Oh, well, I hope so. I hope so.
Has anyone shown an interest in gathering your more recent--
Yes. They have actually. There's talk about box sets and things like that, which--I don't know. I can't work my way through a box set, even of people that I like. I've got a Johnny Cash box set. I've only listened to the first one. Whenever I want to hear Johnny Cash, I just put the same one. I never listen to any of the others, you know.
Speaking of Johnny Cash, did you write "The Beast in Me" for him?
I did, actually, yes.
Was there ever the chance that he would've rejected it?
Oh, yeah. He did. I actually thought it up when he came to London and came to stay with me and Carlene [Carter]. He came around. Carlene phoned him up and said we'd written this song. And, in fact, what it was is, I had this first--I had the title and the first verse, and when he came along--he came 'round to hear it, and the song really wasn't finished--we'd made up a whole bunch of other stuff to tag onto it, but I knew that the first couple of lines were great. Anyway, I sang it to him, and he said, "Well, you're onto something here, but it's not quite right, is it?" I said, "Well, it's not really." He said, "Well, when you finish it, send it along." And that was about 1980. And every so often--I finished it in what? 1994 or something. But every so often I'd get this song out, or if I'd run into him, he'd say, "How's 'The Beast in Me,' Nick?" And I'd get it out again, and it was one of those songs where you think you've said it all in the first verse. There's nothing else to say. But something must've clicked one day, and I just finished it off. It just seemed to all fit, which sometimes happens. The song hasn't kind of revealed itself to you or something until some time passes, and that's the danger time [tape ends] ... the song we'll be revealed. So, anyway, I sent it off to him and didn't hear anything, and next thing I know American Recordings has come out, and it's on it. So--
He didn't tell you he was going to record it?
No, he didn't tell me he was going to do it. It was fantastic. I did know that my step-daughter, who hangs out with him a lot, she said that he'd been playing it to people who'd come around to the house. He'd been singing it to them. So I thought, "Oh, that's interesting. So he got the tape." I thought he just might've listened to it and thought, "Oh, no! He still hasn't got it right." But, no, I thought it was good.
"The Man That I've Become" sounds like a Johnny Cash song. Yeah. Yes, it is a Johnny Cash song--a Johnny Cash-style song. But I think Johnny Cash is such a great artist--I'm such an admirer, a fan, of his--as well as my familial connections to him--that I think it's sort of--he's a great enough artist--if you've got a good song, even if it sounds like--I don't know--like a good Barbra Streisand song--but a good song, good song--"People Who Need People," for instance. It's a good pop song of a kind, from the point of view of being in every airport, playing in every airport around the world. It's a crafty piece of work that everybody knows. But if you send a song like that, a really good song that doesn't necessarily sound like Johnny Cash, he'd be able to spot--"This is a really good song!" Here comes Johnny Cash singing it: (in mock Johnny Cash) "People--boom-chick-boom"--Now, he'd do something with it. He'd do something with it and make it brilliant, but I think it's sort of insulting to send a song to somebody that just sounds like them. It's sort of insulting to. People have done it to me. They mean well. They mean well. But they say, "Ah, here's a song! You're gonna love it!" And it's this rather embarrassing pastiche of three or four of your things slung together, and you go, "Thanks very much. That's very nice of you. That's very interesting, but it's not quite what I'm trading with at the moment." So I never would've dreamt of sending him "The Man That I've Become" because it does sound like him, especially with that Luther Perkins lick on it, that really does--it just cries out for it, you know. But the other thing is, it's got that country and organ music. I think organ on country tunes sounds so cool. It just puts something in there that's--on country songs--that's really emotional, better than a pedal steel for me, even though I like pedal steel played well. You know what they say, that women don't like pedal steel. It's only men who like pedal steel. There's something about that tone. Men react to the pedal steel much more than women do (laughs). I don't know. It's just one of those things. I think it's more sonic than anything else.
I first heard "High on a Hilltop" as an extension of "What's Shakin' on the Hill." In both the "hill" is a metaphor for what's really important.
I suppose it is. I hadn't thought about it like that. I think that that is a gospel song. I think "High on a Hilltop" actually is a kind of gospel song. I felt inspired with "High on a Hilltop." It's still pop, you know. It's still pop. I still think, "Would Dan Penn do this, or Arthur Alexander?" You know, some of the people that I like. Ivory Joe Hunter. I think, "Would they do something like this?" If I think they would, I think, "Oh well, I will too" (laughs).
When I first saw the title "High on a Hilltop," I thought, "Yet another gospel song!"
"The Man That I've Become" goes well with "Failed Christian" because they both have verses about the choir.
Oh yeah, yes. That's true. Yes, I didn't know that until we actually--I hadn't realized that until they sequenced it. But they do. Yes, they've both got the choir reference.
They sound as if they're being sung by two people coming at the same emotional or spiritual state from different perspectives.
Oh, well, that's great. That's great.
Such connections seem to continually emerge from your albums. I have the feeling that ten years from now I could play this album and discover more.
Well, I hope so. I really hope so because--well, I like listening to it too. See, that's the strange thing. You get a real kick from sitting down and listening to your own record. There comes a time when you stop, but generally it's when you start thinking up a new way of telling your story. But until that comes along, to listen to your own record and really enjoy it and not be going--twitching and--you know, because you can hear yourself going to work--there are always things that you wish you'd done slightly different. Of course there are. But they're all honest, honest--you know, you overlooked something. I mean, it's honest. But to be able to listen to your own record and for it to sound like somebody else, for you to enjoy it as if it were somebody else, is a very curious sensation. Or maybe it's not curious enough. Maybe it's not a curious sensation.
Did you always listen to your own records and enjoy them, even in the '70's?
I did, but some more than others. Definitely some. Whenever I thought I'd done a good thing, oh yes! I'd listen to it over and over again and dig myself, you know (laughs)? But, no, there was a period when I was striving for something and not--I was very unhappy, and I felt very uncreative and at a low ebb and trapped. I felt--I was still with a big record label then, and when it's time for an album, you've gotta come up with one. It doesn't matter if you don't feel like it.
Columbia, yeah. And that's a terrible feeling, to go into the studio with feet like anvils, you know, just dragging them. And that's, of course, when you start taking to the bottle and thinking that if you've got half an idea--if you get drunk enough, you can actually turn it into something good. And the awful thing is that occasionally it works. But, of course, the next time you do it, what you're left with is this drunken mess. And that's awful, when you've got to--when you know you've done a record that, in your heart, you know is a sorry thing.