I'm not sure if the definitive Johnny Cash biography has yet been, or ever will be written. But as a fascinating, often no-holds barred, look at the life of the legendary Man In Black, Michael Streissguth's Johnny Cash: The Biography has to rank as one of the better and more revealing tomes out there.
In this book, the author traces Cash's life by drawing for the very first time from the archive of Cash's late manager Saul Holiff, who guided his career through the pivotal years of the sixties and seventies — when Cash enjoyed his greatest commercial success. There are also exclusive interviews with such Cash confidantes as his longtime producer Jack Clement, and Marshall Grant, the lone surviving member of the original Tennessee Two. Streissguth also interviews various business associates, family members, and even those who knew John R. Cash as a child.
The result is an absolutely fascinating read that is hard to put down once you begin to delve into its pages.
It explores his music in acute detail — heaping praise when it is rightfully deserved, and casting a critical eye when it is equally necessary. All of the commercial highs of his biggest successes like the Folsom Prison album, are given the attention they warrant. What fans may find most interesting however are the personal insights offered up during the eighties period when Cash's star began to dim somewhat.
The Biography also explores the apparent personal dichotomies in the man's life with an unflinching honesty. The inner conflict between Cash's outlaw image and his deep Christian faith are given particular attention, as are his battles with drug addiction — which he apparently continued to battle right up until his death.
The reader here is given a first-hand account of Cash's deep disappointment when his Christian-themed pet project The Gospel Road failed to reach the wider audience he had both hoped for and anticipated. Streissguth's account likewise holds back nothing when discussing Cash's drug addiction, and the personal demons which apparently followed him throughout his days, and indeed for far longer than portrayed in more popular accounts such as Hollywood's version in the film Walk The Line.
But in this book, the most eye-opening and fascinating chapter of Cash's story is saved, perhaps appropriately until the very end.
Cash's relationship with producer Rick Rubin beginning in the early nineties — which produced the remarkable American Recordings series of albums — allowed Cash to end his career on the same critical and commercial high note it had began on so many years earlier. By stripping his sound to the barest essentials, there is little doubt that Rubin was in many ways the catalyst for Cash's rejuvenation as an artist.
But what this book hints at — yet never comes right out and says — is that while the marriage between artist and producer was a win-win proposition for all involved, there may also have been elements of exploitation at play. Even as his health was failing, Rubin kept Cash on a rigorous recording schedule. There are also stories here for example of how certain family members were simply unable to watch Cash's amazing, yet disturbing video for the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt," because of the picture it paints of a man so obviously near death.
Still, by all accounts, Cash was at his most happy and content when he was working — especially after the death of his beloved June. So who was exploiting whom?
But it is at this point — in those final months of Cash's life marked first by the passing of his life partner, and then by his own death — that this book becomes simply heartbreaking. After June's passing, and in increasingly failing health himself, Cash's behavior during these final months is described as "childlike." Here, he would beg his daughters to get him out of the hospital, or just to get him a Snickers bar. Moments are also described where he would simply sit alone and sob how much he missed her.
Family members here also recall a trip to June's grave site, where Johnny Cash — blinded by diabetes and barely able to walk — still was able to summon the energy to "see her" and call out to her that "I'm coming, baby, I'm coming."
Cash's final moments, surrounded by his daughters at his bedside make up the final few paragraphs of the book, capping a final chapter that is among the most sadly poignant things that I suspect I will ever read.
Johnny Cash: The Biography tackles these subjects and more in riveting, brutally honest detail that puts the reader there in a way like few such biographies I have ever read. It may not be the definitive story of the legendary Man In Black, but it is the best I have read to date.