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.