By Gustavo Arellano
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Photo by James BunoanI wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town.
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime
But is there because he's a victim of the times.
—Johnny Cash, "Man in Black"Yours is truly the voice of America, as rich and strong as our nation itself.
Welcome to the Richard M. Nixon Library and Birthplace! To your left, you'll find the gift shop, where autographed tomes by Ollie North (a frequent visitor, as are Rush Limbaugh's desperately coattailing brother and Michael Reagan, who dines out on tales of barely disguised loathing about how his movie-star parents never had time for him) hold places of pride alongside presidential golf clubs and "The President Meets the King" refrigerator magnets. On your right, you'll find the Henry Kissinger War Crimes Room and a fond remembrance of the White House plumbers. And straight ahead, it's . . . "Johnny Cash: A 70th Birthday Tribute."
In the past, the small gallery has hosted tributes to Barbie as First Lady (blonded dolls in gowns home-crocheted by arts-and-crafty heartland ladies) and tributes to Patricia Nixon's thrifty, usually polyester-based couture. But now, enter the two little rooms, and you're greeted with "Ghostriders in the Sky" in the warm warble of the Man in Black.
Nobody doesn't love Johnny Cash, and nobody doesn't take one look at that face—a face that has never been young—and doesn't worry. Johnny Cash doesn't look well. He's only 70, for crying out loud, and 70 today is supposed to be for golfing and driving poorly in oversized cars and gloating in fat, happy wealth while you refuse to give your deadbeat kids a loan.
I usually don't care for artifact-based exhibits. Sure, the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana usually manages to put on a doozy; there's no beating all that Chinese jade and Egyptian gold. But others, like the Fullerton Museum Center, rely so much on artifact over art—whether it's guitars or Mad Magazine toys—it's like walking around a themed garage sale.
How is it that the bad, bad Nixon Library ended up with a Cash show? Limbaugh will deny it—will tell you that only liberals are stupid enough to trust celebrities—but conservatives have always tried to leverage star power for political gain. Cash is the perfect fulcrum. With his vaguely anti-Establishment rep, you can turn him one way, and he looks like just the sort of renegade who ran afoul of law-and-order Republicans (Cash did time for drugs); turn him the other way, and he looks like a populist who doesn't trust Washington liberals. Either way, he looks like every one of us, trying to liberate himself from civilization's discontents.
The exhibit uses Bill Miller's collection of Cashabilia as a starting point; Little Billy, later a Corona city councilman, canvassed for Nixon at age 8 and basically stalked Cash soon after hearing Live From Folsom Prison while still in school. The pieces are so sweet and fanboy my cynicism was sucked dry. Here is a copy of Cash's Air Force discharge, from which one learns that his blood is Type O. I don't even know my own blood type. Here are the pants his mother made him for his '50s rockabilly performances. Here are the handwritten lyrics to "I Walk the Line" and an itinerary for April '63, when Cash played Fort Dodge, Iowa, and Moline, Illinois. A check signed by Carl Perkins? Photos of the King? Those are all fine, but how did they get Cash's Kennedy Center medal? Or the Gold Record for "Ring of Fire"? Surely Little Billy wasn't able to snap those up alongside OJ's Heisman Trophy?
On mannequins are the outfits the Nixons wore to a Cash concert; Pat's, naturally, was of a synthetic "material"—God bless that sweet, cheap lady. Cash's Air Force uniform graces another, as does a jacket illuminated by the wall text, "Inside right pocket has a label that reads Gentry/Penney's." As in JC Penney's? God bless that sweet, cheap man! Plenty of posters announcing prison shows hang on the walls, like one from San Quentin that warns, "San Quentin welcomes Johnny Cash February 24 in the mess hall. Best behavior advised." Wall text advises us that for Cash's 1960 San Quentin performance, Merle Haggard was in the audience—as an inmate.
There's more, too, but not too much. One finishes the exhibit satisfied and without fatigue. Photos document the Cashes with presidents Nixon, Ford, Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter (a goofily grinning cousin of June Carter Cash) and George Bush pere. A Christmas letter to the Cash fan club announces the Cash-Carter marriage. A guitar gleams. Meanwhile, all concert posters scream Johnny Cash's name in thousand-point type, while June Carter Cash's is a footnote underneath. The pretty woman did write "Ring of Fire." Let's show her the respect she deserves.
Here's one last note from the hardworking curators, under a poster from the mid-'80s Highwaymen album (Waylon, Willie, Cash and Kris): "The 'Highwaymen' album enjoyed great commercial success, bringing Cash to the attention of younger musician groups [sic] like Social Distortion."
The Nixon Library: home of the hip. Oh, and Rush Limbaugh's pathetic brother.
"JOHNNY CASH: A 70TH BIRTHDAY TRIBUTE" AT THE RICHARD NIXON LIBRARY & BIRTHPLACE, 18001 YORBA LINDA BLVD., YORBA LINDA, (714) 993-5075. OPEN MON.-SAT., 10 A.M.-5 P.M.; SUN., 11 A.M.-5 P.M. THROUGH DEC. 31. $2-$5.95.<</p>
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