"Hang on, hang on -- you've got to hear this!"
So said my friend in his Dodge Caravan, commandeering the stereo while I and his two boys stared out at the highway. He tabbed back to the song's beginning. I took a deep breath, and listened up.
And so I heard for the first time (at an improbably late date) the freakiest song, sung by the freakiest man, in the freakiest setting possible. These three elements of performance merged with such alchemic power that by song's end I had my face turned closer to the window in a comical attempt to choke back my tears.
As I considered the content of this list, I thought back to that moment in my friend's van, and wondered if the song retained any of that original appeal, or if my emotional response had been a matter of circumstance. I couldn't say with any certainty, so I went out and bought a copy of The Legend of Johnny Cash, and tabbed forward to A Boy Named Sue, from At San Quentin.
Yep: same response.
It shouldn't work that way. It's a novelty song, for one thing (somewhere between The Giving Tree and the Playboy Mansion, Shel Silverstein must have scratched his pate and wondered just what happened). And had it been sung by any other man in front of any other audience, it would have played as such. But Cash's nicotine-strained baritone lopes along with a swagger this particular audience recognizes immediately: a would-be bad-ass and a bullshitter, who deep down just wants some recognition and a hug from his pa. The audience and the performer are in a perfect one-to-one act of collusion: you're a bad-ass; tell me I'm a bad-ass, too. Of course, the real trick is somehow acknowledging to each other that we're not as nasty as we want to seem -- and they both pull that off, too.
Performers live for those moments, with an audience like that. They usually find them in the strangest places, too (speaking from some personal experience: if there exists a more grateful audience than the one you find in prison, it's probably stationed either in Kandahar or Iraq). Capturing that elusive magic on tape is a very rare feat. But it's been done, and thus we have:
Heartbreaker #5: A Boy Named Sue sung by Johnny Cash, At San Quentin.