I occasionally read biographies of people who fascinate me for one reason or another. I picked up this one because I heard an interview with the author on the radio and I thought it had an interesting angle. And of course, Johnny Cash was a huge musical figure for me when I was growing up. The book tells the story of the 13-year business relationship between Johnny Cash and his unlikely manager, London Ontario based clothing salesman and burger joint operator, Saul Holiff.
It’s an unusual story about an unusual and often troubled – but ultimately very successful – relationship. The book doesn’t gloss over the flaws of both Cash and Holiff. Reading about a time in Johnny Cash’s career during which he was downing fistfulls of pills, and failing to show up at gigs all over the place leaving Holiff to clean up the mess – was nothing short of frightening. How do you manage the career of someone who is spiraling downward?
For some reason lots of people are attracted to the bad behaviour of drug-addicted entertainers. This book goes into Cash’s troubled times in some detail. I had no idea just how out of control he was at the time. It was far more sad than cool. The remarkable story is how he got his act together and went on to new career highs. The other thing I didn’t know was the degree to which Cash rebounded into religion. This book recounts a trip to Israel in which Johnny Cash made a movie about the life of Jesus (with June Carter Cash playing Mary Magdeleine complete with southern drawl).
I think telling the story of the two parallel lives, with a detailed focus on the lesser known Saul Holiff, created an interesting angle for the book and also allowed the author to focus on a 13 year period in Cash’s life, rather than attempt a broader biography. The two men needed one another but they had so many conflicts. We learn what it can be like to manage a huge ego prone to wretched excess. Holiff had to endure a lot of crap over the years. On the other hand, he also benefited greatly from Johnny Cash’s huge success. We also see how his work in the background helped grow Cash’s career.
Holiff was ambitious and he wanted to elevate his client beyond the country music world and onto the pop charts. It was fascinating to read from Holiff’s point of view how this happened with the shows at Folsom Prison and San Quentin, with A Boy Named Sue and Ring of Fire, and with a nationally televised television show.
At this point, the Johnny Cash story is pretty well-known, but the book looks at it through an unusual lens offering up additional insight by looking at a chunk of Cash’s career through the eyes of his manager. The book also gives the reader a behind the scene’s look at the music business, which is something we often don’t get to see.