Walking the Line
Last Wednesday's sold-out crowd at Mizner Park was floating along on a sea of huge beers and pungent weed. SoFla's notoriously rambunctious audience was in full form, with brawny dudes high-fiving and bleach-blond Bettys woo-hooing to Jack Johnson's mellowed, front-porch acousticisms. As casual and assured as the North Shore breeze he rode into Boca, Johnson's hour-and-a-half set included all of the low-key, radio-ready hits from three big-selling albums and a few odd, interesting covers. (Taj Mahal into Led Zeppelin? He made it work. Beatles into the Cars? Yeah, all right. White Stripes? Nice try, but not so much.) Johnson's a passable guitar player with a warm if underwhelming singing voice; his sharp songwriting, fine-tuned to maximize mass appeal, had a perfectly calibrated blend of jangle and jam that kept the kids captivated.
The encore produced the evening's most remarkable moment. Standing alone in the spotlight, Johnson announced, "I can't think of a better place than a warm night in South Florida to bring out Jimmy Buffett on stage." Out strolled the millionaire Palm Beach bum, whose resemblance to Johnson's manner -- plus an extra 20 years and 20 pounds -- was suddenly obvious. Plying acoustic guitars, the two icons of laid-backitude sailed into the wry Buffett classic "A Pirate Looks at Forty": "Mother, Mother Ocean, I have heard you call..." The crowd went crazy, and rightly so. We were witnessing the passing of the fabled Shaker of Salt right before our eyes.
Taking in the scene at Mizner, it all made sense: Johnson is more qualified than anyone to become the new mayor of Margaritaville. Like Buffett, Johnson and his music come packaged with a perceived lifestyle that's largely a byproduct of his nonmusical extracurriculars -- his native roots in Hawaii, his past as a pro surf champion, his continued devotion to surf culture, his commitment to environmental causes. Johnson's fans are a well-groomed, surf-chic, Gen Y hybrid of liquor-loving Parrot Heads and Dave Matthews frat bohemians, drawn to Johnson's nonchalant crossover from beach to stage. There's more to these artists, they believe, than the music -- there's a way of life.
Buffett's not ready to pull into port for the last time, but he and his graying Parrot Head nation will eventually spawn a successor -- their vibe is too playful and successful not to. The content of his music, his nautical predilections, and his adoring, party-hearty fans make Johnson the front-running candidate.
From the "Cheeseburger in Paradise" to the "Man in Black": What could be better music to sail the Intracoastal by than Johnny Cash? You probably think Cash is more conducive to hopping freights and starting fights while Buffett's all about the Florida sunshine, and you're right. But given the protracted run time of the four-disc box set Johnny Cash: The Legend, released August 12, Beatcomber has been waiting for the right time to sit down and take in the whole thing. The 96-hour sail from Jacksonville to West Palm Beach on his brother's recently acquired sloop Aspire seemed like a prime opportunity.
With the brother, Capt. Salty Seaman, and the stepdad, HoSo, captive on the boat, Beatcomber launched into The Legend at several key moments throughout the trip. Let it be said that there are fewer moments more serene than sitting on a sailboat, watching a lavender sunset linger over rippling water, listening to Johnny Cash croon Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene."
The set is arranged thematically and somewhat haphazardly -- disc one comprises "The Hits," disc two "Old Favorites and New," disc three standards from "The Great American Songbook," and disc four Cash's collaborations with "Family and Friends." Spanning almost 50 years, seven record labels, and 104 songs -- seven of them recently unearthed from the vault at the House of Cash -- there's a lot of ground to cover. I figured classics like "I've Been Working on the Railroad," "Pick a Bale o' Cotton," and "Streets of Laredo" from disc three were a good place to start.
"This would make more sense if we were shrimpers," Salty said. "It's a general statement, but the working people don't own sailboats, and this is music for the working people." True, but Cash earned his popular status as an American original because everyone -- even proudly footloose sailboat captains -- can dig him. In this case, much appeal arose from the unswerving, reliable nature of his self-described "boom-chicka-boom" Tennessee two-beat. "It could be one long, 56-minute song," the captain noted. The simple, predictable rhythm and Cash's laconic delivery made it all too easy to, I'm ashamed to say, freestyle obscene lyrics as Cash sang semifamiliar tunes like "Frankie and Johnny" and "Wabash Cannonball." As you can imagine, we were drunk.
Disc one's serious story-songs, like "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," and self-defining hymns like "I Walk the Line" and "Man in Black" kept us more reverent. (There has never been an artist who with a clearer, more powerful mission statement than Johnny Cash, we agreed.) HoSo, a music buff in his former (read: young) life, made a strong claim: "I know my Johnny Cash." And indeed he did, singing along to "Orange Blossom Special" and disc two's "Long Black Veil." "Don't you know this song?" he asked me. "The Band played this too." Score one for the stepdad.
Though they were soulful and grave, most of the songs on disc four couldn't keep our interest. There were too many distractions -- sail rigging, dolphin spotting, beer drinking, shit talking -- to concentrate on the music, and when we weren't sailing, we were sleeping. Sadly, songs from Cash's spectacular American Recordings series -- the covers of Nine Inch Nails, Alice in Chains, and Tom Waits that newly minted fans revere most -- are absent here. Included instead are songs that somehow seem less hip and more grit, as well as insightful liner notes that tell his incomparable personal history. If these are the songs that reveal the true Johnny Cash, it's worth it to spend a few hours with The Legend. It -- and the countless other Cash boxes out there -- proves that the Man in Black, unlike Buffett or Johnson, generated his iconic status entirely on his own, purely through music.
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