Let's talk first about "Delia's Gone," the song that's been the focus of attention on Johnny Cash's "alternative album," American Recordings. The song is a sanguinary ballad limning the sadistic killing of a cheatin' wife; the point of it, apparently, is to make the case that murderous misogyny is not merely the province of today's gangsta rappers: it has a long and proud history in all sorts of music. Point taken, I guess, but the dubiousness of the intention points up some of the problems of the record as a whole. Armed with nothing but an acoustic guitar, Cash takes on a variety of originals and covers, all produced starkly by Rick Rubin, enthusiastic promoter of all sorts of fringey (but profitable) rock 'n' roll no-goodnikness. While I can go along with some of the hype--long overdue, great for the old guy, a tribute to an American original and an undeniable rock 'n' roll forefather, blah blah blah--the album is nevertheless heavy-handed and grasping. As sung by Cash, "Delia's Gone" is far too zealous. I'm sure Rubin hoped a bit of Cash's class would rub off on some of the label's other morally questionable output; instead, Cash looks like a bonehead. Same with his cover of Glenn Danzig's "Thirteen." We're supposed to think something like, "Sure, Danzig's a dumb metalhead, but there's an undeniable force and majesty to a song like that stripped down to its essence; gee, I'll have to revise my thinking about heavy-metal music." But it just ends up sounding like Cash singing "Smoke on the Water" or something. And you can imagine how exercises like "Thirteen" clash with, oh, say, Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire." This is one weird album. That said, there are a couple of nice performances, like Cash's own Vietnam tale, "Drive On." As a one-off American Recordings is a failure, but viewed as a beginning it's mildly promising; let's hope it turns out to be the latter. Live, Cash is still Cash: the originals, particularly, come alive as he stands onstage with just his guitar. And get there on time to see the Jayhawks, a smart and highly musical country-rock outfit from Minneapolis. Friday, 7:30 PM, Palace Theater, Bismarck Hotel, 171 W. Randolph; 696-2405 or 559-1212.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andy Earl.