I’m very excited to go see the “Ring of Fire” at the Laguna Playhouse. But a word to the wise, do not scream “fire” in the theater no matter how excited you become over the Johnny Cash song. If the lyrics and beat overwhelm you, then yell “recall,” like Cash should have done several years after recording this great hit. An early false note for Cash rang out in 1965 when his pick up truck caught fire, triggered a forest fire that burnt 508 acres in Los Padres National Forest in California and drove off 49 of the 53 endangered condors. A judge asked Cash why he did it. Cash said, “I didn’t do it, my truck did it, and it’s dead, so you can’t question it.” The federal government was not amused and sued Cash for cash and won a settlement approximating $642,000 in today’s dollars. Rumor and innuendo persist that Cash showed his settlement displeasure by switching from trucks to Pontiac Firebirds. Forty-nine condors couldn’t be found for comment, but the four that didn’t fly off were not happy by Cash’s new set of wheels and sued Cash and GM for insensitive car names. The out of court settlement required Cash and GM to cover all future condor migration costs by Amtrak when Johnny was in the area fishing.
I believe Cash learned a valuable lesson then. In future run-ins with the law, Cash blamed his guitar case rather than his ride, where authorities routinely found a professionally stocked pharmacy of pills that should only have been prescribed at the corner of Healthy and Happy streets. Over the years, law enforcement was forced to write off these incidences as misdemeanors. In one appearance on the Ed Sullivan show police found Cash’s guitar case filled with prescription drugs. Topo Gigio and friends claimed it wasn’t a pill party, but instead a sanctioned clinical trial. Until things were straightened out, Topo Gigio was detained under house arrest in a hollowed out copy of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” Ed Sullivan, who was rounded up during the raid, was questioned and declared dead by New York’s medical examiner. The cause of death was ruled accidentally having no talent. Sullivan continued after his death to host the number one prime time entertainment show on television for the next five years.
There are many great Johnny Cash songs with accompanying backstories that are figments of anyone’s imagination. “Walk the Line” was inspired by a routine DUI checkpoint incident when Johnny walked the line right into his next song, “Folsom Prison Blues.” He then wrote a “Boy Named Sue.” After this release, Cash wrote songs about the railroad. “Hey Porter” and “Rock Island Line” were songs inspired by his never ending court payments made to the four condors affected by his first hit, “Ring of Fire,” a song that was later changed to “My Pick up was Recalled.” In later years, Cash dressed head to toe in black and wrote a funeral love song called “Jackson.” The lyrics tell the story of a marriage where the fire has gone out. Both partners desire to go to Jackson where they believe they will be better suited than the other to the lively nightlife. Years later while in Jackson, they meet a Jackson, Jackson Browne and they all co-wrote “Running on Empty.” An album inspired by Cash’s Pontiac Firebird that got recalled for a faulty gas gauge.
Okay, I hear you readers. Enough is enough. I’ll cash out. To hear the real man in black (or a good facsimile), you should go see “Ring of Fire” at Laguna Playhouse, showing Jan. 7 through Feb. 2.
Mark is a transplant to Laguna from Chicago. He occasionally writes the guest column “Pet Peeves.” His recently deceased border collie, Pokey, is his muse and ghostwriter.