I Was There When It Happened: My Life With Johnny Cash
From the day in 1954 when Memphis auto mechanics and casual guitar strummers Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins met Johnny Cash, an amateur singer fresh out of the Air Force, until Cash fired him in 1980, Grant played a pivotal role in Cash’s life and career. As Tennessee Three bassist, hotel prankster and skilled road manager, he observed his boss’s turbulent life and career from a unique vantage point he recounts in this strangely organized (66 brief chapters) memoir.
Recollections of the start, when he, Cash and Perkins made their severe musical limitations work for them by creating the unique “boom-chucka” sound, are fascinating as are his tales of their frathouse-style hotel vandalism. Grant’s detailed memories of key players in Cash’s life sometimes diverge from the biopic Walk The Line, which vacillated between solid accuracy and shameful distortion. While memoirs, like biopics, must be kept in perspective, many of Grant’s characterizations ring true. His Sam Phillips was an eccentric (if parsimonious) visionary, unlike the film’s bland bean-counter. To Grant, first wife Vivian Cash, depicted on screen as a shrieking harpy, was a victim, raising four daughters with an AWOL husband.
He thought little when the late fiddler Gordon Terry innocently offered Cash an amphetamine pill to stay awake, but as time passed, his unexpected addiction created two Cashes: sober, fun-loving, generous “J.R.” and pilled-up, brazen and deceitful “Johnny.” If June Carter was the film’s heroine, Grant perceived that heroism in even more epic proportions. Through their joint efforts, Cash, even if high, fulfilled most show dates. At times he missed one but sometimes arose Lazarus-like from a pharmaceutical fog to perform brilliantly. Grant also extends overdue props to the true organizer of Cash’s ’67 detox: Nashville psychiatrist Nat Winston, shamefully ignored by the film.
Beyond the film’s time frame, Grant explains that Cash didn’t quit pills completely until son John Carter Cash’s birth in 1970. Most of that decade was good for Cash personally, though artistically, Grant admits it was largely arid. His total relapse at decade’s end depleted his finances and sent his marriage to the brink.
After Cash fired Grant in March 1980, Grant alleges Cash encouraged lackeys to spread tales around Nashville that his trusted friend embezzled a million dollars, tales few believed. Cash also denied that he, Grant and Perkins had a formal partnership. Grant’s meticulous recordkeeping documented the partnership and disproved embezzlement; he sued for monies owed, as did Perkins’ daughters (the guitarist died in a 1967 fire). As a court date loomed, the suits were settled out of court.
It would be easy to dismiss all this as sour grapes, but Grant recounts Cash’s dissolution in sorrow, not bitterness, recalling the anguish it caused his many friends in Cash’s organization. Grant’s “just say no” anti-drug cautionaries are lame, yet he’s likely correct that Cash’s dissolute ways accelerated his physical decline, and that stress from his behavior undermined June’s long-term health.
Grant moved on to coordinate tours for the then-hot Statler Brothers, a former Cash opening act. After Cash’s 1997 physical meltdown, he and Grant tearfully reconciled, resuming their friendship as before. A year later, they performed together one final time as a surprise closing act at the all-star Cash Tribute at Madison Square Garden.
It’s true the two most recent Cash biographies were rushed and less than adequate, and other memoirs by longtime associates are inevitable. Years may pass before a definitive work on the man appears. How Cash’s estate views Grant’s story (Rosanne Cash penned one of two forewords) isn’t clear. Nonetheless, I Was There When It Happened carries at least the weight of Cash’s two autobiographies.