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Arts & Culture

Music Journalist Robert Hilburn Talks About His Book, 'Johnny Cash: The Life'

Photo: Jim Marshall, License: N/A

Jim Marshall

Cash at 1968’s historic Folsom Prison concert; to his left, Hilburn, the only music journalist present

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You’re the one who taught me about ethics in journalism, not going backstage, keeping a distance from the people you write about. Yet you once “confessed” to me that with John Lennon it was difficult not to get too close because he was such a special person, so you, John and Yoko developed a close friendship, yet you never stopped being critical of him when you had to. In comparison, what was your relationship with Cash like?
I first met Cash in 1966, or ’67. I had just started writing about country music for the LA Times as a freelancer. I wanted to do rock ’n’ roll but there was already somebody writing about it. I did a review of Cash at the Long Beach Auditorium, I think. In those days there wasn’t a publicist there, you had to go backstage and knock on the door, and hopefully they’ll answer and talk to you. I remember knocking on the door and, “What??!!” His voice came out, he was in really bad shape at the time, he looked awful, his voice was raspy. I walked in the dressing room. He was alone, he was wiping his hair, jittery motions. I thought he was just hyperactive; I didn’t realize it was the drugs that were talking. After that we met at Folsom, there was a graciousness, a warmth about Cash, especially by ’68 or ’69, when he was getting off the drugs. He was a relatively shy person, he would kind of retreat in the dressing room or at a social function, he’d let June take over. But he always made me feel comfortable, he’d sit down and talk to me. We both came from small towns, so I think that helped. And secondly, I was somebody from a big newspaper who was paying attention to him, and that really impressed him. He’d always talk to DJs who’d tell him, “Oh, we love your music,” but here was someone from “the Los Angeles newspaper.” The guy in the Air Force who taught him how to play guitar came from my same town. I spent a weekend with him and June at the Carter Family cabin in Virginia, just six months before their death, and that was a really important moment, because I wasn’t planning to do a book, but he talked a long, long time about regrets in his life, and it helped me understand a lot of things about him. I loved John Lennon because he’d make you feel comfortable right away; he’d sit down, have fun, you could talk about Elvis, and Johnny Cash, and things he loved. Johnny Cash [wasn’t] as outgoing as John Lennon but he’d make you feel comfortable in the same way, he made you feel you were talking to a real person. In all the years I interviewed people, I think I took my mother to two or three shows, and I never took her backstage because I didn’t want to go backstage. But one day I told myself, “I think she’d really like to meet Johnny Cash.” She loved Johnny Cash, and everybody loved Johnny Cash back in that day. It was amazing he’d get such a wide following. So I took my mom because I knew he would understand I wasn’t trying to be a groupie and he’d be gracious to her. And he was, and that was a great snapshot of him. He wasn’t the kind of people that would go out of his way to meet people, he was kind of shy. But he came over to her, shook her hand and said, “Anything I can do for you? I hope you enjoyed the show.” I wouldn’t have taken that chance with most entertainers, because I think most would’ve brushed her off.

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