Johnny Cash’s life had just fallen apart and gotten back together when he entered the gates of San Quentin in 1969. He had almost died in a cave accident, but survived; his longtime guitarist, Luther Perkins, who was more important to the sound of Johnny Cash than will ever be able to be expressed, had died of injuries in a house fire, but Cash had gotten the band back together and they sounded okay now; he was off alcohol and drugs for the first time in years; he had gotten remarried, to June Carter, and found God in the process; his At Folsom Prison record was the biggest hit in country music. He was, arguably, the most important musical entertainer in the world.
What he did on his At San Quentin album, then, defies belief. A crew from the BBC offered to film a live concert, Columbia agreed to release it as an album, it would have been an easy opportunity to deliver some good solid product and cash in on all this success. Instead, Johnny Cash did something different: he made the angriest, balliest, toughest, most punk rock album of all time.
It’s not just that his voice is shot-you can hear this on the CD reissue loud and clear, he sounds like crap on a stick on the first couple of songs, and things don’t get much better from there. So that’s kinda punk rock, but not really. And it’s not just the insanely fast tempos that a lot of these songs jump off on, like “Big River” and “Folsom Prison Blues” — there’s a reason that Joe Strummer went from a rockabilly band to form the Clash — but that’s not it either.
It’s about bravery. The Sex Pistols played for scenesters, the Ramones played at CBGB’s, Iggy Pop cut himself with broken glass but always in front of the cool kids and always sought proper medical attention afterwards. But this is a guy playing a not-very-prisoner-friendly style of music, in front of hundreds of hard-timers who hadn’t seen a lot of outsiders in a long time. Plus, he brought his brand-new wife, June Carter, and her mother and sisters, and the Statler Brothers, for god’s sake. That’s guts, yo.
He’d been there before. Not just to San Quentin, because he had, three times already; not just playing in prisons, because he had; but THERE. No one understood what it was like to be down and out like Johnny Cash — a good case can be made that he was America’s most empathetic songwriter. Sure, he’d been to jail himself before (seven times in fact, for disturbing the peace, not exactly hard time but something nonetheless), and he lets them know this with his rambling talkin’-blues “Starkville City Jail,” where he cracks up the cons with his tale of getting busted for picking flowers in Mississippi. But that’s not it. It’s the power of the imagination. Johnny Cash had been there, in the minds and hearts of his audience members, because he was able to extrapolate what it must have felt like to live in a god damned shitbox for years and years and years.
So when he busts out with a brand-new song he had just written the day before, a song called “San Quentin,” a song that starts with a verse full of more blind rage and bleak pain than anything anyone else had ever written: “San Quentin, you been living hell to me / You’ve blistered me since 1963 / I’ve seen ’em come and go, and I’ve seen ’em die / And long ago I stopped askin’ why”, it’s the bravest single thing ever sung in the history of American music. Johnny Cash is actually trying to START a prison riot here. It’s appalling and thrilling, it makes Chuck D sound like a damn pussy, it’s revolutionary.
Hear the spite in his voice as he spits out “San Quentin, I hate every inch of you”, and hear the exultant yell in the prisoners’ voices after that line. Hear the way he ends it: “San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell / May your walls fall, and may I live to tell / May all the world forget you ever stood / And may all the world regret you did no good / San Quentin, I hate every inch of you”. The convicts are yelling and screaming and applauding, and calling for more.
So he plays it again.
He drinks water from a tin cup and bangs it on the microphone so his people can hear that he’s not getting special treatment. He shouts down a con who interrupts him. He talks about Jerusalem and does gospel songs with the ladies. He jokes with the guys, he jokes about their perfunctory boos when he mentions the warden, he is full of good humor but underneath it all is the heart of a lion.
And he plays a song he’s never done before, a Shel Silverstein song called “A Boy Named Sue” (yep, the same dude who wrote Where the Sidewalk Ends), and knocks it over the centerfield fence, delivering a violent and violently funny performance of a truly twisted song, one of the most bizarre things to ever hit #1, one of the truest songs ever sung about the relationship of fathers and sons — and so what if he screws up the tempo really badly? It’s still the performance of a lifetime, of a generation, true soul music that is also true art music that is also true country music that is something no one ever did every again. In 1969 it was Johnny Cash and James Brown and NO ONE ELSE.
And this record proves it.
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This is also the concert where the BBC people were getting too close, jamming up the stage, interfering in the sacred relationship between Johnny Cash and his audience. So he got fed up and flipped them off, and someone took a picture, and it was this picture that Cash and Rick Rubin used in the full-page Billboard ad they placed as a poison love letter to Nashville radio programmers (“thanks for the support”) after Unchained won the Best Country Album Grammy. This is pretty hardcore . . . except that in 1998 this picture was almost 30 years old. That’s how long Cash had been kickin’ against the pricks of Music City.