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Johnny and June

by Mark Peres

December 4,2005

Just over ten years ago, shortly after the first of his comeback American Recordings were released, Johnny Cash stood on a stage in Miami and opened his concert with the familiar harmonica and rumble of the “Orange Blossom Special.” The train might as well have rolled right through me. I sat in the balcony and held on. Johnny wore black, as he always did, harkening midnight hurt and godly redemption.

That night I was invited backstage and a friend took a photograph of me standing beside Johnny. He was graveled and dark and holy. I was eager and proud and overwhelmed. We were both grinning.

Johnny is on my mind. I look at the photograph often in my album, a period in my life before I was married, before Internet gold rushes and asset allocation and this town that I now find myself in. It was a time of bachelor instincts, of breaking rules and the trauma of self-inflicted truth. I wrote a novel in those days, one that stays unpublished on the shelf, that took a year of my life and me to the edge of days.

Now, in a different time, a time of counting money and civic participation, I see Johnny portrayed on screen. On my birthday, my bride of nearly nine years took me to see “I Walk the Line.” She knows about me and Johnny. Both of us got caught up in Johnny and June.

The movie brought me back to a place of struggle about the source of creativity. In the land of convention, of suits and schedules and finance and bills and children going to school, emotions that would otherwise change the world are boxed in as a means of social order. The rules are defined, we judge ourselves and others by them, and here is one: we are only to reveal our innermost desires to a spouse. Certainly not to someone else of the opposite sex. After all, it’s a slippery slope from there. But what is desire but rebellion from the rules?

Johhny and June were both married to others when they fell into their ring of fire. Their unresolved sexual tension fueled an explosion of music and song that changed the world. Loyalty to them came at a price, as did betrayal, as it does for all of us. When they married, and the danger was gone, their music changed to something more wise and ultimately safe in its repetition. Only in their last years, with death looming, did their creative majesty return as they, together, reached back to the stripped-down chords of their early days of creative destruction.

It is an arc many of us know. There is no story without choices. There is no drama without tragedy. We have great loves, we have hearts torn, and we have the intimacy of every touch on our minds.

In this town I find myself in, there is a tension of aspiration. It is a tension of becoming, a love affair of what is yet to be. It is a current that attracts. I see the road ahead of spires and balconies, of the movement of flesh and the blur of light. The future of this town rests in its maturation to artistry. When it leaves the script, when it rises to boldness and deepens what is true, it will change the world.

That night in Miami, June joined Johnny on stage. They sang their signature song, the one they sang as unrequited lovers for ten years before June finally said yes to Johnny’s marriage proposal. I heard the playfulness, the tug and yearning of two falling hard for each other, but bound not to hurt others they had made vows to in their lives. If ever there is a song about lust, the convention that extinguishes it, and the desire to have it back, this is it:

“We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout,
We’ve been talkin’ about Jackson, ever since the fire went out.
I’m goin’ to Jackson, I’m gonna mess around,
Yeah, I’m goin’ to Jackson,
Look out Jackson town.”

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