I once saw Johnny Cash perform. It was at a Billy Graham rally in Portland in ’91 or ’92. The sermon was… what you’d expect from a Billy Graham sermon. Cash’s performance was both devastating and inspirational, which was what you’d expect from a Johnny Cash performance. Cash and John Coltrane were the only two musicians that I ever saw as honestly expressing the Christian experience, the doubts and frustrations, the desperate hope, and the occasional moment of ecstasy. But where Coltrane flamed out early, leaving us like a saint martyred to his own passions, Cash kept struggling with “that beast there in [him],” living a distinctly non-beatific life, but time and again finding grace amidst the darkness and bringing it to us through his music.

Johnny Cash died early this morning, September 12, 2003. He was 71 years old. Normally, I’m pretty immune to the deaths of celebrities; even Curt Cobain’s suicide left little more than a dull coldness in me. But then I watched Cash’s final music video, for his cover of Nine Inch Nails’s Dirt, and found myself blinking back tears. So much of Cash’s music was about facing up to his life and looking ahead to his death, that seeing this video — a self-eulogy if there ever was one — is simultaneously heartbreaking and completely appropriate.