Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Rosanne Cash: A 'Composed' Life

Just finished Rosanne Cash's smart new memoir, "Composed" (out Aug. 10, Viking Adult). Although she is the eldest daughter of Johnny Cash, she was anything but "high on arrival," which is (sarcastic -- in parens for Thomas) shorthand for saying it's a refreshing look back at a celebrity life that steers clear of tawdry details and sensational revelations.

Cash famously turned her back on Nashville some 20 years ago to fulfill her calling as a true singer/songwriter/artiste in New York City-- rather than a record-label hit puppet she had all but become during her '80s heyday -- yet everything about this book celebrates her Southern heritage, rooted in family, music, joy and heartache.

In fact, rather than reading like a memoir, much of the book feels more like a conversation about old relatives, complete with fascinating intimate details of the ups and downs of various family members (it doesn't hurt that's she's often talking about Johnny Cash, June and Carlene Carter or George Harrison, so you feel like you actually know 'em). And even when she's talking about strangers, there's a down-to-earth charm that seems to indicate that even in her own memoir, Ms. Cash would still prefer not to have the spotlight entirely on herself, an ambivalence that has haunted her since the recording of her first demo.

Which isn't to say this isn't at times a little frustrating. Most fans would probably prefer a little bit more dish than, say, paragraphs devoted to the whereabouts of the president of her dad's U.K. fan club or old coworkers from her quasi-internship at her dad's label's London office when she was 20. To read "Composed" would have you believe that Cash has only had sex with two men in her life, that she never had any heated arguments with her ex-husband or never clashed with her less-famous siblings. (Surely her shared musical connection to her dad must have created some tensions, but even some less personal dish about a night at the Grammys or a country music gala would have been nice.)

And even when she is discussing others, clearly her goal is to not ruffle anyone's feathers -- there's a disclaimer about her memory in the introduction and a thank-you in the acknowledgments for allowing her to remember her OWN memories the way SHE remembers them. (In fairness, that could just be the Augusten Burroughs Effect, but it seems more like a woman who was taught by a prim and proper Texas mother than if you don't have anything nice to say about someone, don't say anything at all.) The closest she comes to expressing anything even remotely negative -- save for a hilarious line about flight attendants -- is when she says she had to leave town in 2005 to avoid the hoopla surrounding the release of "Walk the Line," which she found to be "an egregious oversimplification of our family's private pain, writ large and Hollywood-style." Yet she never mentions that her half brother, John Carter Cash, was credited as an executive producer on the film, and even had a bit role as Bob Neal.

But just like Cash's music, the book is truly beautiful to experience. Although compact for a woman with such an interesting life -- just 241 pages, which I finished in two sittings (Belinda Carlisle's was even longer!) -- her use of language is so thoughtful and intelligent (her eulogy for stepmom June brought tears to my eyes -- Rosanne is indeed a Writer) that anything you wish she'd addressed but didn't is forgiven. And by the end, you realize that despite a lifetime of willful guardedness, Rosanne Cash has accomplished something that she is clearly uncomfortable doing -- she's let you see inside her family for a moment, and it's a moment fans will not want to miss.

P.S. I read this book with no glasses and it was really nice.

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