It was the 9th of June, 1994. I was a young, aspiring musician, singer and songwriter from Norway working as an intern at Manhattan Center Studios, one of Manhattan’s many venues. With the unusual pleasant weather breezing through the city (meaning: COLD enough for a Norwegian), I had plans to step outside for the day.
That was until I realized who was coming in to play that night.
Johnny Cash. The man and the icon himself. I ran to my boss and begged him, commanded him to let me work as a stage hand that night. He smiled at my zeal and agreed to let me do it. I was in heaven. I grew up with Johnny Cash’s music. He was America in the flesh, he was a walking piece of history. He had been one of the many voices that had filled the walls and air around me as I grew up, as I learnt to play, to sing, to write music of my own. I couldn’t believe my luck. It was a special year, with one turn around moment after another.
I got my first publishing contract with EMI. I had five of my songs recorded by other artists. I was working on my own album in one of the best recording studios in New York City. A couple of weeks earlier I had walked in on one of my favorite songwriters; Paal Waaktar (he wrote some of the best songs for A-ha, including their world wide #1 hit Take on Me) as he checked out some frames in a shop down in Greenwich Village. There was a strange feeling in the air. My big heroes felt somewhat within reach… and therefore also my life long dream of being a musician and a songwriter that had formed listening to people like Cash, Dylan, A-ha, Dépêche Mode, Soundgarden and Nirvana seemed somehow possible.
The hour arrived. The room was still closed off to the public. I was on stage setting up drums and mics, and carrying guitar amps. The band entered and did a super quick sound check. Then Johnny walked in with wife June Carter. It takes me right back writing about it…
He is all smiles. He greets people left and right, so I dare to approach him too. Because it isn’t a superstar that has walked in, it isn’t a shy icon, aloof and mysterious to us mere mortals. It’s a family member. It’s that uncle that you haven’t seen in a while, but heard so much about you feel like you know everything about him. And Johnny and June act as if they remember you too, though no one has seen each other before.
He is my height. I look him straight in the eyes and tell him that I grew up on his music and that I am honored to meet him. Johnny just looks back and smiles. He is at peace, but full of energy. Maybe he can sense that this is a turn around year for him too. He has just recorded an album with Rick Rubin; “American Recordings”, and this is one of the first stops to promote the album that will bring him back to the forefront of American popular culture. Curtains close, people streaming through the doors. Johnny stays on stage, behind the curtain, talks to people. Including me. A young woman walks up and wants a picture. Johnny says “Sure”, takes her camera and hands it to me. I take their picture. Everyone seems exhilarated, uplifted, as if in the presence of royalty. More greetings, more pictures.
Then it’s show time. Everyone leaves the stage. Johnny walks to the side too. June is right there with him. I am right next to them. Curtain goes up and Johnny walks back out on stage. June stays back, right next to me. I notice as he walks out that there is no change in Johnny. Whether the curtain is up or closed, he is the same. “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash, how are you…” The picking on the fender guitar, the piercing snare drum, the flicker on the bass strings… It hits you like knives as they launch into Folsom Prison Blues. Hair stands up.
VH1 caught that night on camera. You can see the entire show in a link below.
I think, although I cannot be sure, but I’d like to believe that is me at 0:50. But it’s the back of (my) (someone’s) head, so it’s hard to tell. But it is not unlikely.
For the rest of the show I am standing right next to June as she sways, claps and sings along with her husband, looking at him from the distance. I can see the love, the love that kept them together through their tumultuous life, the love that inspired the movie “Walk the Line” some years later. The love that, once she passed on; you kinda knew it wouldn’t take long for Johnny to want to follow.
This is one of those moments where I realized why I had spent all those hours by myself learning to play, sing and write, why I had come all this way from Norway, left my friends and family behind, why I played clubs and bars and churches and event halls, why I accepted the lonely hours on buses and trains and planes, why I played for no one or everyone as often and as much as I could. I saw that night the ultimate and most perfect communication with other people, both on and off stage. Whether you sing about murder, loss, longing, or redemption and salvation… it is the desire to communicate that is the driving force and I saw what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
And this is where you come in. Most of you who are reading this are doing so because at some point music moved you so much that it just refuses to die. It won’t go away. You have been smitten. You had the experience of being hit so hard that you couldn’t walk away from that moment and be the same person. You were changed, transformed, and continues to be by the language of music. And right in the middle of all that sits a community of sound, words and rythm, right there in the space between the performer and the listeners sits something not tangible, yet it is so present that it almost hurts…
So thank you for playing. Thank you for listening. Thank you for taking part in this community. The community I call my heaven. I met one of its messiahs on June, 9th 1994.
I look forward to many more sometimes hard, sometimes ugly, always worth while experiences. Here’s to hoping that you are part of that journey.
If you like to hear the most recent milestone to that journey, click here to listen to my latest album; “King of Bitter Sorrow”.
Thank you again for making it all matter
Link to Johnny Cash at Manhattan Center, New York 06.09.1994: