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April 1st, 2004

Johnny Cash Tribute

by James Connelly

Johnny Cash Tribute: rockabilly and punk bands pay tribute to the "Man in Black"

Johnny Cash was one of the most widely respected people in American music. His music and his personality had an appeal that crossed more boundaries than anyone I can think of. His death was sad news to people of all generations and musical tastes.?Ǭ When I heard that Polina and Alex of N.Y. Decay were planning a tribute concert I made it a point to get down to the Knitting Factory on Leonard Street right on time. There were more than thirty acts performing on two floors. The ten-dollar cover charge was not only a bargain, but it was also for a good cause. New York Decay was donating all the proceeds to the American Diabetes Association.

The thirty plus acts that performed were from an incredibly wide variety of musical styles. There were bluegrass musicians, country and western bands, rockabilly, psychobilly (a phrase coined by the man in black himself in the song "One Piece At A Time"), punk bands, death rock bands, and straight up rock and roll bands. While there were seven DJ’s on hand to keep the mood going between sets, it really wasn’t a problem going between floors to see band after band perform. Whenever a band finished their set, you would just go either up or downstairs and catch another band doing their set. I don’t know if it was planned with such precision, but it worked out so that you were able to catch the better part of almost every bands performance.

I must have heard at least five versions of each of Johnny’s classics. Each version was done in a completely different style, but they all had one thing in common.?Ǭ I enjoyed the hell out of every song that was played. While the Turbo AC’s did an ass kicking, rock and roll cover of "Ghost Riders In The Sky" (Johnny performed this song with The Highwaymen), The Folsom Prisonaires did a more true to the original version of the same song.?Ǭ Both versions did justice, in my opinion, to the spirit of Johnny and his outlaw brand of music.

Downstairs I heard a hardcore punk version of?Ǭ "A Boy Named Sue". Upstairs a country band performed "Folsom Prison Blues". New York City favorites Jones Crusher and Charm School with Mickey Leigh slayed’em with their familiar style, while?Ǭ bands like Famous in Vegas and the Alphabet Bombers came from Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. to pay tribute to one of the greatest musical influences of the last fifty years.

I remember hearing Henry Rollins tell of an incident where he introduced Johnny Cash to Joe Strummer at an industry party. They had made tentative plans to work on something together, but alas, I don’t think it ever came to pass. What struck me about that story is that Johnny Cash was my father’s favorite musician. There he was, a country music legend, humble enough to give a few minutes of his time to a punk rocker of whom he may never even have heard. I remember my father making us all watch a television special in the early 1970’s. It was Johnny Cash playing at San Quentin. There we all were: my older brother (a biker who listened primarily to DooWop), my sister (the hippie), my grandmother, and Mom and Dad. We rarely sat together for very long, but for that night we did. This man was able to bridge the generation gap at a time when the country’s youth didn’t trust anybody over thirty and our elders, for the most part, thought we had all gone mad.

In writing about Johnny’s passing, and the tribute show I attended, I am truly relieved not to have had to use the "end of an era" clich?. While the man himself can never be replaced, the music he made, the example he set, and the lives he touched will be with us for a very long time.

(To see a list of the bands who played, or to learn more about N.Y. Decay,-who are responsible for some of downtown N.Y.C.’s "rockinest" events- go to nydecay.com)

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