After my little trip down memory lane to Arkansas, in yesterday’s post, I spent a lot of time thinking about Johnny Cash.
He was a huge part of my wee bonny girlhood, on up through my entire adult life. I loved Johnny Cash.
In Cleveland, in the era that I grew up in, radio stations would play all kinds of music. You didn’t tune to one specific station to hear a certain type of music you liked. Each station played everything, although Cleveland was a huge rock & roll city, so there was a lot of that on the radio. But they also played Country — the old style, or what I would call actual Country music: Country & Western.
So in my childhood, I was exposed to a lot of Country music. On the radio on the school bus, for instance, The Doors singing “Light My Fire,” would be followed by Merle Haggard singing “I’m Proud to be an Okie from Muskogee.”
And Johnny Cash was just huge; he was so popular. “A Boy Named Sue” — we were all just little kids, and we’d all sing along to that on the school bus! Really gleefully, we’d all shout out: “My name is SUE!! How do you do!!”
I adored that song he sang with June, “Jackson.” Still love that song. And for a while he had that variety show on TV that I just loved.
By the time I was 11, we moved to Columbus –a town I have never, ever been fond of, but I did like that in Columbus there was even more Country & Western on the radio than there’d been up in Cleveland.
Literally, Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” would be followed up with Jeanne Pruett singing “Satin Sheets.” (I totally loved that song! Here it is, in fact! This song was probably the main reason why I grew up believing that rich men were never gonna be good in bed. ) (I won’t say whether or not that ended up being true… you decide.)
But after we moved to Columbus, I got to do that truly awesome thing that happened every August: Attend the Ohio State Fair!!
Back then, the fair was a really big deal. It took place during the last couple weeks of summer, so it meant that all your summer dreams & summer loves were coming to an end. And the midway was lit up at night with all those amusement rides and there was all that food that was so bad for you. And everything just felt electrifying because you knew the summer was as a good as over and pretty soon you’d be back in school (which I hated — I absolutely hated school. I just wanted to sit in my room and play records or play my guitar).
The other thing the Ohio State Fair was known for, though, was its live entertainment. And the very first time I got to go to the fair, the summer when I was 11, guess who was playing there that night? Johnny Cash!
Oh my god, I wanted to see him so badly. But it was already late, the sun had gone down. My dad just wanted to go home.
There was a huge cement wall, the back-end of where all the seats were for the audience to sit in, and it blocked the actual stage from the midway, but you could hear perfectly. I remember standing outside that huge wall, the lights of the midway all lit up all around me, the sky beyond us black, and then the audience just roared, you know? Just roared. Their excitement was not to be believed. And then the jangly country guitar kicked in and I actually heard him shout, “Hello! I’m Johnny Cash!” and the audience went crazy.
And I couldn’t fucking see anything and I wanted so badly to go inside! My dad was dragging me by my arm, “Marilyn, come on, we’re going to the car!” I had tears in my eyes; I was begging him — and I was not a kid who ever begged for anything, ever. But I was begging my dad, “Please! I want to see Johnny Cash!”
“You’re not going to see Johnny Cash!” (I was too young to know then that Johnny Cash audiences consisted more of hard-drinking, chain-smoking, shit-kicking rowdy adults, and not shy 11-year-old girls.)
I really was devastated.
By then, at age 11, my favorite Johnny Cash song was “Folsom Prison Blues” recorded live at Folsom Prison. I had the single and I played it all the time and knew every word and every single guitar note on that record and every single place where the audience would cheer and holler.
(I knew he was singing in a prison, but I still thought of them as an “audience.”)
I loved Johnny Cash all through my life, even his Christian phase. I guess he was always a Christian, but he found Jesus and dropped drugs at one point and sang a lot of songs that were more in that vein for awhile.
When I was in the mental hospital, I had a serious drug problem. Sleeping pills — at my worst point, before I attempted suicide & was then put into the mental hospital, I could take as many as 15 sleeping pills in a day and still be walking around. I had built up a tolerance to them, you know. Nowadays, if I took 15 sleeping pills in a day, I would be dead pretty darn quickly.
By age 14, I started getting an endless supply of the pills for “free” — meaning that a sleazy dentist whose kids I used to babysit for, illegally kept thousands of secobarbitals in huge jugs in his upstairs linen closet. He was married but he was fucking around with my best friend, who was 16 at the time and also one of his babysitters (this was when we were all living in that 1970s swinging-sex apartment complex place that I blogged about recently) and part of getting us to not spill the beans to his wife that he was fucking one of the babysitters was giving us a massive amount of free drugs.
Married men did this a lot back then — maybe they still do it, I don’t know. But the wife would make plans to go out somewhere, and the husband would make plans to go out somewhere, so they’d need to hire a babysitter. But as soon as the wife was safely off doing her thing, the husband would circle back home and hit on the babysitter.
It happened to all of us babysitting-girls in the apartment complex. It happened to me, too, but it always totally creeped me out. I knew exactly what was going on when the guys would suddenly “be home” but I would just play dumb. I’d say things, like, “Well, since you’re home now, I guess I can I go.” Once I left without getting paid because the guy really, really wanted me to stay and I just wanted to get the fuck out of there. Another time, I actually gave a man my 16-year-old girl friend’s phone number and told him to call her because I knew she didn’t mind fucking any of those guys & would come right over. And both of them — my girlfriend and the man whose kids I had just been babysitting — said, “Wow, thanks!”
(If you’re too young to have been a teenager in the 1970s, I assure you it was off-the-charts fucked-up, because all the “adults” all over the whole fucking country were trying to “figure themselves out” at the very same time.)
I was told I was being taken to a mental hospital about 5 minutes before they told me to get in the car. You know, they sprang it on me so that I couldn’t run away. They told me to grab some clothes and that was it. But before I left my bedroom, in a total panic, I flushed hundreds of those pills down the toilet. I already had one arrest on my criminal record and I was afraid that if they found those pills while I was gone, I’d be sent to Reform School after the mental hospital…
I think you can see that my life was getting pretty awful and my range for reasoning was getting pretty narrow.
However, while in the hospital, I had to attend “school.” We will not discuss what school was like in a mental hospital. But one afternoon, they made us listen to a tape recording of Johnny Cash urging us to not take drugs.
He talked about his life of pill-taking and how fucked up it had made his life. At his worst, he took something like 98 amphetamine tablets a day, and except for the fact that I was taking pills that put me in the other direction, I could totally relate to what he was saying. And after that, I really tried hard to not take any more pills. I really did. It took about ten more years to truly be able to stop all the drugs, but I was at least trying after that. I really was. I didn’t trust any adults, at all, except a couple of my English teachers. So I never went to anyone for any kind of help. I always just tried to figure out my problems on my own.
But that’s how much I loved Johnny Cash. Because of him, I tried really hard to stop taking drugs. I did.
When I was in my 30s, in NYC, I finally got to see Johnny Cash live. He played at the Ritz, but this was when they’d moved the Ritz to the old Studio 54 space in midtown Manhattan.
He was older by then, of course, but Parkinson’s had not set in yet. He could still sing and play that guitar like nobody’s business. The incredible Marty Stuart (who was still his son-in-law at that point, I think) played in the band. It was an incredible show. I cried when he finally sang “Folsom Prison Blues” and I realized that I was a lot closer to him, standing there by the stage at the Ritz, then I would have been back in the bleachers at the Ohio State Fair. How cool, right?
Well, okay!! My meeting with the director yesterday was so good, gang. Just really, really good. And I need to get started on the rest of the play now. I have a lot of really complicated stuff to tackle in the current segment that I’m in.
Plus, there’s a new Red Hand Files newsletter from Nick Cave in my inbox!! So I need to go read that!
Have a wonderful Wednesday, wherever you are in the world!! Thanks for visiting, gang. I know you know what I’m leaving you with today!! Enjoy!! I love you guys. See ya!
“Folsom Prison Blues”
I hear the train a comin’
It’s rolling round the bend
And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when
I’m stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin’ on
But that train keeps a rollin’ on down to San Antone
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 just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry
I bet there’s rich folks eating in a fancy dining car
They’re probably drinkin’ coffee and smoking big cigars
Well I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free
But those people keep a movin’
And that’s what tortures me
Well if they freed me from this prison
If that railroad train was mine
I bet I’d move it on a little farther down the line
Far from Folsom prison, that’s where I want to stay
And I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away
c – 1955 Johnny Cash