Never Resolved, Only Endured
Excerpts from Composed: A Memoir, by Rosanne Cash
This is a book that has been on my radar for a while, mainly because Pressfield swears by it mostly, he loves the bit where, after multiple #1 singles and Grammys, Cash had a dream where Art calls her a dilettante, and so she sends herself back to school, getting a new voice coach, reading books on songwriting, going deeper, paying attention, changing the way she sang, worked, and lived, all in humility, getting out of comfort zones, “awakened into the life of an artist.”
I had never quite got around to reading her book, mainly because (to borrow a line from Wallace), the science and technology of microscopy hadn't advanced enough to measure my interest in country music. (Though I'm listening to her songs right now as I type this.) However, after hearing and being deeply moved by her spot on Koppelman, I immediately picked it up. I found it to be a profound, deeply sad, and lyrical story of the journey of an artist from a (tragic) family of working artists, and it enthralled me. As with that prior dispatch, here are the bits that spoke to the crisis of faith I seem to be going through now.
At the end of that tortuous year of recording, rerecording, mixing, and remixing in three cities, with three producers, one executive producer, and a lot of fighting, I found that I was suffering from a bizarre kind of trauma. I was absolutely determined that I would never set foot in a recording studio again. I hated the process, I hated the record, I hated Eli Ball, and I did not even want to think about promotion and touring for the record, which for me had become nothing but a painful memory.
He is not the first artist I have known with so few defenses against the world, and certainly there have been many, many times I have felt that vulnerable and exposed myself.
I had come to feel curiously like a neophyte in the studio after the dream. Everything seemed new, frightening, and tremendously exciting. I had awakened from the morphine sleep of success into the life of an artist.
With the transfer at the label, the end of my marriage, and my departure from Nashville, I entered a storm of a magnitude I could scarcely have imagined… I was ungrounded and spinning from all the changes in my life.
Much of the time, our desire to make it work outweighed our skills in managing the difficulties, but desire can become commitment, and commitment can make the forces of the universe work to your advantage. That's what happened for us.
I was terrified when I started to sing for him that he would tell me it was useless, that my voice was irreparably damaged, but at the end of an hour, he said, "You're just seriously out of shape. You can get it back." We spent the next year rebuilding my voice from scratch. During those long, frightening days of near-muteness, I vowed that if my voice ever returned, I would give up the monologue of self-criticism about it. I promised myself that I would enjoy it, for a change.
I flew to Nashville with the lyrics and the audio files, and after reading the words to the song, Dad nodded. "I could do this," he said quietly. He knew it was about his own mortality, about closing the door on the past, about what can never be resolved, only endured.
The larger-than-life qualities of this luminous soul his poetry, his voice, his compassion and humility, his pure love and equally pure pain… He was so modest and humble, and so willing to live with the weight of his own pain without making anyone else pay for it. He was a poet who worked in the dirt.
I have taken every sorrow of my life to the ocean the deaths of my parents, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, friends who died untimely deaths, the broken relationships, divorce, the terror of the addictions of those I love I have taken all of it to the sea.
Looking back, I see that what I regarded as templates were merely incidents in a long life, and the only crippling potential they possessed was that which I gave them. There is not meaning in everything, but one can ascribe meaning to anything. Therein is the beauty.
Six weeks later, I started writing the rest of the songs that would become Black Cadillac, out of a near-desperate need to control something in my universe amid the tidal wave of loss that seemed to keep rolling over my family.
With time the unbearable becomes shocking, becomes sad, and finally becomes poignant. Or maybe poignancy isn't the conclusion to grief. Maybe there is something beyond poignant that I haven't experienced yet.
You begin to realize that everyone has a tragedy, and that if he doesn't, he will. You recognize how much is hidden behind the small courtesies and civilities of everyday existence. Deep sorrow and traces of great loss run through everyone's lives, and yet they let others step into the elevator first, wave them ahead in a line of traffic, smile and greet their children and inquire about their lives, and never let on for a second that they, too, have lain awake at night in longing and regret, that they, too, have cried until it seemed impossible that one person could hold so many tears, that they, too, keep a picture of someone locked in their heart and bring it out in quiet, solitary moments to caress and remember.
Loss is the great unifier, the terrible club to which we will all eventually belong.
It had nearly frightened, but hadn't surprised, me how much my father was there the night of the Oslo prison concert. Of course he never heard it, never knew it took place, never saw the yellow lights that dropped like giant egg yolks on the cobblestones, never walked through the icy fog into a roomful of facsimilies of himself. And yet there he was, liberated from the small pins of hurt and regret that had stayed lodged in his heart, released from the wrecked cars, the ravaged old/young body, and the grown children who needed assurance in the most unlikely places. I think he was finally comfortable with the tears at Oslo prison, and at Falkland Palace, perhaps even reveled in them with love and permanent detachment, as a man can do when he knows he is not responsible anymore.
But a wonderful audience on an inspired night in a beautiful setting is like nothing else on earth. There is almost always that moment onstage when I feel guilty for complaining, because the audience is just so great and so responsive, and I realize that they really did come to see me, and I feel as if I might actually have a larger purpose in the world.
But out of various forms of personal catastrophe comes art, if you're lucky. And I have been lucky. Art, in the larger sense, is the lifeline to which I cling in a confusing, unfair, sometimes dehumanizing world. Art and music have proven to be more expansive, more forgiving, and more immediately alive than religion. For me, art is a more trustworthy expression of God.
I have a fear that I have a personal quota, bestowed at birth, of first-rate songs allotted to me, and I worry, after every new song I write, that I have finally reached that magic number. So, inevitably, mixed with the satisfaction of accomplishment is anxiety and sadness that this might be the end. The uncertainty is vexing, but it keeps me humble. I am always a beginner, again and again. I work, even when I worry.