How Jim Morrison Lives through Rock Mythology

In 1985, I crossed paths with Danny Sugerman, co-author of the controversial biography of Jim Morrison, No One Here Gets Out Alive. By the mid-1980s, a global Doors revival was in full swing, and No One Here Gets Out Alive, released in 1980, had a lot to do with that. Sugarman and co-author Jerry Hopkins cast the Lizard King as a modern-day Icarus who flew too close to the sun, a tortured poet trapped in an ugly world of rock stardom. No One Here Gets Out Alive also speculated that Jim Morrison might have faked his death at age 27 in 1971 — an unsubstantiated claim that sparked much debate and critical backlash. Well, accurate or not, the book sold millions of copies.

I was working at a book publishing company in 1985, where I was editing a book about rock and roll, You Say You Want a Revolution: Rock Music in American Culture. I wanted to use a photo of Jim Morrison and had written Elektra Records asking for permission. Out of the blue, I received a phone call from Danny Sugerman. In his laid-back California drawl that suggested Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, he explained that he held the rights to the photo I wanted. Then he asked me about the book I was editing. I explained how the book captured the essence of rock music’s influence on American culture, and a photo of Jim would be perfect. He didn’t ask me another question about the book or the rights to the photo. Instead, we spent two hours talking about Jim Morrison and the Doors. I told him I’d been to Paris for the 10th anniversary of Jim Morrison’s death. He talked of the power of Jim to change lives singlehandedly — Danny’s life and many people he’d met since publishing No One Here Gets Out Alive.

Author photo from 10th anniversary of Jim Morrison’s death
Author photo from 10th anniversary of Jim Morrison’s death

When we hung up, I was reminded of how powerful Jim Morrison’s gravitational pull could be. Clearly, Danny Sugerman would forever remain under Jim’s spell. I also realized the phone call had nothing to do with rights and permissions. Danny had wanted to share his belief in rock and roll mythology, specifically the mythology of Jim Morrison, the rock god and poet. Somehow early in the conversation he must have sensed I was another believer he could bond with. He didn’t come across as a historian. He seemed to me like a disciple. I also saw No One Here Gets Out Alive in a new context: an important addition to rock mythology. That’s how I view it today.

Why Rock Mythology Matters

Since that conversation with Danny, I have come to understand and appreciate the essential role of rock mythology. Rock mythology is important because it liberates us from the mundane realities of life through its epic scope and sometimes sensational storytelling. For true believers — those of us whose lives have been changed by music — rock mythology imparts meaning. We need to believe that the rock gods who influence us also live and die in extraordinary ways.

Since No One Here Gets Out Alive was published, many more myth-makers have emerged, such as Stephen Davis, author of another controversial and salacious book, Hammer of the Gods, about Led Zeppelin. The surviving band members criticized the book for being inaccurate, but the criticisms missed the point: Davis had canonized Led Zeppelin as the ultimate gods of decadent cool, and most certainly did them a favor by elevating them to mythic status. In 2005, Bob Dylan published a memoir of mythology, Chronicles: Volume One, in which Dylan chose episodes of his life to create the portrait of a poet minstrel. Martin Scorsese built on that mythology with the release of the 2019 documentary, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese. The movie focused on Dylan’s famous 1975 tour that included a band of merry minstrels (such as poet Allen Ginsburg) and musicians. The movie confused many watchers by including authentic-looking interviews with actors who, it turned out, were playing people who did not exist, or real-life people who fabricated stories. The audience was left to wonder how much of the documentary was authentic and how much was made up. And critics were annoyed that they’d been duped. In retrospect, it seems to me Scorsese was playing with the concept of rock mythology by mixing fantasy with facts.

Elegantly Wasted Rock Gods

Rock mythology needs to have enough elements of truth to be believable, but it also needs to amplify the larger-than-life details. Rock mythology might also be based on stories that are generally agreed upon to be true — but the mythology omits details that are inconvenient. For example, the mythology about Keith Richards being a dangerously romantic rock star has been earned by well-documented drug addictions and scrapes with the law. But the closest Richards has come to dying (as of this writing) was actually from slipping and bashing his head on a palm tree trunk, a pedestrian story that is usually omitted from his rock mythology.

Keith Richards was friends with Gram Parsons, and both of them shared serious drug addictions. The life of Parsons, who left this world in 1973, is the stuff of powerful mythology. He was a boyish Southern gentleman who threw away a pampered existence (he came from a family of wealth) to embrace the hard life of an elegantly wasted rock star. Like Jim Morrison, he was a tortured soul; he was scarred by the suicide of his father when he was 12 and the alcoholism of his mother. Oh, and in his early 20s, while battling the demons of a heroin addiction, the rock god Gram Parsons cut two record albums that influenced the rise of modern-day Americana. Because gods of mythology live very, very large.

Of course, he did not die like any mortal. No, Parsons succumbed to a drug overdose in a lonely motel in the desert. But the story does not end there. His loyal road manager Phil Kaufman (who, in the tradition of rock mythology, was once a cell mate of Charles Manson) stole Gram Parsons’s corpse and burned his body in Joshua Tree National Monument. According to rock mythology, Parsons had wanted his body burned in the desert. Apparently Kaufman was the only person Parsons had bothered to tell, but there can be no other reason why Kaufman would have gathered a posse to steal the body and burn it. In any case, verifying details is not important to rock mythology; what’s important is the highly impressionistic portrait that has emerged of Gram Parsons as a romantic, gone-too-soon, fragile soul. This mythology is so strong that visitors to Joshua Tree (including me) who know the story of his death make it a point to find the spot where his ashes were scattered. (Google “Gram Parsons Joshua Tree site,” and see for yourself.) Who can say for sure where his ashes were actually scattered or whether indeed he wanted his body burned in the desert? But mythology is about storytelling, not pinpoint factual accuracy.

Why is the myth of the rock star who lives fast and dies young so compelling? Perhaps because according to popular mythology, rock and roll itself is a subversive force that emerged from the depths of hell to corrupt the young. Rock and roll is supposed to be dangerous. After all, Ian Drury sang, “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll.” Rock stars are supposed to be dangerous. And under the subversive influence of the devil’s music, rock stars are vulnerable to the temptations of rock life. They may even become agents of the devil himself. Rock mythology says that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil; it tells us three members of Led Zeppelin also forged a contract with Satan. Many others, such as Ozzy Osbourne, might not have been known to sell their souls to the devil, but according to mythology, they did the devil’s work.

Contemporary Myth-Makers

Thanks to the internet, anyone can create their own rock mythology to endure for the ages. If our myths became challenged by the facts, we can either ignore all but the most unavoidably inconvenient truths or incorporate them into a new mythology.

A good case in point is the recording of the last Doors album with Jim Morrison, L.A. Woman. Popular rock mythology says that when the Doors went into the studio to record L.A. Woman, Jim was a bloated has-been who’d run out of ideas and needed to plumb the depths of his childhood journals to find something fresh. After Jim Morrison’s infamously chaotic performance in Miami in March 1969, the band suffered from a slew of canceled concerts. Jim Morrison was charged with obscenity, a process that drained him and the band. Cast adrift, they struggled. By 1970, when the Doors were recording L.A. Woman, the Doors sounded so bad in rehearsals that their producer, Paul Rothchild, quit them, fuming that the Doors sounded like a cocktail lounge act. But somehow — so goes the mythology — Jim Morrison managed to tap into some muse that was still burning inside, and he forged a new instrument from his hoarse, beaten voice.

That enduring perception is probably true, and probably false. Who knows? That’s the point of rock mythology — to paint pictures we hold onto for those moments when our mortal lives feel too ordinary. And so, the myth of L.A. Woman persists.

“Riders on the Storm”

A recently unearthed demo of “Riders on the Storm” challenges the mythology that Jim Morrison was in decline when the Doors made L.A. Woman. The demo, uncovered by album co-producer Bruce Botnick, suggests that Morrison’s voice sounded better than ever, even gaining some depth and soul missing from his earlier recordings. Known as the Sunset Sound demo, it feeds into a mythology that I’ve embraced: the rise of the shamanistic Jim Morrison who was enjoying a creative Renaissance, contrary to the has-been Jim mythology.

According to the myth of Jim Morrison as shaman, he had decided to leave behind his Dionysian past and morphed into Mr. Mojo Risin, a blues persona who sang in a gruffier, lower register. Mr. Mojo Risin is best appreciated on the title track for L.A. Woman (in which he name-checks Mojo Risin, which turned out to be an anagram for Jim Morrison), “The Changeling,” and “Been Down So Long.” But Mr. Mojo Risin actually appears before L.A. Woman, notably on “Road House Blues” from Morrison Hotel, which was released in 1970.

How do I know all this about Jim Morrison’s creative renaissance? I don’t know. I believe. But the belief is well-founded. L.A. Woman was a critical success, and it was no fluke. Morrison Hotel was equally well-received. On those last two albums, the Doors released some of their strongest songs, which sounded nothing like the psychedelia of their celebrated first two albums — a sign of a band growing and experimenting with its sound. And on live albums recorded from the few concerts the Doors could book after the Miami incident, Morrison sounds like a man who is experimenting with different personae onstage. Absolutely Live captures Jim applying the confrontational theater style he’d learned from the Living Theatre in Los Angeles. On Live at the Aquarius: First Performance (recorded in July 1969, but not released until decades after the fact), you can hear Jim Morrison experimenting with the Mr. Mojo Risin persona. He improvises the song “Back Door Man,” by incorporating lyrics from the yet-to-be released “Maggie M’Gill” from Morrison Hotel: “Well, I’m an old blues man and I think that you understand/I’ve been singing the blues ever since the world began.”

On “Riders on the Storm,” Jim achieved one more creative transformation. He conjured up a frightening Wendigo from Native American mythology to inhabit the soul of Mojo Risin. He’d had a longtime fascination with Native American culture. In a spoken recording, he once talked of a childhood incident in which his family came across an accident on a highway. Several Indians were scattered on the pavement, and the soul of one of the ghosts of the dead Indians inhabited Jim Morrison’s soul. He would also capture that moment famously in the song, “Peace Frog,” from Morrison Hotel. If this story alone does not constitute epic rock mythology, I don’t know what does. It’s fantastic enough to sound ridiculous if you are a skeptic. But if you are a believer, you can totally accept a younger Jim Morrison deciding he was inhabited by the soul of a dead Indian and then drawing from that belief to create art.

In “Riders on the Storm,” Morrison evokes the Wendigo to create a feeling of dread that pervades the song even in its rough form. The early take is simpler than the final version, which would be embellished with an echo of Jim Morrison’s voice and the thunderstorm special effects. But the evil spirit of the Wendigo emerges even in this early version, with Morrison’s words creating a powerful narrative:

There’s a killer on the road 
His brain is squirmin’ like a toad 
Take a long holiday 
Let your children play 
If you give this man a ride 
Sweet family will die

The Wendigo also expresses the chaos of existence in the line, “Into this world we’re thrown” (a lyric that Doors scholars believe was inspired by philosopher Martin Heidegger’s concept of thrownness, or human existence as a basic state). Throughout, Jim’s voice is haunting and dark, deep and pure.

He didn’t create the dread alone. “Riders on the Storm” represents a peak performance by the entire band (as well as guest bassist Jerry Scheff) and some brilliant production by the band and Bruce Botnick.

The song was still taking shape when the Sunset Sound demo was recorded. But Jim was already where he needed to be.

The Danger of Rock Mythology

Chasing rock mythology can lead you down self-destructive paths. Gram Parsons killed himself chasing the mythology of the elegantly wasted rock star (a mythology inspired directly by his association with Keith Richards), and in doing so, Parsons only added to that mythology, giving artists such as Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt a template to follow. Embracing rock mythology is like dreaming in the day, and as T.E. Lawrence said, dreamers of the day are dangerous men. But the alternative is to view rock stars like Jim Morrison as ordinary people, even unsavory people who lived and died in very pedestrian ways. This will not do. An everyday insurance salesman or an anonymous computer programmer didn’t give the world “Riders on the Storm” and “L.A. Woman,” did they? Those are not the works of ordinary people. They are gifts left behind by gods who walked the earth.

“Let’s reinvent the gods, all the myths of the ages/Celebrate the symbols from deep elder forest,” Jim Morrison once wrote. We need to reinvent the gods to believe in ourselves and the choice we have made to believe in them through their music.

Why the NFL Needs Kendrick Lamar

The NFL should have given the entire Super Bowl stage to Kendrick Lamar.

The NFL announced on September 30 an all-star line-up for the Super Bowl LVI halftime show, which happens February 13 in Los Angeles. Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and Kendrick Lamar will represent three decades of hip-hop, with Mary J. Blige providing a hip-hop soul flourish. (Covering the news, Yahoo Entertainment said “Dr. Dre, Eminem, Snoop and more lead star-studded 2022 Super Bowl halftime show, thus relegating Mary J. Blige and Kendrick Lamar to “and more” status.)

The announcement showed how far the NFL halftime show has evolved and how far it has to go.

The halftime show come a long way since college marching bands Up with People.

It’s more diverse and sometimes more culturally relevant although not always in ways the NFL expects — such as when Beyoncé, a guest performer for the featured act Coldplay at Super Bowl 50, stole the show by performing her socially and politically charged song “Formation,” which sparked controversy and absolutely slayed.

The NFL likes to think of itself as make-no-waves family entertainment (make of that what you will). And the Super Bowl is a rare event that strives to appeal to a broadly defined global audience in an era of data-driven television narrowcasting. The NFL plays it safe with Super Bowl halftime entertainment — especially after the NFL made the mistake of allowing MTV to produce the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, resulting in the edgy performance by Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake that introduce “wardrobe malfunction” to our common vocabulary. After that, the NFL circled the wagons and featured safer acts such as Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Prince (not the younger, out-there Prince who gave us “Dirty Mind”), and the Rolling Stones (not the younger, dangerous Stones). The social gravitas of Beyonce’s “Formation” was the exception that the NFL did not plan on.

But there’s a problem with this approach: the Super Bowl is losing the 18–49 audience, which is crucial to attracting advertisers. Which brings us to the line-up for the 2022 Super Bowl. The NFL is trying to be more culturally relevant by emphasizing hip-hop and diversity in the line-up, but the performers are play-it-safe choices. We’re not going to see the raunchy and dangerous Dr. Dre, Eminem, and Snoop Dogg of the 1990s, but three established brands that appeal to a broad audience (Eminem just opened a restaurant called Mom’s Spaghetti in Detroit). Between the three of them, they could slip in a surprise call-out to their edgier past, but I doubt that will happen. Mary J. Blige, who performed at Super Bowl XXXV and the 2012 Democratic National Convention, is also a safe choice.

Kendrick Lamar, though, is probably the most socially conscious and influential musical artist today. To say that his songs confront American racial injustice is an understatement. His music has become a rallying cry for social and racial justice; indeed, his “Alright” from To Pimp a Butterfly is considered to be the unofficial protest song of Black Lives Matter.

Kendrick Lamar owning that halftime stage would lend street cred to the NFL and attract more of the 18–49 age group. But I really don’t think the NFL wants to see another “Formation,” as exciting as Beyoncé’s performance was. In the NFL’s eyes, Black performers entertaining a global audience is great; Black performers getting political onstage is scary.

And yet . . . the NFL knows it needs to find a way to connect with younger viewers in a multicultural world. So, Kendrick Lamar will perform in an ensemble role. Th NFL is hedging its bet like a fund manager who offsets a higher-risk investment with safer choices.

But with more risk comes more reward — the kind that Kendrick Lamar can deliver. But you never know: if anyone can turn the moment into a breakthrough, Kendrick Lamar can.

Warner Music Group and Twitch: Why Record Labels Matter

Warner Music Group (WMG) and Twitch recently announced a first-of-its-kind relationship to launch recording artist channels and create a standalone music space featuring premium music-centric programming on Twitch. The deal demonstrates that the legacy music labels such as WMG are as important as ever. In fact, they might play a more vital role as star makers in an increasingly cluttered digital world.  

Why Digital Is a Two-Edged Sword

In the digital age, anyone who has a TikTok or YouTube account can publish music. And in that regard, digital is liberating: you don’t need a deal with a record label to share your music to the world. But how do you find an audience after you upload your music when everyone around you is competing for eyeballs and ears, too? A Scooter Braun discovering a Justin Bieber on YouTube happens rarely. Music labels possess the muscle and money to amplify your name. If they do their jobs right, they solve the distribution and promotion problem for up-and-coming artists.

Why the Twitch/WMG Deal Matters

The Twitch/WMG deal will tap into the power of Twitch as a distribution platform for WMG artists. WMG acts Saweetie, Bella Poarch, and Sueco will receive artist channels on the platform, with more to come. Twitch may also become an important intermediary between artists and some of the brands that have marketing relationships with Twitch, ranging from Chipotle to the NFL.

The relationship will also give WMG a way to scout emerging talent on one of the most culturally relevant platforms in the world. For example, WMG and Twitch have already announced programming that includes a freestyle throwdown for Twitch rappers and a segment, “The One,” in which guest artists will “meet up-and-coming Twitch musicians that they have inspired.”

A closer relationship with Twitch should also give WMG an important listening tool to monitor the tastes of the all-important Gen Z/Millennial audience that Twitch attracts. 

This Twitch/WMG deal is about two powerful brands understanding how to become more influential during the rise of the creator economy.

Tony Iommi: Never Say Die

Who inspires you when you need motivation? What face do you envision when you need a kick in the butt? I think of Tony Iommi, co-founder and lead guitarist for Black Sabbath. 

Let me tell you something about this guy. 

When he was a teenager and aspiring guitar player in the 1960s, he lost the tips of the middle and ring fingers of his right hand in a factory accident. It sure looked like his guitar-playing days were over.

As he later told Loudwire magazine, “I went to the hospital and they cut the bones off and then they said, ‘You might as well forget playing.’ God, I was just so upset. I wouldn’t accept that there wasn’t some way around it, that I couldn’t be able to play.”

So what did he do? He adapted to a two-fingered guitar playing technique. He fitted his damaged fingers with homemade thimbles so that he could still use them on fret chords. 

“It worked,” he told Loudwire, “but then I had to persevere for a long, long time to get used to working with them . . . and it was painful.”

He also slackened the guitar strings, which made it easier to bend them. All these changes added up to a different sound, the heavy metal power chord, that would make him one of the most inventive guitarists in rock history and contribute to a long run of success for Black Sabbath that included 70 million record sales. Rolling Stone would rank him Number 25 on its 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time List.

Now let me tell you something else about Tony Iommi. 

Let’s fast forward to 2013. Black Sabbath was a legend. Tony Iommi had accomplished everything. He could have rested on his laurels. But instead, he went back into the studio with the band to record 13, the first album Black Sabbath had recorded in many yearsThe album become a critical and commercial success. Black Sabbath went on tour to promote 13, which is when when my family and I saw them in concert one night. Well, Tony Iommi took over that stage. Dressed in a black leather jacket, he looked like a cross between the Road Warrior, the Terminator, and one of the Nazgûl as he wielded his guitar like a weapon. He didn’t preen like Jimmy Page or mug like Keith Richards. He just shot one power chord after another into the air like roman candle bursts from hell.

Oh, and you know what? He was doing this show in between lymphoma treatments.

Here is how he described that tour four years later to the U.K. website Mirror:

After we released the album we went on tour and played 81 shows in 28 countries. I really enjoyed it, but it was tough. After the illness I got really tired. Every six weeks I had to fly home for treatment at the Parkway Hospital in Solihull, just outside Birmingham.

I was hooked up to a drip and given an antibody that sort of coats the cancer cells and stops them spreading. Then I had to be home for two or three weeks recovering before I could join up with the band again. We had to plan the whole tour around my treatment.

Unbelievable. Get hooked up to a drip. Rest. Then go onstage and become a guitar god. But he had no other choice because that’s how he rolls. As he told the Mirror website, “I could be here another 10 years or just one year – I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder if I should try to live a more peaceful life. Then I think, ‘I don’t want to let the illness take over. ’”

I’ve never seen such a unmitigated display of strength onstage. Tony Iommi inspires me all the time. Who inspires you?

Why Vinyl Stage Patter Matters

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

One of the ways I learn about musicians is to pay attention to their stage patter on record albums, and fortunately the vinyl resurgence makes this particular form of immersion easy to do. On a live album, a musician’s interaction with the audience can reveal something important about the artist. On the Doors album Absolutely Live, when Jim Morrison screams “Shut up!” at a chatty audience in the middle of “When the Music’s Over,” you are hearing an important moment in Jim Morrison’s life when he was experimenting with the confrontational performance technique he’d learned at the Living Theatre in Los Angeles.

Then there’s Mick Jagger on Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, teasing his audience with, “I think I busted a button on my trousers. Hope they don’t fall down. You don’t want my trousers to fall down, now do you?” This quintessential Mick Jagger moment, all ego and sexual bravado.

Sometimes stage patter becomes as memorable as the music. On One More From the Road, when Ronnie Van Zant famously asks, “What song is it you wanna hear?” the audience’s lusty “Freeeee-birrrd!” response becomes a defining moment for fan zealotry. (Whenever you hear someone at a concert jokingly shout “Freebird!” you now know where the joke originated.)

One of my favorite albums with interesting stage patter is Charley Pride’s In Person, a 1969 recording of a concert in Ft. Worth, Texas.

His personal story is one of overcoming poverty and racism on his way to becoming something very rare: a Black country music superstar. He was born to a family of poor sharecroppers in Mississippi in 1934. At age 14, he learned how to play guitar. Throughout his life, he thought his ticket out of poverty would be professional baseball, and indeed he played a considerable amount of minor league ball until an arm injury cut short his dreams. After his baseball career ended, he worked construction and unloaded coal from railroad cars in Montana, a dangerous job. Well, all this time, he was singing. And he was good at it. When he was playing ball, he sometimes sang before games, which increased attendance and earned him some additional income. After baseball, he keept at it, playing gigs in regional bars. He became good enough to land a recording contract at RCA Victor in the 1960s. RCA believed in him, but it was hard to get record promoters to play country music by a Black musician. But fortunately for Charley Pride, when his songs such as “Just Between You and Me” got played on the radio, where white listeners did not know the color of his skin, he caught fire.

As his popularity rose, he started to perform live to white audiences who were in for quite a surprise when a Black man walked onstage to sing the songs that they’d fallen in love with. The audience did not always welcome you with open arms. But he quickly won them over with his charm and enormous talent. The album In Person captures the essence of Charley Pride – his easygoing singing style and his warmth. “Oh, you’re mighty fine,” he says from time to time, acknowledging the enthusiastic applause. (It’s clear his audience loves him.) During two important moments, he also reveals profound truths about his difficult past. Before he launches into the rollicking “Shutters and Boards,” he says, gently, “I’ll tell you, it’s getting a little warm up here, but I’ll guarantee, I’d rather be seating up here than picking that cotton in Mississippi.” If you’re distracted, while you’re listening you might miss the remark – but when you hear it, you think of the album in an entirely new context. That one remark says everything about where he’s been and his motivation for succeeding. And then, before the final song on the album, “Cotton Fields,” he makes that motivation even more clear when he introduces the song. He says “Cotton Fields” is personally important to him because “It reminds me of what I never want to go back to doing. It hurts my fingers, my back, and my knee. When I go onstage, I try to sing the best I can, because I don’t want to go back to doing it anymore.”

For Charley Pride, there was no going back. He would go on to record 52 top-10 hits on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, and 30 of those made it to Number One. After he became an undisputed star, he most certainly put his life on the line performing in Belfast at the height of the Troubles in 1976 – at a time when it was too dangerous for anyone to travel there to perform. That’s the kind of man Charley Pride was. Brave enough to risk his safety to perform his music. Brave enough to travel down the lonely road of becoming a Black country singer. Brave enough to open up about himself onstage. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000. In 2020, he died at age 86 of complications from Covid-19.

How Businesses Thrive during Dangerous Times

The Covid-19 pandemic unleashed suffering on a global scale not seen in our lifetimes. As if waves of sicknesses and death were not bad enough, businesses everywhere were rocked to the core, resulting in job loss and economic hardship. And it’s not over. But amid the turmoil, some businesses are as strong or even stronger than they were before the pandemic changed everything. Here are their stories, and the lessons we may learn from them.

1 Take Care of Your People: Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers Rallies through a Hard Times

Todd Graves saw the storm coming. Graves, the co-founder and CEO of fast-food chain Raising Caine’s Chicken Fingers, followed the spread of Covid-19 in China before the virus was news in the United States. He read about lockdowns happening to contain the virus. He quickly grasped the potential impact of Covid-19 on his business. So he and his management team went into crisis mode even though there was no crisis to react to yet.

The executive team canceled a scheduled management retreat to celebrate its five-year plan and started to change how the chain operated. Raising Caine’s quickly implemented CDC guidelines for social distancing and placed an “uber-intense focus” on sanitizing every location, as discussed in QSR magazine. Managers were trained on how to conduct team meetings in socially distanced fashioned so that operations would not be disrupted. Fortunately, most Raising Caine’s locations have drive-through service. So the company changed the focus of its marketing to put a full-court press on its enhanced safety measures and its drive-through service.

Almost all Raising Cane’s 500 locations stayed open and did a thriving business. Thirty-three non-drive-thru locations temporarily closed, but Graves kept employees in closed locations busy sewing masks and supplying local hospitals amid a mask shortage.

Raising Cane’s purchased sewing machines and supplies for the group. Two teams worked in shifts to comply with the company’s social distancing procedures. They created more than 600 masks in their first week and upped production to 100 a day. The mask sewing initiative gave employees in closed restaurants a sense of purpose as they gave back to the community. And beyond those efforts, Raising Cane’s launched fund raisers to help frontline workers in hospitals putting their lives on the line to fight the pandemic.

All the while, Graves refused to furlough or lay off any of the 23,000 workers.

“Our mantra then was no crew member left behind,” Graves told QSR. “I wanted the team that went into this pandemic to be the team we come out with. And so we’re going to work like heck to get through it.”

Initially, the chain suffered a hit as the pandemic upended our lives. Sales were down as much as 30 percent. But by late April, they had returned to pre-pandemic levels even as other restaurants struggled — a stunning turnaround.

This was a story we all needed to hear in the early days. Raising Cane’s gave us hope and put its people first.

2. Sense and Respond: Amazon, Target, and Walmart Ascend to Greater Heights

Some businesses prospered during the pandemic. You know three of their names: Amazon, Target, Walmart. All of them crushed their quarterly earnings announcements throughout 2020 and enjoyed all-time valuations on the stock market.

Why?

All three of them benefitted from the rise of the stay-at-home economy, in which people increasingly bought what they wanted from their sofas. Amazon already had a lock on ecommerce, and both Target and Walmart wielded an advantage with their curbside pick-up capabilities. People who preferred to order groceries, clothing, and housewares from their homes, then pick them up without leaving their cars, chose Target and Walmart. As a result:

  • Target’s curbside pickup service sales jumped by more than 700% during its fiscal second quarter.
  • Walmart’s eCommerce business jumped 97 percent year over year, partly because the popularity of curbside pick-up services.
  • Amazon just kept powering through, showing 37% year-over-year growth for the third quarter ended September 30, 2020.

Were they in the right place at the right time? No. They prospered because they know how to sense and respond.

Target and Walmart had been steadily building ecommerce services and curbside pickup over the past few years. They both saw the rise of a mobile consumer who preferred the immediacy of driving to the store but didn’t have time to go inside to make their purchase. When the pandemic made many people frightened to shop inside stores, curbside pickup served Target and Walmart well.

Amazon, building off its already strong ecommerce operation, had made a major investment in its own delivery capability, including its own air cargo fleet. The move triggered a war with FedEx and raised questions about whether Amazon had overreached. But as retailers struggle with maxed out supply chains in the 2020, Amazon seizing control of its own destiny now looks smart and forward-thinking.

In addition, by building out its cloud computing service, Amazon Web Services, Amazon positioned itself well when stay-at-home living in 2020 caused a surged in online usage. Amazon Web Services is the backbone for digital platforms ranging from Facebook to Netflix — a $10 billion business.

Amazon, Target, and Walmart aren’t standing still. Amazon continues to expand in to industries as diverse as advertising and healthcare — both leveraging Amazon’s ability to mine its own customer data to deliver personalized services and products. Target is doubling down on its in-store experience by opening Ulta beauty stores within a number of Target locations, anticipating a return to more in-store shopping in 2021. Walmart is also stepping up its own healthcare services and recently announced the launch of a fintech startup.

Leaders always think ahead — during good times and hard times.

3 Act with Purpose: Netflix Invests in Racial Justice

Netflix put its money where its mouth is.

As the world erupted with protest over racial inequality in 2020, businesses sought to have a voice. Many responded with gestures of support on social media. Others took action, and Netflix was one of them. In early June, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings announced that he was donating $120 million to support scholarships at Black colleges and universities. On June 30, Netflix announced it was allocating up to $100 million of its cash holdings into financial institutions and organizations that directly support Black communities in the United States. As reported in The New York Times, the action would help Black-owned lenders inject more capital into Black-owned businesses.

It turns out Netflix had been planning the capital reallocation since April. The New York Times reports that the company’s decision makers were influenced by book “The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap,” by Mehrsa Baradaran, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Netflix’s financial commitment reflects the company’s culture in other ways. For example, Netflix’s marketing arm Strong Black Lead, is committed to hiring people of color and supporting their voices. (Read more about Strong Black Lead here.)

Netflix’s actions point to a bigger role that businesses have to be purposeful, a major news theme of 2020. Corporate accountability to society really took hold as the Covid-19 pandemic spread. In March, According to a recent Kantar study of the public’s attitudes about COVID-19, more than three-quarters (77 percent) of people surveyed said they wanted to see brands talk about how they’re helpful in the new everyday life. And 77 percent wanted to see brands to inform consumers about their efforts to face the situation. Meanwhile 62 percent of people around the world surveyed by Edelman said that their country would not make it through this crisis without brands playing a critical role in addressing the challenges. Then, in June, the conversation turned toward race. An Edelman survey revealed a widespread public outcry for businesses to take a lead tackling racial inequality. Sixty percent of Americans surveyed by Edelman said that businesses must speak out publicly against racial injustice. Sixty percent said that brands need to use their marketing dollars to advocate for racial equality and to educate the public on the issue.

But businesses were not always sure how to take a stand. After Nike published an ad condemning racism, economist Scott Galloway took the company to task for over-emphasizing a message over taking action. He called on more businesses to focus on deeds, not words. Netflix was all about both words and actions.

4 Be Nimble: Airbnb Rebounds

Airbnb was on the brink of collapse. Under CEO Brian Chesky, the company had built one of the most storied brands in the digital age by creating a network of property owners willing to rent homes to travelers. Airbnb had become so successful that it was threatening the established lodging industry without owning a single hotel. It’s no exaggeration to say that Airbnb helped invent the modern-day sharing economy, in which people profit by sharing their assets for a fee. But Airbnb was like traditional lodging industry in one important aspect: Airbnb and its network of entrepreneurs needed people to travel and book lodging. And as the pandemic took hold, travel had practically ground to a halt. Overnight, bookings plunged. By mid-March, Airbnb saw $1.5 billion in bookings vanish.

Airbnb’s stellar trajectory was halted. A planned initial public offering was out of the question. Chesky laid off a quarter of his staff, slashed expenses, and sought capital to keep the business afloat. Things did not look good as the weeks went by. Even as people emerged from lockdowns, traveling was not popular.

Or was it?

In fact, Airbnb’s data scientists noticed something happening: people emerging from lockdowns were traveling. But their preferences had changed. Instead of looking to fly to cities and stay in tony urban locations — a mainstay of Airbnb’s revenue — travelers were looking to rent homes in smaller locations within 200 miles of their homes. People were ready to get out of their homes and travel. But they wanted to rent entire homes instead of sharing them with other people (and risk contracting the Covid-19 virus), and they wanted to drive, not fly. So as reported in The Wall Street Journal, the company quickly changed. Airbnb redesigned its website and app so that its algorithm would showcase travelers interesting locations such as cabins.

Incredibly enough, by July guests were booked stays at the rate they were just before the pandemic crushed the travel industry. By December, Airbnb had recovered so fully that it launched a successful IPO after all.

“People are now discovering small towns, small communities,” Chesky said. “They’re discovering national parks, falling in love with the outdoors, and realizing they can go to all sorts of other places. This is an irreversible trend.”

And Airbnb was ready to capitalize on that trend.

Airbnb needed to do a lot more than reposition itself to short term travelers in order to survive the tumult of 2020, but listening to its customer data and adapting were essential. In 2021, Airbnb says it appeals to a new type of traveler — people redefining their staycations, traveling in small pods of families and friends, or visiting different towns with an intent to relocate permanently. You can be sure Airbnb is adapting to them, too.

5 Be Bold: Disney Saves Its Future

It’s quite possible that “pivot” is the most overused word in 2020, used to any business that adapted during the pandemic. But Disney really did pivot its business, and may well have saved it.

It has been painful to watch the COVID-19 pandemic crush Disney’s fabled parks and resorts. In September, Disney announced it would lay off 28,000 employees across its parks, experiences and consumer products segments. Disney blamed prolonged closures and capacity limits at open parks for the layoffs.

On November 12, Disney reported its first annual loss in 40 years, and declining attendance at its parks had a lot to do with that decline. Disney said that the pandemic cost it $7.4 billion in operating income in the fiscal year, and $6.9 billion of that loss came from theme parks and experiences division.

But by November, Disney had already made a very important move to change course. On October 12, Disney reorganized its media and entertainment divisions in order to focus on streaming content, namely its wildly successful Disney+ platform. Kareem Daniel, the former president of consumer products, games and publishing, would now oversee the new media and entertainment distribution group, responsible for content distribution, ad sales, and Disney+.

In an announcement, Disney said that its “creative engines will focus on developing and producing original content for the Company’s streaming services” — meaning that Disney’s creative teams, ranging from Pixar to Lucasfilm, will be all-in to support streaming, focusing on Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+, all streaming brands owned by Disney. Meanwhile, a newly created Media and Entertainment Distribution group under Daniel would be responsible for monetizing and distributing that content.

Disney didn’t wait for its restructuring to change the way it operates, either. In September, Disney bypassed movie theaters in the United States and released its feature film Mulan on Disney+ (while distributing the movie in theaters internationally). Mulan received mixed reviews and lackluster box office receipts globally. But as Kay McGuire of Screen Rant discussed in an analysis of Mulan’s financial results, Disney+ was a lifeline for Mulan.

And on December 25, Disney skipped theaters and released Pixar’s animated movie Soul on Disney+.

These were big-time moves, but they did not emerge from left field. In 2019, Disney had already laid the groundwork for its newfound focus on digital content — first, by taking ownership of the popular Hulu streaming service, and then by launching Disney+. Hulu gave Disney an instant streaming audience of 28 million (at the time) and a prestigious content library with popular titles including The Handmaid’s Tale. Disney+ gave Disney an arm to unleash its powerful library of content, including the coveted Marvel franchise, as well as new titles such as the wildly popular The Mandalorian, which tapped into the eternal appeal of Star Wars.

Little did Disney know that a global pandemic would trigger a massive shift in people’s entertainment options, from going to the movies to streaming them. By the end of the 2020, Disney+ subscribers had grown to 86.8 million, and Hulu paid subscribers had grown to 36.6 million.

And the financial results reflect the increase in subscribers. In its earnings announcement, Disney said that its Direct-to-Consumer and International division, which includes streaming, had generated $4.85 billion in revenue, up 41 percent year over year.

Disney knows where its near-term future is: streaming. And so it doubled down. And its stock value, incredibly enough, increased even as its theme parks continued to struggle.

Disney demonstrated an eternal truth about industry leaders: when times are tough, the make bold moves. Disney’s digital-content first approach was reflected elsewhere in the entertainment world, too, most notably when Warner Brothers said it would release its entire slate of movies on the HBO Max streaming platform as well as in movie theaters.

These are hard times. Businesses that want to survive them can learn from Disney.

Hope in 2021

Weeks into 2021, we see glimmers of hope for a sustained rebound from the ravages of the pandemic. The travel industry as a whole is showing some signs of life. The live events business, crushed by the pandemic, could return as early as the fall of 2021. Initial public offerings area actually booming. Much uncertainty and hardship remains. But new stories will be told and lessons learned. Stay tuned.

Photo by Jake Ingle on Unsplash

How a Brand Says Goodbye

How does a business say farewell? Family is showing us how: with grace, humanity, and gratitude. On January 5, Family Video went out of business. All its brick-and-mortar stores closed. But the brand is still alive — ironically in the digital world that helped usher in the company’s demise.

Family Video’s corporate Facebook page is something to behold. On Facebook, Family Video continues to share tributes from customers and ex-employees saying farewell. Keeping the digital lights on and letting letting the Family video community comment openly on social media is a branding masterstroke. Here are some sample posts:

  • “I’ll never forget how it felt to walk through a video store and pick up some rentals along with some food and drinks for a special movie night with your family. It was an irreplaceable nostalgic feeling… A sense of awe and wonder in my childhood when I would go to the video store.”
  • “I used to go to my local store every Sunday after work, met some great people who worked for the company and bought hundreds of movies.”
  • “My husband and I met working at your Fond du Lac, WI location. We dated for 5 years, and have been married for almost 8, and have a 4 year old son together. We are together because of FV.”
  • “We will miss Family Video and the employees that we became friends with!!!!!”
  • “I spent 8 great year with family video and 6 of it as an assistant manager. I’ve shared so many memories with my children and many others in my community. To this day everyone who sees me, reminds me how much they miss me and the store, almost like were one in the same, apparently.”
  • “So appreciated the free kids videos when my kids were young and I was young and poor! Sad to see you go.”
  • “The 10 years that I worked for and managed Family Video stores were some of my favorite years. I formed many friendships that I still have to this day . . . Thank you for all of those years. They have helped me become the manager and person that I am today.”
  • “We had our ten year vow renewal photos taken at Family Video. True story!”
  • “We had our engagement photos taken at Family Video. True story!”

Common themes emerge:

  • Family Video meant tradition. Going to the store, stocking up on movies, and buying other goodies for movie night made the movie watching experience special in a way that flipping on the TV and watching movies on demand through a streaming service does not. And the availability of streaming services does not always mean availability of a movie you want to see. The Family Video inventory mattered. You could find popular movies and also some more obscured choices in back catalogue.
  • Family Video was about connecting people with each other. This was certainly true of my experience. I always got a kick out of talking with the dudes behind the counter who reminded me of the stoner surfer Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. You cannot connect like that with someone on Zoom.

But all those advantages that made Family Video special were doomed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Going to the video store and being with other people became, well, outright dangerous in 2020. And Family Video never recovered.

The Family Video Facebook also continues to share content such as movie-related posts and crowdsourced memes, cartoons, and even some humor that pokes fun at its own demise.

The brand is consistent, too: on socials such as Instagram and Twitter, Family Video cross-promotes customer stories and comments itself actively with the same grace and sense of humor:

And I’m going to guess that selling Family Video merchandise will perpetuate a retro vibe with the cool kids:

The Family Video business is dead. Long live the Family Video brand.

Why Bruce Springsteen Appeared in a Jeep Super Bowl Ad

Bruce Springsteen is catching some flak for appearing in a Jeep ad. He does not need the money. So why would the Boss do a commercial? Here’s the answer: he wants to keep his personal brand relevant and visible. And that’s a lesson everyone should heed, no matter who you are or what you do for a living.

Bruce Springsteen broke through during the album-oriented era when heavy radio airplay, touring, and mass-media PR helped his music find an audience. When MTV came along, Springsteen adapted to the video format by learning how tell stories visually. His career became bigger than ever. But even then, video was a mass-market play.

Then digital changed everything.

Today, Springsteen can only hope to gain a sliver of anyone’s attention while his music competes with Fortnite, Netflix, Facebook, and a ton of other distractions that did not exist in the 1970s. Music has become background noise while we exercise on our Peloton bikes. The idea that an artist like Springsteen can expect anyone to listen to a record album from start to finish is laughable.

To his credit, Springsteen saw what was coming when Napster exploded on the scene in the early 2000s and killed the record album. He found new ways to stay relevant, such as performing at the Super Bowl in 2009 (which introduced him to Millennials and older Gen Zers who were about 12 years old at the time), speaking at the oh-so-trendy SxSW festival, and doing a Broadway show. He also relied on one of his great strengths — concerts — as the touring industry exploded in the 2000s in way it never did in the 20th Century.

But Springsteen cannot tour during the pandemic. A commercial (especially a Super Bowl commercial) amplifies an artist’s voice the way radio used to do when Springsteen hit it big. He’s doing what he needs to do in order to keep his brand relevant and visible.

He’s not the only Baby Boomer artist who has learned the lesson of brand relevance in the digital age. Many, many others have gone down this path. One of them, John Mellencamp, used to skewer artists for doing advertisements with corporations. And then he licensed his song “My Country” for a Chevrolet advertisement around 2007. His fans howled with outrage. But he had seen the writing on the wall when artists of his generation were not getting the attention they used to receive. As he explained in a 2007 Rolling Stone interview discussing the licensing of “My Country” to Chevrolet:

Chevrolet is talking to me, and I ask, “How many times are you going to play this commercial?” They said, “You’ll have more airplay than on any record you’ve ever had.” I couldn’t believe it. I believe it now.

Or as Mellencamp put it to The New York Times, “The bottom line is, I’m a songwriter, and I want people to hear my songs. I’m not saying it’s right. I’m not suggesting it for anybody else. This is just what I did this time to reinvent myself and stay in business.”

What are you going to do in order to reinvent yourself and stay in business as the world changes around you?

The Artistic Triumph of Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin

Everyone loves a comeback story, and the music industry is full of memorable ones. I recently examined one of the most compelling comebacks in music, Elvis Presley’s return to greatness in 1969. Today, let’s take a closer look at the king of comebacks, Johnny Cash, who had more than one throughout his storied life.

Johnny Cash and Elvis have a lot in common. Like Elvis, Johnny Cash changed popular music — in Cash’s case, country, folk, and pop — by recording with Sam Phillips in Sun Studios. Cash served in the Army before Elvis did. Like Elvis, he suffered from a drug dependency. Both Johnny Cash and Elvis also restored flagging careers by collaborating with the right creative partners. Elvis revived a moribund career through his work with producer Chips Moman, which resulted in some of the best music of his career. In 1994, Cash returned to artistic greatness when he and producer Rick Rubin released American Recordings at a time when Cash thought his recording career was over.

And Johnny Cash working with Rick Rubin was a collaboration that no one saw coming.

The Meeting of a Lifetime

In February 1993, Johnny Cash had a meeting that changed his life. He was performing in a rinky-dink club in southern California for an audience that numbered, at best, a few hundred — a far cry from the days when he could pack a large arena. He’d been told that a record producer named Rick Rubin wanted to meet him. Cash had no idea who Rick Rubin was, but he agreed to a meet.

The backstage encounter lasted no more than 15 minutes. At first, they seemed to have little in common. Rubin was a 30-year-old music impresario who had produced Beastie Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Slayer. Cash was a 63-year-old country star on the downside of his career. Cash wore black. Rubin walked around barefoot.

As Cash would remember in an interview included in the liner notes for the anthology album Unearthed, Rubin came across as “the ultimate hippie, bald on top, but with hair down over his shoulders, a beard that looked as if it had never been trimmed, and clothes that would have done a wino proud.”

But they had everything in common. And Rubin knew it.

Rubin was interested in producing Cash, because he wanted to record with someone who was “great and important, but who wasn’t doing their best work.” And Cash fit the bill. Rubin was fascinated with Cash’s dark side. He thought the man who once wrote, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” was as much an outlaw as the most hard-core rapper from Compton.

At the same time, he saw in Cash’s work the voice of a vulnerable outlaw who wrestled with remorse and pain. Over the years, Cash’s music had lost that dark edge, which made him less interesting.

Rubin wondered if he could capture that voice again on the American Recordings label that Rubin owned and operated from his home studio near the Sunset Strip.

Cash remembered Rubin telling Cash he’d like to record him.

“What for?” Cash responded. Indeed, what for? Cash had a recording contract with Mercury Records, but no one had demonstrated an interest in producing him for years.

“I think if you let me record you singing the songs that you love, that you want to sing, that we’re going to find some that the people are going to like and are going to buy,” Rubin replied.

Rubin went on to pitch the idea of recording Cash alone and unplugged.

“You would take your guitar, sit down in front of a microphone and sing me the songs you love,” Rubin said. “Just sing me everything you want to record.”

Cash was intrigued. It turns out he’d once thought of doing an album like that. And he saw a conviction in Rubin’s eyes — a man of music who believed in what he was doing with probably more passion that Cash himself possessed at the time.

“Why don’t you give it a try?” Rubin asked.

“All right,” Cash replied.

A Decline

How far had Johnny Cash fallen when he met Rick Rubin that day?

Very, very far.

He had not released a Top 10 country album since 1976. He was no longer a concert draw. His long-time record label, Columbia, had dropped him in 1986, and his current label, Mercury, treated him with indifference. He was writing lackluster songs that relied on tired formulas. He sometimes made embarrassingly bad music, including the notorious “The Chicken in Black” song in 1984, which was about a three-way brain transplant. Its video featured Johnny running around in a weird costume.

“The Chicken in Black” was a far cry from songs such as “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” and “Ring of Fire” — music that had challenged popular music tastes by fusing Americana, folk, and country. At the height of his fame, he was a singular talent akin to Jimi Hendrix — someone whose style was so distinctive that no one could really play and sing like him. He stood apart from the rest.

His 1968 album At Folsom Prison had made him a hero to the burgeoning rock culture. He cemented that role with a popular and progressive TV show, The Johnny Cash Show, which featured both country and rock acts alike. On his show, he introduced younger generations to a body of work that included the great hits that had defined his career: brutal, honest, but hopeful songs about outlaws and searchers. He also invited rock greats such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young to perform, which made The Johnny Cash Show culturally relevant.

At the same time, his close relationship with televangelist Billy Graham made him beloved by the Christian Right. As a result, in the early 1970s, he found himself in the improbable role of being loved by two opposing ends of a vast spectrum, which maximized his commercial appeal by broadening his audience. He toured heavily and pulled down large paychecks each time he performed. His record albums sold well. He was a TV star.

But, unfortunately, he overextended himself.

Everyone wanted a piece of him, and he said yes to everyone. Unfortunately, recording episodes for The Johnny Cash Show sapped his creative energy. And when he wasn’t taping TV shows, he was touring. When he wasn’t touring, he was appearing at Billy Graham religious crusades. When he wasn’t crusading for Jesus, he was crusading for various social causes, such as prison reform. He also made artistic choices that distracted him and spread him thin — like his costly and ill-advised trip to Israel in 1971 to produce a movie about Jesus Christ. The Gospel Roadturned out about as well as you might expect from someone with zero film-making experience.

Truth be told, the business of being Johnny Cash was costly and time-consuming. Not only did he have a family to support, but he had a lot of people on the payroll, especially when he toured with a large retinue of supporting musicians. He also liked expanding his horizons, but projects such as The Gospel Road were a drain on his finances. In addition, his involvement in the Billy Graham Crusades and his social causes came from a desire to do good.

Not surprisingly, he had little time to write songs. So he began phoning them in. And they were not very good. For instance, one of his songs, “Strawberry Cake,” was a trite tale about a bum who spots a strawberry cake in a fancy hotel, grabs a slice, and runs away. The song was an embarrassing attempt to connect with a blue-collar audience the way Merle Haggard was successfully doing with his own albums and songs. But Cash wasn’t putting in one-tenth the song-craft that Haggard invested into his gritty songs about working-class people struggling to get by. No one could relate to a strange tale about an everyman stealing a piece of strawberry cake.

Living in a Comfort Zone

But deeper problems were eating away at Cash’s creativity beyond lacking time to write. He was also easing into a comfort zone. And comfort zones can be deadly for artists. 

Cash’s comfort zone consisted of his role as a good-time gospel singer and noble Christian, which he embraced fully after he became a father to his son with June Carter Cash, John Carter, in 1970, and got more involved in Billy Graham crusades.

The man who once wrote songs about murderers had become a warm, cuddly teddy bear who sang at Billy Graham conventions and waxed poetically about his faith in public. There’s nothing wrong with a secular artist performing inspirational gospel songs, as Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, and Elvis Presley can attest. But what made Johnny Cash great was how he drew from a well of inner conflict and wrote about both his demons and his angels.

Inner conflict had driven him to artistic heights. He had written “I Walk the Line” to express his commitment to being a faithful husband (even though in real life he was unfaithful). But he wrote “Folsom Prison Blues,” too. He sang, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” And he also sang, gleefully, about killing his woman in “Cocaine Blues.”

That was Johnny Cash at his artistic peak: a searcher and a scoundrel. But when he got too comfortable being a moralist, he lost his edge. As Robert Hilburn wrote in his excellent biography, Johnny Cash: The Life:

When it was time to go into the studio, Cash would just bring in the last batch of songs that had caught his ear. He didn’t sit down and plan them. There wasn’t a feeling of life and death about them anymore. He had other priorities.

Years later Cash told me he was lulled by his success in the 1960s and early 1970s into taking his music for granted. He felt he could devote most of his attention to his family and spreading God’s Word and still have plenty of time left over to make records. But suddenly, it seemed like everything dried up. By the time he realized what was happening, he didn’t know what to do about it. Besides, he enjoyed those new priorities.

Drugs

An even more insidious problem ate away at him: drugs. He’d battled an addiction to pills off and on throughout this life. In the 1960s, he suffered the public humiliation of multiple busts for possession of pills, and it’s widely believed that he was under the influence of drugs when he started a forest fire that destroyed 508 acres in the Los Padres National Forest. Although he kept churning out albums during the 1960s, he became an unreliable performer and entertainment outcast.

But with the help of June Carter, he’d gotten sober in 1970. He stayed that way until 1977, when he began abusing amphetamines again. And the drugs killed whatever creative spark he might have possessed at this point. This description of a disastrous recording session, courtesy of Johnny Cash: The Life, speaks volumes:

He showed up wearing brown knee-high boots, only to look down and declare there was no way that he — the Man in Black — should be recording in brown boots. While the musicians watched, he sat on the studio floor and carefully painted the boots black. Then he learned that Julie Andrews was recording in the studio down the hall, and they recorded a song. After all this delay, Cash started recording the gospel album. With just two songs done he announced he was going out to get some milk and cheese.

Hilburn noted that after going out to buy his milk and cheese, Cash never returned to the studio. Instead, his car got stranded in a ditch in a field, and then spun the wheels so hard that the grass caught fire and burned up his car.

Cash was no John Lennon and Paul McCartney making Revolver with a nudge of LSD, or Keith Richards on heroin creating great guitar licks for Exile on Main St. Johnny Cash had run out of great songs. And the drugs kept it that way. He eventually entered the Betty Ford Center in 1983 and would return for treatment at various hospitals in 1989 and 1992.

After he emerged from his 1992 rehab, something happened that offered a glimpse of Cash’s artistic turnaround. In February 1993, Bono invited Cash to do a guest vocal on a song he’d penned with Cash in mind: “The Wanderer,” for U2’s largely techno-fused album Zooropa. At first, Cash wondered what on earth he could contribute to what seemed like an experimental electronic album. But when he read Bono’s lyrics, he felt encouraged. He went into the studio and laid down his track. Afterward, he was sure that Bono would wise up and re-record the vocals in his own voice. But Bono called Cash to say that U2 loved his performance and that “The Wanderer” was going to be on the album the way Cash sang it.

This was a huge moment. Cash felt a spiritual connection with U2 that transcended their musical differences. He was also flattered to be part of an album that would reach millions of people, something that Cash could no longer do on his own.

Later that month, Cash met Rick Rubin.

At Rick Rubin’s House

Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash began recording on May 17, 1993. Rubin had paved the way for Cash to record with him by striking a deal with Mercury that allowed Cash to record under Rubin’s label. He made Cash feel right at home — Rick Rubin’s home, to be exact. Rubin had set up simple recording equipment in his house near Los Angeles, where Rick sat barefoot with his dogs and listened to Cash play. (Rick Rubin would later recall for the Unearthed liner notes that the sound of his dogs barking would sometimes ruin one of Cash’s takes — the occasional price of his laid-back approach.) True to his word, Rick Rubin encouraged Cash to play the songs that Cash felt like playing, just Cash and his guitar. He said to Cash, as they got to know each other better, “I’d love to hear some of your favorite songs.”

In his interview for the Unearthed liner notes, Cash explained,

I went to Rick’s home in California. He had the recording equipment in a big room, fully equipped with everything — but actually all he needed was a couple of microphones. One for me, one for my guitar. And I started singing. And this went on for days it seemed. Day after day I would go in with the guitar, sit down, and start singing. One song after another . . . and it gave me a profound sense of déjà vu. It very much reminded me of the early days at Sun Records. Sam Phillips put me in front of a microphone at Sun Records in 1955 for the first time and said, “Let’s hear what you got. Sing your heart out,” and I’d sing one or two and he’d say, “Sing another one, let’s hear more,” and on and on and on I would sing for Sam Phillips until I had something he wanted to record — which was “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Hey Porter,” and “Cry, Cry, Cry.” He kept saying, “Let’s hear what you got, let’s hear what you got,” and I kept on singing. It was the same thing with Rick, the same kind of freedom, but with a more laid-back attitude.

Having Johnny Cash strum his guitar and sing whatever he wanted sounded like a simple approach — but it was also a challenging one. Cash had never recorded all by himself. Even when he recorded with Sam Phillips, he’d brought musicians with him. With Rick Rubin, Cash’s sound was stripped to its bare essence.

Rubin had a reason for recording Cash this way. As recounted in Johnny Cash: The Life, when Rubin recorded with musicians, he usually talked with them first in order to understand the people behind the music. But Cash was a man of few words. Rubin encouraged Cash to speak through his music. He also wanted to rebuild Cash’s confidence.

At first, Rubin did not turn on the recording equipment — he just asked Cash to start playing. Cash dipped into his songbook to play a range of music, from gospel to train songs. On their second night playing together, Rubin became intrigued by a song, “Oh, Bury Me Not,” an old folk song that Cash had learned to play as a boy. Cash opened the tune with a two-minute spoken poem, “A Cowboy’s Prayer.”

As he told Robert Hilburn, “It got back to the sort of mystical root of who Johnny Cash is. It was something that sounded like it was coming from someplace deep inside of him. It was epic, and that’s what Johnny Cash was to me — epic.”

Rubin turned on the recording equipment and asked Cash to do the song again. It was time to start finding songs for an album.

Cash unleashed more songs. Murder ballads such as “Delia’s Gone,” which Cash had written in the 1960s. A Kris Kristofferson song, “Just the Other Side of Nowhere.” And one he’d written four years earlier, “Drive On,” a powerful song about a Vietnam veteran. The evocative “Drive On” was significant, because it proved Cash could still write great songs. And Cash knew, deep down, what a great song sounded like: he’d refused to record “Drive On” for Mercury, because he thought the effort would have been wasted. He was saving the song for someone who might come along some day and do it justice.

That day had arrived.

As important as “Drive On,” was, “Delia’s Gone” was an even bigger breakthrough. The song is a brutal recounting of a man who kills his beloved and then suffers the anguish of a lifetime of remorse. Here are some of the lyrics:

First time I shot her I shot her in the side
Hard to watch her suffer
But with the second shot she died
Delia’s gone, one more round Delia’s gone

But jailer, oh, jailer Jailer
I can’t sleep ’cause all around my bedside
I hear the patter of Delia’s feet
Delia’s gone, one more round Delia’s gone

Even though Cash had written the song decades ago, Rubin had never heard it. He was ecstatic. This was the kind of song that connected Johnny Cash with contemporary hip-hop and rock at their grittiest and darkest — the emotionally bruising side of Cash that had been missing for years, but which could make him relevant again to contemporary culture. As he told Robert Hilburn,

I’m talking about the original Johnny Cash who loomed large and was surrounded by all this darkness, yet who still had vulnerability. I wanted, if you will, to take him back to the “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” Man in Black, and “Delia’s Gone” did it perfectly. He kills the girl, and then is remorseful. I loved how the brutal act was followed by this haunted life. I was trying to get him to go from all these years of thinking his best stuff was behind him and just phoning in records to thinking we could make his best albums ever. I don’t know if he really believed that, but he was willing to give it a try.

“Delia’s Gone” was a turning point. Cash was encouraged by Rubin’s enthusiastic reaction to the song. His confidence was building. After “Delia’s Gone,” Cash and Rubin roamed through more songs. Cash unleashed another compelling song he’d written, but was hiding, “Like a Soldier.” Rubin, emboldened, began to suggest songs for Cash to try, such as “Thirteen,” written by goth metal rocker Glenn Danzig, one of the musicians Rubin had worked with over the years.

As Danzig remembered when talking with Rolling Stone magazine,

I think somebody from Rick Rubin’s office or Rick called me and asked me if I knew who Johnny Cash was, and I said, “F — k yeah, I know who Johnny Cash is,” and they said, “Would you write a song for him?” . . . “ wrote [“Thirteen”] in, like, a half-hour, as soon as I got off the phone. It was that quick. The song was just my impression of who Johnny Cash was and what he meant.

Rubin saw a connection between Danzig and Cash — the dark, tormented songwriter. As he said to Robert Hilburn,

I wasn’t trying to look for songs that would “connect” Johnny to a younger audience . . . I was just trying to find songs that really made sense for his voice. By that I don’t mean baritone. I mean resonate with his character so he could sing the words and have them feel like he wrote them.

But even so, Rubin had to tread carefully and bring up “Thirteen” at the right moment. This was the kind of song that might have turned off Cash had Rubin brought it up earlier in the recording process. It might have come across like Rick Rubin was trying to force a marriage between Cash and goth metal. But in context of “Delia’s Gone,” “Thirteen” seemed like a natural fit:

Found me with a preacher man confessin’ all I done
Catch me with the devil playing 21
And a bad luck wind been blowin’ on my back
I was born to bring trouble wherever I’m at

Their adventurous exploration also resulted in one of the most stunning moments of Cash’s career: his cover of “The Beast in Me.” The song had been written by Cash’s former stepson-in-law, British rocker Nick Lowe, who had been married to Cash’s stepdaughter Carlene Carter from 1979 to 1990. Despite the dissolution of the marriage, Lowe and Cash remained on good terms. Lowe even wrote “The Beast in Me” with Johnny Cash in mind. Cash had heard Lowe play an unfinished version of “The Beast in Me” at one point, and was impressed by the work-in-progress. Here was a song that Cash himself could have written:

The beast in me

Has had to learn to live with pain

And how to shelter from the rain

And in the twinkling of an eye

Might have to be restrained

God help the beast in me

As Cash and Nick Lowe would later recount, Cash never lost sight of that song. Over a period of 12 years, he would ask Lowe, “How’s that song coming along?” Finally, Lowe finished a demo.

Cash rewarded his effort with a rendition that seemed to capture the essence of all the inner conflict that had made Johnny Cash great. The song would become a centerpiece of Cash’s concerts when he began to tour again after American Recordings was finished. As important as “Delia’s Gone” was, “The Beast in Me” was more personal and relatable to a broader audience.

Cash and Rubin experimented musically, too. When Cash took a break from recording to go on tour, Rubin brought in musicians, such as Tom Petty and Flea to overdub the basic tracks and fatten the sound, as producer Chips Moman had done with Elvis Presley famously in 1969. Rubin listened to the fuller, richer renditions and decided he preferred the stripped-down version. In later albums after American Recordings, Rubin would complement Cash with musicians to satisfying effect. But now was not the time to do that.

The sessions did not go perfectly. When it became clear that the song demos were actually materializing into a real album, Cash became self-conscious. He started to “perform” the songs instead of singing them with the natural ease of those first few days of recording. His delivery lost its organic appeal.

Rubin decided to do something about that: he booked Cash for a single-night performance in the Viper Room, a hip club on the Sunset Strip owned by Johnny Depp. (This was the same Viper Room where River Phoenix had died tragically on Halloween only weeks before Cash’s appearance.) Cash had never performed alone in concert, and he was terrified, which was just what Rubin expected to happen. Rubin hoped that singing in the Viper Room for a real audience — doing a real performance on a stage — would make it easier for Cash to get back into the vibe of singing alone in Rubin’s living room in a more informal way.

Rick Rubin knew what he was doing. The Viper Room had just the right kind of hip rock-and-roll vibe that Cash needed to see how relevant he could be to a contemporary audience. Rubin made sure that some of the stars he worked with, such as Tom Petty and members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, would be in the room. So was Sean Penn, at the time in the full bloom of his career. They were the right kind of tastemakers, and they welcomed the Man in Black with gusto. Cash debuted songs such as “Delia’s Gone,” and the audience cheered him on. Fortunately, Rubin recorded the performance, and two of the songs made the cut for the album in progress.

The triumphant Viper Club performance was also a turning point for Johnny Cash. Up until then, he was accustomed to playing for tourists and retirees in decidedly unhip venues like Branson, Missouri. He hated the experience. Once again, Robert Hilburn’s Johnny Cash: A Life sums it up:

The atmosphere was touristy, leading him to wonder if the audience even cared about the music. Most of the crowd were bus tour groups who were simply attending shows that the tour organizers had lined up for them.

Playing for tourists and retirees made him feel old and irrelevant. He regretted ever signing up to perform in Branson. But the Viper Room reminded him that a more vibrant, music-loving audience could respond to his work. As Tom Petty recounted in Cash: A Life, “Johnny was so happy. He felt like he was starting to matter again.”

The performance also got Cash to loosen up when he returned to recording songs with Rick Rubin. They continued recording until they’d amassed enough songs to choose for an album. They picked 13 songs and listened to them from beginning to end in Rick’s house. No one said a word. Then Rick commented, “Wow, this is great. And since it’s not supposed to be anything other than great, that’s when you say, ‘It’s done.’” Rubin chose the title, American Recordings.

The Aftermath

One thing about Rick Rubin: he knew how to promote music, as well as produce it. He pulled all the right levers with American Recordings, starting with an album cover design that made Cash look like some kind of wind-swept Gothic figure.

This was a different image of Cash than the smiling man depicted on his most recent album, Country Christmas. Rubin made sure that the most influential music critics received advance copies of the album. He signed up Cash to appear at important events, such as Glastonbury in England and the South by Southwest Festival in Austin.

The real masterstroke was the release of a brutal video for “Delia’s Gone,” which was so striking in its violence that MTV banned it. Getting banned by MTV was perfect PR for Cash. If there were any lingering perceptions that he was a cuddly, lovable man of God, the ban crushed them.

The album sold 236,000 copies, a modest figure by 1994 standards and a far cry from the top-selling album of 1994, Ace of Base’s The Sign, which sold 3.8 million copies. But it was Johnny Cash’s best-selling album since 1971’s Man in Black, and the album rose as high as 23 on the country charts. And American Recordings resonated with the right people, including Rolling Stone critic Anthony DeCurtis, who gave the album five stars (the highest rating possible) and wrote, “American Recordings is at once monumental and viscerally intimate, fiercely true to the legend of Johnny Cash and entirely contemporary.”

DeCurtis’s reaction was typical of the critical acclaim. The album garnered rave reviews across the board. It also made Cash a culturally relevant hero to a younger generation. He became a hot concert draw, although health problems would eventually curtail Cash’s touring activity.

Rubin and Cash went back into the studio to make several more albums of covers and Johnny Cash originals, including “The Man Comes Around,” one of Cash’s last great epics, and “Hurt,” a cover of a Nine Inch Nails song that drew attention with its devastating video.

They developed a close relationship that transcended music. They reportedly took Holy Communion together every day, even though Rubin was not particularly religious.

Commercially, their most successful effort would turn out to be 2002’s American IV: The Man Comes Around, which sold 1.6 million copies, largely because of the power of the “Hurt” video. But critically and culturally, American Recordings had the biggest impact. Rolling Stone would rank the album 384 among the Top 500 albums of all time.

Johnny Cash was back.

For good.

Memorable Album Covers of 2020

Vinyl album sale are hitting historic highs in the United States, casting a spotlight on the importance of album cover art. Album sleeve design plays an essential role in expressing a musician’s vision and sparking curiosity through visual storytelling. In the digital age, album cover art is even more valuable. That’s because digital gives musicians more ways to raise awareness for their work through the visual power of an album cover — on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Tumblr, Twitter, and so on. The memorable covers of 2020 expressed the times we live in. The album sleeve for Taylor Swift’s Folklore captured the essence of social distancing and a newfound longing for nature that led to skyrocketing visits to national parks during the pandemic.

Taylor Swift, Folkore

Duval Timothy’s Help reflected something we’ve been missing and wanting during the pandemic: the human connection . . .

Duval Timothy, Help

. . . as did Heavy Light from U.S. Girls:

U.S. Girls, Heavy Light

SAULT’s Untitled (Black Is), with its simple upraised fist, symbolized Black empowerment during a time of social upheaval.

SAULT, Untitled (Black Is)

Those themes of Black empowerment where everywhere, including Flo Milli, Ho, Why Is You Here? from Flo Milli . . .

Flo Milli, Ho, Why Is You Here?

. . . Legends Never Die from Juice WRLD . . .

Legends Never Die from Juice WRLD

. . . and Twice As Tall from Burna Boy:

Twice As Tall from Burna Boy

But there was plenty of room for artistic expression on its own terms. The goofy design of Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters reflected a bit of whimsy, mystery, and arch sense of humor that has defined her work for years.

Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Madeline Kenney’s Sucker’s Lunch shared a sense of deadpan humor that works for any era:

Madeline Kenney, Sucker's Luncb

For more memorable album covers of 2020, check out my SlideShare presentation. I hope you like it.