Fifty years ago, in 1963, Johnny Cash released what would become the his biggest hit of his career: "Ring of Fire."
A common thing to say on such an occasion is that the song "sounds as fresh now after half a century as it ever did." But in this case, that doesn't quite seem right. "Ring of Fire" doesn't sound fresh or up-to-date now, and I really doubt it even sounded up-to-date back in 1963 next to carefully constructed pop like "Surfin' USA", or smooth countrypolitan fare like Skeeter Davis's "It's the End of the World." "Ring of Fire" is certainly distinctive in comparison to its peers, but it's not so much a hip or forward-looking distinctness as it is a fusty, flapping idiosyncrasy; a kind of half-crippled mash-up. Those Mexican horns sound like they've stumbled in from somewhere else on the radio dial and are trying desperately not to fall over Cash's standard shave-and-a-haircut clomping beat. Cash, for his part, turns in one of the most awkward vocals of his career. His first word, "Love," sounds flat and off-key and out of sync, as though he's been off in the corner popping pills and the cue caught him by surprise. The rest of the song just goes on like that. Never before or since has someone made the words "wild desire" sound so comically, almost honkingly, devoid of passion.
This is adamantly not a criticism. Really -- I would rather listen to Johnny Cash making "wild desire" sound like a lonesome goose trapped in an outhouse than to just about any other sound in the history of music. Moreover, all those elements knocking against each other -- the ebullient horns, the trundling beat, Cash's tongue-tied elocution, and June, Anita, and Helen Carter's heavenly harmonies -- fit the song's lyrics perfectly. Pop music has long characterized love as exhilaration or Dionysiac abandon, but rarely has any non-psychedelic song so convincingly portrayed it as hapless confusion. "The taste of love is sweet/when hearts like ours meet / I fell for you like a child / oh, but the fire went wild," Cash sing-talks, staggering from sweetness to infantilization to out-of-control inferno in the space of a couple of lines. On the famous chorus, he goes "down, down, down as the flames go higher," the up and the down vertiginously galumphing over each other. Sometimes, love means not knowing where you are, or how you're put together.
It can also mean not knowing who you are. For Cash fans, one of the most moving aspects of the song is that it was co-written (with Merle Kilgore) by June Carter, who married Cash in 1968 and stayed with him until her death in 2003. The song is not about falling in love with just anyone, then; it's about falling in love with Johnny Cash. Who, at the time when June wrote the song, was married, struggling with his faith, and strung out on pills. "It burns, burns, burns," June wrote about her relationship, and you can believe it.
But while June wrote it, and while she gets to say those lines in the background, it's not her up front for most of the track. Instead, Cash is essentially singing a love song to himself. That first odd, wrong "Love" could, then, almost be heard as a specific, rather than generalized, confusion: It's as though Cash starts singing and realizes that he's somehow gotten himself mixed up with himself. June and her sisters in the back crafting those sweet mountain harmonies -- are they commenting from the outside? Or is that the voice of the head that Cash is in? Or the voice that's in his? And the horns, which Cash says he heard in a dream, incongruous and way up high as he (or she) falls down, seem like a bright daub of strangeness, the note that wherever you are, no matter how right it is, is wrong.
Love songs are often about losing the self, but not usually to the point of losing one's gender. In "Ring of Fire," though, Cash becomes his lover, taking on a position that is quietly, though not insistently, female. It's him who's loving the dangerous man; it's him who's afraid of what will happen to him (or her). The weird ending, where Cash repeats "the ring of fire" in a flat monotone so unvaried that it sounds like the record is skipping, is simultaneously doofy and claustrophobic. The clumsy trap, or the trap of clumsiness, is inescapable. He (she) can't stop loving her (him), because there's no way out from love; no solid self to which he (she) can retreat. Even gender itself is tangled up when you are your love and your lover is you. The result is frightening and joyful, a stumbling, terrifying, ridiculous sweetness. Fifty years on, "Ring of Fire" seems less like Cash's greatest song than like Johnny and June's greatest duet -- the one where you can't tell their voices apart.