September 19, 2021

“I woke up in the ER with a broken nose and jaw”: when Johnny Cash crashed with the pills

Originally published in 1975 as Man in Black, his own story in his own words, the memoirs of the king of country music were written in a span of nine months, where Cash – he says – immersed himself in the well of memory almost daily “to tell, in the most honest way possible, what I did, what I said and what I felt in both the good and the bad times of my first forty-three years of existence. “

The book, which has just arrived in Chile through Ediciones Watercolor and A. Machado Libros, traces the ups and downs of the private and professional life of the author of important songs such as “I walk the line” and “Folsom Prison blues”.

In the chapter “A Demon Called Deception,” for example, Cash recounts his experience with amphetamines first-hand.

Although the recognition had come to him with the edition of I walk the line (“I never did a concert in which I did not sing ‘I walk the line’. And I can assure you that I never sang it without really feeling it or at least without trying to feel it in the depths of my soul”) in 1956, Folsom Prison blues it had become a country music classic.

Johnny Cash

It was around this time that he went from playing live at the Hayride to the Grand Ole Opry for two more years, albeit only as an occasional guest “since my continuous concert tours forced me to spend long periods on the road.”

The most important television programs began to show interest. “I appeared in the American Bandstand by Dick Clark with Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason and Lawrence Welk, as well as the Ozarj Jubilee from Red Foley “.

He then signed with Columbia Records, moved to Nashville and recorded two albums that were released immediately. “One was called The Fabolous Johnny Cash. The other was an album of my favorite gospel songs and hymns,” Cash notes.

“But at that point in my career I took a definite step in the wrong direction,” says the musician. “I was on tour with various artists from the Nashville Grand Ole Opry in 1957. Ferlin Husky and Faron Young were on the show and that’s when I became close friends with Gordon Terry, who was working with Faron.”

“That night we were traveling in two cars on our way to Jacksonville after a concert in Miami. Gordon was driving Faron’s limo leading the way and halfway to Jacksonville, he pulled over to the side of the road and stopped the car. We stopped. After him. ”We all got out of the cars and Gordon walked over to Luther, who was the one driving ours.

“Are you falling asleep, Luther?” Gordon asked him.

“I tell you,” he said.

-Well, have one of these. It’ll keep you awake. ”He handed Luther a small white pill with an engraved cross on it.

-What are they? I asked Gordon.

-Bencedrinas, he said.

-Are they harmful? -I asked for.

“I don’t think so,” Gordon said. They have never hurt me. Look, have one. It will make you want to get to Jacksonville and keep going when we get there.

I took one of those white pills and got into the car with Gordon. In thirty minutes I felt like new, tremendously fresh and talkative. “

According to his account, that same night, in Jacksonville, he had not yet slept when the concert began. “I took another of Gordon’s pills and went into the performance feeling great. It wasn’t until the next night, in another city, that the two pills finally hit me. to have discovered something that at the time, in all sincerity, I thought could be of great help to me “

With all the trips he had to do and always arriving in the cities fed up and exhausted, Cash understood that those pills could stimulate and provide the strength he needed to go out and sing.

“Those white pills were just one of twelve or more varieties, of different shapes and sizes, that were on the market. Truckers used them, in the same way that many other people with overweight problems. They called them amphetamines, dexedrine , bencedrine and dexamyl. They had a lot of nice little names and they made them in all colors. If you didn’t like green you could get oranges. And if you wanted to feel driven by a savage force you could have a black one. With black you could go to California and jerk back in a ’53 Cadillac without needing to sleep.

Inside that bottle of white pills, which cost no more than nine or ten dollars (one hundred pills), came, at no additional cost, the demon called Deception. “

During the first two years, by taking amphetamines quite regularly, the singer discovered new limits to his stamina and acting talent.

“I’ve always loved acting, but I’ve never been on stage without experiencing those ‘butterflies’ at the time of my performance. With a couple of ‘bennies’ in my stomach, as we liked to call those pills, the ‘butterflies’ would suddenly disappear and in their place he gained courage and confidence.

On some occasions, around the time I started using them, I was convinced that the ‘bennies’ were a gift that God had given me to help me be a better singer. My energy multiplied. My pace was magnificent. He enjoyed every song he performed at concerts and could perform with a torrential and relentless intensity. They stimulated my mind, made me think faster and made me talk more. “

Johnny Cash

Then Johnny Cash would give long rants between songs that kept people attentive and entertained. “They made me look tremendously handsome, outgoing, energetic. I loved everyone!”

“Everybody noticed the change the pills had caused in me. My friends joked about my ‘nervousness’. I had nervous twitches in my neck, back and face. My eyes were dilated. I could not stay still. . I twisted, twisted, contorted, and cracked my neck muscles. Usually it was as if someone had punched me between the shoulder blades, as if they were twisting my tendons and bones, squeezing my nerves, torturing them to the limit. “Cash relates.

“At home, my wife and girls were frequently awakened by the noise I made when I was dragged from one side of the room to the other in a desperate attempt to use up the effect of the pills. More often they were awakened by the noise. Most often they were woken up by the roar of my car’s engine when I started driving recklessly for hours through the streets into the hills and deserts of California until I either wrecked the car, or broke down. I stopped, finally, from sheer exhaustion.

We had moved to California in 1959 and my break with the church and with the lifestyle and prayer that I had professed since my childhood was almost complete. I got into the Southern California lifestyle and came to believe that I was really enjoying it. I realized that you could cultivate a taste for anything. Just get started and keep trying until you like it.

The mixture of amphetamines and alcohol was a maddening poison, and my personality changed dramatically. My wife and daughters were terrified every time that strange man I had become came to our house. “

The author of “Man in black” says that long periods of being “high” were followed by depressions. The burden of guilt was weighing him down and he struggled to obtain the strength he needed to fight all those addictions that were taking over his mind. “My big mistake, in any case, was that I did not give myself to God. I insisted too much on ‘pride’ and ‘self-love’ telling myself all the time: ‘Actually, you are not that bad'”.

“The demon called Deceit became my closest companion. He never left me alone for long,” Cash notes.

But he didn’t get it cheap. The drying effect of amphetamines, along with cigarettes and excess alcohol, led to chronic laryngitis that affected the musician. “The laryngitis lasted for a few days, which then turned into weeks.”

“At Carnegie Hall in New York I was only able to whisper. That concert was going to mark a milestone in my career, so I had come to town two days earlier to do radio and television interviews,” he writes.

One of those appearances was in the Show de Mike Wallace. Back then, Cash used to get defensive. He knew that people who were aware of the effects of his addiction, like Mike Wallace, would notice his nervous tics, dry mouth, and dilated pupils:

-Do you really like show business? asked Mike.

“It’s better than picking cotton,” Cash answered on the spot.

-What other things did you do in Arkansas besides picking cotton? he asked.

“He killed snakes,” said the musician with a wry smile, convinced that he was being tremendously clever.

“The truth is that looking at your face you also seem a bit reptilian” said Mike.

“Well, be careful, it’s not going to bite you,” he replied.

The communicator quickly changed the subject.

-Why country music at Carnegie Hall? asked Mike.

-And why not? growled the musician.

And the interview ended.

“The more pills I took, the more violent and unpredictable I became,” confesses the king of country music. “I missed some performances due to laryngitis and had to cancel nine of the ten recording sessions that my production company hired.”

Johnny Cash

On a Saturday night when he was due to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, Cash arrived at the Ryman Auditorium after spending several weeks taking pills non-stop. “My voice was gone and I had lost a lot of weight.” The legend did not reach seventy-four kilos. “That nightmare performance made me realize what I was doing to myself.”

According to his memoirs, that night “the band started with a song and I tried to get the microphone out of its holder. But in my maddened frenzy I was unable to do so. Such a ridiculous complication in my mental state was more than enough to make it explode into A fit of rage. I took the stand off the microphone, smashed it to the ground, and then dragged it over the edge of the stage, smashing fifty or sixty footlights. The pieces of glass jumped and spread across the stage and onto the stage. public.

The song ended abruptly and I left the stage to come face to face with the director of the Grand Ole Opry. Kindly and very calmly, he informed me:

-I’m sorry John, but your contract with the Grand Ole Opry just ended.

I could not answer. It had cleared me in less time than it takes to blink. “

Cash drove out the back door of the Grand Ole Opry building, where he got into his vehicle and shot out. “After a couple of blocks, I headed south through residential areas to avoid the police cars on the highway. Then I started crying and my vision blurred.”

Like in a movie, that night it started to rain “and when I managed to start the windshield wiper, the car swerved and crashed into a tree on the sidewalk.

I woke up in a hospital emergency room with a broken nose and jaw. The car was totally wrecked.

Gene Ferguson, a friend of mine from Columbia Records, came to pick me up and took me to his house where he told me I could settle in until I recovered. “

Johnny Cash