Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The things we really need

Wandering through Melbourne's jam-packed streets today, on my way to yet another Christmas lunch, in the midst of yet another Christmas shopping spree, I was struck by a man bustling along a little ahead of me, stopping people now and then to ask for some spare cash. Everyone seemed too busy to give him any attention, let alone any money and, before long, he was out of my sight and my thoughts. But then, a few minutes later, I caught up with him again. He was now sitting huddled on the pavement, almost foetal in a corner, head buried in his hands, sobbing uncontrollably, inconsolably. He was dishevelled, dirty, destitute - probably about 30, maybe even younger.

Of course, he was only one of millions who will be doing it hard this Christmas and, no doubt, the harsh plight of world poverty, and human suffering, will be discussed over many a roast turkey on Friday. But, for me, music is always the place I find myself wandering to when I try to understand and capture the things that happen in this world - the happy things, the tragic things, the brutal things, the silly things: they're all there in music.

So I began pondering what music would capture the plight of that man, weeping alone in the centre of the city, two days before Christmas. There's probably a lot - but the music that seemed most appropriate to play tonight as my little, self-indulgent (and, for him, totally useless) tribute to that man was Johnny Cash's final and posthumous album American V: A Hundred Highways. This was recorded when Johnny Cash was literally on the threshold of death - blind, ill, his voice trembling with the weight of the years. But it's a voice, which, despite its frailty, or maybe even because of it, is strengthened all the more by the consoling, resolved soul that has, after all, always been the real core of Johnny Cash's music.

Every song on this album weeps with that special, unique mix of loneliness and community, sadness and joy, richness and loss, with a resignation, a tired, weary farewell to life, that seems to acknowledge everything sad in the world, and yet still hold onto peace and hope.

The songs are unadorned with anything other than an acoustic guitar and the smallest handful of instruments. But everything is arrestingly powerful - like the dark and shattering 'God's gonna cut you down'; or the sad, mourning 'On the evening train'; the reassuring, comforting 'I came to believe'; the consoling, grounding 'Four strong winds'; and the liberating, full-stop of 'I'm free from the chain gang now'.

But the title of the album, A Hundred Highways, is actually a line from the Rod McKuen song, 'Love's been good to me', which Johnny Cash sings here in a way that makes you believe that its message of finding love once in a while along an unsettled, homeless life journey is, indeed, the real secret to peace.

And perhaps the lesson this album teaches us is that it's that love, even more than a home, or material abundance, that we need most of all - whether we are piling the next helping of roast turkey on our plate on Friday, or weeping, penniless, on a street corner in the middle of Melbourne.

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