I was in high school when the first wave of punk rock hit Toronto Ontario in the mid 1970's. A couple of friends had family in England and they had picked up copies of Never Mind The Bollocks by the Sex Pistols and the first Clash album while on vacation and brought them home for us to listen to before they were readily available over here. It took me a bit to warm up to the Pistols, but I was soon hooked. My buddies and I soon took to trolling through the small, alternative record shops in Toronto that sold imports from England, and between us we soon built up a collection of music that you definitely weren't going to hear on the local radio stations.
What really surprised me about a lot of the music these bands were playing was how familiar so much of it sounded. What most of the bands had done was simply returned to basics and stripped the music back to its rawest and most elemental form. Short, two to three minute songs, played fast and furious and fuelled with the energy of youthful rebellion, anger, and the excitement that the music itself generates. The other thing that separated must punks from their immediate predecessors was their attitude of defiance and their easy acceptance of their outsider status. They were a reminder that at one time rock and roll hadn't been acceptable music, and had been the topic of many a sermon from the pulpit for its potential to be the ruination of young people; a path to the devil.
As befitted their outsider status, the punks sang about people and subject matter that went beyond the usual silly fodder of pop music. You weren't going to hear any whining about my girl friend left me for another guy, or I wish I were prettier songs from these folk. They sang, and still sing today, about the people that get left behind and fall through the cracks to be forgotten about by the rest of us. They look at the world and see that not only isn't the emperor wearing any clothes, his throne is made of bones and his palace flesh and blood. The real punks are the ones who express their anger and outrage over the way our society treats people and the world through their music, which is why its hard and mean with lyrics full of so-called obscenities.
So when I first read about All Aboard: A Tribute To Johnny Cash, being released by Anchorless Records on the 21st of October/08, and that it was to feature fifteen tracks performed by various contemporary punk bands and performers, it made perfect sense to me. Who did Johnny spend his life singing about? Prisoners, guys who shot their girlfriends after getting loaded on cocaine and booze, people from the wrong side of the tracks, and the sad state of the world.
Think about the lyrics to his song "Man In Black": " I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down/Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town". He doesn't stop there either as he goes on to say that although we think we're doing good, with all our fancy stuff, we need to be reminded of the ones worse off then us; "Up front there ought to be a Man In Black". Punk rockers have continued that tradition since they first started back in the seventies. They have been the men and women "in black" in spirit and attitude for thirty years now. It didn't come as any surprise to me how easily they identify with Cash's music.
Some people might think that the punks would have a hard time with Johnny's Christianity, but if you look at most of his songs, he talks about Christ and his teachings in a way that few others do. Instead of just blithering selfishly about how Christ saved him, he talks about the Jesus who preached we must love each other and treat everybody with compassion. It's a Christ who doesn't seem to come in up in conversation very often anymore, you know, the guy who said something about ridding yourself of material possessions if you wanted to get into heaven.
If you had any doubts as to how well the punks were going to be able to handle the music of Johnny Cash they're dispelled from the first song as far as I'm concerned. Now I'm not familiar with the punk scene anymore so none of the band's names meant anything to me, but I'd lay odds that all of them captured the true spirit of Johnny's music better than most of today's so called country music singers could. While The Bouncing Souls opened the disc with a great version of "Man In Black", complete with the traditional punk guitar attack, what surprised me most about the disc was how many bands chose to use acoustic guitars for their songs.
Yet even though they went that route there was no way you're going to mistake this for being anything other than a punk album. Energy crackles from each track on this disc like sparks from someone standing on the third rail of a subway line. Even songs like "There You Go" (performed by The Sainte Catherines) become statements of defiance and real anguish. I'd only ever heard insipid covers of that song before and never really liked it, but after hearing these folks do it, I've gained a far better appreciation for the depths of the feeling expressed in it.
While the disc contains versions of some of Cash's classics, "I Walk The Line"(Russ Rankin), "Folsom Prison Blues" (Chon Travis), "Wreck Of The Old '97" (Chuck Ragan), and "Cry, Cry.Cry" (The Flatliners), one of the ones I liked most was one I wasn't familiar with. "Ballad Of A Teenage Queen", performed by The Dresden Dolls and featuring Franz Nicolay, stands out for the way they played it as a nearly straight country song, but added an edge to the vocals and the music that removed any potential for cheap sentimentality the song might have had. Instead it was a genuine expression of a person realizing the hollowness of fame and the importance of having someone who loves you for who you are, not what you are, in your life.
All Aboard: A Tribute To Johnny Cash isn't just a great collection of music either. All the proceeds from the sales of this recording are being donated to Syrentha Savio Endowment (SSE) a non-profit organization that provides financial assistance to underprivileged women who can't afford the cost of fighting breast cancer. Since its inception the SSE has awarded gifts to organizations in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles California that help women in struggling neighbourhoods find the means to fight the disease. Not only does the music reflect the spirit of Johnny Cash, but the disc is taking care of some of those that Johnny wanted to make sure wouldn't be forgotten.
You can pre-order copies of All Aboard: A Tribute To Johnny Cash at the Anchorless Records' web site either as a CD or if you hurry, a special, limited edition, pink vinyl LP. No matter what format you purchase, you're guaranteed receiving fifteen songs (the LP contains a bonus track, an alternate version of Ben Nichols' version of "Delia's Gone") that will have you appreciating the genius of Johnny Cash all over again. Mainstream country music may have tried to co-opt Cash as one of their own, but this recording will remind the world that Johnny walked his own path, one that more of us could stand to follow.
(Originally posted October 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.