Leave it to Bono. While not singing for U2 or leading the way on humanitarian causes, he can write up a storm. In the liner notes for a Johnny Cash CD, he wrote that Cash “was the most male voice in Christendom. Every man knows he is a sissy compared to Johnny Cash.” The exceptional fortitude that guided Cash in his personal life and his recorded works was evident to those who followed his career. His stalwart approach explains why he was comfortable with, in Bono’s words, the righteous and the damned. He was also right-at-home with a wide assortment of songs. After all, if every other man is a sissy compared to you, there’s lots of leeway to do as one pleases.
Throughout his career, Cash went where the spirit moved him and often directed the spirit to go where he wanted. Many elongated paths were blazed by Johnny Cash. The man who pierced “Folsom Prison Blues” with the words “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” later demanded that Columbia Records allow him to record an album of hymns. He got his way. Cash confounded people then, as he would for the next 40-50 years. If he believed in a cause, he’d embrace it. If he believed in a song, he’d sing it. And he recorded hundreds of songs. You may not care for one batch of songs, but there’d be another and another after that.
In the last ten years of his life, Johnny Cash recorded some of his most compelling music. Most of the songs in that final decade left fans appreciative. Some songs left them disquieted. But those listening in were always intrigued. His recording of the Beatles “In My Life” is one that still creates varied reactions.
Cash had been in failing health for several years, yet he continued to drive on. His admirers kept pulling for him, but his life, with all its personal and artistic triumphs, had been hard. Johnny Cash, as he’d be the first to admit, was responsible for some of the rough patches he found himself in. But it seemed he’d always pick himself up, amazing his fans with his persistence and his musical output. In 2002, when he recorded “In My Life,” there were no doubts regarding his fighting spirit. However his rendering of this lovely song is bittersweet. His mournful tone veers from the sense of gratitude about life and loved ones that John Lennon conveyed in The Beatles’ recording. His version sounds as much regretful as it does reflective. The regret may be felt over something lost, something a man of his character could not help but lament.
Yes, Johnny Cash was a happy and thankful man, but he was also the man in black. He had his own reasons for donning that color. Those were shared in his 1970 hit, “Man In Black.” Perhaps he kept them in mind when he recorded “In My Life.” We recall where he was in life then. There were some painful days, physically and spiritually. Many friends and family members had passed on. Recent years had been tough and there were tougher times ahead. So it’s best to accept the song as a personal statement from a fine character who sounded weary but had the strength of his convictions. Johnny Cash could always find the light when it was pitch black but he would still observe the darkness; then he’d emerge from it stronger. Understanding his life makes one appreciate his version of “In My Life” even more.
John Lennon was proud of “In My Life.” He thought of it as his “first real major piece of work.” In 1980 he told journalist David Sheff it was the first song he wrote “that was consciously about my life.” He said the song “started out as a bus journey from my house on 250 Menlove Avenue to town, mentioning every place I could remember. And it was ridiculous.” Lennon called it the “most boring part of ‘What I Did on My Holiday Bus Trip’ song and it was not working at all.”
Lennon ditched the holiday bus trip narrative, declaring “I cannot do this! I cannot do this!” So he said he “laid back and these lyrics started coming to me about the places I remember.” Lennon recalled “the whole lyrics were finished before Paul even heard it,” but he did credit McCartney with contributing melodically to the harmony and the middle eight melody.
McCartney remembers it differently. In Barry Miles’ McCartney biography, Many Years From Now, Paul claims to “writing the whole melody.” He said, “The melody’s structure is very me. So my recollection is saying to John, ‘Just go and have a cup of tea or something. Let me be with this for ten minutes on my own and I’ll do it.” Inspired by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, McCartney said he “tried to keep it melodic, but a bit bluesy.” He took the melody to John, who declared it “nice,” and they continued to work on the song, down to the opening guitar riff, which McCartney said he “was imagining the intro of a Miracles’ record.” He imagined it very well. The intro is similar to the opening of Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears.”
Still the Beatles had some work to do in finishing the song. An instrumental bridge was needed between verses. Producer George Martin was asked by John to come up with “something baroque- sounding,” according to Bob Spitz’s biography, The Beatles. Martin said that he “wrote out a Bach two-part invention (for piano), but it was too fast for me to play.” So I lowered the speed of the tape to half speed……and then speeded it up (on playback).” That was an engineering trick that, according to Spitz, simulated an Elizabethean-style harpsichord, allowing Martin, as Lennon instructed, to “play it like Bach.”
Recorded in October ’65 for their ground-breaking Rubber Soul album, “In My Life” is considered one of The Beatles’ greatest works. The song is played at events such as weddings and memorial services. John Lennon worked hard to get the lyrics right and succeeded. The basic elements of love, appreciation and respect embraced across generations are all there. Add such influences as Bach and Smokey Robinson to classic Lennon-McCartney and we have a lovely recording for the ages.