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
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
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
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
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
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.