In early 1968, country singer Johnny Cash gave one of the defining performances of his career when he played for inmates at California's Folsom State Prison. Robert Hilburn, a music critic early in his career at the Los Angeles Times, was the only reporter to cover that legendary concert.
Hilburn continued to follow the singer throughout his career. The author's new biography, Johnny Cash: The Life, goes further in documenting Cash's dark side than the 2005 biographical drama film Walk the Line. The new book also chronicles Cash's last years — and the redemption he sought before his death in 2003.
"Johnny Cash was a good man," Hilburn tells NPR's David Greene. "He tried to live up to his faith. It was just difficult. He struggled, and that was the great drama of Johnny Cash. And I think John Carter, his son, said it best. He said, 'My dad's life was a struggle between darkness and light, and in the end, the light won.' "
On Cash recording while his health deteriorated in the '90s
That was the salvation. That was the thing in his life that always brought him comfort. And he wanted to try to regain his legacy that he thought he had lost. It was just an act of tremendous courage, those last few albums. And he would even go into the studio some days, and he would record two lines of a song and then he'd have to stop and catch his breath. Sometimes, he'd have to lay down and rest for 10 minutes, and then he'd get up and do the next two lines of the song, and they would splice it together. And Rick Rubin was great about that, because he thought he was making a documentary of Johnny Cash. So if John's vocal was off-key or something, it didn't matter — because, again, this was the struggle of a man.
On the "Hurt" video
It's such a heartbreaking video to see him so frail that June Carter didn't want him to put it out. The fascinating thing is June is very sick. And in the video, she looks very sad and vulnerable herself. She's looking down at John, and when you see the video the first time, you think she's thinking, "My gosh, he's going to die. What am I going to do without him?" What Rick Rubin and the director of the video didn't know was June had learned the night before that she had a serious heart problem and she was going to have to go back into the hospital. She had a premonition she was going to die in the hospital. So what was really going on when she was looking at John from the stairways is, "What's he going to do without me?"
On why the unveiling of Cash's affair with June Carter's sister haunted him
I didn't know if I should tell it. I didn't know if I should tell people that Johnny Cash had an affair with his sister-in-law while his wife was pregnant. How much does the public need to know about a performer? The main purpose of the book is talking about the artistry of someone, so how much of your personal life do you need to know? You realize it's important, the personal life, because you see how the personal life shapes the artistry. You see things in his music that's a reflection of the pain he has in his private life.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Oh, I can't wait to hear this. In 1968, the country singer Johnny Cash gave one of the defining performances of his career for inmates at California Folsom State Prison.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOLSOM PRISON BLUES")
JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) When I was just a baby my, mama told me, Son, always be a good boy. Don't ever play with guns. But I shot a man in Reno...
INSKEEP: Robert Hilburn was a young reporter for the L.A. Times, the only reporter to cover that legendary concert.
ROBERT HILBURN: The paper said no, we don't want to give any space to that drug addict. But I finally talked them into letting me go. And I covered the event and it exposed me, at a very young age, to what true artistry and charisma is. It was a powerful, powerful moment.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Hilburn followed Cash throughout his life. That concert was just one place he saw Cash struggle with demons.
HILBURN: The thing that struck me about Johnny Cash, I guess, was how nervous he was, how jittery he was. He was running his hands through his hair. He was batting at imaginary flies. I thought he just had a lot of energy.
HILBURN: I didn't realize he was on amphetamines.
MONTAGNE: Drug addiction, the loss of his brother in a sawmill accident, abandoning his first wife and children for country singer June Carter, all key moments in the Cash movie, "Walk the Line."
INSKEEP: But Hilburn's new biography goes further in showing Cash's dark side and his redemption in the later years, when he worked with producer Rick Rubin.
Robert Hilburn spoke with our own David Greene.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Well, the woman who really saved his life, June Carter, I mean his second wife - the person who was on stage with him so often - he couldn't even stay faithful to her.
HILBURN: Yeah, it was tawdry - country music was. And Johnny Cash came out of country music and June Carter came out of country music. In the film "Walk the Line," which I think had some great elements, it's kind of a fairytale-ish story. It wasn't like they were holding hands. They came out of the country music environment.
John and June were constantly breaking up. He would have an affair with somebody else. She might have an affair with somebody else. And when John asked June to marry him finally, three other women were shocked because he thought he was going to ask them to marry them.
HILBURN: You know, it was the real country music song, their story.
GREENE: One thing that their relationship over again - and this was one of the revelations in your book that I haven't heard about - was that Johnny Cash actually had an affair with June Carter's sister.
HILBURN: Yeah, that's something that haunted me. I heard - first heard that when I was doing the research to write the proposal on the book. And it stunned me, the fact that June discovered, while she was pregnant...
GREENE: While she was pregnant.
HILBURN: Yeah, while she was pregnant with their first that John has had an affair with her sister. And I couldn't get nobody to say on the record that it happened. But several people off the record said it. So in the book, I have to say it's speculation that it happened. But I'm certain it happened.
GREENE: Can you understand if there are some people who will read this book and like Johnny Cash less, as they learn more about the man?
HILBURN: Yeah. In fact, there's a point in the book where Johnny Cash invites his nephew - after he's done so much damage to everybody - he sends a note to the nephew saying: Come join me, I'm doing a concert tonight in Los Angeles. The nephew thinks about all this hurt, all the concerts that Johnny Cash missed during the 1960s, the times he hurt his family, and the nephew turns the paper over and writes two words: (CENSORED) you.
HILBURN: And when my friend read the book they said, well, it's about time someone told him to get it together. But there was the drugs, there was the guilt that made it hard for him. You know, he struggled, and that was the great drama of Johnny Cash. And I think John Carter, his son, said I think best: my dad's life was a struggle between darkness and light, in the end the light won.
GREENE: And that sort of makes me really want to ask you about the final years. I mean, Cash's health really deteriorating.
HILBURN: Yeah, the health really started deteriorating, probably in the early '90s, soon after he began working with Rick Rubin. He eventually had diabetes. He lost pretty much the sight of his eyes. He lost the feeling in his hands - he couldn't play the guitar anymore. He had a neurological disorder. He broke his jaw - he had 16 operations trying to correct it.
HILBURN: He had asthma so he couldn't breathe that much. So you can imagine trying to make a record in this constant pain. But again, that was the salvation. That was the thing in his life that always brought him comfort. And he would even go into the studio some days and he would record two lines of a song, and then he'd have to stop and catch his breath. Sometimes he had to lay down and rest for 10 minutes. And then he'd get up and do the next two lines of a song and they would splice it together.
And Rick Rubin was great about that, because he thought he was making a documentary of Johnny Cash. So if John's vocal was off key or something, it didn't matter because it was again, this was the struggle of a man. And I think the greatest moment was when he finally records the song "Hurt" that was a Trent Reznor song.
GREENE: Yeah, and I want to play a little of that because that's such a powerful song and video.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HURT")
CASH: (Singing) I hurt myself today to see if I still feel...
HILBURN: The video was just amazing. He is in such bad shape he can barely sit at the table and lip-synch the words. It's such a heartbreaking video to see him so frail that June Carter didn't want him to put it out. It was a tremendous act of courage to put that out. And what happens is his earlier records with Rick Rubin sold about 300,000. The one with "Hurt" it sells two million. And some people say he - Johnny Cash, might be more remembered for the "Hurt" video that any of the songs he ever recorded.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HURT")
CASH: (Singing) What have I become, my sweetest friend? Everyone I know goes away in the end.
GREENE: You spent some time with Johnny Cash towards the end. What was it like to be with him and, you know, in the final days?
HILBURN: You wanted to hug him - that he made it this far, that he was still trying to make music; that he was apologizing for not being able to do the interview in any consistent fashion - he had to stop and start again, and take a nap and back-and-forth. But you wanted to say, John, it's OK - you've given us enough.
The funny thing, David, he couldn't talk very much. But he said, look, here's the next album I'm going to do. And he picks up his guitar and starts singing these songs. They were all black gospel songs and he could sing the whole song. There was this force, that in Johnny Cash's life, that music provided, from the time he was in the cotton fields to the time of his death bed. And he held onto that.
And when we look at pop music there are so few great artist that come along, you know, who have a sense of mission and purpose; people like Dylan and people and Lenin and Bono, and so forth. But Johnny Cash was one of those. That's why I think he'll be remembered as much 50 years from now as he was today. There was something genuine in Johnny Cash and people felt that.
GREENE: Robert Hilburn, it's been a real pleasure talking to you. Thanks so much for taking the time.
HILBURN: Thank you, David.
(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)
CASH: (Singing) But I'll try...
INSKEEP: And you can read an excerpt from "Johnny Cash: The Life" NPRMusic.org.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. With David Greene, I'm Steve Inskeep.
MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.