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Johnny Cash's dark California days

A new biography by Robert Hilburn peers deeply into Johnny's downward spiral, and ultimate redemption

October 12, 2013|By Robert Hilburn
  • Johnny Cash moved his family to California in 1958 hoping to break into the movies. At their Encino home are Kathy, from left, wife Vivian, Rosanne and Cindy.
Johnny Cash moved his family to California in 1958 hoping to break into the… (Sony Music Entertainment )

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.

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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.

Hoping for a new start away from the glare of Hollywood, Cash moved his family to the relatively isolated village of Casitas Springs in Ventura County in 1961 — but things only got worse.

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.

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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.

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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.

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