Published On: Wed, Mar 8th, 2017

The Demons of Johnny Cash – Eye Witness

In the first of a new series where eye witnesses tell the real story, the man in black is arrested for possession…


Johnny Cash


“I’d talk to the demons and they’d talk back to me – and I could hear them” – Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash’s career took off in 1956 when I Walk The Line became his first No. 1 single.

By the end of that decade, he had sold more than six million records, but he had also become a serious pill-popper and hard drinker along the way.

Come the late summer of 1961 he and his first wife, Vivian Liberto, with their four daughters, Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy and Tara, moved from Encino in LA’s San Fernando Valley, to a hillside home above Nye Road, Casitas Springs, along California State Route 33.

Vivian hoped this move would curb his growing issues with alcohol and drugs, as well as a blossoming romance with his touring partner June Carter. Instead, things rapidly got worse.

Johnny Cash: I still don’t know why I ever moved to California. I had worked there quite a bit and thought I’d love living there. But I didn’t really belong there. I got into the habit of amphetamines. I took them for seven years. I just liked the feel of them. It lifts you and, under certain conditions, it intensifies all your senses.

You took more pills to cover up the guilt feelings. I got to playing one against the other, the uppers against the downers, and it got to be a vicious, vicious circle. And they got to pulling me down.

Kathy Cash (daughter): [Mom] loved his career and was proud of him until he started taking drugs and stopped coming home.

Johnny Cash: My first marriage was in trouble when I lived in California, and I have to take blame for that – because no woman can live with a man who’s strung out on amphetamines.

Roseanne Cash: In my pre-teen years, my father’s drug addiction was really consuming him and my parents’ marriage. I knew there was something wrong but I didn’t know what it was; there was just this background tension and anxiety to all of those years.

Johnny Western (rhythm guitarist with Johnny Cash): As the pills took over, it became a nightmare. Many times, he shouldn’t have been on the stage at all. I would go on and say: “Folks, this gentleman really belongs in a hospital, but he wanted to come out and give you what he could because you’ve paid your hard-earned money to see him, so he’s gonna do his best.”

Sometimes, he was so hoarse from those pills that he was just croaking: he didn’t even sound like Johnny Cash. But the people loved him so much that they gave him standing ovations anyway.

Vivian Liberto: All of the things that Johnny had called ‘filthy and dirty’, and had insisted would destroy our lives, were things he began to embrace.

Johnny Cash: I’d talk to the demons and they’d talk back to me – and I could hear them. I mean they’d say, ‘Go on, John, take 20 more milligrams of Dexedrine, you’ll be alright.’

Cindy Cash (daughter): Mom [was] always seeming worried and staying up late, but she never let us see her pain. Pills kind of led dad into a very destructive period in his life, and mom, unfortunately, paid the price.

Vivian Liberto: For me, it was darker, deeper… It was violence.

Saul Holiff (Johnny Cash’s manager, 1960 to 1973): There was one occasion in Edmonton, Alberta, when Cash had taken too many pills and wouldn’t go to the auditorium.

Johnny Cash: I got to where I had chronic laryngitis, because I kept myself so dried out. And my voice would go and stay gone.

Saul Holiff: He threw a beautiful Martin guitar at me. It missed me, but smashed the guitar. We had to cancel an entire tour of the Northwest because of that no-show.

Gordon Terry (fiddler and guitarist who worked with Cash): Johnny would pull change out of his pockets in an airport and spill pills all over the floor.

Roseanne Cash: It got to where it was like somebody else was coming home, not my daddy. 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.

On 2 October, 1965, a tour featuring Johnny Cash and June Carter comes to an end with a private function in Dallas, Texas. Afterwards, Cash flies to El Paso, where he asks a cab driver to take him over the border to Juárez to buy some pills. Cash waits in the cab as the driver goes into a Juárez bar to buy the drugs.

Johnny Cash: I slid down a little lower in the back seat each time someone looked my way. I had never done it this way before. I had several beers… I guess I was so tired, I lost my faculties.

The following day, Cash is arrested by narcotics agents at El Paso International Airport, while waiting to take off for Los Angeles. The officers suspect him of smuggling heroin from Mexico, but find instead 688 Dexedrine capsules and 475 Equanil tablets hidden inside a guitar case. Cash is jailed overnight.

Vivian Liberto: I immediately flew down to be by his side for the court appearance.

On 5 October, 1965, Cash is bailed and immediately leaves for California.

Vivian Liberto: The story and a photo of Johnny and me leaving the court house were published in papers coast-to-coast and worldwide. Everyone in the world saw the photo, including the Ku Klux Klan, who decided, after looking at my picture, “Johnny Cash is married to a negro woman.” Johnny and I received death threats. Cindy Cash: It was on the front page of our local newspaper in Casitas Springs. I remember being terrified that my friends would see it.

Johnny Cash: I don’t pretend to be anything I’m not. I am guilty of as many sins as the average person, but I don’t say that I am guilty of any more than the average person.

On 8 October, 1965, Cash returns to live performing with a show at The Southern Methodist University, Nashville.

Marshall Grant (bassist, The Tennessee Two): He stayed in good shape for about a month and then slowly drifted back into pills. Two weeks after he started again, he was back in, head over heels, worse than ever.

On 28 December, 1965, Cash and Vivian return to El Paso where US District Court Judge D. W. Suttle fines him just over $1,000. The judge actually gave the singer a suspended jail sentence, because at the time, Dexedrine and Equanil were classed as prescription drugs as opposed to being illegal narcotics.

Johnny Cash (statement in court): I would like to ask for leniency from the court. I know that I have made a terrible mistake, and I would like to go back to rebuilding the image I had before this happened.

Kathy Cash: Dad would try so hard to stay positive, to make light of things, to always have a great sense of humour, but he would get into these moods where he just seemed to shut down and didn’t want to talk or really do much of anything except spend time by himself in his office.

Marshall Grant: I loved him to death, but I would want to stomp him into the ground sometimes when he was on the pills. He was such a great man, such a great artist, but they just overpowered him. He could not go without them.

Johnny Cash: Over a period of time, you get to realising that the amphetamines are slowly burning you up… then you get paranoid, you think everybody is out to do you in. You don’t trust anybody – even the ones who love you the most.

Marshall Grant: He loved those little pills. And it never was the hard stuff, the cocaine and all that crap like that, it was those little pills. That was all he wanted.

Johnny Cash: But a lot of good songs and albums came out of those years. I’ve had a lot of people say to me, ‘Do you think you would have written more songs or better songs if you hadn’t been on drugs?’ But I don’t think so. I think I wrote exactly what God meant for me to write.

Vivian filed for divorce from Johnny in summer 1966 on grounds of extreme mental cruelty and her request was granted in late 1967.

Johnny Cash: I don’t carry any guilt about anything, including the hell I might have given people when I was using and abusing. I have no guilt about neglecting my family in those years, because that’s all past. God has forgiven me.

John Carter Cash (son of Johnny Cash): The reality is that the suffering continued and it worsened, if anything, throughout the years

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