ARCHIVE: Finding Cash in the Carousel

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The immortal Man in Black, wearing summer whites on a visit to Asbury Park in the 1980s.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit April 5, 2009)

When the seventh annual edition of the Garden State Film Festival gets cranking today, it’ll be the start of an ambitious three-days-and-change that spreads its sprockety stuff across the city of Asbury Park — with dozens of screenings, seminars, lectures, receptions and other offerings that run a thematic gamut from the Shores of home, to some fairly fantastic dimensions beyond.

Somewhere within Saturday’s full dance card of GSFF events will be a very special salute to a cultural icon who embraced, for a time, this salty old empress of Jersey Shore resorts. And no, it’s not Bruce Springsteen; nor is it Stephen CraneDanny DeVito, or even Bud Abbott.

The past couple of decades have visited such changes upon Asbury Park, its cast of characters and landmark structures, that it seems almost something from a dream to contemplate a time when Johnny Cash came to town, with an eye toward making a part-time home here, and a Tennessee Flat-Top Box full of visions for the future.

The facilitator in this unlikely story — an interlude about which even June Carter Cash in her memoir said, “when I try to explain it, nothing makes sense” — is Henry Vaccaro, co-founder of the Neptune-based Kramer Guitar company and a longtime Cash fan who became friends with the veteran country star after meeting him at a concert in 1973.

Vaccaro, you may recall, is also the man who briefly partnered with Michael Jackson and his siblings to bring a Jacksons theme park to the Asbury boards — a bizarre alliance that led to legal wranglings over his selling off a warehouseful of personal Jackson items a couple of years back. But, that’s another story for another documentary.

Although The Man in Black spent a limited amount of time in Asbury, something about the “ragged glory” of the seedy old resort struck a chord with the singer who later in life became fascinated with antiques and curios. The Cashes invested a quarter-million dollars with Vaccaro in the mid-1980s, in his purchase and planned refurbishing of the venerable Berkeley-Carteret Hotel (New York TV newsman Ernie Anastos was another investor). The idea being that the Berkeley, reborn as a first-class resort, banquet and conference facility, would be the centerpiece of a renaissance that extended to the nearby Convention HallParamount Theater and boardwalk businesses.

While it’s been said that Johnny and June “lived” for a time in Asbury Park, in actual fact they simply maintained a suite inside the hotel — a suite in which the couple (who kept their primary residence in Arkansas) stayed sporadically, until their involvement with the project ended in 1992.

Before that, however, the First Family of country strolled over to the nearby Paramount to play a memorable concert in the summer of 1990 — a show that finally saw release as a live recording (The Great Lost Performance) last year. Johnny, June and son John Carter Cash also played the Count Basie Theatre in the early 90s, and June was spotted more than once browsing the creaking floors of theRed Bank Antique Center in those years.

The Vaccaro partnership’s plans eventually fizzled, and the Berkeley-Carteret passed into other hands (including, for a very surreal moment, a transcendental-meditation group who planned to turn the place into an Institute of Yogic Flying). Now, with the old building once more under new ownership, effecting a slow renovation under the name The Berkeley Oceanfront Hotel, GSFF founder Diane Raver assembled a program in tribute to the black-clad stranger who kept a place in his heart for the town named Asbury Park. It’s a program that’s centered around a Saturday night screening of the documentary entitled Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.

As the name suggests, the film by Bestor Cram is a record of the landmark 1968 Cash concert at the California penitentiary popularized in his 1955 hit “Folsom Prison Blues.” The live recording became one of Cash’s finest of his career, cementing his place in the pantheon of C&W music and leading to his great, under-appreciated TV series at the end of the decade. Through interviews and vintage footage, the doc recreates the circumstances that led to this perennial “outlaw” bucking the Nashville establishment and creating one of the most enduring albums of all time.

Screening at 6pm, the film is followed by an after-party Max’s Cash Bash, sponsored by Max’s Wine of Neptune and presented inside the historic Carouselbuilding at the opposite end of the boardwalk (the one-of-a-kind landmark that re-opened for business last summer with a live production of Hair). And right before the film at 5:30 there will be music — Johnny Cash music, as channeled by Michael Patrick’s Ring of Fire Band. Patrick, who you’ve met here in oRBit previously, filled us in on his involvement with this event.

According to the Morganville-based singer, songwriter and local country music impresario (who, when he’s not donning the black clothes to sing Cash songs, performs with the same group of musicians under the name The Suburban Hillbillies), his connection to the film festival was none other than the same Henry Vaccaro who showed up at that Cash concert some 35 years prior.

“He had mentioned us to the festival people,” says the man whose Suburban Roots Concert Series has brought the likes of Justin Townes Earle to Shore audiences who are hungry for some realdeal country. “He came up and saw us at a few of our gigs.”

Patrick, who happened to be passing through Nashville on the day that Cash died in 2003, has long ranked Cash among his greatest influences and inspirations. He’s even got a heartfelt little song on his most recent solo CD called “Cash in the Attic,” in which he details the thrill of discovering a hidden treasure trove of Cash albums for the first time — you can hear it on the singer’s MySpace page.

“The Ring of Fire Band is a tribute, not an impersonation,” Patrick maintains. “We cover all of his career to some extent, from the Sun Records days to the last records he did with Rick Rubin, like ‘Delia’ and ‘Hurt’.”

In the years since Cash’s passing, The Ring of Fire Band has stepped up their presence and expanded their territory by popular demand — from selling out BB King’s in New York City, to playing for thousands of people at the Johnny Cash Flower Pickin’ Festival in Starkville, Mississippi. In case you’re not up on your Cash lore, that’s the town where Johnny famously spent the night in jail for picking flowers in the wee hours of the morning.

Along the way, the boys in the band have played onstage with Marty Stuart, shared the bill with Johnny’s daughter Rosanne Cash, and met Johnny’s sister Joanne as well as his daughter Kathy.

“To have Johnny Cash’s daughter come up to us after we played, and say to us, ‘I heard Dad’ — what more could I ask for?”

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