Thursday, June 11, 2015


"The face is scarred and craggy like a strip-mined Appalachian mountainside. The eyes are dark and somber. So, too, are the old-fashioned suits and string ties that Johnny Cash wears onstage as homage to his longtime hero, rough-hewn, plain-speaking Andrew Jackson. Then there's the deep rumbling voice that would rather converse with God or the dogwoods than almost anybody else. When Cash does sit down to talk, there are long silences and faraway glances. "I'm a country boy, still," says the Arkansas farmer's son. "I'm a very shy and private man, but don't get me wrong. I can make it real good on a stage with 20,000 people out there. I like performing."
(from a 1986 article by Andrea Chambers)

He was suddenly being billed as the 'King of The Beatniks', and manufactured against his will, as some kind of public Guru for a movement that never existed. Jack was a private person, extremely shy, and dedicated to writing. When he drank, he became much more expansive, and this was the only part of his personality that became publicized.
(from a 1969 article by David Amram)

When I saw that interview with Jack Kerouac some years ago on YouTube, I had the oddest feeling that I was witnessing someone even shyer than I was. Shyness is excruciating.

A few days ago, I happened upon some film footage of Bob Dylan and Isaac Stern receiving the Polar Music Prize in 2000. Watching Bob Dylan's face, I was unable to find words to describe his shifting expressions, but I was reminded of the shyness of Jack Kerouac and Johnny Cash and searched for the images of those men that were coming to mind. 

In 1986, during the first few years after one of his last relapses on painkillers, Johnny Cash went out on a book tour for Man in White and made a stop at the independent bookstore in the small Northwest Washington town where I live. He was dressed in black and appeared quite uncomfortable, sitting hunched over at a small table in the middle of the crowded store as he signed copies of his book. There was a small line of people who had bought his book and wanted him to sign it. I didn't buy a copy of his book about Paul the Apostle (I regret that now and have just put the book on hold at our public library to make amends for my rudeness for not being open to what he had written), but I brought my copy of "Nashville Skyline," with its back cover featuring his poem about Bob Dylan, for him to sign. I'm not as shy as I used to be, but in those days I was quite shy and couldn't help but empathize with how extremely shy he appeared when he wasn't on stage. When I came to the front of the line, I handed him my album cover and asked if he could sign it for me. He slowly turned his head and looked up at me briefly. The curious expression on his face was something like that of Bob Dylan listening to the woman speaking about him at the Polar Music Prize ceremony. Without saying a word, Johnny Cash signed my album and handed it back to me without looking at me again.  I was moved to touch his shoulder and thank him. 

In the following year, I stopped drinking and began to recover from the eating disorder that had been part of my life since I was 10 years old and so painfully shy that I didn't know how I was going to make it through life. No wonder I didn't feel so alone after first hearing Bob Dylan when I was 14 years old, or felt an odd kinship while reading about Jack Kerouac in my late teens and, at 36 years old, witnessing Johnny Cash signing his book in a bookstore despite his shyness. 


Tara said...

I have a sister who used to be painfully shy. I, the gregarious one, was expected to watch after her at school, introduce her to my friends. She is now an adult who speaks in front of large groups of people, a powerful advocate for women's health issues, a dynamic attorney who can hold her own in any conversation. Hard to believe she used to clutch at our mother's skirt and hide.

am said...

Tara -- Interesting to consider the ways shyness manifests. Are you the oldest or one of the older children in your family? My guess is that your sister is younger than you are. Sweet to hear that she outgrew her shyness!

In my family, I am the oldest and the one who was called shy. Neither of my younger sisters exhibited shyness. I was what my father called "boisterous" until I was 7 or 8 years old. At around that age, I became withdrawn, quiet, and acutely self-conscious. I blushed deeply when attention was drawn to me and began to be referred to as "shy."

It is occurring to me just now that maybe I wasn't shy at all. I was physically and emotionally traumatized during that time, and it may be that my self-protective withdrawal was labeled as "shyness." I took on the identity of being a shy person until well into my 30s.

The more I think of it, I no longer think of myself as shy, but I do empathize with shy people, especially shy children.


Very interesting post.
Thank you.
Best wishess


am said...

Roger -- Thank you for stopping by and commenting. I enjoyed looking at your photos and am grateful that I can use Google Translate to read your blog.