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Music in her past, present, and future

Steven Rea, Inquirer Staff Writer

Updated: Thursday, August 12, 2010, 2:05 AM

Rosanne Cash

It should come as no surprise that Rosanne Cash's beautifully observed, often heartbreaking new memoir, Composed (Viking, $26.95), reads in many ways like a song cycle: thematically linked, full of intense emotions and vivid moments of intimacy, of discovery, of pain.

Rosanne Cash ABBY ROSS
Rosanne Cash and her dad, Johnny, at the Memphis Zoo in 1956. Both parents died while she worked on the memoir; writing about it was painful.
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In her introduction, the singer/songwriter, daughter of Johnny Cash and stepdaughter of June Carter, writes about a life circumscribed by music: "I have learned more from songs than I ever did from any teacher in school. They are interwoven and have flowed through the most important relationships in my life - with my parents, my husband, and my children. Songs have unfolded in my living room and under the spotlight. For me music has always involved journeys, both literal and metaphoric."

For Cash, 55, who comes to the Free Library of Philadelphia tonight at 7:30 for a reading and Q&A (to be moderated by her pal, the Philadelphia transplant John Wesley Harding), the process of writing about her life took more than 10 years. She lost both her father, the American music icon, and her mother, Vivian, over the last decade, as well as June Carter Cash, the stepmother who embraced her as her own and whose musical legacy spans generations. 9/11 happened, of course, and Cash, a longtime New Yorker, saw the burning towers from the Greenwich Village sidewalk where her son had just gone into school. And, oh yeah, there was brain surgery.

"It was indeed a decade-long process," Cash says on the phone from her home in Manhattan, laughing a bit ruefully. "But I never had a day where I sat down and decided to write a memoir."

What happened, she explains, is that she wrote an essay, "The Ties That Bind," for the now-defunct Starbucks magazine, Joe. A perfectly honed piece about country music and family, and about the image of a bakery truck pulling up to her Casitas Springs, Calif., home when she was a little girl (a memory that begets a metaphor), the essay was selected for the Da Capo Press anthology Best Music Writing 2000.

"And I thought 'That's that,' " remembers Cash, who has 21 Top 40 singles, a Grammy Award, two gold albums, and a collection of short stories, Bodies of Water, to her credit. "But my editor at Viking read it and said, 'This is the beginning of a memoir.' And I said, 'I'm too young to write a memoir . . .' and then he gave me all of M.F.K. Fisher's work, and I saw that you could write about your life in a beautifully peripheral way. The way she wrote about her life writing about food, I thought I could do that by writing about song. . . .

"And then, obviously, stuff kept happening. People kept dying, I had brain surgery, I made records, I went on tour, it was endless . . . so, after the surgery I felt particularly motivated to finish it."

The brain surgery - a truly daunting experience that Cash chronicles in Composed's penultimate section - came in 2007, after false diagnoses that attributed her years of debilitating headaches to various types of migraines. In fact, she had Chiari 1 and syringomyelia.

"In other words," she writes, "a brain surgeon was going to take a Midas Rex drill, saw open the back of my head, remove a credit card-sized portion of my skull, cut through the lining of my brain, break my top vertebra, free my entrapped cerebellum and release the dam of spinal fluid, close the hole in my skull with a Gore-Tex patch, and then staple my head together, straight down the back, like a big zipper."

The recovery was long and arduous ("I couldn't really do much in the first year - I was just so tired and still in a lot of pain," she says). Her second husband, the songwriter, guitarist, and producer John Leventhal, emerges in the book as a scrappy patient advocate, consulting with neurosurgeons across the land, as he tended to his wife. "Yeah, he's pretty remarkable that way," says Cash on the phone. "His aggressive rationality in parsing all the information, breaking it down, and then guiding me to the right choice, the right surgeon. . . . It became clear that it was so complicated, there were so many doctors, so many things to consider, I couldn't have done it without him."

Leventhal had coproduced Cash's 1993 album The Wheel - an album whose songs dealt with the fallout from Cash's divorce from the country music singer and songwriter Rodney Crowell, with whom she had three daughters. In 1995, Leventhal and Cash married. They have a son. Leventhal also produced Cash's 2009 triumph, The List - a collection of 12 songs from a list of 100 that her father had given her when she was 18. Essential music: Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Don Gibson, Ray Price, Lefty Frizzell, Patsy Cline, Bob Dylan.

"My dad was a walking archive," says Cash, whose eulogy to her father - and eulogies for her mother, and June Carter - make up another potent section of the book. "But as much as I did get from him, and as many questions as I asked and as many songs as I learned, I could have gotten 10 times more, a hundred times more, and that's one of my regrets: that I didn't ask for more."

Cash says that while the long time spent writing Composed had its moments of catharsis, self-realization, and joy, it was also trying.

"Writing about my parents' deaths was painful," she observes. "Reliving those experiences, that was particularly painful, but there was no way to leave that out of the memoir.

"The rest of it - some memories were more poignant, or more unsettling, or filled me with longing. But generally it was a good experience. I'm somewhat, um, geeky, in that I find the meaning in an experience after I've written about it. I'm a little slow that way.

"So, it was a great organizing principle, to put all of this down and then see what themes kept resurfacing. . . . And also how mutable time seemed. And that's the other reason I couldn't really write a straight chronology, because time does seem mutable to me in a lot of ways. An experience will throw you into the past, into the future."

Which is why Cash put a Thornton Wilder quote in her book: "It is only in appearance that time is a river. It is rather a vast landscape and it is the eye of the beholder that moves."

Composed has a decency about it, and demonstrates a keen passion for music, for words - and for the siblings and children, family and friends and musicians in Cash's life - that sets it apart from the more typical, tell-all celebrity tome.

"There were things that I had to leave out," she explains, "because I didn't want to hurt people. I didn't want to lose my dignity by doing any score-settling, and I wasn't interested in . . . telling the details of why I got divorced, out of respect for my children. But the things I left out don't fundamentally change the story. They're just out of respect."

Cash has plans afoot to collaborate on a recording with Billy Bragg and Joe Henry. And she has her book to promote - she was on Good Morning America the other day, and she's heading south and then west after her reading at the Free Library.

"I'm a little nervous," she says, wondering how Composed will be received. "In songwriting there's always poetic license, and you can obscure details. And this is, by definition, naked. So this is the first time for me. I feel like I'm a beginner again."

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.

Steven Rea, Inquirer Staff Writer

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