Dreams are not my own: Rosanne Cash’s “Composed”

The book jacket is Composed‘s most attractive quality. In skinny jeans and outdated spangled boots, nails colored a punky dark blue that she might have chosen from her youngest daughter’s collection, Rosanne Cash projects the hard won, ornery confidence of a woman over fifty for whom, to cite one of her darkest songs, the September of her years has lingered past January. I love her smile. I love her heavy, sleepy eyes.

Cash’s first extended showcase for her expository prose has the economy of expression and distrust of metaphor that I’m used to seeing in students who understand they’re attempting an incongruous exercise and want to get the essentials right. As singer and songwriter, she’s suspicious of irony (her first and biggest crossover hit “Seven Year Ache” is an anomaly).  The obvious thing would be to draw a parallel between these qualities and her songwriting, and unfortunately I must: with a few exceptions I’ve found Cash’s work after 1987’s long ago and faraway King’s Record Shop an earnest bore, which is apparently how she wants it.  “I had awakened from the morphine success into the life of an artist,” she avers after a couple of paragraphs in which she laboriously explains how she “matured” in the late eighties.

The Cash of Composed emerges as a woman whose devotion to Serious Songwriting assumes a monastic importance; she worked hard, very hard, at turning wondrous compressions of ebullient hooks and suppressed hysteria like “Hold On,” “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me,” and “Runaway Train” into effortlessness. No wonder she has no use for Rhythm and Romance, the 1985 record on which her carnation-pink punk hairdo denoted her attempt to marry country music’s intimacy with “Stand Back”-era Stevie Nicks. Fraught with tension, colored by the memories of a cocaine addiction to which she barely alludes, the album boasts no competition; Eric Weisbard hinted with some regret in The SPIN Alternative Record Guide that not many country artists have emulated its sound and vision. Despite a couple attempts at power chord riffage, it’s fantastic, and depending on my mood is close to being my favorite Cash album. Just don’t remind the artist, who uses the album title in the memoir like a mantra to ward off bad karma.  “I still cannot stand to listen to Rhythm and Romance,” she admits (notice how this sentence avoids a contraction). A universal sentiment apparently. Browsing in a Paris record store in 1994, an eager clerk points to the album. “No, no, no. This one is not good.” C’est la vie.

The real surprise: the empathy between Cash and her father, who remains in this memoir a ghostly figure whose devotion to the children of his first marriage is inadequate to the task of mitigating his guilt at abandoning them for the second wife he loved with all his heart. As Cash pads the last third of the memoir with the series of well-pitched eulogies she had to deliver in shattering sequence in the last eight years, a letter written by Johnny in 1995 to console Rosanne after a miscarriage captures the intermingling of spirituality, consolation, and filial affection to which Composed aspires. Cash’s father feels the presence of his mother:

In my mind’s eye I saw several angels come down to each side of her, bear her spirit up and away and out of sight. It was a scene of total silence yet great joy. As I had seen at her death, again there was an “attitude in the air,” saying, “we are simply going about our unearthly business.”

I’m not trying to get dramatic or otherworldly, Rosanne. This is what I saw and felt.

“So baby,” he writes, “this afternoon I sent my mother’s friends to you.”

“Going about our unearthly business” — a phrase she might have come up with herself.

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