Several years ago during the dawn of the internet I was asked to speak at a conference in Prague for the European Journalism Network. At the time my brother Jon was a working journalist in New York City. I was asked to speak about technology as it related to delivery of journalistic content while my brother was to speak on journalistic practices in a free world.
So I arranged to take a flight that would stopover in New York City. This way my brother and I could fly together to Prague. A great plan and we worked the flight schedules accordingly.
My flight arrived in the red eye early morning in New York's Kennedy Airport. I recall landing sometime after midnight. The international terminal was quiet and mysterious in its dim lighting with the caged storefronts bolted shut. Starbucks had yet to penetrate the airport market and there were no consumer services open at the time. The stopover was a couple of hours and my brother was already in the airport gate waiting area.
I decided to journey into the darkened terminal to find the rest rooms and to explore the dead of a major city international airline terminal on a early May morning. As I strolled through the corridor toward the bathroom the tan speckled tie of the dated sixties airline terminal basked in the cold fluorescent lights — complete with flickering strobe effects from dated ballasts — when in the shadows a tall man dressed in a dark suit slowly emerged from an intersecting corridor. The sound of his boots echoed in the empty corridor as he walked closer toward me.
There was something oddly familiar about him as he moved into the light. Then it hit me. My god. It's Johnny Cash. I had seen him play the Crazy Horse Saloon in Santa Ana California many months prior. His whole family played. June Carter Cash. And his daughter, Roseanne. Lip locked and stunned, but not in a star struck way, I didn't know what to do or say. As we started to pass like two ships in the night the only words that escaped the endless ideas swirling in my mind were “How's it going, John?”
He looked up and our eyes locked. And a smile evolved over his hardened yet tender face. He nodded and said, “Alright.” I quickly let a stream of words flow from my mouth without thinking as I explained the experience I had seeing him, June and Roseanne at the Crazy Horse. He continued walking and the echo of his boots provided a rhythmic yet minimal soundtrack to his Cashesque response, “The Crazy Horse. Yeah. I like that venue.”
He soon disappeared into the next intersecting corridor. For a moment I felt an opportunity missed. But then the reality hit me. Here I stood in the darkened halls of one of the busiest airports in the world alone with the man in black. My mind raced with the things I should have said. Could've said. Or never would've said.
But the imagery is imprinted. Unforgettable. Unlike many of my peers, I owned a number of Johnny Cash CDs. This may have been right about the time Rick Rubin and American Recordings discovered him. I can't remember. But we walked the line in the ring of fire as I headed to Prague and he headed to Europe for yet another tour.
When I arrived home on Saturday and through the faded plastic of a roadside newspaper vending machine read that Johnny Cash had died, I felt a pang of loss. Yet I remembered his performance. And I remembered the time we met. Alone — in the big city.
His first hit “I Walk The Line” could quite possibly have incubated the Rockabilly movement. His music transcended country, blues, pop and rock. It opened country music fans to pop, rock folk and blues, while paving the way for country rock and roll. His recent cover of Trent Reznor's Nine Inch Nails cut “Hurt” was nominated for 7 MTV music awards. Sadly, it only captured only one for cinematography. But even weeks before his death his influence and artistry is still recognized and respected by both fans and critics.
I'll miss Johnny Cash. But his music will always find a home on record, CD, MP3 or whatever is next.
Update: Blogcritics has a load of comments and links on Johnny Cash.