Photo by Don Hunstein
Quite rightly, renegade country-music genius Johnny Cash has received postmortem eulogies to the saturation point. Yet so much remains unsaid.
While Cash’s stunning Sun Records output stands nearly unrivaled, his most adventurous artistic bloom coincided with his move from Memphis to Los Angeles in early 1959. First living in a rented home on Coldwater Canyon Avenue, then buying a house from Johnny Carson in Encino, he enjoyed more freedom than he’d ever been afforded; at Sun, Sam Philips hadn’t even let him cut gospel (the very first thing Cash did at his new label, Columbia), and during his five years in Southern California he attained a series of highly unorthodox musical peaks, even as he belly-flopped through a course of doped-up fiascos on the road.
The liberated atmosphere created by Cash’s departure from Tennessee bore fruit: the sweeping high-concept narrative-and-music albums Ride This Train and Ballads of the True West; the smoldering protest of 1960’s “Old Apache Squaw” on Songs of Our Soil (which Columbia was loath to release); and Bitter Tears, his definitive examination of the injustice suffered by Native Americans. Much of the inspiration sprang from a hell-raising collaboration with Kentucky fingerpicker Merle Travis, another longtime Hollywood habitué. Beyond music, the pair worked together in an offbeat hillbilly-noir-exploitation flick, Five Minutes To Live (a.k.a. Door-to-Door Maniac), each giving an intense performance — Cash as the menacing hostage taker, Travis the unctuous underworld toady. Even the title song was a gasser, and Cash rarely sounded as badass as when he growled, “Come on, babe, let’s get primitive/You’ve got five minutes to live.”
By 1965, those five minutes seemed a fair prognosis for the chemically ravaged Cash himself, and it was second wife June Carter alone who brought the singer back to Tennessee and kept him breathing for the next four decades. Theirs was a complicated relationship. Carter alternated between roles as pill-flushing avenger and evangelically passionate lover. Cash took her medicine, but also kept her humble through an unusual periodic ritual after she’d indulged in one too many buying sprees: He would stuff a car’s trunk with Junie’s recently acquired finery, load her into the front seat, drive into Nashville and conduct a cut-rate curbside rummage sale of the goods.
The May death of Carter in Nashville may have been a far greater tragedy than reported: Cash’s brother Tommy felt that the fatal “complications” following a scheduled heart surgery were preventable. Carter’s demise started a vulture-summoning countdown for Cash; it’s a wonder he hung on as long as he did. One can only hope that his restless, troubled spirit has finally found a semblance of peace.