Jonathan Holiff: My Father and the Man in Black

Jonathan Holiff recalls the journey that led him to the truth about his overbearing father, Saul: the man who struggled to control Johnny Cash and his own demons.

Jonathan Holiff wanted to forget his father, Saul, after he committed “rational suicide” in 2005. They'd been estranged for decades, and Jonathan only had painful memories of the hard-drinking man whose coldness blighted his youth. He'd left Canada, aged 17, determined to earn his showbiz father's respect by bettering him professionally. Despite doing well in Hollywood, none came.

[My] entire adult life had been a knee-jerk adolescent reaction to my father's lack of approval,” Holiff says down the line during a visit to Los Angeles. “So I realised, after his death, that I was truly unhappy, and no longer had an interest in the superficial existence that I had pursued and embraced as a consequence.”

He sold his business in Tinseltown and drove back to Canada, thinking he'd also left Saul behind. However, as revealed in his compelling documentary, My Father and the Man in Black, Holiff was in fact beginning a journey that would force him to re-think his father.

Looming over their story is Johnny Cash, the Southern Baptist superstar Saul - a Jew “as serious as a heart attack”, according to band mates - managed for 13 years, before mysteriously quitting at the height of Cash's fame. When journalists and biographers started calling with questions about Saul and Johnny's relationship that Holiff couldn't answer, his mother remembered that after retiring, her husband had put his business things into a storage locker.

I was unable to bring myself to open the door because I didn't want to wade into my father's life,” says Holiff. “I was still un-evolved emotionally. I was still practising denial.”

Two months after his return, Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter, his singing partner and second wife, opened, and people wanted to know what Holiff thought of the glossy biopic. “It seemed almost as if I was being punished at first, and certainly seemed like a conspiracy of some kind,” he recalls wryly. Nevertheless, he reluctantly went along to the cinema, and although Saul was erased from the film's “whitewashed” storyline, it was eye-opening.

I was so unfamiliar with the specifics of my father's career that not only did I not know that it was Saul who hired June and put her with Johnny professionally, I hadn't realised that Johnny was famously arrested [on drug smuggling charges in El Paso] the year I was born. When I saw that I failed to really watch the rest of the movie, because it opened a floodgate of repressed or forgotten memories of childhood.”

Holiff decided to face the storage locker. “I wanted to find out if there was anything about his children among his most important documents and archives. And the answer was, no.”

What he did find was life changing. Among Saul's belongings – which included a gold record awarded to him personally for a million-plus sales of A Boy Named Sue – were more than 60 hours' worth of intimate audio-diaries and recorded telephone conversations between Saul and Johnny. As a child, Holiff knew Cash as a “very special and kind and generous” man. Now he discovered a young, pill-popping rebel nicknamed Johnny “No-Show” Cash whom Saul struggled to manage. (He missed an entire tour just before Holiff was born, leaving Saul – as he so often would - to pick up the pieces, and worrying about money.) The filmmaker also learned that when he was nine months old, he was on the road with Cash in Toronto, in 1966, when the singer “overdosed and nearly died, and we all drove to Rochester across the border, risking arrest for the discovery of pills [hidden somewhere] in the motor-home.”

Holiff had never understood before why Saul had treated him and his brother like clients, including making them sign contracts, while they were growing up. “I realised that [Saul] was dealing with a very volatile character in Johnny Cash . . . who was very much like a wild child, and he perhaps [tried] to control us from the beginning and mould us into what he expected from his children.” Holiff rebelled, though, “much like Johnny Cash did, only not quite as famously and spectacularly.”

Walk the Line suggested that Cash gave up drugs - he didn't. The film also failed to address his becoming Born Again.

Jonathan always wondered why his father had flown into a rage when he came home from school, aged eight, and declared that he wanted to be known as John. “He absolutely blew up, and I thought he was going to physically kill me and take me apart. He said, 'Your name is not John, it's Jonathan. John is a Christian name and you shall not use it.'” Going through Saul's files, he realised that this was around the same time that another John – Johnny was Cash's stage name - was trying to convert his father to Christianity.

In a recording about his childhood, his father says he grew up surrounded by almost “palpable anti-Semitism.” Nonetheless, he remained proud of and open about his Jewish identity. One of Holiff's more surprising finds, therefore, was a photograph of Saul as Caiaphas – the Jewish High Priest supposedly involved in the plot against Jesus – in Cash's self-funded film shot in Israel about the life of Christ, The Gospel Road. Saul had never discussed it afterwards, not even with his wife.

“The conclusion we drew was that he quickly regretted having done it and it was a source of pain for him for many years,” says Holiff. In one of the actual excerpts from Saul's audio-diaries used in the film, he asserts of Cash: “He robbed me of my soul and now I think he's trying to save it for me with his fundamentalist Christianity jazz.” Not long after, he resigned.

I think he woke up and realised just how far he'd gone without perhaps even realising what he was doing,” Holiff suggests. “So I think that's the straw that broke the camel's back in their relationship.”

Listening to Saul's self-lacerating and self-aware recordings, his expressions of guilt over not being a better father, and disclosures about his own troubled upbringing, Holiff came to see Saul as a three-dimensional human being for the first time. Has he forgiven him?

Here is a guy who was wealthy, successful, had stature, was working with the biggest-selling recording artist in the world in 1970 - Johnny exceeded The Beatles' sales in the United States, briefly, in 1969 - and he never found happiness. So I was very forgiving of him.

Copyright Stephen Applebaum, 2013

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