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Bird in a Gilded Cage

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Among Johnny Cash’s lifetime achievements--a buckboard full of Grammys, admission into both the Rock and Roll and Country Music halls of fame, that enviable blue-black pompadour--is this: He executed the definitive middle-finger salute.

The scene: San Quentin Prison, Feb. 24, 1969. Cash is behind the curtain of a makeshift stage. Photographer Jim Marshall asks Johnny if he has a message for the warden. In a blur, like a gunfighter, Cash draws and fires his middle finger in an expression of furious, summary loathing. At the moment the shutter winks, Cash’s mouth is forming the “F” of a phrase no one need wonder about.

Talk about sticking the dismount. In the Olympics of contempt, Cash’s digitus impudicus scores a perfect 10.

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I love this photo, and not simply because it makes a swell T-shirt. There is something purely spooky about it, some quality of demonic possession. This is the look, the final enraged gesture, of a convict shoved in the back once too often and now has snapped. Cash was never that man. He had been thrown in the tank a few times but he never went to prison. Yet he’d done time in penitentiaries of his own making and knew what it was like to hate the jailer.

I spent much of Thanksgiving Day listening to “Cash, the Legend: a Four-Part Radio Special” on my local NPR station. In mid-November, CBS aired a star-studded tribute--because that’s what stars do, stud things--called “I Walk the Line: A Night For Johnny Cash,” timed to the release of the Cash biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.

During this media run-up, a lot of images of Cash have resurfaced: pomaded rockabilly cool cat, Bergman-esque Man in Black, he who walks with Christ. In his last music video--a stunning rendition of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt,” filmed less than a year before his death in 2003--Cash sings his own requiem as a trembling, abyss-staring penitent, and if you ever saw it, you can’t forget it.

But history’s eye tends to be reductive--Marilyn’s dress is forever swanning from a subway updraft, Woody Guthrie is eternally holding the guitar that says “This machine kills fascists”--and if we canonize only one image of Cash, let it be the one taken by Marshall: Cash the profane and angry man, Cash the finger-waving dissident, ever at war with authority.

And Nashville. Marshall’s photo became famous in 1998, when Rick Rubin, Cash’s producer, used it as a full-page ad in Billboard, celebrating the Grammy win for Cash’s album “Unchained.” It read: “American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support.” The joke, of course, is that the country music establishment gave the album no support. Cash’s fillip was, in part, a gesture of solidarity with old-guard country artists such as Merle Haggard, George Jones and Willie Nelson, who were getting squeezed off radio by the syrupy likes of Shania Twain and Kenny Chesney.

It wasn’t the first time Cash shamed Nashville. In 1964, he took out an ad in Billboard criticizing radio stations for refusing to play his “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” the story of a Pima Indian who returned from World War II a hero but died in a ditch, unloved by the country he fought to save. “ ‘Ballad of Ira Hayes’ is strong medicine,” Cash wrote. “So is Rochester, Harlem, Birmingham and Vietnam.”

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Country music’s audience is politically reactionary--witness the blowback against the Dixie Chicks after one of them slammed President Bush at a London concert in 2003--but Cash’s opposition to the war in Vietnam was hard for Middle America to dismiss, because he was hard to dismiss. Cash was the slightly pummeled, jug-eared American Everyman, the God-fearing son of an Arkansas sharecropper. Even Cash’s voice--with its Sunday-choir profundo and flame-like wavering--sounded as though it came from a trucker who stumbled into the spotlight while looking for a cup of coffee.

Cash’s opposition to the Vietnam War probably softened up more hard heads than a hundred hippie marches. Likewise, when Congressman John Murtha--an indisputable hawk and highly decorated Marine, virtually Swift Boat-proof--recently called for the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, he rattled the convictions of a lot of the war’s supporters.

“Walk the Line” is a polished but safely apolitical bit of filmmaking, but it doesn’t touch Johnny Cash’s legacy as a redneck dissident. He was a man with a well-honed and principled distrust for earthly authority. In an America spellbound by power--presidents, soldiers, wardens--that’s the harder line to walk.

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