A new biography peers deeply into Johnny's downward spiral, and ultimate redemption
Johnny Cash’s life in the 1960s is mostly remembered as a time of glorious achievement — from the landmark prison albums at Folsom and San Quentin to the launch of the ABC-TV series featuring such guests as Bob Dylan and the Doors that led to his becoming a giant figure in popular culture, a symbol to millions, no less, of the best of American social values.
But Cash also experienced excruciatingly dark times in the decade, fueled by drugs and guilt over the breakup of his marriage.
Cash, 26, moved to California with his wife, Vivian, and his first three daughters in the summer of 1958, hoping for a career in the movies. It was a heady time. Thanks to such hits as “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” he was the hottest young country artist in years and had just been lured away from tiny Sun Records by Columbia Records. Cash, whose musical approach was flavored by elements of folk, blues and gospel music, wasn’t a great singer technically, but the heart of his music conveyed elements of human struggle with inspiration and conviction. His trademark “boom-chicka-boom” instrumental sound (pioneered by guitarist Luther Perkins) felt as steady and affirming as an amplified heartbeat.
He bought an upscale, $75,000 home on Hayvenhurst Avenue in Encino that was previously owned by Johnny Carson and just down the street from where the Jackson family would later set up their compound.
The first three years were happy ones, but things started unraveling amid drug and marital tension as well as an embarrassing B-movie film debut (he played a crazed gunman in the film-noirish “Five Minutes to Live”). He would star in more films, including “A Gunfight” in 1971 with Kirk Douglas, and several made-for-TV exercises, but he never earned the reputation of a serious actor.
Hating confrontation, Cash stopped coming home for months at a time and struck up affairs with other women, notably June Carter, who joined his touring group in 1962. As he fell deeper into drugs, his behavior became so self-destructive that those around him feared for his life. The year 1965 would bring particular humiliation and pain.
One of the most vivid childhood memories of Cash’s two oldest daughters, Rosanne and Kathy, was watching their mother, Vivian, puffing anxiously on a cigarette as she stared through the living room window of their Casitas Springs home on those rare nights when she thought her husband might actually be coming home. Vivian imagined him in the arms of June Carter, or dead somewhere of a drug overdose, and she prayed to see the headlights in the driveway that would prove her wrong. On most nights, Vivian gave up around 1 a.m. and tried to grab a few hours sleep before getting the girls ready for class at St. Catherine-by-the-Sea elementary school.
Though Cash was showing up less and less often, she held out hope that he would be home one night in June 1965 after his manager, Saul Holiff, phoned to say that Johnny was on the way. Vivian took her familiar place at the window and let the girls, who now numbered four, stay up late to greet their father, whom they hadn’t seen in months. By 2 a.m., she knew she was going to be alone with the children again.
It was nearly a week of day-and-night vigils before Cash’s camper — which he named “Jesse” after the outlaw Jesse James — headed up the driveway. Despite all the pain he had caused her, she wanted to run to him just like the day he arrived home at the Memphis airport after a three-year Air Force stay in Germany. As he approached the front door, her nostalgia gave way to resentment. Cash, feeling guilty and defensive, sensed her fury, and an argument broke out immediately. Finally, he shouted that he wanted a divorce. He had broached the subject before, but never so angrily.
Johnny Western, a musician-friend, says Cash told him that he offered Vivian a half-million-dollar settlement, though he must have been kidding himself if he thought he could put that much money together. Most of the new Columbia contract income was going to pay off old loans. Vivian shouted back, refusing even to consider a divorce, and he stormed off to his office sanctuary.
As Kathy recalls, “Dad would try so hard to stay positive, to make light of things, to always have a great sense of humor, but he would get into these moods where he just seemed to shut down and didn’t want to talk or really do much of anything except spend time by himself in his office.”
Rosanne remembers the period as frightening and heartbreaking.
“It just got to where it was like somebody else was coming home, not my daddy,” she says. “The drugs were at work. He’d stay up all night. He and my mom would fight. It was so sad. He would always be having accidents. He turned the tractor over one day and almost killed himself, and we had to call the fire department after he set fire to the hillside. One time he took me on his lap and put his arms around me and said, ‘I’m glad to be alive,’ because the tractor could have rolled over on him. He held me so tightly. I felt so close to him. I wished it could always be like that. But then he’d be gone again.”
The girls finally got to see their dad before they left for school the next morning, but he was gone by the time they returned home. As he had so often, he wanted to escape. He drove his camper to the nearby home of his nephew Damon Fielder.
Damon slid in beside Johnny in the camper on the morning of June 27, and the pair started out on the short drive to the Sespe Creek entrance of the Los Padres National Forest watershed. The forest is one of the many natural wonders of California and one reason why Cash was drawn to Casitas Springs. Covering nearly 1.8 million acres, it stretched from the breathtaking Big Sur coastline to mountain ranges to the south and was home to many protected species, including the California condor.
Getting into the passenger seat was Damon’s first regret of the day. Cash was a terrible driver under the best of circumstances — and it was clear from his dazed look that he had already been into the amphetamines he favored. The resulting series of starts and stops made the camper feel like something from a slapstick comedy.
As Damon crashed against the door while the camper careened along the rugged dirt road, his patience was also taking a beating. Watching Cash take a swig of whiskey and down a few more pills, Damon couldn’t hold his tongue any longer.
“Why do you take those things?”
“I like to control my moods and they help me do that,” Cash replied unapologetically.
“Well, you’re an idiot.”
Cash just scooped up more pills from an old fruit jar as the camper bounced along the dirt trail.
Damon was so upset he didn’t want to sit near Cash as he stopped near a promising fishing spot. “I’m going to fish over there. I don’t want anything to do with you,” he told Cash, who replied, “That’s fine. I don’t want to be by you, either.” Damon headed to a secluded stretch of water.
His tranquillity was broken by a strong smell in the usually pure Los Padres air. It was smoke, and it was coming from the direction of the camper. He rushed back to find Cash on his knees in front of the truck, fanning a fast-spreading blaze. There was a spent package of matches by his side. Damon figured his uncle had started the fire to keep warm and in his drugged state had let it get out of control.
As flames swept through the nearby brush, he realized they needed to get out fast. He called for Cash to come along, but the belligerent singer said he wasn’t going anywhere. Damon tried to grab his uncle, but Cash resisted, and he was too strong to budge. In a panic, as the fire surrounded them, Damon grabbed a thick tree branch and swung at Cash’s head as hard as he could. The blow brought Cash to his knees, but it didn’t knock him out as Damon had hoped. Cash got up and stumbled over to the shallow creek, where he sat down, thinking he’d be safe.
Damon raced for help, warning other campers along the trail and eventually hooking up with a fire helicopter crew. His heart was racing until the helicopter landed and he saw his uncle was still alive in the creek. This time he had no trouble persuading him to vacate the area. The pills and whiskey had begun to wear off, and the water was cold.
Watching Cash get into the helicopter, Damon knew he’d helped save his uncle’s life. He was crushed a few days later to hear that Cash told his mother, that Damon had left him in the forest to die.
Cash was equally disingenuous when asked by forestry officials investigating the cause of the 508-acre burn how the fire got started. He blamed it on sparks from a defective exhaust system on his camper. When a judge later questioned Cash, he was equally defiant: “I didn’t do it, my truck did and it’s dead, so you can’t question it.” Asked during a deposition about the loss of 49 of the region’s 53 condors in the blaze, he didn’t make any friends when he snapped, “I don’t care about your damn yellow buzzards.”
Columbia Records canceled plans for a live recording at the Kansas State Reformatory — which, in retrospect, was a stroke of good luck. Cash was in such bad shape physically and emotionally that the prison album would probably have been a disaster, ending any chance that there would ever have been a Folsom Prison album.
Touring resumed in mid-July and continued into the fall, breaking only for a couple of recording sessions until a fateful Texas swing that ended in Dallas in October. Things had improved enough that bass player Marshall Grant, who normally handled tour receipts, wasn’t on guard when Cash volunteered to take the receipts with him and deposit them in the group’s joint bank account.
After the Dallas show, Cash flew to El Paso, one of his favorite drug supply points, where he asked a cab driver to take him to Juárez and get him some pills. The driver assured him that it would be no problem, so Cash waited — feeling like an outlaw, he said — as the driver went into a Juárez bar to buy the drugs. “I slid down a little lower in the back seat each time someone looked my way,” he wrote in “Man in Black,” his 1975 autobiography. “I had never done it this way before.”
Back at his hotel, Cash popped a few pills and killed time before the evening flight to Los Angeles by searching for antique guns in some pawnshops. He was looking at a Colt .44 Army pistol, long one of his favorites, when he was approached by a man he suspected was a plainclothes policeman. Cash assumed he was curious about the gun in his hand.
“I collect antique pistols,” Cash volunteered.
“It’s a nice one,” the man replied, in what Cash described as a friendly manner.
After some more small talk, the man asked Cash what time his plane was leaving, and Cash told him.
On the way back to the hotel, he started worrying even though he had hidden all his pills in two socks, one of which he’d put inside his guitar and one in the lining of his suitcase.
By the time Cash got to his seat on the plane, he figured he was home free. Then he saw two men walking down the aisle toward him. One was the man from the pawnshop.
The man asked Cash if he had a gun, and when he nodded that he did, he was ordered off the plane. In an empty room in the terminal, the men went through his luggage and guitar case. They found the pills, but they still didn’t seem satisfied.
Finally, one asked, “Where’s the heroin?”
Cash became angry. He told them he had never taken heroin. The men explained they had assumed he was into heroin because they had seen the cab driver huddling with a known heroin dealer in the Juárez bar.
Cash was relieved, but the officers pointed out that he had still broken the law. He was taken to the county jail until a bond hearing the next day.
When Grant learned of the arrest, he hired a former El Paso County judge, Woodrow Wilson Bean, to represent Cash. Hoping to minimize publicity, Bean — whom Cash proudly pointed out was believed to be a distant relative of the legendary Judge Roy Bean — asked that newsmen be barred from the hearing, but the request was rejected.
Cash was on edge during the hearing. He cursed at a reporter and threatened to kick a photographer’s camera. In the end, he posted a $1,500 bond and was released pending arraignment.
As he headed home, Cash felt as if a mask had been ripped off, leaving him looking like a hypocrite for singing all those gospel songs and telling people they could overcome their problems. He’d been in minor scrapes with the law before, but until now, knowledge of his drug use had been limited to country music insiders. Now his fans knew the truth. Hundreds of newspapers across the country carried a photo of him being escorted out of the courthouse in handcuffs, his face grim, looking all the more sinister behind dark glasses.
This time, at least, Vivian’s wait wasn’t in vain. Cash went straight home and was contrite. Humiliated and fearing the effect of the arrest on his career, he reached out to both his wife and his parents, talking more openly than before about his addiction and vowing to turn himself around. After years of disappointment, Vivian wanted to take his pledge to straighten up as a sign that he also was going to give up June Carter and rededicate himself to his family. But it was too late.
Vivian angrily showed him the newspaper photo of him in handcuffs and his daughters told him that kids were saying bad things about him in school. For the first time in his life, he said, “I felt real shame.”
Meanwhile, Holiff was working tirelessly to persuade promoters not to give up on Cash. Most did continue to book him, but there was one highly publicized exception. Officials at Texas A&M University canceled plans for a show. “The administration didn’t feel it was wise to present an entertainer with a cloud hanging over him,” said the dean of students. “We try to provide a clean, Christian atmosphere for our students.”
But some students came to Cash’s rescue. Not only did more than 2,000 sign petitions protesting the cancellation, but a student committee worked out a deal for Cash to perform on the scheduled date at a nearby off-campus club.
When Cash returned to El Paso for the arraignment in December, he entered a no-contest plea to the charges. The next day, newspapers throughout the country carried photos of Cash walking from the courthouse, Vivian at his side. But there was no hiding the damage. Vivian told friends it was the most embarrassing moment of her life.
Leaders of the National States’ Rights Party, a white supremacist group in Alabama, seized on the photo, which, when reproduced in grainy newsprint, made Vivian look dark-skinned and possessed of facial features some considered African American. Whether outraged by the apparent miscegenation or eager to get back at him for his protest stance in the song “Ira Hayes” (Native Americans were also a target of white supremacists), the group reprinted the photo in its newspaper the Thunderbolt and undertook an aggressive campaign against Cash.
The group urged its readers to boycott Cash’s recordings and referred to Cash’s “mongrelized” children.
Fearing a backlash among fans, especially those in the South, Holiff launched a counteroffensive. He contacted Vivian’s father, Tom Liberto, asking for a copy of Vivian’s marriage certificate —which would state her race as Caucasian — and a history of her bloodlines. Liberto sent him the marriage certificate and a letter in which he detailed Vivian’s Italian, Dutch and English heritage. The material was sent to the Thunderbolt.
During this period Cash received a few death threats, and a handful of protesters showed up at some dates in the South, but there was no sign that record sales or concert attendance were suffering.
In March 1966 Cash appeared before U.S. District Judge D. W. Suttle, who gave him a 30-day suspended sentence and a $1,000 fine rather than the maximum penalty of a year in jail. Cash had pleaded for leniency: “I know that I have made a terrible mistake and would like to go back to rebuilding the image I had before this happened.”
For all his talk about wanting a divorce, Cash was torn inside. Chief among his concerns was the children.
“I knew I was going to leave Vivian, but then I’d look at those four little girls,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Man, I’m gonna give up something that’s gonna break my heart, but my heart will be broken more if I don’t marry June.’ When I was in California, my big reason for staying stoned all the time was her. I wanted to be somewhere else in my mind.”
Both married to others, Cash and Carter had a far more stormy relationship in the 1960s than his fans assumed. But they were bound by several factors. Besides a physical attraction, they shared a religious faith and the love of making music. The outgoing June also helped the shy, withdrawn Cash deal with the constant career demands.
With the marriage dissolving, however, Cash’s California dream was over. He moved on his own to Nashville, where he continued to battle drugs.
Within days of the arraignment, he was back on pills. Overdoses and near overdoses were so common that everyone in the touring party cited various times and places: Johnny Western mentioned Waterloo, June Carter named Des Moines, Grant alluded to a string of towns. In addition, there were the near-fatal drug-induced accidents, including the time Cash borrowed June’s Cadillac and crashed it into a telephone pole, breaking his nose and knocking out four upper front teeth.
To break the tension, Luther Perkins came up with a piece of advice people in Cash’s camp would repeat for years: “Let him sleep for 24 hours. If he wakes up, he’s alive, if he doesn’t, he’s dead.”
Two years later, in a different part of California, Cash would begin his march to superstardom with a triumphant concert at Folsom State Prison. By 1970, he was the biggest-selling record artist in the country. But he was fighting drugs again in the late 1970s and 1980s, and his sales sank so sharply that he was dropped by Columbia. At the start of the 1990s, Cash believed his record career was over and his musical legacy wasted.
But California was to again play a major part in his life. Cash was headlining the now-defunct Rhythm Café in Santa Ana on Feb. 27, 1993 — the day after his 61st birthday — when he was approached by Rick Rubin, a hugely successful rock and rap producer who felt Cash was still capable of great work. Three months later, they sat down in Rubin’s home above the Sunset Strip and began work on a series of albums that would contain some of the most remarkable music of Cash’s career. He would return to Los Angeles several times over the next decade to work with Rubin. The albums not only reestablished Cash’s musical legacy, but extended it.
Their collaboration was highlighted in 2002 by the music video of “Hurt,” directed by Mark Romanek, that offered a glimpse of the artist in such fragile condition that even June advised him not to release it. But Cash approved the release of the video, a final act of immense artistic courage.
This article is adapted from “Johnny Cash — The Life,” being published this month by Little, Brown. Hilburn was The Times pop music critic from 1970-2005.
[h/t: LA Times]