Friday, November 25, 2011

"Composed," by Rosanne Cash

I have no qualms at all declaring Rosanne Cash’s “Composed” to be a great book.

The cover of “Composed” identifies the book as a memoir, and that is key to understanding what it is about. This is not an exhaustive biography. You’re not going to find a lot of specific details about various topics that people might be interested in – how Johnny’s marriage to Vivian fell apart, how Rosanne’s marriage to Rodney Crowell fell part – but that’s also the main reason why the book is so successful. This is an emotional book, a book that shares Rosanne’s point of view about many of the happenings of her [admittedly very interesting] life, and how those happenings shaped her voice as a person and as an artist.

I should confess that Rosanne has held a spot in my own personal music pantheon for a long, long time – believe it or not, even longer than her father. That being the case, it surprises me that she felt for years that her voice was inadequate, because I always thought it was incredibly strong – indeed, her greatest attribute until she fully developed as a songwriter. Reading throughout, it’s clear that she is her own harshest critic – which is probably a good thing for a musician to be.

More than anything else, this is a book of stories, stories that are told roughly in chronological order. Moving moments are sprinkled throughout, with an enormous emotional payoff near the end when she quotes extensively from the eulogies that she delivered over a period of 18 months for June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash, and Vivian Liberto Distin, her mother. There are so many interesting things in the book, it’s hard to single any one out, but I especially enjoyed the section where she describes how “Black Cadillac” came about, and have to admit I was a bit pleased to see her say that John Leventhal (her husband and producer) felt that a gauntlet had been thrown with the production work performed on six of the album’s songs by Bill Bottrell and responded with his own best work. Pleased, of course, because I completely agree with that assessment.

But no matter. One of my very favorite stories, near the end of the book, is when Rosanne recounts a visit (with her daughter, Carrie ) to Falkland, Scotland, where the family name originated, and a town her father had visited years before. This is a long excerpt, but I think it illustrates perfectly the reasons “Composed” is such a wonderful book.

On our arrival in Falkland late in the morning, we were disappointed to find that the palace was closed for the holiday week. Just about everything was closed down, in fact, except for a little restaurant at the top of the hill, where we had a ploughman’s lunch of bread, cheese and pickles – a more satisfying meal than one offered by any four-star restaurant. After eating, we wandered next door to look in the window of the Old Violin Shop. Almost immediately my eye was caught by a beautiful old teapot, which was nearly identical to one I had inherited from June after her death the previous May. It was a squat, cream-colored porcelain vessel with a delicate pattern of pink and gold flowers and flourishes around its middle. I wanted it badly, but the shop, like all the others in town, was closed. I then noticed a note pinned to the door saying that if assistance was needed, to call a certain number. After several tries, I reached a very polite gentleman who said he was just finishing his lunch but promised to come shortly to let us in. Carrie and I waited in the car, as the weather was turning quite bitter. A few minutes later Bob Beveridge, the owner, appeared and invited us inside. After he carefully retrieved the teapot from that window, I began looking around at the instruments, books, china, paintings, and other collectibles. As Carrie and I began exclaiming to each other about the wondrous collection he had assembled, Bob noted our American accents and inquired if we had come to research our Scottish roots. I told him that I already knew the origin of my Scottish ancestry, and I was merely visiting the place my family name originated.

“Like Johnny Cash?” he asked, in a friendly manner, after asking my surname.

I hesitated, as I seldom told strangers who my father was, but I felt an impulse to confide in him.

“Yes, like Johnny Cash. He was my father,” I said quietly.

His eyes widened. “I have something to show you,” he said, and left the room.

He came back with a photograph of himself with my father, taken during the filming of the television special. He then began telling me the story of my father’s visit.

My father liked to sit on a small cement post in front of the palace, Bob recalled, and to gaze at the square. All the townspeople came to speak to him, and he was unfailingly gracious and kind, which drew even more of the locals to him. He remembered that, one day, my father was in his car and came upon a boy whose bicycle had broken down in the road, so he picked him up and took him home. This boy, Bob explained, was now a man in his thirties, lived around the corner, and still loved to tell the story of the day he was driven home by Johnny Cash. Bob knew about my dad’s fateful meeting with Major Crichton-Stuart on the plane to Asia, and he told me more stories of those few days, twenty-two years earlier, when Johnny Cash, along with a film crew and his special musical guest, Andy Williams, had taken over the town of Falkland, and how the people had loved him and he had loved them back.”

Wonderful stuff. “Composed,” by Rosanne Cash – highly recommended.

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