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Arts & Culture

Music Journalist Robert Hilburn Talks About His Book, 'Johnny Cash: The Life'

Photo: Jim Marshall, License: N/A

Jim Marshall

Cash at 1968’s historic Folsom Prison concert; to his left, Hilburn, the only music journalist present



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As the Los Angeles Times' pop music critic for more than three decades (1970-2005), Robert Hilburn was the type of editor that would edit with the writer sitting right next to him, going line by line, and celebrating an improved sentence with effusive high fives. He applied that same passion to his Johnny Cash: The Life, arguably the ultimate biography of The Man in Black.

As a freelancer in Los Angeles for almost five years in the early '90s, I had the good fortune of working directly under the supervision of "Bob," as we all called him. And he was every bit as Bono would describe him years later in the introduction of Hilburn's memoir Corn Flakes with John Lennon and Other Tales from a Rock 'n' Roll Life—Hilburn wasn't interested in "scenes," but in sounds, and was able to see something in young, flawed bands that gave him fuel, while the bands themselves got inspired by the wisdom of the ever-youthful veteran writer.

"Bob's role as critic was to encourage suspension of disbelief in the audience, but in the artist as well," wrote Bono. "That is an environment in which music grows. He made us better. … Without ever being pious or elitist, he has the Levitical/Jesuitical energy of a keeper of the flame."

Hilburn, who recently turned 74, spoke to the Current on the phone from his home in Sherman Oaks, an LA suburb.

Why another book on Johnny Cash?
I don’t want to sound pretentious, but I wanted to treat Cash like a president, almost. What I found missing from a lot of biographies of celebrities, music or actors, is that they talk about the person’s life but they don’t really talk about the artistry of the person, why the person is important in any way. They’ll say whether the film is a hit or not, but they don’t say why he or she wanted to make the film. Was it good or bad? I wanted to say why he was important, so that 50 years from now, and I think Cash will be remembered 50 years from now, a person will read the book and will get the sense of why he was important during these times. One of the things I liked the most about your book is how, early on, you tell the story of rock ’n’ roll from Cash’s perspective, as a link between country and rock ’n’ roll. That was one of my favorite moments. I loved Sun Records. This [book] combined all my interests in music: I loved country music, I loved blues, I loved rock ’n’ roll, and I was a fan of Johnny Cash as a teenager. The difference is that I loved Elvis, and Chuck Berry, and Little Richard, and Buddy Holly and all of those guys, but they were speaking to me as a teenager, teddy bears, and hound dogs… Cash was only a couple of years older than Elvis, but when I heard “Folsom Prison Blues” he had an adult voice and adult themes, so it really struck me. “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die…” I was shocked when I heard that. I didn’t know you could say that on the radio!

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