The slayer who ran looked a lot like me

Inmate at San Quentin watching Johnny Cash perform

In this interview mentioned in the last post, Nick Cave explained how his musical inclinations were forever changed when – as young boy in a small town in Australia – he started watching the Johnny Cash Show. The first episode of the show aired on June 17, 1969 (Cave would have been about twelve) and the one of the first songs Cash sang was the country murder ballad standard “Long Black Veil,” performing it as a duet with Joni Mitchell.

“Long Black Veil,” Johnny Cash and Joni Mitchell
first episode of The Johnny Cash Show,1969
 written by  Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin and originally recorded by Lefty Frizzell
“Long Black Veil,” Lefty Frizzell, 1959 (listen on Spotify)

Cash first recorded the song in 1965 for the album Orange Blossom Special, and then reprised it for Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison in 1968. (It was then collected in the “Murder” portion of the compilation box set Love, God, Murder in 2000, for which Quentin Tarantino wrote the liner notes.)  Nick Cave also covered the song on the album Kicking Against the Pricks, which as we saw last time was his first real foray into American music and his first homage to Cash.

Told from the point of view of an executed man falsely accused of murder, the song contains several standards of the traditional murder ballad (the lovers, the killing, the wailing wind). It also contains what would become Cash and Cave standards — a sympathy for the condemned innocent, a conversation with the law, a wrestling with the truth, and  a protagonist that is both wronged and wrong, both innocent and guilty (much like “The Mercy Seat”).

But we have two killings here, two very different kinds. We have the condemned man whose life is brutally taken by the law and with whom the bulk of the song and the empathy resides. But, critically, we also have the first murder, the one on which the whole song rests. This murder is quick, brutal and totally meaningless – a random “someone” is killed by a random “slayer.”

The link between the two, everyone agrees, is that the two men – one a simple slayer, one a complicated innocent – look a whole lot alike. In a nutshell, I think this is what Cash and Cave are all about – taking a look at those who murder for no good reason at all, taking a look at the not-so-innocent-innocents who get caught up in circumstances, and then taking a hard look how alike both kinds of men can be. And, finally, taking an even harder look at how similar they can both look to the reflection in the mirror.

public domain image (

Johnny Cash mugshot

Cash famously rolled all this reflection into one big ball of wax in songs like “Folsom Prison Blues” and his cover of “Cocaine Blues,” both of which — like “Long Black Veil” — feature brutal one-line murders and then, as Cash performs them, quickly move on to a much more complicated state of affairs. In his performances of these and other songs at Folsom and San Quentin, Cash simultaneously empathizes with, laughs with, mimics, defends, and judges — and loves — the men he is singing to and about. No matter how many times you listen to or watch it done, it’s still an incredible feat:

“Folsom Prison Blues,” Johnny Cash, live at San Quentin
“Cocaine Blues,” as performed by Joaquin Phoenix in the film I Walk the Line:

The expressions of the men in the audience here are incredible and – in my view anyway – make irrelevant any criticism one can make of these performances:

“San Quentin,” Johnny Cash, live at San Quentin
“I Walk the Line,” Johnny Cash, live at San Quentin

In earlier posts, Ken urged us to think about why singers sing murder ballads. It’s hard to say that these performances by Cash don’t glorify crime and murder. Yet it’s also equally hard to say that they do. These songs and performances function as their own kind of mercy seat, Nick Cave style — simultaneously a place of judgement, punishment, deliverance and grace.

Nick Cave certainly isn’t this kind of legend and he doesn’t perform in this way. But his body of work, I think, does. And it is in that sense he and Cash have a lot to say to each other. Speaking of his Murder Ballads album and some of his singles that appear elsewhere, Cave had this to say:

“I’m sympathetic to the tragic character, and I guess the murderer is as much a tragic character as his victims are. In a way there are murderers and murderers… I find it difficult to have sympathy for the idiot who walks into McDonald’s and blows everyone away with a shotgun – someone who lacks any imagination and is a moral coward. But there are other killers who, what they do, are kinds of shouts of despair, which is a different thing altogether. And I guess the McDonald’s killer is a cry as well in some ways.”

Next up, we’ll take a look at some of those songs, and how Cash and Cave roll women, cowboys, and God into the mix. To tide us over, another standard ballad cover from Cave:
“Knoxville Girl,” Nick Cave
“Knoxville Girl,” The Louvin Brothers, 1956


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