'Man in Black' cast long
shadow over the valley
By Kelly Feser Eells
"A Boy Named Johnny,"
one Johnny, nee J.R., Cash, has died. But memories of the perennial
"bad boy" balladeer are alive and well, especially
in the Ojai Valley, which he graced with his fun-loving presence
for the first half of the 1960s.
Those who knew Cash when - when he lived in Casitas Springs,
that is - didn't know the tee-totaling crooner who once remarked,
"The only one who talks to me is the Lord; the only woman
who'll have me is Betty Ford," but their memories of him
are fond ones all the same.
When he came to the valley in 1959, few knew more about him than
what they'd read in his album liner notes, which, in the pre-People,
Rolling Stone Magazine years, served as mini-biographies of the
(featured) artist. The liner notes for "The Sound of Johnny
Columbia Records, 1962, for example,
read, "Whether singing country ballads, hymns or any kind
of song, Johnny Cash has proved himself one of our most versatile
artists. He comes naturally by his feeling" for a song -
songs of personal struggle and heartache, in particular - "having
heard many of them in his (impoverished) hometown of Dyess, Arkansas
and having himself sung many of them to entertain his family
and friends." As Cash gained confidence in his singing and
playing, he began to compose songs himself," such as "I
Walk the Line" and "Don't Take Your Guns to Town,"
both huge successes.
"When he isn't traveling, Johnny lives in Casitas Springs,
California with his charming wife and their four young daughters."
If anyone knew that Casitas Springs' most famous resident was
addicted to amphetamines, they didn't care. By all accounts,
Cash was a good neighbor - when he was home. The tawdry tales
about "wrecking hotel rooms and playing with guns"
were tales of another Johnny, the traveling Johnny, who was arrested
in Texas for attempting to smuggle amphetamines across the Mexican
border in his guitar case. At home, his biggest crime was accidentally
starting a fire in Los Padres National Forest ("I was high,"
he's been quoted as saying) for which he was fined $85,000.
During his Casitas Springs days, he and drinking buddy Carl Smith
(fellow country singer and first husband of Cash's second wife,
June Carter, who died last May) were known to go on wild binges,
once managing to ruin June's Cadillac convertible without it
ever leaving the driveway of Cash's understatedly elegant white
home on Nye Road.
Legend has it that this is the same Cadillac convertible Cash
drove up and down Highway 33 "with four naked women as passengers"
while on a bender, but there is no record of him ever being cited
for such a thing, and (now retired) law enforcement officials
like Vince France and Larry Baugher "never heard anything
Indeed, Cash's innate sense of decency and lifelong relationship
with God - even when he was courting booze and pills on the side
- would have made such an escapade unlikely. And though he appeared
in several westerns during the '60s, he refused to appear in
any films with "gratuitous nudity."
Baugher didn't know Cash personally, but his friends and family
remember him as being a regular church-goer and "genuinely
That's how Ventura resident Jennifer Petree remembers him, too.
Petree attended St. Bonaventure High School with Cash's daughters,
graduating in third-oldest daughter Cindy Cash's class.
"Johnny used to come and see the girls a lot," after
he and first wife Vivian Distin, also of Ventura, divorced. "He
was very quiet and unassuming and, naturally, always dressed
in black," Petree smiled.
"He came to our graduation - all the girls' graduations,"
she added, "and they were always going to visit him (in
Nashville), too. He was a good dad."
Randy King, whose family has run the Lake Casitas Boat and Tackle
Shop for decades, also doubts the naked women story.
"He used to come out here all the time," said King,
"alone. He'd take his boat out in the middle of the lake,
get drunk, and pass out. I can't even count how many times we'd
see his Tony Lama (boots) hanging over the side, water pouring
out of them. We'd make a phone call, and someone always came
right over to pick him up and take him home."
King adds, "Johnny got lucky (when he met June Carter).
She saved his life."
One of Cash's "young daughters," the now-47-year-old
Roseanne, released her 11th album, "Rules of Travel,"
this past spring. Two weeks before her father's death, Roseanne
told (Scotland) Sunday Herald Magazine reporter Vicky Allan that
she wrote one of the album's tracks, "September When it
Comes," with her father's "mortality in mind. My sisters
and brother and I had just about gone crazy from running back
and forth to the hospital (with him getting sick all the time)
and us 'not knowing.'"
The song, she added, "is a reflection on the cycle of aging."
It is also the only father-daughter duet they ever recorded.
"My husband (folk-rock producer John Leventhal) suggested
it," said Roseanne, explaining that she hadn't been keen
on the idea at first. "I said 'no' because I always said
'no' whenever anyone suggested" she and her legendary father
collaborate. "And I kept saying 'no' for a couple of months.
I had to let go of 25 years of my 'stance,' my 'I'm not going
to use my dad' stance."
However, before Cash would agree to record his daughter's song,
he wanted to see the lyrics.
"Isn't that cute?" she said. "He's an artist first
and foremost and not even for his child would he do something
artistically or say something that wasn't right. Which I think
is so beautiful. I kind of felt, 'Well, it's going to have to
be really bad for him to say 'no.'"
Though Cash's health had been on a rapid decline for the last
several years, he was, as his daughter said, an "artist
first." Throughout the "September When it Comes"
recording sessions, as well as the sessions for his recent cover
of (Nine Inch Nails front man Trent Reznor's) "Hurt"
- a song about the agonies of addiction and recovery that Cash
parlayed into seven MTV Video Music Award nominations - he was
in the hospital more than he was out of it. Yet his pipes are
just as strong, his trademark quaver just as heartrending on
these, his last recordings, as they are on "Ring of Fire,"
"I Walk the Line," or "Folsom Prison Blues."
And though he only appears on one of the album's tracks, "Rules
of Travels" has Johnny Cash written all over it. Somehow,
one doubts his daughter minds.
The Ojai Valley News
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