Those of us who were lucky enough to have first been introduced to Johnny Cash through Walk the Line, the 2005 biopic in which he was brilliantly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, or the American Recordings, a series of albums produced by Rick Rubin that introduced the singer to an entirely new audience during the creative Indian summer of his later years, might not be explicitly aware of just how far the country star once fell. His legacy is eternal – the troubled man in black who found absolution, fighting for the underdog, entertaining prisoners and defying authority – but, as is the case with many iconic figures, the more inglorious moments from his past are less well remembered, plastered over with mythology and tales of redemption.
One such incident occurred right here in Nottingham during his 1983 tour. The 80s presented Cash with a creative and commercial lull in his career. His ‘Can’t forget the day I shot that bad bitch down’ theatrics had worn thin, and the world was moving in an entirely different direction musically. Having kicked a serious pill addiction in the 60s, Cash managed to stay clean until he found himself on the losing end of a fight with one of his pet ostriches in 1981. Cash had been prescribed a strong dose of amphetamine for the wounds he suffered, but stayed on the drug long after the pain had subsided. Almost two years later, the singer found himself sitting in a Nottingham hotel with his wife, June, awaiting the last-leg of his UK tour at the Royal Concert Hall.
The reintroduction of Valium to his system provided Cash with a string of unwelcome side-effects, not least of all the potent hallucinations he began to suffer. The worst of these, in which Cash thought he was being attacked by a spider, began in the confines of that hotel room. “I met my spider in England. Nottingham to be precise, in the Midlands, a region hitherto unrecognised as a habitat of aggressive arachnids,” Cash recalled in his 1997 autobiography, “I saw it in the middle of the night, biting my hand, causing me intense pain.” That pain was actually the result of an incident earlier in the day, during which he smashed the Nottingham hotel room apart while trying to prove the existence of a hidden bed to June, who, quite rightly, told him that it too was a hallucination.
Having performed the show and returned home to the States, Cash immediately sought medical attention for his hand, which had since become infected, ballooning to twice its normal size. He went in prepared: “I knew I’d be in there a while,” he recounts, “I hid a stash of Percodans, amphetamines, and Valium – a fifty-dose card I’d acquired in Switzerland – in a tobacco sack tied to the back of the TV set in my room.”
If it hadn’t been for the drug-induced spider hallucination in that Nottingham hotel room, his career may have ended not with the bang it did, but with a whimper of faded glory and drug addiction
During the procedure to fix the singer’s mangled hand, doctors discovered a much bigger problem: a life-threatening amount of internal bleeding in his midsection. Cash was immediately operated on, having his duodenum, parts of his stomach and several feet of intestine removed. The surgery doubtlessly saved his life and Cash got clean to the extent that, by the time he was back in hospital in 1988 for preventative heart surgery, he was able to refuse any prescription painkillers out of fear of relapsing.
Cash’s career was rejuvenated when, in 1994, he was offered a contract with legendary producer Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label. Under Rubin’s guidance, Cash created what many believe is some of the most heartfelt, stunning and intimate work of his illustrious career, including American Recordings VI: Ain’t No Grave, the album released posthumously in 2010. A barnstorming Glastonbury performance in 1994, as well as a flurry of Cash-inspired artists releasing covers of his songs, re-established the aura of the singer who blazed a unique trail through the musical world, cementing a legacy unlike any other. And to think, if it hadn’t been for the drug-induced spider hallucination in that Nottingham hotel room, his career may have ended not with the bang it did, but with a whimper of faded glory and drug addiction.