Johnny Cash, the original badass. The Man in Black, who would have turned 81 today, is one of the most fascinating, exciting, funny, and kick-ass figures in music history, from the time he was a young boy who used to pick and eat cotton buds against his mother’s wishes to his too-soon passing in 2003. Do yourself a favor, and listen to At Folsom Prison tonight. The hoots and hollers in “Cocaine Blues” remain exhilarating all these years later.
To celebrate Cash’s birthday, let’s take a look back at some of his best f*ck you moments throughout his long, storied career, from the time he deciphered Russian Morse code during the Korean War to when the U.S. government sued him for setting a forest on fire, killing dozens of condors in the process. Needless to say, Johnny Cash > dumb birds.
1. Cash went to jail (never prison) seven times in his life, including his most infamous run-in with the law in 1965 in El Paso, Texas, near the Mexican border. Authorities thought he was smuggling heroin, but he was instead found with 688 Dexedrine capsules and 475 Equanil tablets. Cash spent the night in jail, was forced to pay a $1,000 fine, received a 30-day suspended sentence, and had this famous photo taken of him.
2. That same year, Cash was arrested in Starkville, Mississippi for trespassing while…picking flowers. In 2007, Starkville celebrated the Johnny Cash Flower Pickin’ Festival.
3. While serving in the Air Force in Germany during the Korean War, Cash formed his first band, the Landsberg Barbarians, with fellow GIs. Obviously, they didn’t last, but it sounds like they had one hell of a time while they were together. “We were terrible,” Cash once said, “but that Lowenbrau beer will make you feel like you’re great. We’d take our instruments to these honky-tonks and play until they threw us out or a fight started.”
4. Cash don’t care. During his time in Germany, he deciphered Russian Morse code, and was the first American — yes, even before President Dwight Eisenhower — to know that Joseph Stalin had died.
5. A brief excerpt from Michael Streissguth’s Johnny Cash: The Biography, about baby chickens.
6. He owned a camper named “Jesse James” and kept its windows black. Why? Because that’s where he went on his amphetamine runs in the desert.
7. One time, however, “Jesse” had an oil leak and caught fire, which lead to hundreds of acres in the Los Padres National Forest getting scorched. Forty-nine of the refuge’s 53 endangered condors died in the blaze, and when a judge asked Cash why he did it, he responded, “I didn’t do it, my truck did, and it’s dead, so you can’t question it…I don’t care about your damn yellow buzzards.” Cash was sentenced to pay $82,001 to make up for what he did, meaning, according to the man himself, he was the first (and only) person sued by the government for a forest fire.
8. To quote Bobby Big Wheel, “Here’s the Nixon White House memo in which Murray Chotiner asks H.R. Haldeman to neutralize Johnny Cash.”
9. “Well, I called New York and talked to that brain quack/And said, ‘Doc I gotta have my old brain back’/He said, ‘I’m sorry there, Mr. Cash, but I can’t do that’/He said, ‘I put your brain in a chicken last Monday.'” So goes one of Cash’s more memorable songs, “Chicken in Black,” an intentional f*ck you to his record label, Columbia. Cash felt they weren’t giving him the attention he deserved, so “Chicken” was meant as self-sabotage. Ironically, the song was a minor hit (irony is lost on the public, apparently), though Cash and Columbia drifted apart soon after.
10. And, of course, a literal middle finger, to the “Nashville music establishment and country radio” for their support. The ad was placed in Billboard by American Recordings, where Cash resurrected his career with Rick Rubin.
Johnny Cash, still the greatest.