Johnny Cash's table fellowship

johnny cash hurtA friend at the Baton Rouge Advocate once remarked on the cognitive dissonance of singing the folkie Communion song "Sons of God," which uses a chirpy melody for its chorus of "Eat his body, drink his blood / And we'll sing a song of love: / Allelu, allelu, allelu, alleluia!" I remembered my friend when I saw an article from the New York Post's Page Six feature that began with this sentence: "Johnny Cash spent the final months of his life performing strange Christian rituals with oddball music producer Rick Rubin."

The Post was summarizing, in its precious style, an 11-page article from the October issue of Vanity Fair. The article, published Sept. 7, is no longer available for free in the Post's archives, but another piece -- a glib summary of the Post's glib summary -- is available here.

The Post also claimed that Cash was considering suicide, citing this remark as proof: "I'm gonna come out to L.A. for a month, and we're gonna work, and we're gonna continue doing all the stuff on my program. And when I get back home, I'm gonna have a big party on the lawn of my house, invite all of my friends over, and I'm gonna push my wheelchair into the river!" The remark actually reflected Cash's delight that a doctor sent by Rubin had helped him regain his ability to walk.

Now that I've seen David Kamp's article -- none of which is available at Vanity Fair's skinflint website -- I'm happy to say it is an affectionate tribute to Cash, to Rubin and to their exhilarating decade of recording music together.

Further, Kamp's article shows an informed interest in theology:

Rubin is not what you think he is. The long hair, the Hell's Angels beard, and the wraparound shades he wears in public suggest a standoffish, substance-abusing ogre who speaks, if he speaks at all, in noncommittal grunts -- a grouch savant fluent only in the visceral language of rawk. In fact, he's chatty and thoughtful, with the dulcet speaking voice and gentle mien of a divinity student. . . . The shelves of Rubin's library, in his home just above the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, are crammed with religious texts and path-to-enlightenment guides: the Old and New Testaments, the Koran, The Great Code (Northrup Frye's definitive lit-crit companion to the Bible), how-tos on both raja and hatha yoga, Listening to Prozac, Mind Over Back Pain, something called The Knee of Listening, by someone called Adi Da.

. . . Cash, though a devout Christian, didn't dismiss Rubin's patchwork spirituality as hooey. A fellow bibliophile and comparative-religion junkie, the antithesis of the stereotype southern rustic with a suspicion of fancy book learnin', he delighted in his producer's pan-theological curiosity. Out of their frequent discussions of religion developed an odd custom, certainly unprecedented in producer-artist relations: for the last few months of Cash's life, he and Rubin took Holy Communion together every day, even if they weren't physically in the same place, and even though Rubin, who was born Jewish and doesn't profess allegiance to any one faith, is not technically eligible to receive the sacrament.

"Open communion" is a heated debate in some denominations, including (perhaps too predictably) the Episcopal Church. For non-sacramental Protestants, in contrast, there is less basis for objecting to a highly individual approach to Communion. The Post never makes clear what it considers so strange about Cash's habit -- that he shared Communion with a pan-theological seeker, that he guided Rubin through Communion by telephone or that he sometimes used crackers and grape juice instead of bread and wine.

One of Kamp's richest details is that this shared interest in Communion emerged from Rubin's fascination with the flamboyant TV evangelist Gene Scott of Los Angeles:

"He's this old, eccentric, really smart, crazy person," says Rubin. "He's often belligerent to his audience. But at the same time, when he actually teaches, the teaching is unbelievable -- just scholarly, brilliant, more like a university class than like a typical sermon. He did all these shows about Communion, and it really moved me. I was brought up Jewish and had never done a Communion. I made a copy of the tapes and sent them to Johnny. At first he was wary, because the guy's really bonkers. But at the end of it, he was crying, and said, 'I've heard 50 sermons on this topic, and that was, by far, the best teaching of that that I've ever heard.'"

The Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday that Scott would undergo surgery because his prostate cancer has spread to his bladder. It shouldn't be difficult to imagine Rubin -- and even the late Cash -- praying for Scott this week.

For more details on Cash's final years, see Steve Turner's new biography, The Man Called Cash. The audio version, available on CD and in MP3 (iTunes), is read by Cash's longtime buddy, Kris Kristofferson.

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