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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

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.

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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.

MORE HILBURN: In-depth interview with Bob Dylan

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.

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