As a way of remembering him on what would have been his 80th birthday, we present this exceptional 1971 portrait of the great Johnny Cash by acclaimed Beatles/Rolling Stones biographer Philip Norman——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
The heavy carved front door into House of Cash, Johnny Cash's state mansion, in Madison, Tennessee, swung inward to reveal blinding sunshine and the awe-struck face of a tourist. His eyes grew wider still as he surveyed the sumptuous foyer, its heavy brocades, its gilded Tennessean Louis XIV furniture, its massively-framed photographs of Johnny Cash, his wife June Carter, his new baby son and his celebrated folk-singing mother-in-law. Not until this point did the tourist descry Cash himself, on an unexpected visit, lounging in a high-backed armchair.
"Well — good gosh. I'm all excited!" the tourist said with a gasp.
Cash seldom laughs. His life beats in an unease of his large muscles, in shifting feet, a collar turned up against the draught; nerves more conspicuous since he keeps no flatterers and sycophants to shield him. But laughing, suddenly he relaxes. The serious battlements of his face dissolve. His teeth glow brightly and small. Like now — he chuckled, grasped the corners of the chair above him and repeated:
"'Good gosh, I'm all excited'. That's a great line."
Thus encouraged, the tourist returned with 60 others, followed by 60 more. They were the contents of two excursion buses from Nashville here only to worship, as they had thought, the gravel of the drive. Sandals muffled in the carpet, with their strange, merciless reticence they all swooped at Cash. He rose from the chair, his face anxious, shoulders in a fidget, and walked straight towards them.
"Hi folks, glad to see you," he said, "You all havin' fun?"
"Hell-o," a woman gasped, "How are you?"
"I'm fine, thanks," Cash said, "Hi folks — "
They passed him endlessly and shook hands: old men and matrons, young men, boys with sandpaper heads. Speechless with love, and the fear of being charged a supplement for it, nevertheless few of them could look up into his face. "And I'll put my arm around some of 'em to say 'Glad to see you' ...they'll be tremblin' all over," Cash says, "Like they had St Vitus' Dance there."
For he is all that they desire for themselves; all strong, outdoor things. Country music is the palliative of imprisoned city whites and Cash is king of Country, embodying the most of its supposed virtues. In the monolithic simplicity of his singing, freedom seems conjoined with absolute dignity — they see him moving over trackless land into the sky, but always in tailored black, well-shod. Few such heroes remain to them now that the Wild West has been turned by their enemies into pornography.
His estate is 15 miles from Nashville, and far from the spirit of it. There is a house on Old Hickory Lake; an office across the highway like nothing so much as an English rectory made of some washable substance. Since it is part of their dream of him that Cash should often be absent — air travel being, after all, only a modified form of riding the boxcars — the biggest shock his worshippers normally receive is in the decoration. Cash and June Carter his wife are fond of oyster shades and carved German dressers, not the plated horrors and wild beast horns to be seen in other Country stars" homes. On the mind of the Nashville tourist, the effect of this sudden taste has yet to be measured.
June's office is displayed across a red cord like the drawing-room of a queen. She is in fact Country and Western royalty; a daughter of the Carter Family. With the tubercular Jimmie Rodgers, the Carters all but founded the music 40 years ago, when Cash's father was still trying to scratch a life from the hard lands of Arkansas.
She met Cash in the 1950s, just as Country music was turning into Rock and Roll. He had been signed to the famous Sun record label and was on tour with the other Sun acquisition Elvis Presley. "Elvis had been raving about what a great singer Johnny Cash was," June says. She and Cash were both married previously. "My little daughter used to love 'Folsom Prison Blues' and I'd rock her to sleep, dancing to it with her in my arms. But the first time I saw him I thought: 'Why, maybe some of the other guitarists would go out on the stage and help him.' There was just John all alone, and Luther Perkins's guitar going 'boom chuggachugga boom'."
She joins him at the microphone now; against his towering black, an innocence of Southern lace. It is marriage to her which, Cash says and intimates with every movement in their duet, has been the proper adjusting of his soul. "I was evil," he says solemnly, "I really was." Certainly he was wayward; sometimes compromising his early career. June is quick to point out, however, that he was never a monster; that she did not, by a womanly miracle, reclaim him; he simply, at a certain point, pulled himself together. But the white races love nothing better in their heroes than penitence. Even as he sings Gospel, they love to think of him, as well, when he was bad.
Yet his life has really been no more lurid than any self-made American millionaire's. As a boy he picked cotton until too tired to speak, let alone sing 'Cottonfields'. He spent, as in the song, horrible nights in Detroit city where he worked as a punch-press operator in an automobile plant. He has been in jail, but not for the long sentence to which his prison shows have been attributed; it was more like one night. The scar on his face was made by a cyst. Some years ago one of his many imitators offered money to be hit with a signet ring in hopes of reproducing the disfigurement.
And also he was once a door-to-door salesman; a difficult notion for those of us who think of him moving only with the four winds. "I used to worry about people puttin' themselves into debt. I'd say, 'You don't want any of this, do you?' They'd say, 'Hold on there, what are you selling?'" As for his Service career, it left no mark on him more serious than the ability, to this day, to read Morse code at the rate of 60 words per minute.
His face will also relax while imparting or receiving knowledge. He has discovered that he lives on land once occupied by an Indian tribe called the Stone Box, who happened to hit on the secret of internal plumbing. He seems — almost biologically — incapable of guile; but it is the way of the world for the plainest liberal statement to be received with contempt by all liberals. Together with the odium conferred on anyone with a successful television show, Cash has been attacked for most of his interests — his concern for prisoners, for Indians, and now his singing of religious music, despite the fact that no one ever thought to question the sincerity of Jazz Gospellers.
His passion is gardening. To indulge it when at home he has to get up at six if he wants to escape the eyes of tourist boats scouting the lake. "I raise beans, peas, okra, cabbage, squash. I got an orchard with Jonathan and Bartlett pears, Winesip apples, and I'll have Chinese chestnuts and paper-shell pecans." Part of the garden is the site of Roy Orbison's house which burned down and killed his two little boys. Cash promised him, when he took over the property, that something good would at least come out of the ground. One can somehow see him promising that to Orbison, who always looked desperate and pale even when happy.
"We own a mansion," Cash admits, "but that's home; we're dug into it. I got some woods over there, maybe 80 acres of woods. In the middle there's just a two-room shack. I'll go over there and sit around — read a lot. I read novels but I also read the Bible. And study it, you know? And the more I learn, the more excited I get. Some of those stories are as wild as any H.G. Wells could drum up. And that Jesus! He really cuts me up! I worship him, but he tickles me to death."
Even in his troubled years, the time of records such as 'Big River', when Cash was by his own admission alternately flying and falling on pep pills, he went through the works of Joyce and Dylan Thomas. "We got books all through the house but most of 'em I got rat-holed in my study. I been reading the writings of Josephus, the histories of the Jewish peoples. Other night I was reading the works of Ecclesiasticus. I got my books all ready to take to England — Winston S. Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples volumes one through four. I'm really looking forward to going to England so's I can get back to Foyle's."
When those busloads crept speechlessly into his presence from Nashville, an English tour had just been announced and sold out in 24 hours. So it is everywhere. The following day the Cash company flew to Toronto to appear at the Canadian National Exhibition; their route lying roughly parallel with the hurricane then brushing with angry skirts at the edges of the Americas. As the long official Cadillacs moved towards the visor of the grandstand, the skies were already dark as a madman's painting, pricked by the turning lights of the Ferris wheels.
June Carter is beautiful in a wide-lipped way with hair like a girl's and a voice full of honey and nuts. It is part of the South's domestic art that she can make almost homely their constant passage through the rich hotels and draughty Blue Rooms of the world. Her mother, Maybelle, of the original Carter Family, appears with her, and the two daughters who make up the present Family, and Carl Perkins, doyen of Rock and Roll guitarists, who smells pleasantly of antiseptic lozenges. The retinue has also been increased in the person of a baby son John Carter; an exceeding gratification to his father's respect for learning of any sort.
"He sure knows some difficult words. 'Chandelier'—"
"And 'platypus'," said June.
" — and 'Daddy come here right now'."
Cash's friends are younger than himself. There is Bob Dylan with whom he appeared on Nashville Skyline; a figure often overlooked when the Conservatism of Cash's following is being reckoned. And there is also Kris Kristofferson, who flew in to see him in Toronto. A former Rhodes Scholar, with daemonic eyes and a suit like suede pipes, Kristofferson has written the first songs worthy to be called White Soul music, like 'Me and Bobby McGhee', with rhymes as good as glasses softly touched. Charley Pride came in, too. He is an even more revolutionary figure: a black Country and Western singer.
Both of them owe a lot to Cash. Kristofferson used to receive unnumbered mentions on his television show, many of them without the younger man's knowledge. That debt is now being repaid in the Kristofferson songs Cash sings. As for Charley Pride, Cash virtually talked him into the unusual position he now occupies. "I ran into him one night," Cash says, "when I was roamin' around Chicago. I told him, if that was what he really wanted — if he really felt it...that's all there is to Country music. If people know it comes from the heart, no matter how prejudiced they are, they'll invite you home to a chicken dinner."
He himself does not sing without effort, as his limbering moosebellows demonstrate in the wings beforehand. The very production of his voice is heroic. Arising from walls and bands of muscle, it passes nowhere near the cells of artifice; it cannot change — that is why they love it — and cannot lie. He performs in an empty stage, with only the guitar-bass beating as metronome, because the voice is deeper than any darkness which encircles it. But, as with all feats of strength, it is a precious part of every performance that the voice might suddenly fail.
By the time he ran out into the spaces of the Toronto stadium, the air was already tropical with menace, struck by flash cameras high and low. His guitar was over his back, as if he had sprinted, to reach them, over rocks. In a moment the rain started. His voice, all around him, said: "I'll stay out here with you if you'll stay out here with me." The stadium did not move, and the rain passed through the spotlights like coloured silk and coloured rope; the wind lashed the curtains of the stage overhead to bursting and twisting white flags. His head was flattened by rain, his sleeves weighted by it. His voice continued the same, all around him.
Afterwards he and June raced madly for their car along a tarpaulin path like Flanders mud. As the black door sealed them dry, still there were people with little cameras, breakable in the rain, pleading, "One more Johnny, one more Johnny — please Johnny..."
His head coddled by a towel, suddenly Cash grinned, stretched his arms and said, "I almost lost 'em back there. For the minute I couldn't remember any song I'd recorded. Then I grabbed 'em again. I wouldn't let Kristofferson see me flop."
June had wanted to join him out on the promontory of the stage but was restrained because of the electrical danger.
"I been laid out," Cash remarked. "Flat on my back in Baltimore."
"I was knocked out too, Baby," June told him. "When the Carter Family played concession stands at State fairs. I been knocked flatter'n a fittercake. And heat. We played 110 degrees in Kentucky. That heat bakes your brain."
"Oh, Mother!" her daughter Rosie protested.
Cash looked impish.
"Ain't you ever had baked brains to eat, Rosie?"
They sat at dinner now, in dry black against the scarlet banquette, holding hands. They looked like a pair of benevolent, resting Borgias.
"Oh but I love that rain," Cash said solemnly. "You know: back in that shack. It came on to rain. I stripped down to my shorts and just lay on the rock and let it come down on me like bricks."
"Better'n flying through the woods," June remarked.
He gave a shrug and a giggle.
"I used to get high and think I was an Indian flyin' through the woods. Till I woke up beside the lake with no shoes on and my foot in a stumphole there.
"I had a book when I was a boy: it was called Long Bull's Mistake. It was about an Indian brave, Long Bull, who stampeded the buffalo herd, and the whole tribe starved that winter and they hung Long Bull up by the thumbs. I read that book through so many times; I'd think 'only 12 more pages till he stampedes the Buffalo'.
"The other braves in the tribe, they told him, 'If you see the buffalo herd, don't do anything, just come right back here and tell us.' But he made all the mistakes he could have, crawling out there single-handed, wounding one buffalo, scaring the others off."
He chuckled as he occasionally does.
"Guess I might once have dreamed I was Long Bull."
© Philip Norman, 1971
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