of the new Johnny Cash biography by Robert Hilbun I sent her for Christmas and was somewhat taken aback. She was thinking of writing about it, with a working title so clever I’m going to riff on it for my own title. I believe plagiarism is still considered to be the sincerest form of flattery, isn’t it?

I had also sent a copy of the book to my mom, who had the same reaction as Heather did, basically, “Wow, this guy’s an asshole.” They were both shocked at the amount of drugs Cash did post-his alleged recovery. His stints at Betty Ford were fobbed off as exceptions to the rule in previous Cash biographies, but this one suggests they were just especially rough patches of a road Cash was constantly on and off of throughout his life.

I admit to being surprised myself. I had bought the official story too. But I always fall for the official story. I believed Bill Clinton until the infamous blue dress surfaced. Like most people, I want to believe, and be able to believe in, the celebrities I admire. It’s always a little blow to the ego to learn I’ve been bamboozled again.

I realized I was angry at myself for not seeing the signs—we junkies are supposed to have each others’ backs!—and getting suckered again.

And then I realized that Heather and my mom were both disappointed in Cash for his failure to live up to the public image he cultivated. We were all disappointed, but for a change, only I was disappointed in myself.

Cash was supposed to have gotten his shit together there in Nickajack Cave and emerged clean, sober and re-energized, the end.

And he might have, too, if that had been the end. That was the ending of the movie biography everybody references when Cash’s life story comes up these days. The official bill of goods gave us the Hollywood ending we wanted; we were happy to forgive Cash a lapse or two between afterwards and the bitter end.

The truth is much more logically consistent with junkie behavior: Cash battled his demons every inch of the way to the bitter end.

Yes, he was in constant pain the last couple decades of his life due to a jaw injury that never healed right. Every day, he had to choose how much pain to suffer and weigh it against the risk of falling back down the substance-abuse bunny hole.

But you know, Cash was a junkie. Even when he wasn’t popping pills, he remained a junkie, he was just a junkie successfully working his program. The same way Hank Williams stayed a drunk even when he wasn’t drinking, or Ted Nugent stays an asshole even when there isn’t a microphone around.

If a junkie falls over in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it, we still make an awful racket. That’s just the way we’re built.

It occurred to me that the disparity between my reaction to the Cash tome and Heather and my Mom’s mutual response was because, being a junkie myself, I expect us to fail. As soon as I read the new revelations, I said to myself, “Oh yeah. Well of course he did. What a gullible fool I’ve been…”

But people without the addictive-personality disorder thing read it and think, “What, was he crazy? He had it all!”


And they’re right, too. Only assholes are narcissistic enough to believe they can not only grab the golden ring, but that they have it coming to them, too. If you really want to succeed in this world, it helps to either be an asshole or marry one.

For me, it comes down to your definition of “asshole.” Mine has always been as follows: An asshole is a jerk with redeeming qualities, whereas a jerk is an asshole without redeeming qualities. It’s like how rich people are eccentric and poor people are just crazy. And how Ted Nugent narrowly clears the jerk threshold by having given us “Cat Scratch Fever,” “Stranglehold” and “Great White Buffalo,” to name but a few of his classic compositions.

If you have brought added-value to this world by having been here, I will accept a lower standard of personal behavior from you as the baseline. And give you a lot more wiggle-room on the margins, too. As long as I don’t have to live with you and you are content to have me worship you from afar.

It’s time we took the onus off of ‘asshole,’ but like most asshole-related activity, the best place to do that is from a safe distance.