Inspired tribute to a man who loved Jesus and cocaine
Tex Perkins and his band made something special happen at the Darwin Amphitheatre on Sunday night, though for a while there I was worried. When Perkins turned up in a Darwin nightclub in 2008 with his band the Ladyboyz, doing covers of 70s songs – his filthy version of Jon English’s “Hollywood Seven” was the standout – some older folks were horrified by what they heard, and saw.
They had not done their research. They had imagined the purpose of the Perkins’ band was to leave untroubled the songs of Elton John, Captain and Tennille, Mondo Rock and Lionel Ritchie.
Perkins was loving the songs, but he was massacring them. Some people in the crowd were bewildered and revolted. How could he start wildly air humping to the gentle Dr Hook ballad, “A Little Bit More”?
Around that time, Perkins told music reporter Paul Cashmere to take a closer look at the lyrics of that song. He seemed to suggest Dr Hook warranted investigation by the Rape Squad rather than general release by a record label:
When your body has had enough of me/ And you’re laying flat out on the floor
When you think I’ve loved you all I can/ I’m gonna love you a little bit more.
Perkins told the reporter: “She’s laying flat out on the floor? She’s not even in the bed anymore, she’s on the f***ing floor. I don’t imagine she is on the floor by choice. She’s unconscious.”
Given his potential for interpretation, I looked at the long crowd of people queuing at the Amphitheatre for “The Man In Black – The Johnny Cash Story”, and wondered if Perkins, who plays Cash, would start a riot, possibly by doing something obscene during “Ring of Fire”.
The crowd for this Darwin Festival headliner was of all ages, but many of them were older folks carrying chairs and blankets. They had come not because they had any interest in Perkins – I would guess many knew nothing about him – but because they wanted to see someone performing Johnny Cash songs.
Perkins and the band were facing a tough audience who, on one hand, could be very easily pleased and, on the other, could easily be made irate. People of the north know their country music, and their Johnny Cash. The potential for a mass walkout was real. And if that happened, Perkins would need to be carried out.
It quickly became clear Perkins was here to play Johnny Cash, not to be Tex Perkins. There would be no pisstake. The beautiful Rachael Tidd resuscitated Johnny’s wife, June Carter Cash, and for what seemed like two hours, she and Perkins – backed by an absolute crack outfit called the Tennessee Four (drums, double-bass, needle-sharp Telecaster guitar and acoustic) – gave brief factual background accounts on Johnny’s life and sang his songs.
Mostly they sang. It is difficult to understand the impact of the performance because there was no reinterpretation of the songs whatsoever – they were rendered exactly as Johnny did them. It was therefore no different to a tribute band called Van Wailin’ doing Van Halen, or Dob Bylan doing Bob Dylan. Most purists would never go anywhere near such acts.
Maybe it is that Johnny Cash was never someone who appealed to purists but meant – and continues to mean – something akin to what Private Joker was getting at in Full Metal Jacket. He wore a “Born to Kill” on his helmet, while at the same time wearing a peace badge, explaining it was a statement about “the duality of man”. As Perkins said of Cash, somewhere between the opening song, “I Walk The Line”, and “Big River”: “He was the type of guy who loved Jesus and cocaine at the same time.”
We liked the man who presented as big as a mountain but at the same time seemed fragile. Johnny, who never looked like a young man even when he was young, was adopted as the world’s musical father.
Two years after Johnny Cash’s death in 2003, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon starred in I Walk The Line, playing Johnny and June. Phoenix was brilliant because he did not to try to be an identikit of Cash but to generally inhabit his character. He and Witherspoon were so very convincing that it was thought theirs was the last word about Johnny Cash.
Perkins, Tidd and the Tennessee Four showed there will never be a final word about this complicated and sometimes openly compromised man who during his time on earth had personal loan of God’s own voice.
The music was exquisite, heartfelt and performed with love. Though there was no orchestral backing to “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, and no south-of-the-border trumpets to “Ring of Fire”, the songs were rendered with such complete understanding that the entire evening was handed over the higher forces. Tex Perkins became Johnny Cash.
Johnny Cash never played Darwin in his lifetime but it was nice that he finally showed up. The Darwin Amphitheatre was close to a sell-out. It fell silent for two sparse but enormous songs Cash recorded late in his life, with producer Rick Rubin. The versions of “The Beast In Me” and “Hurt” were the final straw for one of my buddies, who wept.
This joint, when it fires, is the best venue in the country.
When Bob Dylan played here, he looked into the black and white faces and returned for five encores. Darwin doesn’t get the revolving door of international acts. If a band treats us well, the rewards from the crowd are significant.
It was easy to see how much they loved playing to the packed grassy hilltop. The show’s producer, Simon Myers, told me: “It was by far the biggest crowd we’ve ever had. We’ve never played before in an open outdoor venue like that, we’ve mainly done them in theatres. They (the band) loved it, they thought it was fantastic. It shows how popular Johnny Cash was, or still is, up north.”
The Man In Black show now goes to Perth.
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