“From the rocking of the cradle to the rolling of the hearse the going up was worth the coming down,” croons Kris Kristofferson as he contemplates the life of country music legend Johnny Cash.
And Australian rock legend Tex Perkins agrees that in the final analysis that pretty well sums up the life of the controversial but celebrated performer who was certainly a man of contradictions.
Perkins, who made a place for himself in the country’s rock history as a multi-ARIA Award winning frontman in bands the Cruel Sea, Beasts of Bourbon and Ladyboyz, sings Johnny Cash in The Man in Black which won the Helpmann Award for Best Contemporary Australian Concert. The show enjoyed sell-out seasons in 2009 and 2012 at the Sydney Opera House, an 18-month Australia-wide tour and a triumphant tour of New Zealand.
Now Perkins is back for one week only at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, from July 15 to 20 singing a collection of Johnny Cash hits as he throws a glimmer of light on the tumultuous but exciting life of one of the most influential American singer-songwriters of the 20th Century.
On stage with him are Rachael Tidd as June Carter, Cash’s second wife and creative partner of many years, and backing band The Tennessee Four – Steve Hadley on bass, David Folley on drums, Shane Reilly on electric guitar and Matt Walker on acoustic guitar.
Written by Australian theatrical producer Jim McPherson The Man in Black is two hours of Cash’s greatest hits interwoven with the story of his rise to stardom, fight for survival and eventual redemption.
Cash, who died in 2003 (just 14 weeks after June’s death), was one of America’s most influential country music stars, covering a range of genres that include rockabilly, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, folk and gospel. He sold well over 50 million records in his lifetime and his music still sells today. He was dealt a very tough hand early in life, but through his music he became a legend worldwide.
The hit songs featured in the show include “Ring of Fire”, “I Walk the Line”, “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down”, “Get Rhythm”, “Hey Porter” and the iconic “A Boy Named Sue” that first attracted the attention of a young Tex Perkins.
“As a 6-year-old ‘A Boy Named Sue’ really resonated with me. A few things about it really struck me. It was a hit played numerous times a day. It was a story-telling song so that always grabs a child’s imagination. And it had ‘the mud, the blood and the beer’,” Perkins says in his best Johnny Cash drawl.
“It provided a description of a dark, seedy, dirty, ugly world, and the guy had a woman’s name! And then to top it all off, it had something beeped out that made you go ‘what’s going on here?’ That was my first introduction to culture and music that got the dark side – up until then it was Bing Crosby and the Beatles. As a 6-year-old I heard whatever my parents and my sister were listening to.”
Also enticing was the humour in the song and the fact it was performed in front of a prison audience “going nuts”.
“The energy in that recording is incredible mainly because of the audience,” Perkins says.
Indeed, much of Man in Black is based on James Mangold’s Walk the Line 2005 film but with a lot more added.
“When they first presented me with the script it ended in 1969 – we go right up to his death,” Perkins explains.
“The last 10 years of Cash’s life and his career are just as important as the first 10 years of his career. The first 10 are incredible with all those hits but in the last 10 he completely redefined and relaunched himself and you think ‘Oh my God this is fucking brilliant’. It was just foolish to completely ignore all of that.
“Also, the movie gave this impression he went through all this trouble then he got a good woman and everything’s fine. In fact, he struggled with that drug problem right to the end.”
Perkins is relaxed and animated as he speaks of his admiration for the troubled but inspired superstar. Above all he admires the honesty with which Cash spoke of his drug addiction, mostly amphetamines, pharmaceutical speed.
“I heard an interview with him in the early ‘90s where he was basically saying ‘I never want to touch mood altering drugs ever again, they’ve never done any good for me in my life, I never want to touch them again… but I might,” the Johnny Cash drawl returns as Perkins warms to his subject.
“But I might,” he laughs. “That is another reason I love him. It’s easy to compare him to Elvis who went through the same thing, in the same period, same drug problem – speed and alcohol – but Elvis denied it until the day he died. ‘How dare you suggest such a thing’ he’d say if anyone brought it up.
“But Johnny put it in his songs and made humour about it. He not only admitted it for his own recovery but put it in his songs. In his live recordings he’s saying ‘can you get my lyrics, it’s where I keep my pills’.”
“Cocaine Blues” may be a fantasy song, he says, but Perkins describes it as “seriously cheeky “ for a man with a drug problem to write such a song.
Apart from the film and the volume of material available on the Internet, Perkins has drawn from the impressions of Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan in forming his stage character.
“I use Kris’ s assessment of Johnny as a counterpoint to Dylan who saw Johnny as a religious figure, completely revered. Kris as a long-term friend probably saw him a bit more truthfully.”
But Perkins reassures that he is not attempting to do an impersonation of Cash.
“My performance is not a detailed impersonation. If you put me up against Johnny and did a comparison you’d notice plenty of differences. When people play other people it’s important to give across a natural truth rather than a detailed impersonation.
“Put the boots on and just be; do the hair and feel this could be Johnny Cash. Works better because people get a sense of truth from that; people feel ‘that guy is really saying that to me’.”
It’s hard to miss the empathy in his voice as Perkins talks about Cash. He acknowledges that he does relate although he’s not plagued by the same demons.
“I don’t have the horrible drug habit that Cash had but there’s always the pull between family and work,” says Perkins, father of five children.
“I relate to the struggle. The balance of showbiz touring and the rigours and temptations of the road, sex drugs and rock’n’roll, and you have a family. I don’t have his problems but I relate.”
And despite having done the concert more than 200 times, Perkins still finds it enjoyable.
“Absolutely. It’s amazing that we’ve done it 207 times and we still bring something fresh each time, all of us. I think it’s a combination of the quality of the people involved. We’ve really formed a bit of a family and we look forward to being together. The show gives us that.
“And the audience hasn’t see it 207 times. You see their faces and that gives you the reason. Bottom line: people love Johnny Cash and therefore they love the show so you just go with that.”
The audience demographic is extraordinarily wide, he says, encompassing everything from 18-year-old rockers to 80-year-old women, all there for the same reason: they love Johnny Cash and his songs
“And it’s a really interesting story, an almost Shakespearean tale of rags to riches, a dead brother, an overbearing father and drug problems.”
In ending the interview, I quote Kris Kristofferson and ask Perkins whether he thinks Cash would have thought the going up was worth the coming down.
“Absolutely. I don’t think he would have regretted his life. Even when he talks about his drug problem in interviews he always talks about how much he loved it, the ecstasy he felt taking drugs. I rarely heard him talk about the horrors.
“This is a celebration of his life – the audience will laugh and cry.”
The Man in Black is at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House from Tuesday 15 July – Sunday 20 July. Bookings: sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777.
The show will head to Perth, Western Australia, next month.
Dates: Tuesday 26 August – Sunday 31 August 2014
Venue: Regal Theatre, Subiaco
Bookings: ticketek.com.au 132 849
Prices: Tickets $79 to $109