I was named for Johnny Cash, or so my father told me. Johnny paid for the clothes on my back and the roof over my head, he lectured. I thought he was trying to instil in me an appreciation for what things cost. But in hindsight, I had witnessed desperation in a man who was, otherwise, without any discernible emotion (except perhaps anger).
My father, Saul Holiff, was Johnny Cash's long-time personal manager (he put Johnny together with June). But what distinguishes Saul from contemporaries like Brian Epstein and Colonel Tom Parker is that his client was all but unmanageable. This is, perhaps, why my father micro-managed me right out of his life.
In the 1960s, Johnny Cash was The King -- of the "no-shows." And my father's rant about who paid for my clothes was the act of a man who saw his fortunes shrinking. His sole occupation was The Johnny Cash Show which, at that time (well before the TV show), was derided in the business as "Johnny 'no show' Cash."
This revelation, and many more repressed childhood memories, were unleashed upon me like a tsunami when my father committed suicide in 2005 -- without leaving a note. We had been estranged for 20 years. He left nothing for me or my brother. Each of us handled his death differently. Josh changed his last name. I stopped going to work.
I thought my career in Hollywood would earn Saul's respect. I never got it. And when he killed himself, I had an epiphany. I had been competing with my dad my whole adult life. I left home at 17 with a pledge "I'd be bigger than my father ever was, and then he'd HAVE to love me." At 40, I was emotionally still an adolescent -- but would soon become a man.
I closed my Hollywood agency and moved back to Canada -- and in with my mother. There was no funeral or memorial service, but I needed to get as far away from my father's shadow (showbiz) as possible.
That's when a movie called Walk The Line opened, and the phone started to ring. Cash fans wanted to know if we had any memorabilia; biographers were curious about the relationship between the star and his manager. And that's when I discovered my father's storage locker. So much for starting over.
I found hundreds of letters, many handwritten, between Saul and Johnny and June. But it was a box filled with 60 hours of audiotape that really shocked me. Saul had recorded an audio diary from the time I was born until just before his death. He also taped his telephone calls with Johnny Cash -- none of it ever before published.
Not only had my father recorded his most private thoughts, but he detailed his experiences with Cash -- as they happened -- during the singer's darkest days in the 1960s, through his meteoric rise to stardom in the 1970s, and finally during their sensational break-up.
It was here I found the truth about my father -- and about myself. What started as personal therapy (could the contents of a storage locker really help me reconcile with a dead man?) turned into a documentary film called My Father and The Man In Black. It's about Johnny, Saul and ME -- the action driven by our own voices!
Upon seeing the film, which was six years in the making, Johnny Cash historian, Mark Stielper, noted "The Cash-Holiff partnership had every element of a classic melodrama: dizzying successes and harrowing crises; betrayals and reproaches; resignations and firings; reconciliation and recovery. Both men were proud, stubborn, and addicted ... Cash to 'the pills' and Holiff to 'the bottle.'
Indeed, Saul handled the bookings and the no-shows, the divorce and the marriage, the arrests and the trials. He was there for the absolute worst of times.
But like all good three-act stories, things changed. Saul was also there for the best of times: Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison, A Boy Named Sue, and Johnny's hit television series. But in 1973, at the zenith of Johnny's career, my father quit and retired at age 49. Until now, no one knew why.
This is where the Johnny-and-Saul story becomes truly weird. I don't want to spoil the ending -- but you won't see this story in Walk The Line!
Who was Saul Holiff? That's the only question I was concerned with. Why was he so angry? Why did the word "love" never pass his lips? And why didn't he leave a note?
I found a great measure of peace in what I found. The audiotapes reveal a tortured father who lamented his long absences, who accepted responsibility for neglecting his wife and children, who acknowledged he drank too much -- and who agonized about hitting his own rock bottom just as his client hit the big time.
In the end, the tapes offer an intimate look into the mind of an old man who was haunted by regret, and who took responsibility for his harsh treatment of me. He seems at times to be talking directly to me -- in these decades-old diaries.
My father didn't leave me a note... but he left me his story. And for that I'm grateful.Click here to listen to a segment of a never-before-published phone call between Johnny Cash and his manager, Saul Holiff.
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