YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections
(Page 2 of 5)

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

"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.

PHOTOS: Notable deaths of 2013

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.

PHOTOS: Celebrities by The Times

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.

HEAR NOW: Rick Rubin classics celebrated by Trackstar the DJ

Los Angeles Times Articles