Thursday, April 21, 2011

Eyes Wide Open All the Time

As a freshman at Berkeley, I joined the staff of The Daily Cal, the student run newspaper. On February 24, 1969, I was given a plum assignment - cover Johnny Cash, in concert, at San Quentin Prison. Here’s what I wrote. Not sure I need permission of the school to reprint this; I’ll just let ‘er rip!

Approaching the towering concrete walls of San Quentin, mist descending, clouds giving the moon behind them a spectral glow, I was reminded of the castle on the hill in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. Remember that movie? It’s the one that ends with the dam blowing up and the monsters fighting, and dying, as the rampaging waters tear apart the castle. I love those old Universal horror flicks. But I digress.

I entered through a doorway and was met by a kindly old guard, who asked for ID. As he perused my papers, I gazed at the concrete and steel that surrounded me. A regular fortress, with the echo of slamming doors a constant sound. Having made it through Checkpoint Charlie, I was led, via a huge expanse of yard, to the mess hall, where Johnny Cash and his band were to play. The heat of the room, packed with 1,400 hardened criminals in blue and gray denim, was hellish. The white glare of the overhead fluorescents laid bare the barred archways, men peering through, men on metal steps and guards by the door and on the catwalks above. There weren’t that many men in uniform, at least not in comparison to the horde of prisoners in the room. If there were 100 guards it wasn’t enough; another 100 wouldn’t have been enough either.

When I passed through the mess hall, I couldn’t help noticing a fork, with old spaghetti dangling, stuck in wall. How hard do you have to throw that to make it stick? I admit it scared the shit out of me. So I took a place at the side of the stage, surrounding myself in a blanket of armed men. On the wall behind the drums, a wall painted red with the greeting “San Quentin Welcomes Cash.” This howdy was scrawled, graffiti-style, complete with the “s” in Cash made into a dollar sign (clever, Cash = Cash). There was even a healthy use of glitter. A bulletin board project made by a class of evil kindergartners. This wasn’t the Fillmore, I can tell you!

The crowd erupted, a spurt of applause that echoed through the cavernous room as Cash, already sweating, in high button black shoes, prison grey slacks, blue open collar shirt and a long black coat, made his way on stage. Rows and rows of vicious men, powerful men, mean looking men with giant heads, their piercing gaze looking for an opening, clapped in eager anticipation. These guys were served by weaker prisoners, “bitches” at their beck and call. It was surreal; Owsley himself couldn’t have cooked up a batch of acid to produce a weirder scene.

The band was already off to the races on “Big River.” Man, those guys cook! Carl “Mr. Blue Suede Shoes” Perkins was blazing. Johnny’s old guitar player, Luther Perkins (no relation to Carl) died last August in an inferno caused by a dropped cigarette. Is that enough fire imagery for you?

Cash had his (literally) captive audience in the palm of his hands as he tore through some old favorites. Knowing that there were some fellow Southerners in the crowd, Cash made his seeming connection plain and simple. His image is based, at least in part, on the idea that he’s a real rebel, a fellow outsider. But does he really know what it’s like to have to find something to eat? Come on, it’s a bit of a put on. And when he told the crowd, if people put the screws on him he’d screw right out from under you, well, I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.

One thing I did get was that every time Johnny said “shit” a wild response was sure to follow. That’s pretty easy pickings, even for an old Arkansas farm boy. It was all innocent enough, down to his sort of tough stand against Grenada, the British TV channel filming the show.

“They said, ‘you gotta do this song, you gotta do that song, you gotta stand like this, you gotta act like this,’” Johnny drawled. “I just don’t get it. I’m here to do what you want me to and what I want me to. So, whaddaya wanna hear? All right – ‘I Walk the Line.’” And that’s what he played, as if it wasn’t on his set list anyway.

After that, Cash gave the inmates advance notice of a song he’d do later, a new tune he’d written about San Quentin. This was Cash fourth time around behind the thick walls, and he was ready to unveil his own feelings about it. The response to the tease was deafening.

The prisoners snapped to attention with the introduction of Cash’s wife, June Carter. As the pair launched into their version of The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Darlin’ Companion,” things began to spiral out of control. A woman! The looks on the incarcerated faces was pure desire, the catcalls vocal incarnations of the lust they held in their hearts.

June looked nervous, yet stirred the already boiling emotions. In her frilly, virginal white skirt, just above her knees, she put her left hand on her hip and did a little shake. Tease that crowd? Oh, man, that was dangerous. She snapped her fingers, lifted her skirt a bit higher as she thrust her hips. It was a slight move, but too much for these men. Maybe she felt safe next to Johnny, but acting the way she did while singing these lines:

Oh, a little saucy mare like you should have a steed.

Oh, a little bridlin' down from you is what I need.

had these womanless men licking their lips, hungry for some female company. And here were four, June out front, her two sisters and Mother Maybelle on either side of the drum kit in back. Each had a look of terror, for fear that, with the flick of a switch they could be in real danger. They stared far away, as if a closer look would bring them face to face with a scene of too ugly to consider, hundreds of vermin smothering a delicious find of pure honey.

Cash had a clear affinity with these caged men. You know his song “Starkville City Jail?” It’s a jokey tune about Cash’s arrest for picking flowers. That’s what gives him, he thinks, the currency to call himself a fellow rebel, an outsider.

But is he, really? Johnny was jailed for disturbing the peace. San Quentin is filled with murderers, rapists, pedophiles, and stranglers. I even heard the story of a guy who beat someone to death with a baseball bat. These dudes are badass. There’s always the potential for violence. They may be a Johnny Cash fan one moment, and be happy to take a knife and cut him all to hell the next. And Cash thinks paying a $36 fine and spending one night in jail makes him a brother? When he tells the crowd, “You can’t hardly win,” he ain’t talkin’ their language.

All that exploded into the obvious when Cash introduced “San Quentin,” the song he’d promised to play. “I was thinking about you guys yesterday and I think I understand a little bit about how you feel about some things, none of my business how you feel about some other things, and I don’t give a damn how you feel about some other things, but, anyway, I tried to put myself in your place and I believe that this is how I would feel about San Quentin.”

Perkins’ fuzzy, angry guitar was the shot heard ‘round the hall, and, with that, the war was begun. There was shock when Cash sang “San Quentin, you’ve been livin’ hell to me.” “San Quentin I hate every inch of you,” caused an eruption. “San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell,” caused an overflow. I could feel the guards around me getting antsy.

Cash’s eyes were burning, his jaw tight, as he scowled at the guards to his left. He wasn’t about to pull back on the emotions he’d just stirred up. With a sinister smile on his lips, he asked for a glass of water, then, after his first sip, flung something on the floor, as if there was something other than agua in his tin cup. Was it real? Was it a stunt? The guard smiled nervously as the prisoners hooted, stomping their boots on the concrete floor. It was a scene out of a Cagney movie. I love those old prison pictures, like White Heat and Brute Force, but I digress.

And then he sang “San Quentin” again!

This time it was more furious, more edgy, Carl’s guitar a veritable Tommy Gun spraying notes throughout the room. Almost eight minutes worth of provocation was too much and the prisoners went nuts. So did Cash. Something snapped in him, you could see it. He’d been holding that crowd by the thinnest of threads, and it tore.

“The time is now!” he yelled.

The mob cheered as they pounded on the tables. They remained seated, assuming this was all part of the act.

“Break! Take over!” He was serious.

And with that, the riot began. The men all got up; they were ready. The prisoners scattered every which way, some standing on tables, some raising their fists in the black power salute. The cameramen took cover. The guards, though overmatched, clicked their guns and got ready to fire, but the swarm overtook them. Cash smiled, he thought this was funny, until it became clear to him it was out of his control.

A few guards went for Cash, grabbed him by the shoulders and began shoving him towards the door to escape. Sure, they were plenty angry, but they knew he had to be saved. I forced my way into that mass, knowing it was my ticket to safety.

I’ll never forget the piercing shriek of the women. In the chaos, it was every man for himself, and, for a moment, even Johnny lost his head. When he heard June’s scream for help, he tried to wrangle his way out from the men who held him, but it was no use. He was helpless. So were June and the girls. My last glimpse of them was horrible. Two were bracing themselves against the blood red walls. The other two, well, I could see their arms and some tattered clothes being thrown into the air above the scrum.

And that’s where it stands right now. I’m back at The Daily Cal office writing and the prisoners have taken over San Quentin. The women? No one knows. Johnny Cash? A well-meaning man who thought he was one of the inmates, and found out the hard way that he wasn’t. Now we wait. Down, down, down, indeed.

On February 24, 1969, Johnny Cash and his band played San Quentin prison. The inmates went wild for Johnny’s music and outlaw persona. Years later, Cash confessed that in pursuit of some excitement, he was tempted to tell the prisoners to revolt. He believed if he yelled “Break, take over,” they would have risen up. It was only after thinking of June and the Carter women that he controlled himself. June was terrified that the prisoners would “jump my bones” and those of her beautiful mother and sisters. Producer Bob Johnston commented that had a riot broke out, Cash and his family would have been killed.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Ain’t No Crazy Dream

By Jerry Lee Lewis (as told to Jeff Katz)

Let me tell you, I remember that day like it was just yesterday. Boy, you don’t forget a day that changed your life, I can tell you.

We were at Sun Studios. Man, I loved that little place. It had such a good feeling, a real special feeling. That’s why those Sun records still sound different today. Let’s see, James Van Eaton was there on drums. J. W. wasn’t there yet.

We were goofing off a little, then I got something into my head. I started pounding out a boogie woogie beat on the piano and began a little ditty I’d just thought up.

I got a girl, her name is Myra Brown

She has got the cutest ass in town

When I see her, I’ll pull her panties down.

Yeah I got a girl, her name is Myra Brown.

Van Eaton laughed and got up from behind his drum kit. He perched himself against the acoustic-tiled wall, put his right foot on the piano bench and leaned forward a bit.

“Oh Killer, you are too much.” Jimmy was having a ball, thumping out a beat on his knee. I was too much back then, a real tornado. It was a funny little tune, and I was getting into it myself.

Up in the booth, I saw Sam Phillips shaking his head. He didn’t like it when I got a little rude, but I’m pretty sure I saw him smiling. I saw him bend down to the microphone near the console. Then I heard his voice.

“Now, Jerry,” he said, scolding me like an old schoolmarm. “That’s not very nice.”

“Just havin’ a little a little fun, Mr. Phillips.”

I got a girl, her name is Myra Brown

She’s the greatest piece of tail around

I was wailing now. Almost knocked Van Eaton over when I stood up and sent the piano bench sailing. My hair was flying. No greasy kid stuff could hold it down now. I felt it as it shot up and down atop my head like a piston, some of it falling like snakes before my eyes. I tossed it back and noticed that Jimmy was shifting his eyes to the side, signaling to me without words that I’d better take a look around. I didn’t take the hint.

Yeah, I got a girl –

Except for me, it got real quiet. I didn’t hear the front door open and shut, didn’t hear the “How are you today Marion?” greeting out in the reception area. I didn’t know that J.W. was standing at the front of the studio, listening to every word I sang.

“Uh, I’m going next door to Taylor’s,” spluttered Van Eaton. “Anyone want a cup of coffee?” You could hear a pin drop.

Now, let me tell you a little about J.W. J. W. was a second cousin of mine, and played a solid-body bass guitar in my band. He was good kin. He and his wife Lois let me and mine move into their house. Jane and I were having lots of trouble back then. She was a hellcat! Always sneaking out to see other fellas. And with a baby at home too! What kind of a woman does that?

The Browns were very kind to us. And their 13-year-old daughter babysat Jerry Lee Jr. Yup, that’s Myra Brown. That’s the girl I was singing about.

“Jerry Lee Lewis, why the hell are you singing about my little girl that way?” Oh, he was spitting fire!

You see, Myra had had a big crush on me then, ever since we moved in. I was mighty fine then too. Crazy blonde hair, cool clothes, fancy shoes. Who could blame her, right?

Yeah, she was 13 all right, but she was all woman, responsible, kind. I wanted her too. Just the thought of her drove me wild.

“J.W., how’re you doin’?’ He wasn’t in the mood for any Sunday pleasantries.

“Did you not hear me, Jerry Lee? Why are you disrespecting my daughter that way?”

“Cousin, I guess it’s time for me to come clean with you. You see, Myra and I have a little thing goin’ on. I love her J.W. I look at her, I smell her, I mean, I just go wild, man, just wild!”

J. W. started to move closer to me. “You serpent! You snake in the grass! We took you in, took in your whole damn family, and this is how you repay us for our kindness. I’m gonna skin you alive, Jerry Lee Lewis!” I admit I was getting scared the closer he got to the piano. I hadn’t moved.

Lucky for me, Lois walked in.

“J.W., why are you yelling at Jerry Lee?” she asked, confused.

J.W. turned to face his wife.

“This man,” he pointed to me. “This man is in love with our daughter. She drives him wild, he says. Our baby girl, his cousin. That’s who he wants to be with.”

Lois screamed bloody murder. “Lord help me!”

“He was singin’ a smutty song about our Myra, singin’ about pulling her panties down, can you imagine?”

“Jerry Lee Lewis, you are the devil himself, playing the Devil’s music!” yelled Lois. Then, just like that, she fainted. Fell right to the floor like a tree struck by lightning J. W. rushed to her side. I was glad to see him move away from me, sure enough.

J.W. kneeled beside his wife and looked up at me.

“Is this why Myra dropped out of the eighth grade?” J.W. asked, quieting down some. Not much, some. I nodded my head. “Yes sir, that’s why. We’ve been talking some about getting married.”

“Married, she’s a child!”

“Not to me she isn’t. Myra even said to me a person could get married at 10 years old if they could find the right husband. And she found me all right.”

Mr. Phillips had been listening the whole time. He finally descended from the booth and calmly walked to the center of the room, moving a microphone aside as he passed. He was right between me and J.W. when he spoke, first to me.

“Jerry Lee. You listen to me. This is not acceptable. Not one bit.”

I was about to interrupt, but the look on his face, a dark scowl under arched eyebrows, made me bite my tongue.

“I can’t believe I have to explain why it’s wrong to marry a 13-year-old girl when you’re how old, 22, but to do this to J.W. and Lois, who brought you in to their home and treated you with love and respect, is an abomination.”

I’ll say this about Sam Phillips, when he spoke, he spoke with authority. He could be a little scary too. I bowed my head and said, nothing, thinking over his words.

He turned to J.W. “J.W. I know this is a shock to you, but we’re all family here. Jerry Lee will no longer see Myra, not in that way, and we can all go back to what we do best, making music. We have records to make, records to sell, careers to look out for.”

J. W. nodded his head and looked back at Lois, still out cold.

“Now you two shake hands on this and let’s get back to work.” Mr. Phillips didn’t wait to see what we’d do. He walked back up to his seat in front of the console.

I walked over to J.W. and put out my right hand.

“I’m sorry, boy, really. I was out of my head for a while. It won’t happen again.”

So, what would’ve happened to me if I had married Myra, a 13-year-old girl, a cousin? Well, sir, I can’t really say. All I know is it feels like I missed one big ol’ disaster. Thanks, Mr. Phillips. You saved my hide.

After filing for divorce from his second wife Jane in September, Jerry Lee Lewis continued to live at his cousin and bassist J.W. Brown’s home on East Shore Drive in Memphis, spending all his time with the Brown’s daughter Myra Gale. Jerry Lee and 13-year-old Myra married on December 12, 1957, lying to her parents they were going to see Lewis in the new movie Jamboree. Problem was, Jerry and Jane’s divorce would not become final until May 1958.

That same month, The Browns accompanied Lewis on a tour of England. Despite Sam Phillips’ wishes, Jerry Lee announced to the British press that he and Myra were married. The tour collapsed as crowds were hostile to Lewis and his child bride scandal. The news so offended English sensibilities that questions were raised in Parliament. To make their situation legal, Jerry and Myra were remarried in June. Jerry Lee Lewis’ career was never the same afterwards, though he forged a comeback as a country music star in the 1960’s.