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.