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Walter Armstrong Walter Armstrong

Video: “Lost” Album From 1984 Reveals Sober Johnny Cash, But What About That Crazy “Chicken in Black” Song?

3 Substance

The 1980s were not the best decade for Johnny Cash. Yet it had some wacky moments, as “Johnny Cash’s Lost Decade,” a New Yorker review of a new album of lost songs recorded by Cash in 1984, explains. After a long period of abstinence from amphetamines and barbiturates, Cash relapsed in 1983—reportedly as a result of painkillers taken after surgery for internal injuries sustained during an attack by an ostrich on his farm. He spent 43 days at the Betty Ford Center. The songs on the new album seem to reflect his newfound sobriety.

And yet. Cash was also fuming at his record label, Columbia, for what he took to be its willful neglect. In 1984 he pulled a prank of outsized spite and career-threatening consequences that most mortals can only fantasize about. The Man in Black—as Cash had fashioned himself (he wore all black on behalf of “those who are held back,” such as prisoners and addicts)—released a single called “Chicken in Black.”

The New Yorker’s Ian Crouch writes: “[The song’s] premise is that, after receiving a brain transplant, Cash turns into a bank robber called the Manhattan Flash. His discarded brain, meanwhile, is given to a chicken, who becomes a minor musical draw.…Cash called the song ‘intentionally atrocious’ and added: ‘I was burlesquing myself and forcing CBS to go along with it.’…Cash is told by a doctor that ‘Your body’s outlived your brain’; he resorts to plain thievery to make a dollar; everyone just wants to hear the old hits. And its message is sad: the Man in Black had turned yellow.’”

For maximum effect, Cash also released a “Chicken in Black” video. This spectacle confused rather than amused his friends and family, who feared that after so many years of drinking and drugging, Cash was showing signs of some brain disease or other. And despite Cash’s supposed sobriety, there is no denying that the entire episode has the manic feel of a binge.

The punch line is that “Chicken in Black” turned into a bigger hit than any song Cash had released in years. But some morning-after shame prevented him from ever performing the song in concert until the 1990s, when his newfound sobriety and a new record producer launched him into his late-career glory. Eventually the song became a shared joke between Cash and his fans of the kind familiar to anyone who has come through the perils of addiction and can now laugh, albeit painfully, at what a mess they were.