Hard News by Russell Brown

The Man in Black

Would that we all could go out like Johnny Cash. It almost defies belief that a man who was on hand for the genesis of rock 'n' roll could have spent his last decade making work as moving and relevant as anything he ever did before.

The American Recordings series, four albums composed largely of Cash's interpretations of other people's songs, mark an extraordinary creative flowering. Remarkably, he had already been gravely ill by the time he recorded volumes III and IV, Solitary Man and When the Man Comes Around. Mortality is suffused right through the latter.

The songs that Cash and Rick Rubin chose for those records were dizzingly diverse: from Egbert Williams' century-old whimsy 'Nobody' all the way across the spectrum to his devastating reading of Nine Inch Nails' 'Hurt'. What united them was the way that Cash made each song his own; often making their authors' original recordings (Neil Diamond's 'Solitary Man', U2's 'One') sound simply irrelevant.

In the liner note for Solitary Man, Cash wrote:

"The song is the thing that matters. Before I can record, I have to hear it, sing it, and know that I can make it feel like my own, or it won't work. I worked on those songs until it felt like they were my own."

There have been literally hundreds of stories published over the weekend, and oddly enough, the Guardian captured the mood as well as anyone, with a potted bio and a nice little piece by Nick Cave, whose 'The Mercy Seat' was recorded by Cash and who collaborated with Cash on the last album. Rolling Stone has a brief story from November last year.

Cash was recording again with Rubin when he died, so perhaps there is a little more in wait for us. But one of the great American lives has come to a close.

The WTO meeting in Cancun has apparently collapsed, but the moral victory appears to have gone to the group of non-Western nations, who, for the first time, got the developed bloc on the back foot. Over the weekend the Europeans blamed the Americans ("They're behaving like the Soviet Union in the Eighties.") and the Americans blamed the Europeans. An American negotiator attacked the credibility of the Group of 21, which didn't stop Turkey joining to make it the Group of 22. And the Europeans are bitched about being called to account. Where next? Who knows? But it now seems to be a different world.

The worst outcome would be a swing away from the multilateral forum at the WTO and towards new bilateral deals, where the US in particular can pick off potential trading partners one by one. The anti-globalisation protestors demanding "agriculture out of the WTO" might want to be careful what they wish for.

The billions that the US will spend on farm support this year will only worsen the country's extraordinary fiscal deficit. The New York Times looked at who will actually carry the can for the Bush administration's faith-based economics:

When President Bush informed the nation last Sunday night that remaining in Iraq next year will cost another $87 billion, many of those who will actually pay that bill were unable to watch. They had already been put to bed by their parents.

Administration officials acknowledged the next day that every dollar of that cost will be borrowed, a loan that economists say will be repaid by the next generation of taxpayers and the generation after that. The $166 billion cost of the work so far in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has stunned many in Washington, will be added to what was already the largest budget deficit the nation has ever known

The US national debt clock is worth a look. And Cam Pitches tipped me off to this graph, which puts the $87 billion bill for Iraq in a very stark context.

Anyway, to end on a happy note, what about those Warriors? You don't often see the game of rugby league played the way they played it on Saturday night. When you thrash the title favourites 48-22, you have to be doing something right …