Ironing before work, Preston. January 2013
My parents didn’t have a big record collection, maybe 20 records at best. In that collection there were four or five Johnny Cash albums. From a young age I heard his music, a lot. And I liked what I heard. As I found my own way into music, through punk rock, my interest and love of Mr Cash’s stuff stayed with me. This was through the late ‘70s and all of the ‘80s. So while I was being enthralled by The Clash and The Replacements and Prince, Johnny Cash didn’t let me down.
In 1985 he released the album, Rainbow. In critical terms, it was another meagre effort for a giant of country music. However, it wasn’t without its charm. The album title comes from the best song on that record, Here Comes That Rainbow Again’, written by the songwriter’s songwriter, Kris Kristoffersen.
When I first heard Here Comes That Rainbow Again, it blew my mind. The narrative conceit is so slight it could easily be dismissed. The basic story is lifted almost directly from the pages of the John Steinbeck novel The Grapes of Wrath. However, the song’s simplicity is its strength and resonance. Johnny’s voice deepens the connotations to levels of an Old Testament parable. I heard it and I cried. My tears were for what Shakespeare so beautifully posited in Hamlet’s rumination: “What a piece of work is man”. And for the virtuous nature I believe is inherent in all of us.
A few years ago I was asked to read the eulogy for the passing of one of my uncles. I felt very honoured. My Dad and Uncle Peter had been best mates. They married sisters. I only got to know Uncle Peter really well in his later years. I was enamoured of his basic decency. He was political and outspoken and at the heart of his world view was a love and respect for fairness and community. I read the lyrics to Here Comes That Rainbow Again as part of the eulogy. I felt it truly and succinctly captured the nature of my uncle; his virtuousness. I cried. I could hardly read the lyrics. Everyone cried. He was that sort of person and the lyrics are that good an evocation.
In December 2012 Johnny Cash: The Complete Columbia Album Collection was released. It’s a box-set of 63 albums. Rainbow is Number 56 in that collection. (And it’s probably the 56th best, but considering that Johnny Cash’s least recordings are still better than most performers’ best means that it’s a treasure). Even though I own a lot of the records that make up the collection it was a no-brainer to get the box-set. Then I got to listening.
Early in 2013, while ironing my work clothes before breakfast I played Rainbow. I hadn’t heard the album in many a year and had only heard the title track once in the last 15 years, while writing my uncle’s eulogy. So I kinda braced myself. Even as the song began I knew I was going to break.
My wife and kids were asleep, lucky doers were still on holidays. So in the quiet of an early summer morning, ironing one pant leg after another I listened while Johnny once again led me into the beauty within a seemingly ordinary moment yet nonetheless, a crossroads moment. A moment where, to quote Shakespeare a little more, the words Hamlet uses to describe humans are given flight, “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason … in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world”.
The song’s protagonists make decisions most of us want to make but pause in doing so. They do so without fuss but grace and a laconic humour that surely is a disposition to get us through the hardest times.
I knew every line. And I cried. Each dramatic development still caught me the same way it caught me the first time. How could it not with couplets such as this, “Aint it just like a human, here comes that rainbow again”. I choked and spluttered and sniffled. And I ironed. And I hold on.
© Rick Kane. Rick is a regular contributor to our partner site The Footy Almanac, where he writes under the pseudonym of Trucker Slim.
Rick appeared with The Stereo Stories Band of writers and musicians at Newport Bowls Club, Melbourne on Sunday 19 October, 2pm.