OK! OK! We get it.
He’s the Man in Black. Dweller on Mount Olympus and short-listed for Mount Rushmore. Defender of the incarcerated, the indigenous, the indigent and the indignant. Father to Rosanne and ex-father-in-law to Marty and Rodney. All good. All eminently commendable. In fact, genuflections are in order.
Rosanne Cash, Johnny Cash and Rodney Crowell live in Atlanta in 1982
But on this, the late Johnny Cash’s 87th birthday, we prefer to remember his risible side. You know, those times when he became “Chuckles Cash.”
No long-legged guitar pickin’ man stands quite so tall as when he stoops to tickle our fancy.
And in these 10 songs, Cash strove mightily to do that:
“Smiling Bill McCall ” (No. 13, 1960, written by Johnny Cash)
Here Cash pokes fun at the vanity of radio singing stars and at the suggestibility of their audiences. All the men admire and the ladies adore Smiling Bill as they envision what he must look like. But then one day he goes missing, and the authorities find him on the banks of a creek preparing to commit suicide. Why? “The big brave Smiling Bill McCall/Is only four feet tall/I’d rather be in the river dead/Than to hear ’em laughin’ at my bald head.”
“The One on the Right Is On the Left” (No. 2, 1966, Jack Clement)
Just as today, political divisions were wide in the 1960s, what with the Civil Rights struggle and the anti-Vietnam War movement. So you could either despair about the rancor or make fun of it. Cash sings of a promising folk music band (a volatile combination to begin with) that splits up over its members political differences: “Well, the one on the right was on the left/And the one in the middle was on the right/And the one on the left was in the middle/And the guy in the rear was a Methodist.”
“Everybody Loves a Nut” (No. 17, 1966, Jack Clement)
This was the title cut of an entire album of zany tunes, including the one preceding and the two following. Whether “the whole world loves a weirdo,” as the song says, may be in dispute since this one couldn’t even make it into the Top 10. Sad to say, the far-fetched lyrics are more desperate than diverting. So file this one under “Trying Too Hard.”
“Boa Constrictor” (No. 39, 1966, Shel Silverstein)
Imagine singing a virtual inch-by-inch description as you’re being swallowed by a snake, starting with your toes. That’s what Cash does here. It’s so ridiculous you have to laugh, even as you’re asking yourself why. “Oh yes he’s up to my chest/Oh heck he’s up to my neck.” With his gift for rhyming absurd situations, it’s easy to see why Silverstein was such a hit with kids.
“Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog” (album cut from Everybody Loves a Nut, 1966. Jack Clement)
Don’t we all identify with this situation? Just kidding. Cash lays down the law to the hound that’s haunting his henhouse, threatening to stomp his head into the ground or “get my rifle and send him/To that great chicken house in the sky.” Not recommended as background music for PETA fund-raising parties.
“Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart” (album cut from At Folsom Prison, 1968, Jack Clement)
Extravagant language — whether it’s over-the-top rap lyrics or the stilted formal prose of a Coen Brothers movie — is usually good for a laugh because it draws more attention to its situational incongruity than to the story itself. You can hear the Folsom inmates roaring as Cash delivers such Clement clinkers as “From the backdoor of your life you swept me out dear/In the bread line of your dreams I lost my place/At the table of your love I got the brush off/At the Indianapolis of your heart I lost the race.” If this sounds poetic to you, it’s back to literary appreciation class. By the way, this verbal over-reach is sung to the tune of “Wild Side of Life” or ”It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” Please use this knowledge wisely.
“A Boy Named Sue” (No. 1 country, No 2. pop, 1969, Shel Silverstein)
Juliet asks Romeo, “What’s in a name?” And, just as in the play, the answer in this song is “Damned near everything.” Romeo’s family name ensured the persistence of inter-tribal hostility, regardless of how drawn the two young lovers were to each other. Naming a guy “Sue” ordained that he’ll be having a clash on every corner, no matter how even-tempered he is. That Sue is also conflicted about the man who gave him the name — his father — only makes the narrative more riotous. Those of you old enough to have had pterodactyls for pets may recall that the comedian Ernie Kovacs sometimes played a poet named Percy Dovetonsils. And you think Sue had a problem!
“Blistered” (No. 4, 1969, Billy Edd Wheeler)
What is it with Johnny Cash and heat? First there was the “Ring of Fire” he fell into. Then came “Blistered” with such indelible lines as “She done tore my world apart put big blisters on my heart/What a mighty crazy cooking way to go” and “I’ve got great big blisters on my fingertips/From reaching in my pocketbook and picking out the bills/And I got tiny white blisters in my throat/From trying to ease my nervous tension taking all them patent pills.” Love hurts. Wheeler co-wrote Cash and June Carter’s Grammy-winning No. 2 hit, “Jackson” (1967). So maybe Cash cut “Blistered” as a bonus. Wheeler is also responsible for the Appalachian knee-slapper “Ode to the Little Brown Shack Out Back.”
“One Piece at a Time” (No. 1, 1976, Wayne Kemp)
Hating one’s job is as American as it gets. Well before Johnny Paycheck threatened to “Take This Job and Shove It” (1977), Cash was dreaming of workplace mayhem in “Oney” (1972). With “One Piece at a Time,” however, getting even is more genteel. Instead of slapping his overbearing boss around, this assembly-line worker uses his insider advantage to feather his retirement by slipping out various Cadillac parts in his lunch box each day until he has enough to make a complete limousine. Alas styles change, which results in an eye-popping hybrid: “What model is it/Well, It’s a ’49, ’50, ’51, ’52, ’53, ’54, ’55, ’56 ’57, ’58’ 59′ automobile/It’s a ’60, ’61, ’62, ’63, ’64, ’65, ’66, ’67, ’68, ’69, ’70 automobile.” It must have been an insurance nightmare.
“The Chicken in Black” (No. 45, 1984, Gary Gentry)
Cash was two years away from the end of his 28-year tenure at Columbia Records when he indulged himself in this classic self-parody. It seems the Man in Black has been having headaches and needs a brain transplant. Unfortunately, the first brain available is from a dead a bank robber, which turns the Man in Black into a yellow-jersey and blue cape-wearing holdup man who calls himself “the Manhattan Flash.” At least that’s the costume the music video shows. When Cash asks to get his original brain back, his doctor says, “I’m sorry there Mr. Cash, but I can’t do that”/He said, “I put your brain in a chicken last Monday/He singing your songs and making lots of money/And I got him signed to a ten-year recording contract.” So now there’s a “Johnny Chicken Show,” and, yes, the chicken wields a tiny guitar and wears black.
Cash’s lyrical humor — whether he or someone else wrote it — was never subtle. But its general good nature and goofiness almost always made it work.