The son of Johnny Cash’s manager discusses the Man in Black’s final masterpiece, pain and catharsis, his abusive father, Larry and Jeff, and antics on the road.
Jonathan Holiff first met Johnny Cash when he was nine months old. He later became convinced that the Southern Baptist had super powers, he tells me. “I would stare at him for a long time believing that if I took my eyes off him he would don a black cape and fly away just like superman.”
Jonathan’s father, Saul Holiff—the Man in Black’s renowned manager between 1960 and 1973—committed suicide in 2005. The guy who put June and Johnny together left no note, no explanation for his estranged son Jonathan. He did, however, leave sixty hours of audio diaries. Jonathan found a gritty record of Johnny Cash’s wild rise, and Saul’s troubled psyche, anchoring his compelling documentary My Father and the Man in Black.
The giving interviewee tells me he loves Johnny’s ‘Hurt’. “The music video makes his great performance even better, it doubles the emotional impact. Watching it brings me to tears.” Nine Inch Nail’s Trent Reznor famously said ‘Hurt’ wasn’t his anymore and would forever belong to Johnny. Jonathan was told by someone involved in making the video that June and Johnny’s home was a shambles when the crew arrived. “Despite protestations about ‘cleaning up first’, the video’s director, Mark Romanek, convinced them to leave the house as it was. Johnny’s home had, in many ways, become an empire of dirt. “Maybe that’s why I cry,” Jonathan says. “I remember being in that house as a child. It was beautiful. It was a happy place.”
His favourite scene in romantic Walk the Line (“based very loosely on a true story”) was the one where June throws empty beer bottles at the boys on stage and they return fire. He’s heard so many stories about the “crazy shit” on the road, usually involving hotels: firing off a cannon in the middle of the night; releasing 100 baby chicks in the lobby; making an adjoining room by taking a fire axe to the wall between two rooms; Johnny smashing a bunch of chandeliers with his guitar. “That scene made me remember these stories and gives the audience a glimpse at just how wild these guys could get.”
Dr. Hunter S. Thompson said: “The music business is a dark, plastic hallway; where pimps and thieves run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” Jonathan says you could say most of these things about the movie business, too. “But I’ve never seen anything as salacious as the music business. On the other hand, that’s part of its curious charm and perhaps what Thompson meant when he said ‘There’s also a negative side’.”
Saul had to deal with Johnny’s drugs binges, arrests, court appearances, no shows; and 1966 near death in Canada. In the early 1970s Johnny became ‘born again’. There’s an explosive audio diary of atheist Jew Saul venting at Johnny’s chutzpah attempting to convert him to Christianity: “He robbed me of my soul and now I think he’s trying to save it for me—through his fundamentalist Christianity jazz. I find it very offensive. And here I am, inundated with it; the very thing I’ve always objected strenuously to; so I know that the rupture is on the horizon.” Saul and Johnny never inked a written contract, despite the volatility of their relationship. “They had a handshake deal all those years, which is unheard of today. My father’s word was his bond. He had remarkable attention to detail.”
Johnny once described Saul as “the greatest agent in the world,” but he was a lousy father, who Jonathan says hurt him profoundly. The documentary doesn’t go into a lot of detail on the how and why. So, time for a tough question, what exactly did he do? “My father rarely hit me. I can’t say I was physically abused, nor would I compare the abuse I suffered to someone who was. But emotional abuse at the hands of my father—someone who went toe-to-toe with Johnny Cash for years—was no small matter. I was told I was ‘worthless’ and ‘would never amount to anything’ so many times I truly believed it—and for many, many years. My father didn’t so much parent me, as he managed me like one of his clients. He had me sign contracts as a child. He kept an accounting of every cost of raising me, from birthday presents to swimming lessons. He was a real hard ass and head case. But I realise now, given his self-loathing I heard in his audio-diaries, that I reminded him of himself. And because he didn’t like himself, he didn’t like me. And that was that.”
Prior to Saul’s suicide, Jonathan was a commended talent manager in Los Angeles. So what does he think of loveable Jeff Greene’s work for the objectionable Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm? He laughs: “I love the show and Jeff Garlin does a great job as the put-upon but ever loyal manager, Jeff Greene.” But the character or situation never reminded him of his father. “Saul was no gofer that’s for sure. But I was surprised to learn (and document in the movie) about those times, in the 1960s, when Saul did do things for Johnny that were rather humiliating, both men would later deny them. Saul always handled the fall-out, whether it was battling the KKK over death threats made against Johnny, handling Johnny’s divorce from Vivian, or dealing with countless no-shows and lawsuits, Saul never let Johnny down professionally.”
Jonathan has received awards at film festivals in America (Memphis International Film and Music Festival) and Europe, and got many good reviews. “But, as Cash might say, it has the heart, and it has the blood, and by the time childhood chatter is played back again, feeling is soaked through it like the sweat in Cash’s guitar strap,” the Village Voice said. “I had zero emotional intelligence [until recently],” Jonathan tells me. “To read a review that compared my film with the kind of feeling Johnny Cash could bring to an audience is the highest compliment I have ever been paid.”
During our interview, he pays his respects to Nathaniel Kahn’s comparable My Architect.
He hopes people take away a cautionary tale. “I have the privilege of telling a universal story about estranged fathers-and-sons, about dysfunctional families, because it happened to involve Johnny Cash. My greatest hope is that certain parents will spend more time with their children, and that certain adult children will not wait too long to reconcile with estranged parents. I always say: You’re not going to find a storage locker with 60 hours of audio diaries after the fact, like I did. I got lucky. I was able to reconcile with a dead man.”
My Father and the Man in Black concludes with a knock-out audio clip, recorded when Saul was 75. “You ask about,” there’s an agonising pause, “parenthood,” he says, before confessing that he has been an abject failure as a father. Jonathan can’t say it’s his favourite scene. “I usually leave the theatre.” But listening to the diaries, Jonathan forgave Saul. “My father had been so abusive and critical, he had me convinced there was something fundamentally wrong with me. Meeting him first as a man, then as a father, through his audio diaries, was a truly cathartic experience.”
Cowboy Junkies performed eloquent closing song ‘Staring Man’. “The song shares so much in common with ‘Hurt’, but with lyrics that put me in mind of my father’s journey. It was perfect!”
Saul’s audio diaries also document abuse he got from his own father. Jonathan’s brother Josh broke the cycle, he has kids and a happy family. Jonathan concludes: “I don’t have kids. I decided not to have children, I didn’t want to risk doing to my children what my father did to me.” But all that changed with My Father and the Man in Black. “Now I welcome having children.”
‘My Father and the Man in Black’ is a highlight of the Documentary Edge Festival, currently on in Wellington until May 19. Alexander Bisley is tweeting about the festival @alexanderbisley. He recently talked to Mara TK about his father Billy TK. In ‘The Man Within My Head’, the great Pico Iyer writes moving about his father Raghavan, and Graham Greene, another father figure.
 Albeit patchy.
 Johnny influenced Jonathan as a writer-director; wrangling this film he often employed Johnny’s line from San Quentin: “Try to put the screws on me and I’ll screw right (out) from under you”. He adds: “you have to be a rebel to make an independent film”. His favourite Cash song is ‘Big River’. “It serves the story as an example of how electrifying Cash was when he was on pills, something my father didn’t know about when he agreed to be Cash’s manager.” His favourite Cash album: Live at Folsom Prison. He’s not a religious guy, but loves many of the spirituals, especially ‘Were You There?’ “Anita Carter’s vocals are hauntingly beautiful.”
 How has Doug Block (the excellent 51 Birch Street) influenced? “Doug Block, as you know, specialises in making personal films—mostly about his own family. I was floored by 51 Birch Street and, after doing a little research on him, I stumbled across a list he had written called “The Top 10 Rules for Personal Documentary Storytelling”. I had a bad case of writer’s block at the time (no pun intended). I was afraid of being on camera, and I didn’t want to get ‘personal’. His list saved my film. The takeaway was this: don’t use your narration to talk about your emotions. Show the audience what was happening around you. If you do your job well, the audience will infer how you felt—in a way more powerful than you could possibly explain to them.”