I recently saw the Johnny Cash movie Walk The Line and started thinking not only about Cash, but Ray Charles and Warren Zevon. The parallels between the three are quite striking. All three had serious dependence issues with at least one drug; all three damn near killed themselves as a result before they finally sobered up; and all three came up with career defining albums just before they died.
They are reviewed here in order of when they were released only, but really all three are quite indespensable.
Johnny Cash: American IV: The Man Comes Around (American, 2002). If ever there was a major artist so poorly served by his record company - and who equally served it poorly back - it was Cash. Only The Sun Years on Rhino and the Folsom Prison/San Quentin live albums do him proper justice. Call this redemption, if you will. The man knows his time his short and credit Rick Rubin for realizing what he had to work with and making the most of it. And while the title track sums up, if you will, his faith, a faith that was road tested long ago, the track that seals it for me is Hurt, a song so painful and gut wrenching it might just as well have been extracted from his liver. Note the lyrics: "What Have I become, my sweetest friend / Everyone I know goes away in the end." His anguish is as genuine as his redemption. For a man who couldn't kill his demons fast enough with pills, and who in the end had only his memories to taunt him, this is about as fitting an album as he could've expected. A
Warren Zevon: The Wind (Artimis, 2003). That our hero knew he was dying is not really germane to our story. In fact, Zevon seemed to relish the idea of exiting stage left. How else to describe his decision to forgo chemo? In the end he challenged death the same way he challenged life, by running right at it at full speed. Songs like Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door and Keep Me In Your Heart seem more satirical than autobiographical now that he’s gone. While the cynic in me is suspicious of this effort, the fan in me treasures it and can’t help but reflect on a career that ended a bit too short; but knowing how hard he lived probably lasted a bit longer than it should have. Original grade A-. A
Ray Charles: Genius Loves Company (Concord/Hear Music, 2004). Forget the fact that most of these "guests" couldn't play their way out of a paper bag, this is about as genuine a love statement as a major artist has had in quite some time. Co-producers John Burk and Phil Ramone manage to bring out Charles' indelible spirit and love for the material, while at the same time not allowing said material to overwhelm his sometimes frail voice. No small feat. And, as for the material, like his career, it spans the gamut of pop music. No other artist could've pulled this off so masterfully. Not even Michael McDonald can ruin things here. A