At San Quentin

Not Rated

Johnny Cash remembers the forgotten men. They love him. Singing inside a prison to men whose spirits are being destroyed by our mindless penal system is Johnny Cash's kind of revolution. Music becomes spirituality in the context of the prison. Music is inherently destructive of everything penology stands for. Music affirms. Music liberates.

Cash sounds very tired on this record ("ol' Johnny does best under pressure," he says), his voice on some songs just straying off pitch. But the feeling that actual human communication is taking place more than compensates for this. Communicating to an audience at the time is becoming a lost art because of the ascension of recorded music as the music of this culture. Even the so-called "revolutionary" modern bands, in the context of the new technology of the recording studio, are limited in terms of the kind of feeling they can concoct. The bulk of today's musicians deal in a matrix of values which tends to disregard the interpersonal trip between the artist and the live audience. No one wants to cop out to his own humanity. Mistakes are not permitted to remain on the modern recording except, say, as an intro, representing something clever that happened in the studio.

"San Quentin, What Do You Think You Do?" Cash and Bob Johnston, leaving several minutes of non-musical time-space on this album, show the listener that the human realities were of prime importance to the performer and the producer. Contract the intensity of emotion evident in the laughter of the inmates, the enthusiasm of the applause, and the swell of boos that you'll hear when a guard brings Cash a glass of water after he's sung his new "San Quentin (You've Been a Living Hell to Me)," contrast that to the insipid bullshit laughter and applause on, say, a situation comedy on TV, and you begin to grasp the importance of both Cash's approach and the actual facts of how he is spending his life and who he is choosing as his audience. Consider the values most of us have developed, and consider the manifestations of those values. It's great to trip out on sounds and colors — but the values that accrue to a guy who sits around the pad all day getting wasted, and the values of a guy who spends his time playing for prisoners, enjoying it, and getting it across to us as well are something else again.

The usual objections about live recordings seem more or less irrelevant because the sounds that are presented on this record are much more than music. A new Dylan tune, "Wanted Man," starts the show. Cash's rapport is instant, and he might well act out the lead as well as sing it: "Wanted man by Lucy Watson, wanted man by Jeannie Brown, wanted man by Nellie Johnson, wanted man in this next town ..." Dig Cash's own yarn about Southern justice and his night in the Starkville, Mississippi, jail for picking flowers. "I Walk the Line" comes off as hard, tough, Johnny Cash funk, and there's a Shel Silverstein talking blues, "A Boy Named Sue" — really a crack-up. The content is oh-so-Oedipal and hokey, the Cash treatment beautiful. And Cash sings "San Quentin" twice in a row. The incredible difference between the two "takes" totally justifies the double-shot. "I kinda like it myself, now," Johnny declares. "Peace in the Valley," the old spiritual, closes it out, only to be followed by a brief, pounding taste of "Folsom Prison Blues." The concert is over, and those humans are still locked up on the other side of the Bay. 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?

From The Archives Issue 539: November 17, 1988