February 24, 1969. Johnny Cash is staging a comeback after years of lagging success and a personal battle with drug addiction. He records a live album in two sets, at San Quentin State Penitentiary in California.
Like the Live At Folsom Prison album of a year earlier, it is an agent for change. It changes our perception of cons, punishment, and prisons. It’s raw and and it’s honest. In other words, it’s classic Cash.
It may be his masterpiece.
The inmates at San Quentin were in for a memorable performance. Cash plays some of his old standards and the traditional country songs that everybody expects, like “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Wreck of the Old 97” and “Peace in the Valley.” There are some cool new covers like Dylan’s “Wanted Man” and The Loving Spoonful’s “Darling Companion.”
Great as these old standards and covers are, the album is really made by the new songs he introduces—that, and Cash’s incredible rapport with his audience and his in-your-face, uninhibited attitude.
There are two never previously recorded Johnny Cash songs on the album. Johnny even surprised his band with one of them— “A Boy Named Sue.” Johnny read the lyrics from a sheet of paper and the band improvised their accompaniment and somehow, it all worked out just fine.
He tells his audience, “They say old Johnny Cash works good under pressure.” And he does. Cash gets a Grammy for “A Boy Named Sue.” Not too bad for its first public performance.
His band includes the Statler brothers and the Carter family singing backing vocals, and a guy named Carl Perkins playing lead guitar. Yes, the same Carl Perkins of Blue Suede Shoes fame. That’s not too shabby a backing group, come to think of it.
During the concert Cash shares a personal tragedy with his audience. His friend and guitarist Luther Perkins (no relation to Carl) had recently passed, after playing with Cash for 13 years. Luther’s spare, driving, rhythmic guitar playing was largely responsible for the distinctive ‘boom-chicka-boom’ style that had defined the early Johnny Cash sound.
“How about one big cheer for Luther Perkins,” he asks his captive audience. Luther gets his cheer.
I got my copy of this album at my favorite second hand vinyl shop, In The Groove Records, in Raleigh, NC, a few months ago. I think I paid ten bucks for it. That’s a pretty good value for a clean copy of a seminal country album that presaged the mid-70s Outlaw Country movement and helped change the way we think about prisons, crime, and punishment.
Although Johnny Cash is more closely associated with Folsom Prison, thanks to his early hit song “Folsom Prison Blues,” his connection with San Quentin was actually closer and more longstanding. He first played San Quentin in 1958, and his performance there so electrified one of the inmates, his future course in life was forever altered. The cons name? Merle Haggard.
“He had the right attitude,” Haggard later said. “He chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards—he did everything the prisoners wanted to do. He was a mean mother from the South who was there because he loved us. When he walked away, everyone in that place had become a Johnny Cash fan.”
Besides “A Boy Named Sue,” the other new song on the album is the angry, brutally direct “San Quentin.” Cash wrote the earlier “Folsom Prison Blues” as a young man who had never seen the inside of prison walls. It’s basically a catchy country train song told from a convict’s point of view.
“San Quentin” is a different animal altogether.
Here’s how he introduces it.
“I've been here three times before, and I think I understand a little bit how you feel about some things. It's none of my business how you feel about some other things, and I don't give a damn about how you feel about some of the things. But anyway, I try to put myself in your place and I believe this is the way that I would feel about San Quentin.”
And then he begins to sing—no longer the kid singing a hypothetical tale about a prisoner listening to a train passing him by.
He’s now an older, more experienced man, who had spent at least one night in jail himself (for breaking curfew and picking flowers in Starkville, Mississippi). He's a man who had seen the inside of prison walls and who’d looked in the eyes of men serving hard time in some of the toughest prisons in the country.
“San Quentin, you’ve been living hell to me…” he sings. That’s just the first line.
Every stanza is kicked off with a new blast at the institution.
“San Quentin, I hate every inch of you.”
“San Quentin, what good do you think you do?”
“San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell…”
Those of us who have never been there, get a glimpse. Those who have, immediately recognize and relate to the visceral feelings. It works, and it’s sublime. It's pure genius.
He plays the brutally honest song again. Twice in a row, for the crowd’s benefit and to satisfy the clamoring demand. Twice. In a row. The cons go wild for it.
“I’m starting to like it myself,” he ad libs after the second performance.
The album was reissued on vinyl in 2010 by Sundazed Records. It looks just like the original, except for a bar code on the back. I’d buy it if I didn’t have a decent vintage copy.
One bit of business that always comes up when the album is discussed is the famous photo of Cash “flipping the bird” at the camera during the concert. Legend would have us believe he was flipping off the Warden or a prison guard, maybe. But Johnny —honest as ever—put the kibosh on all that.
In the 2000 re-issue liner notes, he set the record straight. He was actually flipping off the British TV film crew who wouldn’t get out of his way. They were standing between him and the audience, and refused to budge, and it pissed him off.
In the original Rolling Stone review of 1969, Phil Marsh asked a question that still resonates almost fifty years later: “The memory of Cash rapping with his hairtrigger audience stays with me. Where must Cash be at to relate so well to those we have put into our dungeons?”
That question—and our best guess as to its answer—is why listening to this album is still such a powerful experience.