Tag Archives: Ashes By Now

I Ain’t Living Long Like This

Chinaberry Sidewalks: A Memoir by Rodney Crowell (Knopf; $24.95; 256 pages)

“To be well-loved is to be free of the evil lurking around the next darkened corner.   Every child should know that feeling.”

The country music artist Rodney Crowell is known for his singing and songwriting skills.   His singing voice, often compared to that of Kris Kristofferson (but higher pitched), may leave something to be desired.   But the artist who has written songs like Shame on the Moon, I Ain’t Living Long Like This and (The Way You Burn Me I Should Be) Ashes by Now, has shown himself to be a bright star in this category.   Crowell is also known as being the ex-husband of Rosanne Cash, which has presented other issues, such as coming off second in comparison to her singing, songwriting and writing skills.

It proves to be true again.   For while Chinaberry Sidewalks is interesting in some places, it does not hold the reader’s imagination and interest the way that Rosanne Cash’s brilliantly written memoir Composed does.   Cash displayed a skill for always finding the right interesting words to describe the happenings in her life; and her voice was just as unique as Bob Dylan’s in Chronicles.

Crowell never seems to find his voice or his style here, although he has stated that he felt freed from the strict rules of song writing in putting together – over a decade – this autobiographical account.

With my grandmother and Charlie (the shoe shine man)…  I experienced love as something tangible between myself and another human being.”

This is a tough read because much of it covers the sad scenes of a childhood filled with bickering parents and domestic violence.   No doubt Crowell is being brutally honest, but it is often difficult to wish to read about a childhood described as filled with nothing “but a primal instinct for survival, theirs and mine.”   In one of the hard-to-concentrate on scenes, Crowell’s inebriated mother hits his father whereupon his very drunk dad responds by punching his mother in the face.   The young Crowell intervenes by breaking a Coke bottle over his own head, requiring a trip to the hospital for stitches.   Yes, a few stories like this go a long way.

It must be noted that this memoir contains some near-charming stories of growing up as a boomer child (Crowell was born in August of 1950).   But the reader interested in tales of playing soldier, or cowboys and Indians, etc. will find better written accounts in the memoirs of Bob Greene (When We Get to Surf City).

“…my parents’ deaths were unique to their personalities.”

At the end of Chinaberry Sidewalks, Crowell’s parents have found a sense of normalcy in their lives before they depart the earth.   And love in a marriage that somehow lasted for decades.   It is a comforting message but one that arrives only after a narrative that might have benefited from tighter editing.   Crowell’s narrative never equates to the level of his songwriting skills in this account.

This is not a bad first effort, but the Rodney Crowell that’s found in Cash’s Composed – such as in the classic scene where a nervous young Crowell meets his legendary future father-in-law for the first time – is a far more interesting person than the one found here.

Joseph Arellano  

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Chinaberry Sidewalks was released on January 18, 2011.  

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I Still Miss Someone

Composed

Composed: A Memoir by Rosanne Cash (Viking, $26.95, 245 pages; Penguin Books, $17.00, 256 pages)

“It’s me.   They are all me, the good and the bad.”

Rosanne Cash’s memoir starts off flat and rather dull before it kicks into gear; it then becomes more engaging with every page.   Composed has the same type of non-chronological structure as Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, which perhaps is not an accident as Bob gets a lot of play in this account of the life of Johnny Cash’s daughter.   It almost goes without saying that this is also a first-hand tribute to her late father, the Man in Black.

“On Friday, September 12, air had still gone in and out of his lungs; he had moved his limbs and made sounds.   He had actually squeezed my hand and lifted his eyebrows.   It was a difficult day, the last day of my dad’s life, but not unbearable to me.   The next day, the beginning of my dad’s life in the past tense, was unbearable.”

Rosanne paints her father as a man with faults and addictions (brought on by a jaw broken during dental surgery), but also as a loving man who quietly gave guidance to his daughters.   She came to take him for granted during his life – always sharing him with the world – but has found life difficult without him.

Early in his career Bob Dylan wrote songs based on dreams, and here Rosanne points out that her life has been shaped by a series of remembered dreams.   One of them involved Linda Ronstadt and Cash’s realization that she had been faking it in her career to that point, afraid to take serious chances.   After having that momentous dream, Rosanne resolved to work harder, especially as a serious songwriter.

Another dream involved her father and her need to let him go:  “When I woke…  I felt relief.   It was no longer my job to take care of him, as he was being taken care of, wherever he was.   The legacy of his work was intact, in my dream preserved as carefully and conscientiously as if it had been in a museum.   Something settled…  I could let him move on now.”

One surprise about reading Composed is finding out that Johnny Cash’s daughter is far more a fan of rock musicians than country singer-songwriters.   Yes, she has her idols and heroes in the latter category but she was heavily influenced by Dylan, Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian, James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen and the Beatles.   All of these influences seem to have come together in her biggest hit single, “Seven Year Ache.”

As with the afore-mentioned Chronicles, Rosanne Cash writes in a style that is so unique it could not have been ghostwritten.   She has been a long-time student of words and she finds just the right ones to accompany each and every tale of her life told here.

“If Magritte had painted my childhood, it would be a chaos of floating snakes, white oxfords, dead Chihuahuas, and pink hair rollers.”

Composed paper

Perhaps the biggest compliment that can be paid to a memoir is to say that it enabled the reader to come to know the person who wrote it.   Having read Composed, I feel that I now know Rosanne Cash and I like her.   I look forward to hearing more of her music.   As a songwriter she’s joined her idols as one of the best.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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