Late one night I received a call from Rick Ruben, whom I had gotten to know through Tom Petty, asking if I could be at the Four Season’s Hotel in Beverly Hills the following morning to photograph Johnny Cash for his American Recordings project. The details were sketchy but Johnny had been ducking Rick’s attempts to sit for some publicity images. I was given a room number, a time to arrive and was told to travel light and alone. As we were hanging up Rick emphasized the importance of making this happen. This was starting to get interesting.
This wasn’t my first rodeo so I knew how these sort of things usually go down. Typically I would report to the room where I would meet a handler of some type, a publicist or perhaps a road manager who would brief me on the logistics – what Mr. Cash was expecting, how much time I would have, anything I should or should not engage him in, etc. and then at the appropriate time they would introduce me to Johnny.
At 6:30 a.m. I knocked on the hotel room door as instructed…dead silence. After a moment I knocked again and heard muffled voices and shuffling, clearly I had awoken someone. After a moment the door opened as wide as the security chain would allow…”Here’s Johnny!” A sleepy, frustrated Johnny Cash peered out at me clearly confused by my presence. Ouch. I stammered in an attempt to apologize, I just wanted to walk away. Fearing security would be called an explanation seemed like a good idea, at the mention of Rick’s name he just shot a smile to the floor, gave me a defeated look, unchained the door and invited me in. I sat on the sofa and Johnny sat in silence across from me wiping the sleep out of his eyes, hair disheveled, bare-legged in a white hotel bath robe, not exactly how I had envisioned my first encounter with “The Man in Black“. To punctuate the undeniably awkward nature of the moment, he reached over to the coffee table where there was a white carafe of coffee and some cups that were clearly from the day before. He casually dumped a cup’s cold contents into a large potted plant, refilled it with “fresh” coffee and set it in front of me before doing the same for himself.
He broke the silence, speaking in hushed tones since June Carter Cash was still asleep in the adjoining room. He explained that he was leaving for Auckland, New Zealand that evening and that he had a laundry list of things he had to take care of before his flight. There would be no time for a formal session. Remembering my directive, which was starting to make sense, I suggested that I just shadow him and find some photos along the way. I offered to leave while he got ready and we agreed to meet for breakfast downstairs. As I left the room I realized I was taking a gamble by letting Johnny out of my sight as he had already proven a flight risk in Rick’s previous attempts to make this shoot happen. I felt good about taking my chances as I never want to point my camera at someone that doesn’t want to be photographed.
June joined us for breakfast and was very amused by the situation, she became my ally by showing interest in the shoot. Up until that point I knew it could go either way. They were both incredibly warm and down-to-earth. Johnny’s “to do” list for the day was comprised of mundane tasks ranging from buying comfortable pants for the long flight to shopping for stationary. At some point he needed to stop at Rick’s house to finalize the tracks for the album. Rick was ahead of the curve in embracing the digital revolution and had recorded Johnny’s album in the comfort of his living room.
It was a long day and the tasks became less than mundane starting with a visit to the dentist. I was unclear on specifically what he was having done but it was apparent that he was made of tougher stuff than most. The dentist was finishing up a very invasive procedure that had been ongoing and due to Johnny’s battles with substances in the past he was unwilling to allow any pain killers into his system. None. There were whirring drills, sharp tools, bloody wads of cotton – the typical dental commotion but without any of the ordinary shots and swabs to kill the pain. It was hard to watch. It put the dentist’s staff on edge but Johnny closed his eyes and quietly managed the pain.
After several more stops and successfully purchasing several pair of black pants with elastic waste bands from a big & tall shop we were off to Rick’s house. I had left my car with my lighting gear at the Four Seasons and wanted to get at least one formal setup. I wasn’t sure if Rick would be satisfied that I just chronicled a legend buying casual wear.
I called my assistant and had him swing by the hotel to get my gear and stash it some place out of the way at Rick’s. Upon arrival I was led to a pile of gear in a bedroom and took a few minutes to prep a quick portrait. Meanwhile Rick and Johnny were listening to alternate takes of a few songs and discussing which they preferred and the track order. They seemed to be in total agreement until it came down to the final track. Rick was a proponent of one version because he liked the arrangement of the first verse while Johnny liked the latter half the other version. It appeared to be a stalemate.
Johnny looked at the only other person in the room and asked which I preferred. Seriously? I’m sandwiched between two of the most important sets of ears in contemporary music and they are deferring to the guy with the camera? I tried to “take the fifth” and explained that in this situation I was the brown shoes to their tuxedo and wasn’t qualified to cast the deciding vote. Johnny very deliberately leaned towards me on the sofa, squared his elbows on his knees, looked me in the eye and after a heavy pause slowly said “You are the audience, your opinion counts.” Score one for Mr. Cash.
I didn’t want to come across as a sycophant but the truth was that I agreed with each of them and suggested they do some creative editing to combine both takes. With that Johnny, shot Rick a dissatisfied look, slowly picked up his guitar and reached for the boom mic as Rick hit “record” on a DAT machine. Without so much as clearing his throat, Johnny performed the song in a single take combining the elements of both versions. After a moment Rick broke the silence with the “plink”of a switch and said “That sounded great. Let’s hear it back!” Johnny pushed the mic away and said “Don’t need to hear it…that’s the one.” I have spent a lot of time in elaborate recording studios watching very talented people struggle for days crafting a song to get it just right and THIS just happened! I wonder to this day if the first time that Johnny ever heard that recording was after it’s release.
With that, they were done and Rick and I started discussing the photos I had taken that day. Johnny admitted with a smile that he thought he had successfully dodged it until that early morning knock on his door. I leveraged his humor at that moment and tested his patience by asking him if we could do a couple of quick set-ups. He gave Rick a suspicious look as if we had conspired and said “Make it quick”. That informed me perfectly how he felt about this process, those were the exact words he said to the dentist before the drilling began. Intent on respecting his request, I proceeded to shoot three setups in just 12 frames. As I shot the last frame Johnny said “Painless – that’s what every dentist wants to hear.
Before heading to LAX to catch his flight to New Zealand he had time to go back to the hotel and take a nap. When we got there he called up to see if June was in the room, she was out. He paused for a moment and asked if I would like to come up for a minute. This was unexpected. We had shared some nice conversations and we had become pretty comfortable with one another but I didn’t expect that he would want to hang out, especially after a busy day and with such a long flight ahead. In the moment I was touched that he enjoyed my company. We chatted as we made our way to his room, we took a few images in the courtyard of the hotel and he folded his hands in prayer.
He was talking about his convictions and how he came to them as we entered the suite, he made a B-line for the foot of his bed and kicked his boot up and motioned for me to grab it. I helped him off with the boot and set it on the floor. As I was removing the second boot I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and realized why he wanted me to join him. I placed the second boot on the floor and excused myself so he could get some rest.
At least I found out first hand that Johnny Cash was one cowboy that did not sleep with his boots on.