“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
For a man who introduced himself so many times, I expected to know him better. Robert Hilburn’s deep dive into “The Life” of my biggest hero left me reeling with an unwelcome enlightenment. I’d heard the beloved Man in Black was, at the very least, a terrible driver but that’s the least of it.
|Author Robert Hilburn and the cover of, "Johnny Cash: The Life." (Christopher Morris; Little, Brown and Company)|
That the book - all 638 pages of it - landed mysteriously on my doorstep sans note or sender ID seemed fitting. I knew the book contained unsavory details and looked forward to the experience like a dog facing a bath. Eventually, the surprise gift was traced to my old buddy, Pete, my musical mentor since 1991. “I can’t believe you even had to ask!” he huffed.
If you haven’t read the book and plan to, please don’t read any further - there will likely be spoilers and I mean that in the truest sense.
Johnny Cash was, for myself and millions, a man of truth, integrity and love. Fiercely independent, he cut his own path in the American music world where country, folk, rock, blues and gospel each took turns, claiming him as their own. Throughout his wildly prolific career (roughly 1954-2003), Johnny Cash issued 96 albums, toured the world constantly, performing for millions, and collected numerous awards, including seven Grammys and the National Medal of Arts.
A dedicated student of the Bible, Cash’s spiritual life was carefully cultivated and celebrated in song; he was a devout Christian who took great joy in discussing gospel. Johnny Cash was also a family man, father to five children and a loving husband to his wife, June Carter. He saw the good in people and often spoke out up the silent – the Native Americans, the drug addicts and, of course, prison inmates. Cash was dearly loved and revered by millions and to this day, remains a beloved American icon.
He was also kind of an asshole.
It pains me to type this but the evidence is overwhelming. Knowing now in great detail the MANY times he disappointed and hurt those he loved, I can only come to this thorny conclusion. Certainly, much of his bad behavior and thoughtless transgressions could be traced directly to his pill problem, which consumed his life like a ravenous wildfire.
And speaking of fire, there was that time (June 1965) when Cash – high as a kite - carelessly burned 508 acres of the Los Padres National Forest, driving off 49 endangered California condors from their refuge. “I don’t care about your damn yellow buzzards,” he snarled in court. The government sued him and he eventually had to pay $82,000.
Later, his mother, Carrie, asked about the incident, and Cash blamed his nephew, Damon, for leaving him to die. In reality, Damon not only saved Cash’s life but was forced to hit him with a tree branch to do so, raving maniac that he was. Years later, Cash sent a limo for Damon to see him in concert. Damon sent the chauffeur back with a message for his famous uncle: “FUCK YOU.”
John R. Cash was imperfect and nobody knew this more than the man himself. The speed triggered so many awful scenarios but the twin-headed monster was his immense grief over his brother Jack’s death and the crushing weight of being Johnny Cash whom the world looked up to and admired.
I do not blame Mr. Hilburn for delivering these revelations. As a longtime reader of the Los Angeles Times, his work is both familiar and widely respected. That he worked so closely with the Cash family and received their blessing to write a warts-and-all final word on the Man in Black reveals that this was not a mission he took lightly. His exhaustive interest in Cash obviously drove him toward the truth, as the Man himself would have it.
These terrible insights also come to me just as key male figures in my own life have fallen from pedestals. It is confounding and painful, one of those bitter-tasting adulthood realities. Historical facts have come to light, new behaviors developed and an overall awareness that my youthful perceptions must be updated whether I like it or not.
As with so many hard realities, I’ve arrived late to their obviousness. Hold on, people we look up to sometimes let us down? Get outta here! Emotionally, I’ve always been a bit of a late bloomer.
(This means, of course, that I too must come up short in the eyes of others. What? No! YES. Love is knowing someone and loving them anyway - a policy I would certainly like employed in my direction, please.)
And so, such facts, as they are, have no affect on my admiration for Cash. I checked with my heart and all that gooey love is still there, levels normal. In fact, this one-sided feeling of ‘closeness' has only intensified. Though I've already thought of him as my favorite uncle for years, occasionally forgetting his was famous, this icon is quite real to me now - less legend, more man. Not a bad position.
Truth, is, vice-less people give me the heebies. Food, sex, drugs, shopping, booze or adrenalin – everybody turns to something, healthy or not. It was society’s supreme stroke of luck that Cash turned his darkness inside out in moving songs for the world to embrace. For this son of Arkansas, it was always the music that saved him, along with God and love, and it's his music that continues to save us in return.