Escalation and Confrontation: Part Two


Yet another crisis for Cash and Holiff loomed, however, during a tour in the U.K. and Europe in May 1966. After a series of shows in England and Scotland, Cash's entourage was scheduled to fly to Paris for a show that Holiff had painstakingly arranged at the Olympia Theatre, arguably the most prominent international venue that Cash--or any country star for that had matter--had ever played.

As Holiff later recalled in an audio recording, "[t]his was a deal I had worked on for a long time," and it would have been "the first time ever that a country-type act had appeared at the Olympia. . . . The French were sort of aware of Johnny Cash for a couple of reasons," but "[t]his was going to be a significant thing."

Or it would have been, but Cash did not show. He failed to meet everyone at the airport in London, and Holiff learned that he had absconded to Wales with Bob Dylan instead. As Holiff put it, "Johnny was going through his badass stage . . . And when we gathered together to fly over, he was nowhere to be found, and it turned out that he had taken off with Dylan on some mad escapade." (Dylan was filming the documentary Eat the Document at the time, and there is footage of Cash with him backstage.) This probably accounts in no small part for Holiff's intense dislike of Dylan, whom he later described in an interview as "the biggest hoax since Jesus Christ or Moses or both."

Listen to Saul Holiff discuss Bob Dylan in an interview with Candy Yates on Cinematically Speaking, 1976:

Furious, Holiff left the tour, and a letter to Barbara reveals the damaging impact of his ongoing attempt to contend with Cash's unpredictable behaviour, and his increasing enmity toward the situation: "Johnny cancelled the first day in Paris. He didn't show up for the flight. Several TV shows were screwed up - besides a Press Party etc. They went today. I refused to go!!! . . . Spent four hours in Hyde Park today. My nerves were badly in need of recharging. My self-analized [sic] findings - Fear of middle age - jowls - loss of hair - lessening of self esteem, fewer dreams, and ego crushing self effacing deferment to Johnny. The most crushing awareness!! -- ! I'm not a genius - Damn it - God is dead or he would have noticed." 

The fragmented style of this letter is not unusual; Holiff often wrote in a sort of stream-of-consciousness fashion (which he himself thought of as Joycean), especially if he was pressed for time. Nonetheless, the contrast between this style and his more carefully crafted letters, which often included a list of enumerated points for clarity, is striking. It emphasizes an intensifying emotional and psychological turmoil that would define his relationship with Cash until the day he resigned. 

In fact, the point about his "ego crushing self effacing deferment to Johnny" would be a common refrain when he described his time as Cash's manager even after his retirement.

The situation was bad enough that Holiff, this time with far more seriousness, tendered his resignation. After Holiff's departure from the tour, Cash accused him of failing to fulfill his duties as manager, "browbeating" the British tour promoter, Mervyn Conn, and reprimanding other members of the show. In response, Holiff sent him a curt letter addressed to "Mr. Cash" that forfeited his commission for the tour (in spite of the "62 letters, countless calls, wires, notes and three months of preparation - manifests, work permits, etc. - so things would go smooth") and gave his month's notice: 

As agreed 5 years ago, I resign and give one month's notice. (Gonna breathe air fit to be breathed.) 

Letter from Saul Holiff to Johnny Cash, n.d.


This statement is poignant because it recalls a letter from Holiff to Cash five years earlier, in which he wrote, "[r]ecently when I spoke to you, you mentioned that you were going to Colorado with your father and Merle Travis, and to quote you, you were 'aimin' to breathe air that aint never been breathed before'. I was so intrigued by the thought behind that statement that, while in Toronto, I called the Entertainment Editor of the Toronto Star and he felt as I did, and quoted your remarks in the paper. If you knew what the air is like most of the time in Toronto, you would realize what impact your statement had on those who read it."

The fact that Holiff echoes this letter years later indicates the impact Cash's words had on him, and his point--that he, like Cash five years before, needs to escape a toxic, suffocating environment--resonates more meaningfully in Cash's own language. And whether Cash made the connection or not, Holiff's repetition of these words also evokes the weight of their time working together and gives his announcement a greater gravity.

Once again, though, Holiff and Cash reconciled without really addressing the cause of their conflict and estrangement, and the rest of the year was devoted to settling Cash's divorce (which, according to his accountant, Cash "was apparently leaving . . . up to" Holiff), and trying to revive Cash's somewhat flagging career.

Chief among these efforts was Holiff's idea, in a letter from 29 December 1966, that Cash should switch producers at Columbia from Don Law--who did not offer significant guidance when it came to what and how Cash should record--to Bob Johnston, who was the producer for Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel.

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