Today is “that date.” The one that lives in the collective consciousness of the U.S., if there is such a thing—collective consciousness, I mean, not the U.S., though I’m quite willing to admit its fictiveness as well. But sometimes it seems more real than at other times.
In 2001, on September 11, all hell broke loose in New York City and elsewhere. The U.S., fictive or not as a collectivity, was under attack from enemies without, who clearly perceived it as an entity that could be struck in the solar plexus and feel the pain. And that made us all identify with “U.S.ness,” and it made us all outraged and horrified and dazed and heartbroken and staring in disbelief. That day, remember?
For some, it will always be the “where were you when?” date to be remembered like a red badge of honor. But those are the survivors, not too directly touched by the event. Over such identities, there hangs a pall, the pall of all those who didn’t survive the day. Where they were then is—gone for good.
And that’s the theme of today’s song. I chose it because tomorrow is the deathday of its singer, the one, the only, Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash was many things in his long career, and as he evolved into the last decades of that career—from 1994 to his death in 2003 (the day after the 2nd anniversary of “that date”)—was a figure of considerable gravitas. He’d paid his dues at every level and now, as grand old man, was reinventing a vast songbook with production impresario Rick Rubin at the helm. Cash, like the American treasure he’d become, covered, on the “American recordings,” old folk and gospel classics, pop classics, rock classics, and occasionally a song of his own, such as “The Man Comes Around,” the title track of the last album released before his death, in November, 2002, just over a year after “the day.”
It’s a baleful song—as a warning to everyone to get their act together before the Final Days. But it’s also a celebratory song—because it believes in an afterlife. So the point of the song—of that man coming around, taking names and dividing, as they say, the wheat from the chaff—has to do with being saved or damned: “Everybody won’t be treated all the same.” Cash brackets these comments on how to mentally prepare for meeting one’s maker with readings from the Book of Revelation. A sound of thunder and one of the Four Beasts bids the speaker look “And, behold! a white horse.” And at the end, one of those great, indelible statements from the King James version: “behold! a pale horse. And his name, that sat on him, was Death. And hell followed after.”
That, to me, sounds like a description of 9/11/01. There are those, here in our entity called the U.S., that want that terrible Judgment to fall upon the perpetrators of the atrocity. But that’s not the way this works, in the Old World sense. Death is the judgment. The moment of death—by whatever means—is written. It unfolds in time but was always part of the whole. Which is why all that notion of an accident being a “tragedy” goes against that grim intractability of that outlook. Death is never “tragic” because it is inevitable. The circumstances can be tragic—in the sense of one who approaches that moment under bad grace. Which, in the New Testament sense of things Cash is articulating, can be guarded against by believing in Christ. Which is what Cash’s song is saying. “The potter’s ground” awaits the unknown—here, those God does not accept or recognize. That, maybe, is tragic, in human terms. But the celebration in Cash’s song—with the angels singing and the trumpets—is for those who, however they come to the Maker’s throne, come there at peace with their fate. At peace with God’s plan and world. “The wise men will bow down before the Throne.” Thy Will be done. ’Nuff said.
And Cash, old sinner and old believer that he was, gives us one of those great biblical exhortations, the kind that says, be true to your blasphemies, boys. You’re a hell-raiser? Keep raising hell, even in your last moment, so that you’ll have no doubt why you’re not among the saved: Whoever is unjust, let him be unjust still. / Whoever is righteous, let him be righteous still. / Whoever is filthy, let him be filthy still.
“In measured hundredweight or penny pound,” indeed. Everything, in this vision of judgment, shall be weighed. For those inclined to this vision, it may offer some solace that those who died helping others on that catastrophic day should be weighed well; even those just minding their own business—so long as it was not business that would weigh against them—were also “righteous” in the end. For those of an antithetical faith, however, the “righteous” are those who engineered the devastation. So much for justifications by heavenly accord. Still, it must be allowed that, secular as the destruction was, there hangs about it the aura of the meeting of mythologies. Beliefs in Things to Come. And in the End of All Things.
And that there are the saved and the damned, not just the living and the dead, the murderers and the murdered.
It’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks. Yes, but what can a poor boy do . . . strike up another tune.