Johnny Cash Made the Most Punk-Rock Album Ever. In 1969.

Matt Cibula

What Johnny Cash did on At San Quentin defies belief. He made the angriest, balliest, toughest, most punk rock album of all time.

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.

* * * *

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.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.