A Report on the General Health &
Well-Being of the Multi-Faceted Man in Black
At age 70, Johnny Cash is not afraid of ghosts or whatever awaits him on the “other side.” And after surviving deadly battles with a mystery illness and his own demons, an extensive slate of reissues, star-studded tribute album and a new recording project prove that this country music legend’s creative spirit is still strong. The story below appears in the current issue (Volume 22.3) of the Journal of Country Music.
April 14, 2002
In the spring of this year there were only two items of pressing concern to Johnny Cash fans: his health and our prospects for more of his music. He addressed both issues by telephone from Los Angeles, where he and producer Rick Rubin were working on a new album.
“I’m doing better,” he said. His speaking voice sounded reasonably strong. “I haven’t been in the hospital now since, um … ” — an ironic chortle — ” … October.
“I had pneumonia about twice since I last saw you [in 1999], and it’s pretty much just devastated my lungs. I’m having a really hard time getting any keeper vocals on my record. But I’ve got a whole week to work on it, and maybe it’ll open up just a little bit. Yeah, pneumonia just about shut my lungs down. I’m doing all right now, though. I’ve been feeling great the last three or four months.”
“What’s your overall diagnosis now? If you don’t have Shy Drager’s Syndrome, what do you have?”
“Well, my doctor says I have autonomic neuropathy. I’m not sure I know exactly what it means, except some of your motors are shut down. Nothing’s shut down yet. I don’t know when it’s supposed to. You can look that up if you want to, ’cause I haven’t yet.”
I looked it up. The MEDLINEplus Web site defines autonomic neuropathy as “a group of symptoms, not a specific disease entity. The causes are multiple. Autonomic neuropathy is associated with alcoholic neuropathy, diabetic neuropathy, Parkinson’s disease and other multiple systems atrophy, disorders involving sclerosis of tissues, surgical or traumatic injury to nerves (such as surgical vagotomy, used to control stomach ulcers and similar disorders), other forms of neuropathy, use of anticholinergic medications, and many other conditions.”
“Well, John, that sounds like medicspeak for ‘We think there’s something wrong with you, but we don’t know what it is.'”
“Exactly. My doctor said the diabetes brought it on. That’s still a strange statement for me. I don’t understand that I’ve got diabetes when my blood sugar is always in a safe range. I take it every day and it’s always right where it’s supposed to be.”
“Hmm. So what did happen to Shy Drager’s Syndrome?”
“She finally admitted it was a misdiagnosis, ’cause if Shy Drager’s Syndrome was what I had, I’d have been dead by then.”
A couple of observations. First, is a suspicion that Cash’s health problems, particularly those with a neurological aspect, might well result from his having taken so many powerful drugs — fun drugs, dependency drugs, life-saving drugs, blood-pressure drugs, painkilling drugs, asthma drugs, sore tummy drugs, hangnail drugs, just about every kind of drugs you can imagine. When I joined him on the road in late ’96 to begin work on Cash, his second autobiography, the bedroom in his bus looked like the lair of an eccentric old pill-bottle salesman unable to part with his past, even though at that particular time he was not, as far as I knew or he said, getting stoned on purpose. He trembled in odd places, his eyelids fluttered, and he was orange. Orange!
Another point is that as he talked about his diagnoses and his doctor, I heard a familiar attitude. He is and always has been complex in his approach to authority, often combining an innate rebelliousness with a passive-aggressive preference for unsatisfactory stasis over decisive action. He is good at stewing, in other words, at being stymied and angry about that. This element — frustrated force, repressed energy — is one of his central dynamics, very significant in the depth of his work and the power of his charisma. Is he aware of it? Probably. Nothing much escapes him, even about himself; his intelligence is fierce.
So, of course, is his life force. The flame of survival burns very high in him. Diseases and calamities rise up to devour him, some new, some old and newly ravenous; he smites them down one after the other, and he forges ahead. His wife June Carter Cash’s favorite reaction to life is “press on, press on.” He does.
When he received his diagnosis of Shy Drager’s Syndrome in 1997, it was in fact a death sentence — surprisingly, his first — and that news was communicated to him quite clearly. But did he really believe it?
“Yes, I did,” he said. “Yep. After the diagnosis and that first bout of pneumonia when I was so low, when it took me six months to walk again, I believed I was going to die. But then, way before my doctor changed her mind, I knew I wasn’t. And anyway, I didn’t really worry about it. I never thought, ‘Oh, man, I gotta get things in order, ’cause I’m dyin’.’ I just was there in agreement that I had Shy Drager’s Syndrome or something bad wrong and that I was going to die. But it never really bothered me, if you can believe that. I just didn’t believe that it was going to be that bad. I understand that with Shy Drager’s Syndrome all kinds of terrible things happen to you. You lose all your ability to take care of yourself. But none of that happened to me.”
“What did you think about the transition from life to death? What did you think was on the other side of the door?”
“I thought it was going to be pretty nice and peaceful on the other side, so I guess maybe that’s why I didn’t worry about it. I knew it was going to be all right when I got over there.”
“Was your Christianity a big factor in that? Did you think of the other side in Christian terms?”
“Yeah, I did. I thought of it in Christian terms — that I would be there with God in eternal bliss. Ecstasy.” Another ironic chortle. “I was kind of disappointed when I realized I wasn’t going to die — you know, more of this pain!
“But my faith held up beautifully. I never questioned God, I never doubted God, I never got angry at God. I can’t understand people saying they got angry at God. I walked with God all the way through all this. That’s why I didn’t fear. I never feared anything. Not at all. I can honestly say that.”
“When you were very close to actually dying, during your bouts of pneumonia, did you have any out-of-body experiences?”
“No, I didn’t. That happened to me in 1988 when I had bypass surgery, but not this time. People talk about that light, that beautiful light. I walked into that light — but that’s when I woke up, and I was angry about it because I didn’t want to wake up. It was too beautiful to leave. It’s not just light, Patrick. It’s the very essence of light. It is the God in light, it is light in God, it is the light of God. It’s too beautiful to explain in earthly terms. I was walking into it and it was beautiful bliss, it was just ecstasy. And then I woke up. I had that life support system down my throat, couldn’t talk. I was in agony, and I was furious. There stood my doctor, and if I could, I’d have punched him out.”
He grunted, and then there was a silence on the line before he came back in a different, colder key. “Are you doing a sick story on me, Patrick? A story about my sickness?”
Various Moments, 1955 to 2002
Cash’s sickness. The beauty in his sickness, the sickness in his beauty. How much he’s made us tolerate, how grandly he’s rewarded us. How he’s always tried so hard to keep the equation in the credit column. A whole life of running with the dogs, then facing them down and living free for a time, then doing it again, then doing it again. There’s been hardly any running from them. And all the way through, those bewildering signals. At various points, in print, I’ve called Cash “the Mount Rushmore of Country Music,” “an Indian in the white man’s camp,” “a wooden Indian in the white man’s camp,” “a hep-cat on a hot tin roof,” “a loving Christian witness” and “a feral junkie dog,” as well as repeating everybody else’s perceptions — Cash as musical revolutionary/staunch traditionalist, diplomat/iconoclast, synthesizer/individualist, bridge builder/train wrecker, reactionary/rebel — and we’ve all been on the money with every clashing perception. Kris Kristofferson expressed it best, of course, in his song “The Pilgrim”:
He’s a poet, an’ he’s a picker
He’s a prophet, an’ he’s a pusher
He’s a pilgrim and a preacher
And a problem when he’s stoned
He’s a walkin’ contradiction
Partly truth and partly fiction
Takin’ ev’ry wrong direction
On his lonely way back home
When I saw my first image of Cash in 1960, on the cover of his album Ride This Train, in a room of a red brick house in the industrial north of England, he was a bad man with a gun, Elvis’s outlaw cousin, a dog you’d have to shoot at least twice. Through the echo Jack Clement engineered into his records, he sounded to us little Brits like endless plains and distant mountains, the way John Ford movies looked. We never imagined, even after “Five Feet High and Rising,” that his Arkansas was as flat as Holland and as green as the Congo, and we thought of Memphis in magic and neon — Las Vegas meets the Emerald City, perhaps as Elvis once thought of it. By the early 70s, though, when I was just about to meet him for the first time, he didn’t seem nearly as exciting. His mystery squandered on television and his most public affiliation, with Billy Graham, deeply unappealing to the boomer-hippie appetite, he looked to me like a bit of a drag.
Wrong again. I met him at his studio, the House of Cash, during his first attempt to re-affiliate with Jack Clement as his producer and work with Waylon, and right there and then the utter lack of one-dimensionalism anywhere near Johnny Cash was immediately apparent. So were the contradictions and the conflict — the dopers and the Christians and the outlaws and the in-laws, of course, and who was really who? But more important was the struggle within Cash about what he wanted to sing and/or should be singing. I got a sense of him being so attuned to the pressures of whatever whoever was blowing in his ear that messages from his own Muse just weren’t getting through. That being the case, I figured, what he needed was to stay aligned with collaborators, or better yet just one musical conspirator, who spoke his Muse’s language and agreed, in principal if not in detail, with what she wanted. That’s still my opinion, and so I’m glad he’s had the grossly unlikely but evidently effective Rick Rubin as his producer for the past 10 years. I also regret having to think of the 70s and 80s as too many years during which he didn’t try quite hard enough to get back to Jack Clement. The directions he took weren’t all wrong, by any means, and he even found his lonely way back home a time or two (most notably for Rockabilly Blues in 1980), but it was a shame for him and Jack, and a loss for us, that his pilgrimage wandered so. I’ll always remember Jack in the office at the Cowboy Arms Hotel & Recording Spa, waltzing serenely through a mist of light blue dope smoke, carried away by his and Cash’s music crashing in a torrent of hillbilly funk through his JBL studio monitors. Ah, yes — “The Night Hank Williams Came to Town,” what a record! Pure old love and pleasure. Cash calls Jack “my brother” and “a jewel,” and he sure is right about that. I’d like to see him work with Jack again. It might not be better than working with Rick Rubin, but it wouldn’t be worse and it would be different.
Cash the pilgrim. Often Cash’s road ahead leads backward, into the past. He’s an active student of history, always reading and inquiring, as well as an enthusiast of old places, feelings, and souls.
I remember him at his farmhouse in Bon Aqua, Tenn., one late morning in the spring of ’97, barefoot and peeing on the grass in front of his weathered old front porch (some sort of prescription was forcing frequent urination). He told me something of the history of the place as he watered its daisies. Shortly after the Yankees won the Battle of Nashville during the War Between the States, a pair of Union cavalrymen came riding up onto the property with a view to requisitioning whatever they wanted, but in the process they offended the owner, a gentleman by the name of Weems who had been a Captain in the United States Army during the Mexican-American War that preceded the contemporary unpleasantness. Captain Weems shot the Yankees off their horses with his pistol, killed them dead right where Cash was peeing and buried them someplace anonymous nearby, probably in a pasture running uphill from the back of the farmhouse towards the overgrown little family graveyard in which Weems himself has now been buried for more than 100 years.
Later that day, Cash drove us up a nearby ridgeline and back into the woods to show me the remains of a small but once thriving community abandoned, he knew not why, sometime in the 1930s. I’ll always be grateful to him for that, because there I saw one of the most moving sights I’ve ever seen, so strange but so logical: A seedling had sprouted in the sunny circle inside a discarded 1925 automobile tire and had grown into a tree, and now the tire fit tightly around its trunk three feet off the ground. Cash gave me that sight knowing its value, and it was a real Cash moment.
A quality of haunting, and being haunted, burns almost constantly through him. To me he often seems to be living just as much there and then as here and now — his spirit continuum is much closer to the surface than most people’s, I think, and I believe that’s okay with him.
He’s certainly comfortable enough around ghosts. In Jamaica, for instance, he lives in what was once the great house of a sugar plantation — the local equivalent of Tara — where the property is surrounded by a golf course built over what is essentially one giant unconsecrated graveyard, containing the remains of generation after generation of the thousands of slaves required to work the land. Equivalent generations of their owners, much smaller in number, are buried in their own separate enclosure, with walls and gravestones, some tumbled but basically intact, halfway down the hill between the great house and the sea, and that is one of Cash’s favorite spots for solitude and contemplation. He and I sat side by side on one of the more substantial tombs — within lay a Barrett, kin to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, beloved of the poet Robert Browning — as we covered the Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Sam Phillips sections of his memoir one lovely tradewind day in December, and it was indeed a very quiet and peaceful place. That night, though, my wife and I were awakened by a sharp rapping on the door jamb beside our bed — rat-tat-tat, rat-tat — but we concluded independently that the knocker didn’t really want our attention and meant us no harm, so we settled back to sleep and thought nothing more of it. We didn’t even mention it to each other, until dinner the following night, when John and June told us one of the house’s stories. During another dinner, a young woman in a long white dress had emerged from the kitchen to John’s right, then walked calmly across the width of the 20-seater dining room towards a set of solid oak doors on the opposite side of the room, disappeared through them without opening them, and knocked — rat-tat-tat, rat-tat — from the other side. She’d been seen at other times, but that was her clearest moment.
Cash swears our nighttime incident wasn’t a setup, and while I’m convinced that his sense of mischief is easily up to such a task, I have even less trouble accepting that when he says, “Oh, yes, that ghost is real,” he really matter-of-factly means it, no big deal.
As to his more personal ghosts, well … I’ve only seen them plainly once, on a day in Port Richey, Fla., when he’d just emerged from surgery and was under the influence of pain pills to the point where his manager, Lou Robin, was warning me, “Be careful, chief, he’s flying with the geese today,” and talking about bringing in a heavy hitter from the rehab zone to straighten him out.
That day Cash, trembling and chain-smoking, sat me down and told me secrets. It was time that the truth be out, he said; he’d thought about it and talked to his family about it, and he needed to make it plain that the animal in him, the “black dog” he’s identified with the addictions running through his life, the blood we sometimes see in his eye and the enthusiasm he’s able to summon for lines like “shot a man in Reno/just to watch him die” didn’t come from nowhere. He went into detail at length about exactly where it did come from, but because months later, after going back and forth several times on the issue, he decided against including that material in Cash, I’m not going to reveal it here. He’s already written and spoken, though, about the childhood day when he found the corpse of his pet dog, and then discovered that its killer was his father, so it should come as no great surprise that there’s more along those lines. I think the point he made to me about his decision against publication has merit — that it doesn’t really matter what other people did; what matters is what he does. Which, of course, is the bedrock principle of Christianity, and which has, in fact, not fiction, been the guiding light of his life. Hellishly hard to see at times, and even harder to follow, but he’s always known it’s there. He really has tried, and tried, and tried.
I’ll always wonder, though, where the truth and the fiction really meet and part. Were the things he told me that day more naked because he was stoned or more embellished? Did chemical enhancement encourage honesty, or pump up his paranoia, kindle his resentment and stimulate his storyteller self? Maybe it did both, or neither. Maybe it just blurred his judgment.
Ultimately, it’s understandable if ironic that he thought his secrets were a big deal, for if the blood in his eye weren’t real, if his anger weren’t there for us all to hear and the killers he voiced didn’t make Charlie Manson sound like a singin’ sweetie-pie, we wouldn’t have bought nearly as many of his records. Would we?
April 22, 2002
Listening to Cash on my interview tape, talking music. He tells me what he’s been recording for his new album: Marty Robbins’ “Big Iron,” Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” with Joe Strummer (yes, of the Clash), “Danny Boy” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” done in a cathedral with just his vocal and Benmont Tench’s organ, “Streets of Laredo” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Joe Sun’s “I Came on Business for the King,” Sting’s “I Hung My Head” and “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails, “One More Ride” by the Sons of the Pioneers and Tex Ritter’s “Sam Hall,” John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind,” a new song of his own about Judgment Day called “The Man Comes Around” and the chestnut-of-chestnuts “We’ll Meet Again,” the nuclear bomb-blast theme from Dr. Strangelove and, before that, the rallying song of the British peoples during World War II.
Well. Not since LeAnn Rimes Meets Ramblin’ Sid Vicious has there been such an ecumenical approach to a pop record. “Odd mixture,” I say.
Cash just grunts. “Yes, it is. There’s going to be some more rock ‘n’ roll sprinkled in there, too. I recorded about 20 songs in all. Mostly my choices. Rick chose ‘Gentle on My Mind.’ I would never have thought of recording it, but when Rick suggested it, John Hartford was dying. I went to see John, and I thought, ‘Man, I’ve got to record that song.’ So I recorded it, and [Cash’s son] John Carter took it and played it for John a week before he died. He was happy about that.”
“Hmm. A lot of people have died since you and I last talked. It was awful sad about Waylon. You and he got together before he died, right? Built your bridges?”
“Oh, yeah. We were the best of buddies again. Better than ever. That’s good we did that. Both of us kind of reached out. It wasn’t because we knew we were sick; it was just we got tired of the crap that was going on between us, so we built the bridge. The terrible thing, though, is that Willie and Waylon had an out. They weren’t talking when Waylon died. Kris asked Willie why he wouldn’t just call Waylon, and Willie said ‘He won’t talk to me.’ He’d tried to call him, he said, and Jessi wouldn’t put him through.”
“Yeah, it is. I talked to him, though, I guess it was about two weeks before he died. I could tell he was dying then. You could hear it in his voice. He was in so much agony, he was just giving up.”
“Was he scared, do you think?”
“No. He became a Christian. He made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ two or three months before he died. Jessi said he died with a smile.”
“Someone asked me to ask you this, and I never have before. What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?”
“Hmm.” There’s a long pause, a really long one, then “I don’t know, Patrick.”
“Okay. What were your top three? It’s a long list, I know, but surely you can find three real horrors.”
He considers for a moment, then wimps out. “My worst moment is having to sing, and I’ve got no voice to do it with. My best moment is when I know that the song I’m singing is pleasing people, and it’s really sounding good. That’s what it’s all about.”
True enough. Bye for now, John.
Patrick Carr is a former columnist for the Village Voice and Country Music magazine and editor and co-author of The Illustrated History of Country Music. He has been interviewing Johnny Cash since 1972 and collaborated with him on Cash: The Autobiography which was published in 1997.