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Magic and Loss

Posted: September 19, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau, Editor-in-Chief

"I really don't think I know anyone that's more rock and roll than Johnny Cash. He always fought for the little man." -- Dave Matthews, in TIME magazine

Asking Dave Matthews' opinion on Johnny Cash (or rock and roll, for that matter) seems a little like asking John Ashcroft to discuss the merits of Jenna Jameson's (ahem!) body of work. But The Man Who Would Be Sting does have a point, one that's been reiterated many times in the days following Johnny Cash's death. Johnny Cash did embody the essence of rock and roll -- its rebellious streak, its precarious balancing act between the sinful and the sublime -- and he did it better than just about any actual rock performer, living or dead. Sure, there are plenty of icons who represent a particular facet of rock and roll's complex makeup. Keith Richards has the survivor-of-wretched-excess thing down pat; John Lennon holds the patent on rock's love jones; and Andrew W.K. is the walking embodiment of every high school parking lot circa 1985.

But Cash was all that (well, except for W.K.) and more. He was a maverick Christian whose struggles with sobriety carried more weight than Steven Tyler or Joe Perry could ever know. Cash wasn't some spoiled rock star with too much time on his hands, conditioned to believe that the world was his for the taking: He was a sinner in an unending wrestling match with the demons within, grappling for redemption, salvation, identity. When he solemnly intoned, in his bedrock baritone, that "Because you're mine / I walk the line," he wasn't just pledging fealty to his love, or to his God, but to himself. It was this ongoing struggle against "The Beast in Me" that gave him his unquestioned authority as a spokesman for the Everyman. And it's that very tug-of-war, between Elvis' swiveling hips and Al Green's questing soul, that rock and roll, at its highest point, embodies so perfectly.

Warren Zevon, who died mere days before Cash, couldn't have been more different from the Man in Black. But like Cash, Zevon made a career out of confronting his mortality and his mistakes -- and, like Cash, doing so in his own fashion. Zevon, best known for the jukebox staple "Werewolves of London," was that rare performer who could indulge in that most California of clichés -- celebrity rehab -- and then wryly sing about sharing household chores with Liza Minnelli and Elizabeth Taylor in "Detox Mansion."

But he was no mere winking hipster, poking gentle fun at the ridiculous conventions of life in which he was often a participant. Zevon, the writer, was more attuned than most to the poignancy of loss, whether it was wrenching heartbreak or the looming specter of death. Long before he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and recorded his swan song, The Wind, Zevon knew intuitively that life and joy are inextricably linked in their fleetingness, and that it's that very impermanence that makes each so precious. "Life'll Kill Ya," indeed.

There's an extra tinge of the bittersweet in the fact that both of these singular voices were lost at the same time that many of us were walking in the shadow of the second anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. And that even more of us, it seems, were not. For so many of us, the lessons of that day seem to have faded into the background. It's worth noting that those lessons were all over the work of both artists. Many of us look upon September 11th, 2001, as (to quote Anna Quindlen) "the last innocent morning in American life." But Johnny Cash and Warren Zevon told us, if only we would listen, that every morning, every day, is a study in loss, an opportunity to "Get Right with God."

Too many of us -- myself included -- are estranged from people we once loved, or fall out of touch with people who matter to us, always safe in the delusion that "there's always time" to reconnect, to mend fences, to reach out. To become better people. There isn't. If we're to take anything away from the deaths of these two iconoclasts and the fading memory of September 11th, it should be this: To live every day, as the cliché goes, as if it were your last. To make sure your emotional affairs are in order. To, as Zevon said on Late Night With David Letterman, "enjoy every sandwich."

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Archived Editorials
December 03, 2006: Happy Feet
November 22, 2006: Half Decade Anniversary
October 07, 2006: Jessica Simpson
September 30, 2006: New Orleans and SNL
June 2, 2006: Dixie Chicks
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February 16, 2006: Bill O'Reilly & Brokeback Mountain
February 12, 2006: Totally '80s (Grammys)
January 31, 2006: Freyed Oprah
November 27, 2005: To Be Continued... (Bringing back movie serials)
November 21, 2005: Fourth Birthday
November 05, 2005: TV Remakes
August 13, 2005: Ten Commandments of Rock
July 05, 2005: Live 8
May 05, 2005: Term Limits (for Rock Stars)
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October 31, 2004: Three More Years!
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June 11, 2004: World Without Heroes (Bill Murray and Garfield)
April 23, 2004: Sold Out (Bob Dylan, Victoria's Secret, & Iraq)
April 08, 2004: The Day the Music Died (Kurt Cobain)
Mar. 17, 2004: Copping Out
Feb. 27, 2004: The Passion of Howard Stern
Jan. 30, 2004: Sex and the City
Nov. 17, 2003: California Über Alles
Nov. 7, 2003: Not-So-Terrible Twos
Sept. 19, 2003: Magic & Loss (Johnny Cash and Warren Zevon)
Aug. 17, 2003: Those '70s Shows
May 27, 2003: Patriot Games (Darryl Worley)
May 24, 2003: American Idol
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Jan. 1, 2003: High Resolutions
Dec. 16, 2002: All I Want for Christmas
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Nov. 8, 2002: Near Wild Heaven (Nirvana)
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