That’ll Be Cash on the Auction Block, Son
Some time in the 1970s, while ensconced in the Hotel Graf Zeppelin in Stuttgart, Germany, Carl Perkins peeled off a couple sheets of hotel stationary and wrote his friend, Johnny Cash.
“I’m lacking in ability to say what I feel, so here goes a shot at writing it down,” Perkins wrote. “Thank you, John, for calling me a man. That means so very much to me…if any man knows the real meaning of man and father I think you do.” Perkins continued: “I have always loved you. You’ve been much more than a great friend for me…my heart has been with you all the time.” Then there’s a morbidly kidding postscript. “Valda and June have one less worry, they won’t have to get but five pallbearers now.”
It’s a moving insight into two now-deceased giants of music. How do we know of its existence? Two reasons: 1) Johnny Cash was presumably moved enough by Perkins’ words to treasure the two creased sheets of paper for some 30 years, and 2) the Cash estate recently offered the letter up for auction.
From September 14-16, Sotheby’s hosted “Property From The Estate Of Johnny Cash & June Carter Cash.” The event earned $3,984,260, according to Sotheby’s website, and for a time, a floor of the Manhattan auction house was transformed into a museum tracing the careers of Johnny and June. Guitars, stage costumes, Carter family heirlooms, furniture, dinnerware, photographs and automobiles all went on the block. Imagine if the House of Cash exhibits were combined with the contents of the couple’s Hendersonville home and all was lavishly displayed in a well-annotated museum only instead of simply touring the artifacts, you were encouraged to try and take treasures home.
It was an offer few who participated (either in person or online) could apparently resist. Johnny’s custom-made 1960s Grammer acoustic guitar went for $131,200 the same price fetched by his 1997 black Martin D-42JC axe, the one Johnny posed with in his latter-day promo shots. An American flag that flew over the White House (a gift from President Ford) brought in $25,200. If you had $50,400 in pocket, Johnny’s Bicentennial Martin D76 acoustic was yours. His 1986 Grammy for Best Spoken Word or Non-Musical Recording, for Interviews From The Class Of ’55 Recording Session, was expected to fetch up to $7,000, but raked in a whopping $187,200. A section of the auction was devoted to items that appeared in Mark Romanek’s video for “Hurt”: A marble garniture ($6,000), Renaissance oak dining table ($13,200), oak armchairs ($13,200) and the Goetz grand piano ($66,000).
As eye-opening as some of those bids may be, just as surprising was how some of the items failed to get the high rollers’ attention. A collection of Carter Family memorabilia was valued at a lowball $700, but brought in a mere $480. A large electric display that greeted visitors at the House of Cash was worth a modest $7,800. A bundle of Jimmie Rodgers documents, including a signed 1929 IOU to Ralph Peer, garnered a tepid $960. Johnny’s 1950s-era lyric “ledger,” which includes hand-scrawled words to “Cry, Cry, Cry” and “Get Rhythm”, was valued (perhaps undervalued) at $20,000, but went for a steal at $14,400.
I was repeatedly drawn back to his documents. I examined Johnny’s handwriting as it evolved over the years: Clean penmanship in his ’50s notebook, a more hurried scribble in ’70s working drafts of “Good Morning Friend” and “No Earthly Good”, and a barely legible, palsied hand on a Spring 2003 song list for American V. A 1983 letter Johnny wrote from an Augusta, Maine, hotel to an ailing June in a Nashville hospital glowed with devotion and concern: “I love you and I need you as long as God lets us live.” Alongside Perkins’ letter to Cash was an undated tribute by Cash to Perkins titled “Disciple In Blue Suede Shoes”: “Surely,” Johnny wrote, “God loves him most of all when he sings and plays.”
As a lifelong admirer of Cash, I confess that as I toured the lots, the auction gave me pause to reconsider my own reflex to join the frenzy, to buy some of the Man In Black’s possessions. I felt a similar unease wandering through Graceland: You’re left to ponder how much one individual can mean to the world, and when that person is gone we’re invited to wonder at his life’s accumulated…stuff.
I couldn’t help but think of Shelley’s Ozymandias: “Nothing beside remains/Round the decay. Of that colossal Wreck.” That comparison is not a slight against the deservedly revered achievements of Johnny Cash. Rather, it reflects our culture’s tendency to confuse the meaning of the man with his worldly possessions. The hubris isn’t Cash’s, it’s ours — to think that, by buying his boots or a congratulatory letter he received from President Reagan, we’re somehow drawn closer to his essence. Johnny Cash’s great gift to the world is not to be had in owning his property. Rather, it’s something he offered up a long time ago: His music.
Almost as an afterthought, I was reminded that I did once meet Cash, after a fashion. It was in 1994 at SXSW in Austin. I arrived just before the start of his keynote address and had to sit on the floor, right in front of the podium. As he spun stories and performed solo acoustic numbers, Johnny did not disappoint. At the conclusion the singer stepped out from behind the lectern and extended his hand to me. As applause rained down on Johnny, I shook his hand and he inaudibly thanked me for coming out. I realize this meeting was more memorable for me than him. But it’s a moment that I will carry forever.
Auction price of Carl Perkins’ letter to Johnny Cash: $3,900.
Music and memories: Priceless.