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Music

Revisit the moment Johnny Cash opened up about his experience with drugs

@SamWKemp

Like so many musicians of his era, Johnny Cash struggled with his addiction in relative silence. Before the countercultural movement decided that drugs could be used as a means of self-exploration and accepted them into the fold of the hippie experience, stars tended to be a little less public about their drug use. For the likes of Johnny Cash, amphetamines were used as a performing enhancing drug, offering the boost of energy they needed to deliver a sensational show. Cash fell hard not only for amphetamines but barbiturates and alcohol as well.

He kept relatively quiet about his struggles with addiction until the late 1960s when a shift in the national mood made it more acceptable to talk about the damaging effects of excessive drug use. With the arrival of the 1970s, the idea that drugs were a harmless extension of the hippie ideal fell away. Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Jimi Hendrix all died of drug overdoses within a year of one another. This blow, coupled with the Manson Family murders, took some of the romance away from drug use and replaced it with simmering paranoia.

Speaking to a group of fans before a Neil Young concert in 1971, shortly after the death of Jim Morrison in July, Cash opened up about his history of drug use: “In this end of the music industry, there was a problem,” he began “I learned the hard way about drugs – not as hard as I could have learned I guess because I courted death with it. For a long time I took my chances and tried a little bit of everything there was to try. Most any of it could have killed me while I was taking it, but I was lucky enough to survive. For anybody else, it probably would have meant certain death.”

Turning to the crowd, Cash, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his black greatcoat, seems almost paternal. “These young minds will be our leaders in the future,” he says to the camera. “They’ll be our arts, our crafts, our politics, our music.” He seems determined to protect them from the same addiction that had dogged him for so long. Drugs had a huge impact on his behaviour both on and off stage. His friends frequently made light of erratic and aggressive behaviour. At the same time, Cash continued to get into car accidents and attempt to smuggle vast quantities of amphetamines over national borders. In retrospect, he knew he was out of control. “I was taking the pills for a while, and then the pills started taking me,” he once said.

Johnny Cash went in and out of recovery for many years. His words before that Neil Young concert came shortly after his first attempt to get clean. Perhaps he recognised that he owed it to his children to stop rolling the dice; maybe he’d had the fear of God put into him after hearing of those high-profile deaths. Either way, he would spend seven years in remission before dabbling in drink and drugs again. Only in later life would he finally beat his addictions.

He kept relatively quiet about his struggles with addiction until the late 1960s when a shift in the national mood made it more acceptable to talk about the damaging effects of excessive drug use. With the arrival of the 1970s, the idea that drugs were a harmless extension of the hippie ideal fell away. Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Jimi Hendrix all died of drug overdoses within a year of one another. This blow, coupled with the Manson Family murders, took some of the romance away from drug use and replaced it with simmering paranoia.

Speaking to a group of fans before a Neil Young concert in 1971, Cash opened up about his history of drug use: “In this end of the music industry, there was a problem,” he began. “I learned the hard way about drugs – not as hard as I could have learned, I guess. Because I courted death with it. For a long time I took my chances and tried a little bit of everything there was to try. Most any of it could have killed me while I was taking it, but I was lucky enough to survive. For anybody else, it probably would have meant certain death.”

Turning to the crowd, Cash, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his black greatcoat, seems almost paternal. “These young minds will be our leaders in the future,” he says to the camera. “They’ll be our arts, our crafts, our politics, our music.” He seems determined to protect them from the same addiction that had dogged him for so long. Drugs had a huge impact on his behaviour both on and off stage. His friends frequently made light of erratic and aggressive behaviour. At the same time, Cash continued to get into car accidents and attempt to smuggle vast quantities of amphetamines over national borders. In retrospect, he knew he was out of control. “I was taking the pills for a while, and then the pills started taking me,” he once said.

Johnny Cash went in and out of recovery for many years. His words before that Neil Young concert came shortly after his first attempt to get clean. Perhaps he recognised that he owed it to his children to stop rolling the dice; maybe he’d had the fear of God put into him after hearing of those high-profile deaths. Either way, he would spend seven years in remission before dabbling in drink and drugs again. Only in later life would he finally beat his addictions.