In last month’s issue of Uncut , we brought you the inside story on the House Of Johny Cash. We spoke to his family, friends and collaborators to tell the definitive story of the Man In Black. Over the next few weeks on www.uncut.co.uk, we’ll be printing the complete transcripts of these interviews.
To read more, click on the links in the side panel on the right.
Cash’s concert promoter between 1969 – 1972, after which he became manager to Johnny and June, “without a contract”, for 30 years.
UNCUT: How did you come to meet Johnny Cash?
ROBIN: I had been promoting concerts since 1957 – we were promoting jazz – Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck and Stanley Kenton and then public mood changed to folk music in the early Sixties. We got tired of the craziness of promoting acid rock and we decided to get into promoting country music, so we met with Johnny’s manager, in 1968, which was about three months after the Walk The Line story actually ended. Our first concert series was promoted in California and Nevada in February of ‘69. Earlier John had called and asked me – I hadn’t even met him yet – if I would set up a concert at San Quentin prison as part of that tour. And I said, well I never promoted a concert in a prison, but it was easy to work out with the state of California because he had done a concert there previously.
So Columbia records wanted to record it and Granada Television wanted to film it. It got a little complicated to work out all those logistics and bring all those people inside the prison, but the prisoners appreciated him being there, and he’d had Folsom before. It was a wonderful experience. So we started promoting his concerts like Madison Square Garden in December of ‘69, so when his manager left in 1973 we asked to take over the management, which is what John and June agreed to. We held that post until they both passed away and now I coordinate a lot of the business affairs for the estate.
What were your first impressions of the man…
He was riding very high. He had just come from Vietnam when we did our first tour, and he was getting over pneumonia that he had caught there. I just found him to be a very honourable pleasant person, as June was as well. Very easy to get along with and they did a great show.
Was the a conspicuous difference between the public and private man?
No there really isn’t. He had great business instincts. He knew what direction that he wanted to head in at all times with his music. Sometimes recordings weren’t publicly accepted sales wised in the later years, but I think every artist has to have a producer to work with and the producers that he worked with were provided by the record companies. They and John didn’t see eye to eye on philosophy and tunes so that was a problem.
As a performer, was he ever nervous?
He was always nervous. Nervous as a cat. He was always concerned that the people wouldn’t like what he had to offer, which was very self-effacing, because people liked everything that he did. But until he got on that stage and started into the first song he had that doubt in his mind at all times. I remember we played Czechoslovakia in 1978, we did 4 shows in two days at the ice arena there to 44,000 people. He turned to me in the wings that first show and said do you think they’ll know the music? I was so shocked by the question that I said “I guess you’ll find out soon enough.” Which was not, I’m sure, what he wanted to hear. I wasn’t trying to be smart about it. I just didn’t know what else to say. But of course when he went out the crowd went wild.
The thing about Cash is that he has this persona, like a western gunslinger – and he had this battle between right and wrong.
I think so. He fought the medical demons, which was unfortunate. But he always knew ultimately what direction he was headed in. and with June’s help and the family’s help he would stay on that track. But he was fascinating to sit and talk to because he was always up on current events – you could talk to him on any subject whether that be religion – not so much politics because he would support people from Tennessee – his home state – whether they were Dem or Rep that were running for office. He thought they should be supported. Also he would support whoever was president. He said well he was elected and we should support him now. That is the attitude he had – there were no hidden agendas, he didn’t want to force his own thoughts on his audience with the exception of the Tennessee people that he new well.
Did he have strong sense of respect for the audience?
He did. That came I think from responsibility to his family and it translated to having the same respect to his audience. He always quoted his father as saying “Give the employer a good day’s work for the money he’s paying you.” That was how it worked. He would be on stage some nights for two hours, two and a half hours, cos he was enjoying himself, and as long as the audience wanted to hear the songs he was there to sing them. He could go anywhere in the world and sing. Whether it be Northern Finland or Thailand.
Do you think he was a genius?
He wouldn’t think so. He was very modest about his accomplishments. He said he would records songs for his albums and if people didn’t like them they would, to quote him, throw them back at him by not buying the records. He was always very self-critical. But genius – I don’t know. Who else would be in that category. I felt what he did was a stroke of genius because there were very few people that came close to accomplishing what he did, on a worldwide level. Also, outside the US he was not thought of as a country singer – he was thought of more as an entertainer. He was known almost solely as The Man in Black in Germany. That’s how he was known to the average person there.
Rosanne said it was difficult when she was young and he was absent… did that play on his mind?
Oh, I think it did. But it was better than selling vacuum cleaners, which he tried to do, being a door-to-door salesman, which he couldn’t stand. He didn’t want to force somebody whose house he’d been to buy a vacuum cleaner when maybe they didn’t want it. That was how he made a living. I did the same thing. I was on the road 140 days a year promoting concerts or managing John or travelling back and forth from one to the next, and my wife had to raise two children. It was tough.
Was he ever difficult to get along with?
No, not really. He was very good. He didn’t let things bother him for a long time. He tried to resolve them, and if he couldn’t, he would let them settle. June was a great influence along those lines.”
June sorted him out? Yeah – she was what we call here in the Boy Scouts a den mother. In other words she was the confidante of everyone in the group. If they had a problem, they would come to her. Or if she and John had friends that were having problems – drug problems or financial problems – she would always be in the forefront of setting up the meetings and they would meet with these people and try to help them in any way they could. They were wonderful.
What memories do you have of San Quentin?
That was the first prison I ever went into with him. But when that third steel door slams behind you as you go in, you know you can’t turn and run. The mess hall – the food hall – that the concert took place in held over a thousand prisoners – they were all just sitting at the food tables there watching the show. And of course the most prominent prisoners in the pecking order sat in front in tailored uniforms. I remember seeing one prisoner light a cigarette for one of these people. It just gave you an idea that it’s like any other organisation. There are people at the top and there are people that aren’t. I think there’s even a picture of me standing in the back of the hall in the San Quentin album. At every concert I walk around the room as soon as it started to see if the sound level was ok. And at the back of the San Quentin hall where I was standing for a while, I looked up and there was a fork with food on it sticking in the soundproofing in the wall about six feet over my head, and I wondered how long it had been there. I said to the head of security, you know, there are only about 10 or 12 guards in this place. Is that enough? And he said, first of all, it’s enough. But secondly, if we had a hundred guards and these guys wanted to riot, what’s the difference? He said they police themselves. Now this was a time in American prisons where there weren’t gangs, and it was pretty much a homogeneous population so there was a lot more control of what was going on than maybe there would be now.
What was Cash’s motivation in going into prisons?
He was for prison reform. He just felt that there wasn’t enough being done to rehabilitate these men while they were in there so that when they came out they would not go back to their old ways and their old playmates. They would head in another direction ‘cos they might have gotten vocational training or high school. After a while he started to do fundraisers for the widows and children of policemen and firemen. He always had some project that he tried to lend his efforts to help them on their way.
Were you surprised at Rubin revival?
It was fortuitous that Rick Rubin had come upon the scene doing hip-hop music. And he professed an interest to meet John and we arranged that at a dinner theatre outside of Los Angeles in 1992. I said to Rick to come backstage at the end of the show and John would meet him, although reluctantly because we were without a record deal at that point and it was a very difficult time because all of a sudden all the labels that I talked to all thought, well, maybe his popularity has run its course. So I took Rick to the dressing room and he sat down, and he and John stared at each other for about two minutes, sizing each other up. And then they started to chat and they found that they had a very common meeting ground where Rick said you don’t need the singers and the orchestras and all the stuff that was going on. You just need to go and sing whatever songs you want to sing with your guitar. And John never heard anyone say that to him, and we signed a record deal with American and he did first album in ‘93. John would come to Rick’s house sometimes, he’d come to LA for a week or more, and every night, starting late and through the night he’d just sit in Rick’s living room where there was all kinds of recording equipment set up, and record songs that he liked and songs that Rick liked, and Rick would have many songwriters come in and have them sing a song that they thought was good for John. And they would work around it, and often that was a song that ended up on the album.
Were you there when people like Nick Cave or Joe Strummer were there?
Yeah. I was there the afternoon Joe Strummer showed up. I walked into the studio at Rick’s house, and there were a lot of people there in the control room, and here was a guy sitting in the corner of the room on the floor. And finally I said to someone, who is he? This was Joe Strummer. So I met him, and he said “I’m so thrilled to be here, I just don’t want to be in anyone’s way.” He cut a couple of songs with John, he gave John a couple of other songs that he wanted him to have. That’s the way it was: people would just come and go. And you never knew who might show up.
There’s a real generous spirit in those records…
I think so. They were wide open to suggestion. John and Rick would often exchange cassettes of songs that they’d heard someone else sing that they liked, or a new song that John had written, like Man Comes Around, and then they would meet either in Nashville or LA. sometimes both, before an album was done, and they would start putting the songs down seriously. They would pick maybe 30 songs and they would put those down, an ultimately they would have to get down to 16 or 18 for the album. And the process of elimination was very difficult.
Is there more?
Rick said that there’s one more great album of songs of John’s that hasn’t been released – American VI – hopefully it’ll come out this Spring. But he said after that, from what they had mixed… they mixed some 60 songs after John died, of things that he’d recorded but hadn’t been mixed, so they listened to them, and of course as John became more ill, his voice faltered more, and there came a point where John wasn’t happy with what he was doing, and Rick didn’t want to put that out. ‘Cos in the last album you could note that his voice was getting a little weaker. But he was in the studio almost every day. He was in the studio two days after June died, because that was one of her wishes, that he continue with his music. So it was right up until a week before he died he was still re-recording songs that he wasn’t happy with, that he had put down maybe a month earlier. He did the best he could. And there’s a couple of concerts that are on videotape. The Viper Room concert is on film actually, and a concert at Manhattan Centre, one at House of Blues, so there’s some unseen product out there, it’s just a matter of when American wants to release it.
You’ve mentioned before that Johnny was swapping poems with Muhammad Ali…
I forget who Ali fought that night. It was in the Superdome in New Orleans. And we were in Dallas getting ready to do a show the next day and John had been talking to Ali by phone. They seemed to have a common meeting ground with poetry and became fans of each other. So Ali invited John to bring the band and come down and see the fight. And to come to his room before the fight and they could meet. So John brought all of us down to New Orleans and went to the hotel, and I went up to Ali’s room with John and sat there for an hour and exchanged their own poetry, and told each other they were great fans, and how much admiration they had for each other. This went on till 4.30 in the afternoon. And then we went to the fight and came back to say goodbye. And we had chartered a couple of limousines to get us from the airport to the hall and back, ‘cos we had to go back to Dallas after the fight. Well we went out and the limousines were gone. Somebody had taken them. So we were standing outside, not knowing how to get to the airport and the plane sitting there waiting, and I saw a whole bunch of empty city buses and I went over and I gave the driver a hundred dollars and I said will you take us to the airport if I give you a hundred dollars, and he said sure, so we all jumped on this empty city bus and he took us to the airport so we could go back to Dallas. It was kind of a crazy evening.
How do you best remember John?
I think of a brilliant man at his trade. I never saw anybody that could relate to people as easily as he did. He was generous. He was thoughtful. He had a good sense of humour. Just a rarity amongst people. So many defining qualities, with far fewer faults.
You’ve called him a poet in the past.
It just came easily to him. He could sit down on his bus with people walking back and forth and write a song, or write some poetry. He would just look out the window, whether it was on an airplane or on his bus. Things would come to him, and he would just sit down and write them. He would try a song out on stage sometimes and maybe go back and edit it the next time he did it. or toss it out, depending on what he thought the reaction was, from the audience or from himself.
INTERVIEW: ALASTAIR McKAY