Health, Drugs
and Rock ‘n Roll


How the ‘Medical Devil’ hounded
the Man in Black 

By Dr. Phil Maffetone

A flood of articles, interviews, and radio and TV reports have appeared about Johnny Cash since his death. Many of these accounts have mentioned, highlighted or otherwise brought to light his many health problems. The newest book, "Johnny Cash: The Life" by Robert Hilburn, does the same.

References to his health problems even appear in his own music, including the very last song he wrote about his difficulty in getting a good breath — a tune called "Asthma Like the 309." I was privileged to be with Johnny Cash when this song, the last of a life too short, was written.

My association with Johnny began soon after the death of his wife June Carter Cash. Johnny’s health had been failing in recent years and was now worsening. He had asked me for help in restoring as much health as possible and bring back life to a man who still had a mission.


Johnny Cash 

(Photo Courtesy of Rick Rubin/American Recordings 2002)

I explained to him initially that there are many things that can be done to help improve the life of someone so ill — improve blood-sugar regulation, balance muscles, increase movement, improve brain function, including vision, and help the voice and creative drive. I devised a strategy to improve his diet, stimulate his physical and mental capacities, and set goals, one of which was to attend the MTV Music Awards, and to record another CD.

This sounded just great to Johnny, who was still actively engrossed in his life’s work — with a new five-CD set (Cash Unearthed), and plans for a new CD. The idea that he could improve his health and human performance, and accomplish more in his life was exciting.

However, for me, the task would be quite difficult. This was not because he was so frail, or because Johnny had many years of well-publicized illegal drug abuse, especially pills and alcohol. In fact, he had not used illicit drugs or alcohol for many years. Rather, the biggest challenge I faced was integrating my philosophy of improving health with his ongoing medical treatments, especially the many pharmaceutical drugs prescribed by doctors.

Johnny was being chased by what I call the “Medical Devil.” Sure, modern medicine had saved his life more than once. But at the same time, Johnny’s health was being destroyed not by the chemicals he had long removed from his life — illegal drugs and alcohol — but by legal prescription drugs. Johnny was regularly taking more than 30 prescriptions, and at the time of his death, that number had increased to more than 40. 


Johnny Cash
(Photo Courtesy of Rick Rubin/American Recordings 2002)
Why? The philosophy behind this high-volume drug approach, the same approach used to justify all other legal drug use, was that there’s a drug to treat each sign or symptom. Over the years, supplying a drug to cover or control various symptoms is commonplace, not just with a person like Johnny Cash, but for anyone who can afford it or who has health insurance.

Some medical practitioners may rationalize the unusual numbers of prescriptions by saying people like Johnny have “60s Syndrome” — a condition by which, while growing up and using illegal drugs in the 1960s, people became accustomed to taking something to change their moods.

This is an insult to the intelligence of the vast majority of people I knew in the ‘60s who experimented with recreational drugs. It’s also an insult to someone like Johnny Cash who was highly intelligent, had an incredibly strong will, and powerful spiritual conviction — all of which came out through his life, not to mention his music, books and both public and private conversation. 

Because of the heroic medical measures that had saved Johnny Cash’s life in the past, he understandably became convinced of the “need” for the many prescriptions. At the same time, he strongly felt the need for better control and that he was taking too many pharmaceutical drugs — something we discussed many times. It was an ironic approach to health management, not unlike the themes in his songs.

Personally, and professionally, I am not opposed to the use of prescription drugs when the necessity exists. However, as the numbers of prescriptions increases, the possibility of drug interactions also increases. This can significantly reduce quality of life, and can also be potentially deadly. Needless to say, when one person is taking dozens of prescriptions, we are beyond rationalizing drug interaction, as this number is so extreme that it baffles even more aggressive medical clinicians.

In my opinion, the case with Johnny was a serious breach of common medical sense and may also have played a role in his death. After hearing my philosophy, Johnny continued to talk with me about how he could reduce or eliminate many of these drugs.

So, while my work with Johnny Cash was a difficult task because of the prescription drugs, his strong will and work ethic enabled him to improve many aspects of his physical, chemical and mental health.

When I first saw Johnny, at age 71, he was relegated to invalid status. He had been sent to a wheel chair, given leg braces, and prescribed special shoes that cost thousands of dollars. In addition to the obvious difficulty this posed on a man who had been extremely active, it was restricting him from regaining any part of his health, and as he said to me more than once, it was even embarrassing. The result of these popular devices was that Johnny could no longer walk, and therefore needed assistance.

The first day of therapy with Johnny yielded a few unsteady but pain-free steps. I utilized what I call “manual biofeedback” and other techniques I employed during my 25 years of practicing complementary medicine. Within two more days, he was able to take upwards of 100 steps. More improvements came in the following weeks. Performing these exercises barefoot was part of my approach and something Johnny liked. As he was able to venture outdoors, he wore a comfortable $7 pair of flat sandals, which replaced his expensive, embarrassing footgear.

Other therapy included sitting outside, a place he previously would only go when he had to go to a hospital or dentist, for some healthy sunrays, riding a stationary bicycle, and eventually walking up and down steps.

To help improve Johnny’s nervous system, I recommended certain eye-hand coordination activity. This was easy enough since it meant playing the guitar to stimulate the small muscles and nerves in the fingers and hands. I also got him a large pad and felt-tip pencil to start writing. He began making little sketches and large letters and eventually words — then one day, a new song.

In addition to these physical activities, Johnny’s body chemistry needed help. He was a diabetic, but by improving his diet — finding the foods that best matched his specific needs — his blood sugar became much improved. I worked with his home chef to develop an organic kitchen and focus on real, healthy foods, including more fruits and vegetables and proteins, while reducing refined foods and sugars.

The result was his nervous-system function and circulation improved significantly. Along with improved muscle activity, Johnny was starting to feel better. But the problem with the legal drugs remained.

The medical approach was to name the end-result conditions he had — many the result of diabetes, itself a secondary/preventable condition — and treat these conditions with drugs. This philosophy is so ingrained that many news reports even stated that Johnny Cash died of diabetes, a notion not compatible with physiology and pathology.

My approach was to improve body function with physical activity and proper diet, and let nature take her course. I never talked of “diabetes” but discussed the importance of controlling blood sugar so the nerves and muscles would be ready to work when asked.

Oddly enough, despite Johnny’s past abuse of drugs and alcohol, and his more-recent intake of so many prescription drugs, his final months of life were of a higher quality than those of the average person. Many people may find this surprising considering all the attention devoted to his ill health, but the fact is in this country people spend an average of 12 years in a state of dysfunction. By comparison, Johnny became very functional at the end of his life. And, despite the prescriptions, his condition had actually improved leading up to the time of his death.

So why did Johnny pass on when his health was actually improving? Maybe he died because it was his time, or as he stated to me, it was time to go see June. Certainly this issue can be debated, something I have no intention of doing.

However, what’s clear is that Johnny’s body was severely lashed by more than 40 drugs he was given in the name of health. It was quite obvious to me, despite their legal use, the drugs were causing interactions that seriously disrupted life itself.

Death at age 71 is too young. Considering that we know how to naturally prevent and treat the kinds of problems Johnny Cash had, we all should be physically and mentally active far past that age. As an example, Johnny’s friend and fellow musician Willie Nelson still performs hundreds of times a year worldwide at the same age, as do many others much older.

The day Johnny Cash died, I was sitting with him in his office. He suddenly but casually turned to me and just said it was time. I was not really sure what he meant until a couple of hours later when he was on his way to the hospital where he would pass on a few hours later.

Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from Johnny Cash’s life and death is that it’s never too late to improve your health, and also that when it is time to move on it’s better to go out with some remaining vitality and dignity. In his last few weeks he had arisen from the wheelchair and continued his passion. Up until just a few days prior to his death, he worked in the studio on new songs, because that’s what he longed to do.

Though ultimately Johnny’s escape from the Medical Devil proved to be death itself, the lesson leaves us wondering what might have been possible had there been more time and fewer pharmaceutical drugs. I think the health improvements he achieved during the final weeks of his life may provide an important clue to this unanswered question.

No Where To Run

When I first visited Johnny Cash, I shy-fully asked if I could borrow a guitar, having flown in without one. Not knowing much about me, he found a guitar someone made for him years earlier. It was nice. Three weeks later I visited him again, and had the same request. He gave me an old black Martin to play, which was real nice with Johnny’s wonderful energy.

The next visit brought a hand engraved “Johnny Cash” in Mother of Pearl in the guitar neck. There was magic in this guitar, and with my first strum brought forth a song for Johnny. Unfortunately, I never got to play it for him, but somehow I think he’s heard it already. The song, called "No Where To Run" was recorded for the album "Coralee" and a video can be seen from the home page.








Johnny’s Last Song 

As a singer songwriter, Johnny Cash could bare his soul. His very last song portrayed taking a deep breath – perhaps a deeper allegorical tune than the song itself portrays – "Asthma Like the 309." I was privileged to be with Johnny when this song came to life, and in fact, it was part of our plan to improve his brain, body and mind. I was helping Johnny walk again, play his guitar, use his fingers to express, his eyes to see and bring out his incredible creativity that had been buried deep inside.
After ridding him of previously prescribed leg braces and wheel chair, he began drawing with squiggly random motions with a thick black marker on a very large white pad. Although difficult for him to see at first, improving vision lead to smaller black markers and pads, eventually he read well enough to write. To further help him, we’d walk outside barefoot for some healing sunlight and the light breezes on his skin made him sigh with relief. Combined with other activities, in time he could hold the guitar and strum chords again. On that day I could sense creativity blooming.
One morning I walked in and he was so excited. He said, “Dr. Phil, listen to this...” and he played and sang a verse to what would be his first new song in some time. Sadly, it would be his last.
Sitting in his cabin studio a few weeks later I watched and listened as he recorded vocals for the now completed song (released American V: A Hundred Highways). Not long afterwards, the day Johnny Cash died, we were sitting in his office when suddenly but casually he turned to me and just said, “it’s time.”
His song still breathes deep in my soul.

What Would Johnny Say?
Most people don’t want to die too soon, or live the last years of their lives in a state of dysfunction. But suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, it happens to tens of millions of people. The average person is trapped in a decade of being abandoned, a slow motion spiral of death. Many are unable to care for themselves, in horrendously poor health, often overmedicated, sometimes mistreated, and virtually inactivated both mentally and physically—all while under the supervision of a disease-care, for-profit business. It can happen to anyone, including Johnny Cash.
Working very close with Johnny in the last months of his life, I know he would want to tell about his life, and death, despite being embarrassed by his last months, all in the hopes of helping others. My articles below attempt to tell his story.
Johnny’s life and untimely death was a parallel to what many people experience, whether a celebrity, homeless, wealthy or poor. One could easily write stories about any or all of these individuals who are too often abused by a system focused more on making money and less on loving. It can even occur in those who try to plan ahead because they demand better, claiming “not me” when comparisons are made or examples are given. There are articles posted about Michael Jackson’s untimely, unnecessary passing, another on death and dignity, and more. Unfortunately, most readers know just what I mean.
We all see it in the faces of the elderly in nursing homes and those lying in hospital beds, captured by unwritten social rules and lured by laws about dying, while dignity is dismissed. While those who don’t plan it out well get sucked into this world where, as loved ones look on, they become vulnerable to the curse of overmedication and the lack of true health treatment in a poor disease-care system, almost forced into the unwanted extension of a life with little left but low esteem.
There is a better way. We have the tools and technology, the wealth and want to provide a better life until death. But still, it too often does not happen. I would suggest we learn from the demise of others, whose stores should be front and center, to better understand how we want to live and die. I think this is what Johnny Cash would say.