Rock and Roll Book Club: 'The Man Who Carried Cash'

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Julie Chadwick's 'The Man Who Carried Cash.'
Julie Chadwick's 'The Man Who Carried Cash.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

If there's any job that really stretches the contractual phrase "other duties as required," it's the job of a rock star's manager. Consider the night that Saul Holiff, then managing Johnny Cash, had to sit down and explain to George Jones that his payout from a joint tour would be reduced by the value of the hotel fixtures he'd smashed in a tantrum over playing second fiddle to Cash.

Cash had followed Jones through the room, keeping a running tally while Jones destroyed two lamps ("$90"), a set of curtains ("$300"), and a piece of the ceramic toilet ("one commode top, $175"). Cash's estimates proved to be quite accurate, and Jones admitted that he was at fault. "Those lamps were beautiful," he said as he pocketed his payout. "That's a real good buy."

The Man Who Carried Cash: what other title could you possibly give to a book about the relationship between Holiff and the singer-songwriter who would become the Man in Black? Author Julie Chadwick recounts Cash's career through the eyes of Holiff, based on the extensive personal archive bequeathed to the manager's son after the elder Holiff's death in 2005.

Chadwick begins her book with a precise account of Holiff's suicide, which is possible because he took his life very deliberately, and in view of his wife. "Remember what we agreed," said Holiff as he prepared to down a fatal dose of sedatives and fix a plastic bag over his head. "You stay in the bedroom and don't come out, no matter what, until this thing is over."

It's an astonishing way to begin the book, but it establishes Holiff's character: he was a man who would do things the way he believed they ought to be done, no matter how difficult. That's a good quality to have as a manager, and Cash recognized it early in his acquaintance with Holiff. When he disputed a small amount that he believed was due to him after playing a show Holiff promoted in 1959, Holiff stood his ground and pointed out that the contract clearly specified the terms of payment.

Holiff was in the right, and even though Cash lost that argument, the rising star respected the way the promoter had handled the contentious situation in a firm but professional manner. (Cash was also impressed by Holiff's car phone, and so am I, since I didn't even know you could have a car phone in 1961.) Cash started working more extensively with Holiff — then based in his home town of London, Ontario — as a promoter of his Canadian tours. In 1961, Cash and Holiff signed a simple, handwritten management deal, sealing an arrangement that would more or less remain in place until 1973.

Holiff saw the core arc of Cash's career: from a country star with crossover appeal to a mainstream pop star with a massive novelty hit ("A Boy Named Sue") and a TV show, active in politics and a prominent FOB (Friend Of Bob, as in Dylan). He also saw the demise of Cash's first marriage and the rise of his second, to June Carter. He saw Cash go through rehab, not for the last time.

As professional as Holiff generally seems to have been, Chadwick if anything outdoes him. First and foremost, she did her homework: when describing incidents mentioned in Holiff's papers, she tracks down other sources and describes them even-handedly. An anecdote about Cash snippily agreeing to his neighbors' demands that he cut it out with the loudly amplified Christmas music blaring from a speaker mounted on his house during the holidays, for example, is quadruple-sourced.

That makes The Man Who Carried Cash an informative chronicle of Cash's career, though it's probably not the best choice for your first book about Johnny Cash. Fans, however, will relish the new details that Holiff's papers make available, and they'll appreciate the extended discussions of career landmarks like Cash's first meeting with Carter (he immediately declared, only half-jokingly, that he planned to marry her) and the bizarre musical film The Gospel Road, shot in Israel in 1970.

Holiff's parents were Jewish — refugees from the violence following the Russian Revolution, in which one of his aunts was shot dead as a young girl — but the man who would carry Cash was raised as an atheist. He nonetheless became the regular victim of grossly casual anti-Semitism, from people up to and including Cash's Tennessee Three. ("We probably hurt his feelings a lot," later acknowledged drummer "Fluke" Holland in what amounts to something of an understatement given that Holland is talking about seeking out ways to call Holiff "Jew"...but "not in a racist way," Holland disingenuously elaborated.)

Cash's evangelical turn ultimately contributed to the end of his professional relationship with Holiff. The singer had never been entirely unable to refrain from accusing Holiff of financial greediness and mismanagement, and when those accusations became mixed with questions like "Do you have something against Jesus?" (this from June), Holiff finally felt the need to resign.

There were ups and downs throughout the pair's working relationship, and among the most painful documents Chadwick surfaces are multiple letters from Holiff to Cash, responding to various accusations or angry comments. Still, Holiff stuck by Cash because he respected his gift, because there were a lot of good days, because he liked Cash personally, and because, well, Holiff was damn good at his job. He earned a good living working for Cash, and Chadwick portrays the manager as an honest broker who did a great deal for Cash without ever thrusting himself into the limelight a la Colonel Parker.

There's a sense of affectionate but weary honesty to The Man Who Carried Cash. Though Chadwick worked with the cooperation of Holiff's family, both of the book's central characters are gone, so the frank truth can be told. The book doesn't paint a particularly flattering portrait of Cash — from the photograph of him en route to Korea on tour, his fingers pulling his eyes back in an offensive caricature, to stories of Cash repeatedly trashing his own Nashville office. (His brother, hired to manage the office, resigned in tears.) It's a warts-and-all portrait, as they say, of a man who had to face his own demons, repeatedly.

Chadwick ends her book on just the right note, quoting mutually admiring correspondence that demonstrates that as both men approached their final days, they continued to think warmly of one another despite their bumpy past. Speaking about Holiff in the 1990s, Cash said, "I only really had one manager who could manage me."

The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club is throwing a record party! It's part of the Lit Crawl MN on Sept. 16, 9 p.m. at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. Authors Andrea Swensson, Jim Walsh, and Cyn Collins will read from their books about Minnesota music history — and spin some sweet vinyl. Hosted by Jay Gabler, this event is free and open to the public.

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