Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Rosanne Cash composes herself

Rosanne Cash sleeps with songs in her head.  “I dream they fall down through the centuries, from my distant ancestors, and come to me,” she tells us in her memoir, Composed.  “I dream of lullabies and sea shanties and keening cries and rhythms and stories and backbeats.”

As the daughter of Johnny Cash, Rosanne has never not been surrounded by music.  She was born one month before her father’s first single—“Cry, Cry, Cry”—was released; country music stars like Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette flowed in and out of the house like water; and later in life, she married Rodney Crowell, the producer of her first album released in the U.S.  In her 55 years, she’s lived under the sheltering canopy of rhythm, backbeat and melody; and yet, in the pages of her memoir, we find she has plenty to reveal about the way all of us non-Nashville types go about our lives.  It’s a book that might appear scattershot in its approach—non-linear and skipping like a scratched record across time and place—but when taken as a whole, it has the punch of a well-structured poem.  The book’s title, it seems, is a deliberate choice.

Memories of childhood dapple the pages alongside recollections of singing with her father at Carnegie Hall. We learn she has a fear of snakes, that she played Space Invaders in between takes on her album Seven Year Ache “as an antidote to anxiety,” and that her own daughters are the apple of her eye.  Most of it goes down gentle and smooth.  Even when it comes to telling about her brain surgery three years ago, she does so in an off-putting manner which is more humor than histrionics.  You’re hard-pressed to find scenes of her smashing hotel furniture or insisting that all her M&Ms be green.

She is, however, frank and honest in her confessions.  In her early twenties, she admits, she was “odd, removed, quiet, intensely lonely, and prone to living inside my own thoughts, often to my detriment and deep emotional disturbance.”  We learn that when, at age 23, she recorded her debut U.S. album, Right or Wrong, she “had attitude but no confidence, passion but very little real focus.”

When I dial her up on my iPod and listen to her soulful voice grab the notes and belt the ballads on those early recordings, it’s hard to tell she was riddled with self-doubt and often lacked the courage to continue in her famous father’s footsteps.

She says she’s written this slice of an autobiography not to set the record straight on the headlines of her life, “but to extend the poetry, and to find the more subtle melodies and themes in a life that on reflection seems much longer than the years I have lived.”

There are times when you wished Cash would fill in the blank spots she’s careful to sidestep (the messy public end to her 13-year marriage with Crowell, for instance), and then there are other times when she lapses into profoundly poetic passages:
If Magritte had painted my childhood, it would be a chaos of floating snakes, white oxfords, dead Chihuahuas, and pink hair rollers.  Bolts of gold lame and chiffon would be draped over everything, stained with coffee and burned with cigarettes, and garden hoes would be wielded by drunks with guitars.  Glass jars full of spiders and amphetamines would line the walls behind the sliding mirrored doors.  The landscape would be barren and steep and full of animal treachery.
Cash doesn’t dish celebrity dirt and generally walks a line down the middle of the road in her opinions of fellow artists.  The worst she has to say about someone is when she calls legendary music producer Brian Ahern “mercurial and moody.”

It’s in the moments far removed from the music scene when she cuts to the emotional quick.

Near the middle of the book, Cash recounts a winter night when she and Crowell were driving home from a gig and came across a traffic accident.  In the flickering wash of red police lights, they saw a pedestrian had been hit by a car.  The people standing over the man seemed in no hurry to load him into the ambulance and, as they rubbernecked from their passing car, the country-music couple knew he was dead.  They drove on and a mile down the road, they came upon a woman walking toward the scene of the accident.  When they asked if they could give her a ride, she got in, telling them, “I’m just going back up the road a little bit.  My neighbor there called and said someone had been hit by a car, and my husband was out takin’ a walk, and now I’m a little worried about him.”  Neither Cash nor Crowell could bring themselves to tell her about the body stretched out on the frozen ground.  They rode in silence, their stomachs churning as they listened to the woman chatter nervously about her husband.  When they dropped her off next to the ambulance, they watched through their closed windows as she crumpled and started screaming: “long, deep, circular cries rising from the roots of her body, like a train whistle disappearing into an endless series of tunnels, like the wrenching Gaelic echoes that hang in the graveyard, like the hiss that escapes from the permanently shattered heart.”

This episode is striking not just for the amount of attention Cash gives it or that it has nothing to do with Nashville or Hollywood or celebrity drug use, but because it is written in such a way that shows the strength of storytelling.  These pages could very well have been chipped from the fiction of Richard Ford or Andre Dubus.

In storytelling, Cash searches for, and finds, her release from the pressure of being a member of the royal court in Nashville.  She brings as much care to the writing of Composed as she does to the haunting melancholy songs on her Black Cadillac album, for instance.  “I wanted to be a writer,” she tells us, “and I wanted to do something transcendent and special with my life.”

She succeeds on all counts with Composed.  It’s a book that transcends the crowded field of drably-told memoirs and approaches something very close to Art.

As Composed comes to an end, Cash includes the eulogies she delivered at the nearly back-to-back funerals for her stepmother and father.  The tribute to June Carter Cash is the longer of the two and is beautifully shattering.  After reading it, if your throat isn’t tight and your nose starting to prickle a prelude to tears, then I’m sorry but your heart is made of granite.  Drawn from the well of grief, the eulogy also proves that Rosanne Cash can not only sing, she can write.  Oh brother, can she write!

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As a reminder, you still have the chance to win a free copy of ComposedClick here to learn how to enter the Friday Freebie giveaway.

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