Friday, June 4, 2010

Cash vs. Ostrich

Johnny Cash faced addiction, depression, the loss of his brother, and a broken heart - but it took an angry ostrich to almost put him out of the game for good. The savage attack that almost killed him didn't make it into "Walk the Line" (I have a feeling that Joaquin Phoenix probably would've balked at dramatizing this particular nugget from the Cash files). I managed to track down a first person account of one of the most bizarre episodes in music history for your perusal. Enjoy --

by S. Craig Renfroe, Jr.

We were out on Cash’s exotic animal farm–”ranch,” he called it.  And he’d been drinking, Dickel maybe, and wanted to look in on the ostriches because I’d told him the one was sick.  Sick was now dead.  A beautiful female, probably the most gorgeous I’d ever worked with in my few years then and my many since.  A breathtaking bird.  And her mate knew it.  Knew he’d won the Darwinian prize of sexy and now lost it all.  Love-sick and grief-stricken, the male hovered over the dead.  I wanted to warn Cash, tell him that the bird was acting strange, shifty, but Cash’d been drinking.

What that bird took Cash for, dressed as he was all in black, I can only guess.  Its feathers rose, expanding, and its neck stretched high, done lying on the ground, prey hoping to be confused with the dirt, his love gone to the dirt.  And in one motion, that ostrich’s leg kicked into the air and with a muscle strong enough to run forty-five miles an hour brought a heavy hoof down on Cash.  The claw toe tore into Cash’s chest, ripping him apart and would have completely disemboweled him had he not been wearing one of his “big-ass rock-n-roll” belt buckles.

Cash would go to the hospital, critical.  His entourage would look after him and pray for him and he would live.  I took the ostrich to my place.  Just in case.
And many months later, Cash, plush on painkillers and a gun in his pants, asked me where that ostrich got to.  Long gone, I had said, or some such thing vague enough to imply we’d already put it down.  I went home to watch the bird, melancholy but stoic.  Cash spiraled into the drugs and drink.  It would be years “that wound scarring down his chest and stomach” before he would bottom out and come to the belt buckle of his life.  I fell away from his scene, especially for the friends that scapegoated the ostrich for Cash’s addictions.  I thought it was that injury that saved him, drove him to professionals and that would make him see the black bottom.  It would be even later that he would have a massive heart attack and again have his chest slit open—this time leave his body and get pissed off when he awakes to the hospital, not the paradise of heaven he’d seen, and awake to the news that he’d live.

I was feeding the ostrich the day Cash died.  The bird didn’t seem to notice, but that night I heard clicking.  Outside, the ostrich at the fence let a drumming sound build and end in clicks, again and again.  My sleep inconsistent at the best of times, I rolled to his night-long percussion.
He didn’t meet me by the fence.  I found him still on the ground, the spitting image of his mate those decades ago, as if he’d positioned himself just so to find that doorway to where she’d gone.  Lifting up the leg, I checked the hoof and under his toes, but no visible matter remained from Cash’s insides, washed or rubbed away.  Surely there were still microscopic particles clinging the dead ostrich’s foot.  And though I’d never given heaven much thought, I hoped Cash would be there to admit to this bird that it was that blow that brought his life down and made it possible to turn around.  The ostrich would give the Man in Black a thundering drum roll in its throat and a few clicks before padding off to look for her.

Johnny performing at San Quentin with his beloved June Carter Cash

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