Editor’s Note: Well, it’s been a while–partly because of my customary laziness, but also partly because of my slightly less customary ineptitude: I accidentally deleted this blog two weeks ago (yeah, don’t ask), and it took ten days to get it restored. But now we’re back, more or less just in time to commemorate the legendary Johnny Cash, who died eleven years ago last Friday, September 12. This review of the expanded Legacy edition of Cash’s seminal 1969 live album At San Quentin ran in Mainline Magazine, the short-lived successor to the Modern Pea Pod I ran (into the ground) for about six months in late 2006 and early 2007. Scarily, that’s still longer than I’ve been maintaining this current blog…and I’ve already deleted the damn thing once. But hey, I have faith that I can keep things going for at least another month! In the meantime, please enjoy arguably the best thing I ever wrote under the Mainline umbrella: a tribute to Johnny Cash, and to one of the greatest live albums ever recorded. – Z.H.
“God, I’ve never seen anything like it,” producer Bob Johnston recalls in the liner notes to Columbia/Legacy’s deluxe reissue of Johnny Cash At San Quentin. “When Cash sang ‘San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell,’ they were on the tables yelling. A lot of the guards were up on the runways with loaded guns, backing up the doors, and I’m backed up to the door with all these guards with guns, and I’m thinking, ‘Man! I should have brought Tammy Wynette and George Jones–anybody but Johnny Cash!”
When Johnny Cash walked through the gates of the California State Penitentiary at San Quentin on February 24, 1969, he was undeniably one of country music’s greatest stars. But he was also one of the edgiest. Since the beginning of his career in the late 1950s, Cash had spent the night in jail on seven separate occasions, including a 1965 run-in with Texas narcotic officers for smuggling amphetamines over the Mexican border. He was banned from the Grand Ole Opry, also in 1965, after kicking out the footlights of the Ryman Auditorium in a drunken rage. Simply put, Johnny Cash was a badass: a natural born rebel who drew from the energy and attitude of rock’n’roll along with classic country and western, who had been riling up incarcerated audiences in prison performances for nearly as long as he’d been playing music, and who, on that fateful day at San Quentin, very nearly incited a prison riot.
That rebellious attitude accounts for much of the enduring popularity of At San Quentin: a document of the 1969 show that, listened to in the right context, can hold the same amount of visceral impact as the Stooges’ Metallic K.O. No, there aren’t any bottles being thrown–just tin prison cups, in a moment one might recall from the brilliant if anachronistic “Folsom Prison” sequence in James Mangold’s 2005 biopic Walk the Line. But, as on the previous year’s At Folsom Prison, the interplay between Cash and his literal captive audience–as well as the tension between Cash, the inmates, and the guards–is palpable.
And, even more so than at Folsom, Cash himself is on fire for much of the show: he bellows his way through his performance, making even much-derided novelty material like “A Boy Named Sue” sound positively dangerous, and rides his trademark “steady like a train, sharp like a razor” sound right off the rails with a breakneck version of “Wreck of the Old 97,” howling like an engine whistle as he goes down. Even from the distance of almost four decades, it’s thrilling stuff.
But what the Legacy reissue reveals, and what wasn’t readily apparent either on the original ten-track LP or on the expanded 18-track reissue from 2000, is that the Cash of San Quentin is more than just a wildman or an outlaw; he’s a seasoned pro, both in terms of pure showmanship and in the skill with which he “walks the line” between wholesome entertainment and subversion. When the Man in Black, after anticipation-building sets by Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers, and the Carter Family, takes the stage to the strains of “Big River,” his usual introduction of “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” is delivered with the smug tone of a returning hero, a marked difference from the almost paternal greeting that opened At Folsom Prison. And though it would be out of the question to suggest that Cash gave any less than his all at the San Quentin performance, the medley he plays of “The Long Black Veil” and “Give My Love to Rose” comes off as a little rote, a veteran entertainer knocking a couple of chestnuts out of the way so he can get to the good stuff.
Of course, when he does get to the good stuff, it’s arguably never been better. The moment–preserved on all three versions of the album–when a defiant Cash debuts his song “San Quentin” to violent applause, then turns around and plays it all over again, is for my money one of the most thrilling moments in the history of recorded music. And while much has been made of the naiveté in his playing “Starkville City Jail“–a humorous little ditty about being arrested for “picking flowers” in Starkville, Mississippi–in front of a bunch of convicted murderers and rapists, the warmth and empathy with which Cash delivers his prison narrative and its accompanying anecdote helps to make it a modest and effective parable about the absurdity of the American justice system.
But then, the quality of the music was never really in question; chances are, most longtime fans of Johnny Cash have already heard it (albeit in somewhat truncated form) and know how great it is. Instead, the question on many of these fans’ lips is undoubtedly whether a three-disc reissue of the set is worth the extra–wait for it–cash.
The answer to that question largely depends on the individual listener, and their preferred image of the man himself. Strictly speaking, the additional music on this set adds very little to At San Quentin’s badass reputation; whereas the “classic” incarnation of the album, and even the 2000 expanded edition, made the best of their conciseness, coming off to many listeners as one sustained adrenaline rush, this version captures a “Johnny Cash Show” whose showbiz package mentality and Vegas-style instrumental transitions between acts sound bizarrely incongruous in the middle of a maximum security penitentiary.
Don’t get me wrong, the supporting cast is great. Perkins sounds barely a day older than his Sun Records peak on both “Blue Suede Shoes” and the latter-day “Restless“; the Carter Family is unimpeachable as always; and though the Statler Brothers are clearly the most dated-sounding act on the bill, their psych-country hit “Flowers on the Wall” (best known today for its use on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack) is charming and well-performed. But in terms of actual unearthed Cash material, only the “Long Black Veil” medley, a cover of Billy Edd Wheeler’s “Blistered,” and versions of “Orange Blossom Special” and “Jackson” (both inferior to their counterparts on At Folsom Prison) make their debut here. And while that “Blistered” cover is both hard-rocking and appealingly horny–and, with its backing vocals by Cash’s mother- and sisters-in-law, more than a little bizarre–its two-minute running time is hardly enough to justify another purchase by those who merely want to relive the outlaw panache of this classic album.
Perhaps, though, the fact that the expanded At San Quentin isn’t quite the vicarious thrill as its previous editions isn’t such a bad thing. Like many of the recent Cash collections from Legacy (Personal File, the reissued Children’s Album), this San Quentin is more of a historical document than an addition to the storied “Legend of Johnny Cash.” It presents to us a truly complete and well-rounded portrait of both the performer and the man himself, from the snarling Man in Black bravado of “Wanted Man” to the sentimental family nostalgia of Perkins’ “Daddy Sang Bass.” And it leads one to the conclusion that, while stories like Johnston’s sure paint a hell of a picture–what if Cash had gone just an inch too far and provoked violence in the audience?–in the end, the man who closes his show with a series of gospel ballads just doesn’t have it in him to start a prison uprising. His heart, however troubled, is much too big for that.
Some people might not like that realization, just like plenty of people didn’t like previous attempts at “softening” Cash, from the aforementioned Walk the Line to the collection of traditional hymns that marked the final release of his lifetime. Those people are advised to stay away from the expanded At San Quentin and just stick to the original, along with the American Recordings series, the Murder compilation, and any number of other releases that cement the classic image of Cash the rebel. But in an era when shrill, one-dimensional caricatures of honky-tonk hellraising like Hank Williams III are elevated as “the real deal,” in my eyes, it’s always good to look back at a giant of American music who was as three-dimensional as they came. To quote (somewhat sacrilegiously) a devotional song made famous by Cash himself, Here Was a Man. And here, now in its complete and unexpurgated form, is one of his greatest moments.