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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

MORE HILBURN: An early profile of rapper Eminem

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.

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