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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2006/08/21
by Mike Gruenberg

Black Cadillac (Rosanne Cash & Her Father)

In My Life

Recently, I listened to the Johnny Cash American V: A Hundred Highways album which is masterfully produced by Rick Rubin. This album is the fifth in the American Masters series, which encompasses the last recordings before the death of Johnny Cash in September of 2003. Its beauty and simplicity can only be described as a tribute to an American icon grieving over the death of his beloved second wife, June Carter Cash and wanting to make a final statement about his life in song as his mortality became clearly in sight. After June’s death, Johnny went to work, but died four months after she did. We are blessed to have this musical work that was recorded at a most difficult time for Johnny Cash and his immediate family.

At the same time I got American V I bought the album, Black Cadillac by Rosanne Cash, Johnny’s eldest daughter from his first marriage. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I fully expected some type of acknowledgement of her father’s life and their relationship on this record, but since I am not a big fan of tribute albums, I simply hoped for some dignified remembrance of her famous dad. In recent years, I had come to appreciate him even more through the four American Masters Series albums that stand as truly unique recordings.

Tributes to our celebrity heroes often become an exercise in poor taste. I remember when John Lennon died; the songs and albums depicting his life came from a diverse set of people. Unfortunately, many of those books and records were at the very most, opportunistic and at the very least, not very good from a either a literary or a musical perspective. Lennon’s memory was not very well served with the majority of those books, songs and albums. So, with some degree of uncertainty, I began to listen to Roseanne’s album, Black Cadillac.

Growing up as the child of a famous parent brings about its own distinctive difficulties. When that parent is Johnny Cash who was a public & music icon who had well documented bouts with sobriety, the effect on his child’s world can be devastating. When your stepmother is also a famous person, then that very public magnifying glass on that same child is multiplied by ten. I cannot imagine what it must have been like growing up for Rosanne or any child of a celebrity, but I know it could not have been easy. But in retrospect, one gets the feeling that through it all, the apparent theme in the Black Cadillac album is that Rosanne always loved and more than that revered her dad.

When I opened the packaging on Black Cadillac I looked to see the titles on the album. Song #12 is called “0.71.” Since that title seemed somewhat odd, I played it first only to find that it was 71 seconds of silence. I quickly realized that this cut on the album represented 71 seconds of silence in memory of the 71 years, Roseanne’s dad spent on this earth. Simple, dignified and proper were the only words I could think of as I silently remembered the man who gave us such an incredible body of work and was being honored by his daughter whom he often referred to as “The Brain.”

The opening cut of the album is called “Black Cadillac” which starts with Johnny’s voice on a scratchy record saying ”Rosanne now c’mon” and then it begins stylishly with guitar, bass and drums as Roseanne’s incredibly melodic voice drifts into the song. She laments that “It was a black Cadillac like the one you used to drive, yeah but you were always rolling but those wheels burnt up your life.” The image of a black Cadillac that once represented luxury transportation and an upper class lifestyle afforded by his musical success is now the vehicle taking him away to his final resting place provided me with very powerful imagery. She continues by saying that “everyone is talking, but they don’t have much to say. It was a black sky of rain, but none of it fell. One of us gets to go to heaven while the other one stays here in hell.” I played this song over and over again. I felt her pain; I felt her sorrow and was grateful to her because through her words I finally understood some of my feelings when my father died so many years ago.

“Radio Operator” an upbeat tune is the second song on the album and is produced by her husband, John Leventhal who is the producer on all the even numbered songs on Black Cadillac while the odd numbered songs are produced by Bill Bottrell. Following the theme she created on the first tune, but picking up the tempo, she tells the radio operator that “there are still messages to send from the future from the present and it never has to end.” When a loved one passes, there are always unfilled conversations that we feel we never got to have with that person and Roseanne speaks of those missing sentences that somehow never reached the intended recipient, but are always present in our minds.

For me, the most poignant tune on the album was “I Was Watching You.” Beginning with a solitary piano played by Benmont Trench, who is one of the Heartbreakers from Tom Petty’s band, Roseanne talks about the fact that she didn’t always know it, but now understands that her dad was always there for her until that day in September when he slipped away in the middle of her life. “I’ll be watching you from above cause long after life there is love.” To me, this song sums up the album. It’s as though she has come to a peaceful place and knows that her father, in spite of his demons and past times of long absences away from her and the family was in fact, always there and that this was her way of telling him it was now ok and this was her way of coming to completion. I was truly moved by this song and was once again grateful that she put into words the very difficult communication that sometimes goes unsaid when your father dies. She enunciated the feelings that some of us may have but are not able to put those thoughts so eloquently on paper and song.

It’s so incredibly appropriate to have Benmont Trench on this tune not only because he is a great musician, but he also was present on her fathers’ American Masters albums and plays keyboards on the Johnny Cash American V album, as well.

Parents, in raising their children try their best to give their family a good life. As adults, we somehow know what has to be done, but in reality when we become parents we become masters of on-the-job training. We try hard to do it all right and often our children in their youth tell us what that we did was all wrong. As our kids get older and become adults themselves, they quickly realize that this parenting stuff was not that easy and that their parents may have been a lot smarter than they originally thought they were.

Parents know that each of their children have special and not-so-special qualities. Nevertheless, we love all our children and deal with the highlights and the lowlights of their lives as best we can. Raising a child is perhaps the most difficult and most rewarding job a person can ever have. In that process of growing up, a baby becomes a child who then becomes a young adult and then almost miraculously turns into an adult. During that time, both the parents and their children share a life that is unique to their family. In Rosanne’s marvelous album, her life and her dad’s life are definitely entwined through a series of very personal and touching songs. Her song writing paints such vivid pictures and illustrates some many aspects of their relationship that Black Cadillac will cause the listener to play the album over and over again. I am so impressed with the way in which Roseanne allows us to look into her soul. She leaves no stone unturned as she lays before us the personal nature of her life with and without her dad. I am thankful that Roseanne was able to share her innermost private thoughts in such a tasteful public manner. From listening to this album, I came away with a new view of Johnny and an introduction to a new friend whose career I will follow with great expectations and respect.

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