November 29: Johnny Cash records “The One on the Right is on the Left”

Johnny Cash had started the year on a positive note by performing the Impressions’ “Amen” on Shindig! on January 13, then covering three of his friend Bob Dylan’s songs on Orange Blossom Special the following month. He then proceeded to go off the rails. In a fit of amphetamine-stoked rage, he smashed the floor lights of the Grand Ole Opry with his mike stand and was blackballed for years. Unable to sleep, he’d break furniture at hotels long before the Who and Led Zeppelin would make it part of their PR. At home in Casitas Springs, California, he’d drink beer, pop pills and pace around his room listening to music and feeling alienated from his wife Vivian, yearning for his backup singer June Carter. Cash and Vivian would argue, and he’d squeal off into the desert to have a car wreck. He flipped a camper after falling asleep at the wheel and crashed a car after thinking someone was tailing him with a gun. He’d disappear for days, not eating until his pastor would come to find him. (It was ironic that his bass-baritone drawl was so slow considering he was so addicted to speed.) On May 11, he got arrested for being picking flowers while intoxicated and wrote “Starkville City Jail” about spending the night in a cell. (In 2007, the town held The Johnny Cash Flower Pickin’ Festival.)

The next month, he went fishing in the California backcountry and his camper truck’s muffler split from the exhaust pipe. When he tried to start the auto, the heat set the grass on fire. Wasted, he staggered around trying to put it out with his leather jacket, but it quickly spread into a 500-acre forest fire that burned the foliage off three mountains and drove away 44 endangered condors. “I didn’t do it, my truck did, and it’s dead, so you can’t question it,” he told the judge, later adding, “I don’t care about your damn yellow buzzards.” Cash paid a penalty of $82,001.

He got himself in the hottest water yet just a few months later. On October 4 he was arrested by federal narcotics agents crossing the Mexican border from Juarez into El Paso with no less than 688 Dexedrine speed capsules and 475 Equanil downers hidden in his guitar case. Out on bail, he spent the rest of the year recording comedy songs for his next album, Everybody Loves a Nut, trying to put a funny spin on a year of drug busts, fires and Opry freak-outs.

For the album he recorded “The One on the Right is on the Left” in November as a spoof of the folk craze that had engulfed the pop charts thanks to his buddy Dylan. (After a correspondence the two met when they both performed at the Newport Festival the year before Dylan went electric.) In the song, a folk group implodes due to differing political convictions. On stage the one on the right, the one on the left, and the one in the middle descend into a violent fist fight while the one in the rear incompetently burns his driver’s license before getting drafted. The song predicted the chaotic divisions that would erupt across the country for the rest of the decade. Cash advises to just keep one’s opinions to oneself and work on performing songs well. About the only person who would heed his advice, ironically, would be Dylan, whose lyrics grew ever more inscrutable.

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