The Moscow Circus at Madison Square Garden, December 5, 1969

We were walking down, down, down the wide, rounded, steep corridor, and I was struggling to keep up with my father’s 6’5” stride while still trying to eye the posters of the Moscow Circus lining the corridors. At 10 I knew the circus was a cruel thing to do to animals, dust kicked up my asthma, clowns scared the shit out of me. I’ve known a few clowns personally, and even with those guys, I keep my distance.

We just about got into our seats when the lights went down and the ringmaster came out and announced “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”  The room was spinning around.  I mean, the room was actually spinning around, or rather; the stage was, as this was a concert in the round and my hero, the Man In Black himself, was performing. My emotions were making a circus out of me.  Johnny Cash was talking and singing in the same room as me. It was a big room, but I could tell he was real. Or was I dreaming?

My adoration for the music of Johnny Cash began with my grandparents, particularly Pop-Pop, who would play the two live prison recordings (Folsom Prison & San Quentin) mixed in with a few others, for example, Andy Williams. I would hear the beginning of William’s “Three Coins in the Fountain” and think…even as a child, that even Andy Williams probably thinks the intro to this song is stupid.

Another album we wore the grooves out of was Vickki Carr’s “It Must Be Him.” We had eclectic tastes, to put it gently.  I must be the only kid who liked it; even the Wikipedia entry is bare for this French import. (For that special reader that has the patience to follow this train of thought…it was Vickki Carr that introduced me to the diva music that would later link me directly to Linda Ronstadt and Pheobe Snow singing “The Married Men” on The Tonight Show which would lead me to The Roches. More on that later).

Back to Cash, I would listen to “Cocaine Blues” (a lengthy, lyric-packed song that clocks in at just under 2 minutes, how fitting) and ask my grandfather, “Pop-pop, what’s cocaine?”  Being a man of few words, he told me “Listen to the words of this song.”  And indeed, if this doesn’t make you want to “Just Say No!”….

The judge he smiled as he picked up his pen
99 years in the Folsom pen
99 years underneath that ground
I can't forget the day I shot that bad bitch down
Come on you gotta' listen to unto me
Lay off that whiskey, let that cocaine be!

I wasn’t sure how cocaine was used, but I thought it was pretty cool that the focus was more on the evils of drugs than on shooting your wife.

Why did I love Johnny Cash so much?  It’s hard to say. The list of folk/country greats he had on his television show matches up will with music I still enjoy to today. He provided a look into prison and he made it seem like everyone could be redeemed. He loved his third wife. (I wouldn’t know he ditched the first couple until many years later. Another curiosity, my parents hated philanderers, why would they allow this cheater hero-worship, even encourage it?

More questions than answers today, I’ll leave you with this lyric:

Far Side Banks of Jordan-(Possibly written by June, according to some sources).

Johnny
I believe my steps are growing wearier each day
Still I’ve got another journey on my mind
Lures of this old world have ceased to make me wanna stay
And my only regret is leaving you behind
June
But if it proves to be his will that I am first to go
And somehow I’ve a feeling it will be
And when it comes your time to travel likewise don't feel lost
For I will be the first one that you'll see
Chorus
I'll be waiting On the Far Side Banks of Jordan
I'll be sitting drawing pictures in the sand
And when I see you coming I will rise up with a shout
And come running through the shallow waters reaching for your hand
Johnny
Through this life we labored hard to earn our meager fare
It's brought us trembling hands and failing eyes
June
So I’ll just rest here on this shore and turn my eyes away
Until you come then we'll see paradise
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