Ten years after his death, the Johnny Cash legend still looms large: from Sun Records and Folsom Prison to Rick Rubin, from “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire” to “A Boy Named Sue,” from his own autobiographies (Man in Black and Cash) to the Hollywood version of his life, starring Joaquin Phoenix. Fans of the Man in Black’s powerful tales of sin and redemption, succinctly captured in the three discs of a 2000 box set (Love, God, Murder), likely know much of the singer’s story, from the tragic loss of his older brother, Jack, to Cash’s epic struggle with amphetamine addiction and his late-life resurgence after an extended period wandering in the creative wilderness.
But when the former Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn first spoke with Cash’s longtime manager, Lou Robin, about writing a comprehensive biography about this quintessential American figure, Robin told him that 80 percent of Cash’s story had yet to be told. Johnny Cash: The Life, published this week, covers Cash’s monumental highs and bottomless lows in unprecedented detail. Think you know Johnny Cash? The book is stuffed with warts-and-all revelations that might surprise you, and will certainly boost the singer’s profile as a man of many contradictions.
1. He empathized with a monster.
As a boy, Cash was fascinated by the original Frankenstein movie. For him, the monster was a sympathetic character, someone “made up of bad parts but trying to do good.”
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2. He had to overcome his bigotry.
Cash gave his friend Carl Perkins the idea for the rock & roll classic “Blue Suede Shoes” based on the flashy wardrobe of an African-American Air Force colleague stationed in Germany. Cash, well known for his advocacy on behalf of minorities (especially Native Americans), was involved in an ugly name-calling incident over a black soldier walking with a white woman. Later, he blamed the incident on the bigotry of rural Arkansas, where he was raised, and told a friend, “I never, ever disliked blacks.”
3. He was goofy.
He and his first wife, Vivian, named their first daughter, Rosanne, after Cash’s nicknames for Vivian’s boobs: Rose and Anne.
4. He was sneaky.
Cash’s first Number One hit, “I Walk the Line,” widely interpreted as an oath of loyalty to his young bride, had a double meaning for him: he also thought of it as a sneaky way to put a little God into his music, after Sun’s Sam Phillips told him he wasn’t interested in recording any spiritual songs.
5. He was practical.
Though Cash wrote the signature song “Man in Black” to explain the social conscience behind his wardrobe choices – “just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back” – in fact he took to black simply because it was easier to keep clean on long tours. Early in his career, fellow acts teased him about it, calling him the “Undertaker.”
6. His storybook marriage to June wasn’t always so.
Though Cash’s marriage to June Carter was cast in later years as one for the ages, when they began their affair (while Cash was still married to Vivian), some friends saw June as a manipulator: “an early country equivalent of Yoko Ono in John Lennon’s world,” as Hilburn writes.
7. He bent the truth.
For years Cash claimed that he quit taking pills after crawling deep into a cave on the Tennessee River and lying down to die. Claiming God’s intervention, he found his way back out, where June and Cash’s mother were waiting for him with a basket of food, whereupon he swore off the pills. But Hilburn notes that the cave would have been underwater on the day Cash often cited . . . and that the singer still used drugs afterward.
8. He was tempted to start a riot.
At Cash’s second major prison concert, at San Quentin in 1969, he debuted two versions of a new song named after the jail. The bitter lyrics, written from the point of view of the inmates (“San Quentin, I hate every inch of you”) nearly sparked an insurrection, and Cash was tempted: “He realized that all he had to say was, ‘Let’s go!’ and there would have been a full-scale riot,” says producer Bob Johnston.
9. He wasn’t there when Kris Kristofferson landed a helicopter on his property.
Another famous piece of Cash lore has the budding songwriter Kris Kristofferson landing a helicopter on Cash’s property while holding a beer, and handing the startled singer a demo of the song “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.'” But Kristofferson confirms that he didn’t have a beer in hand, the song wasn’t “Sunday Mornin’,” and Cash never came out of the house to greet him.
10. He thought no one cared.
Before he started working with Rick Rubin on the stark American albums that would resurrect his career beginning in the Nineties, Cash was so despondent that he thought no one would care about any of his music when he died. “Rick made me think I might have a legacy after all,” he told Hilburn.