After a fun weekend (so fun, in fact, that I didn’t get around to writing this review until now) it was back to work. It is always a great feeling when you enjoy your job like I do, but I’d be lying if I said the prospect of a three day weekend doesn’t also appeal.
On that weekend I’ll be going to see Emmylou Harris, but before I do here’s a review of a famous live album by another country music legend. It is also the second five star album in a row, which is another reason I took my time before moving on.
Disc 564 is…. At San Quentin
Artist: Johnny Cash
Year of Release: 1969
What’s up with the Cover? Johnny Cash on stage. I used to stare at this picture as a kid, in awe of Johnny Cash’s star power and how eminently cool he looked. I feel pretty much the same as an adult, although I now wonder if that bass neck in the foreground is a left-hander. I hope so.
How I Came To Know It: I’ve known this album since I was a very small child. My Mom owned it on vinyl and it got played quite a bit. When I saw it had been reissued in 2000 on CD with all the extra songs from the concert that didn’t fit on the original vinyl I snapped it up.
How It Stacks Up: I have six Johnny Cash albums, but one of them is a ‘best of’ so doesn’t really count. The other four are his later American Recordings albums, making this the only classic Cash album I have. I like it best for that, and it is also better than any of the American Recordings albums, so I’ll put it first of all of them, new and old alike.
Rating: 5 stars
You always know you’re listening to a classic live album when no matter how many times you listen to it, you always feels like you’re sitting in the audience, enjoying the show for the first time. “Live at San Quentin” is one of those albums.
This is Johnny Cash at his greatest; larger than life and packing equal parts outlaw sneer and Christian devotion. His audience for “Live at San Quentin” is a hall full of hardened criminals to whom he promises a set-list of “what you want me to, and what I want to do” before launching into a vigorous version of “I Walk the Line.”
Like any great concert, there are plenty of other crow-pleasing favourites, including “A Boy Named Sue,” “and “Ring of Fire” and they are all played beautifully. In between songs, Cash’s gravelly voice dispenses humour, down-home wisdom and heartfelt appreciation for the musicians sharing the stage with him (these include wife June Carter and the Carter Family, Carl Perkins, and the Statler Brothers).
Songs are very much chosen with the audience in mind, and Cash goes the extra mile for the inmates. In addition to the obvious choices like “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Starkville City Jail” he has a couple songs specifically tailored to his audience.
The first is “I Don’t Know Where I’m Bound” that Cash explains is a song that a San Quentin inmate had earlier mailed to him. Cash uses the lyrics but writes a new tune to accompany them explaining that he couldn’t read the sheet music. This seems unlikely, but if it is a lie, it is a white lie, and with the genius of Cash’s music, the lyrics speak beautifully to the mindset of an inmate at San Quentin, unsure of his future:
“Can't stand locks, bars or doors
Mean cops insanity and wars
Gotta find a place of peace
Till then my travellin' won’t cease
But I don't know where I'm bound
“There's gotta be a place for me
Under some green growing tree
Clear cool water running by
An unfettered view of the sky
But I don't know where I'm bound”
Sadly, this song wasn’t on the vinyl version I grew up with, and what a travesty to not include it. The other San Quentin song is included, which is Johnny Cash’s own take on the maximum security penitentiary, as he imagines an inmate would view it. On the surface, “San Quentin” is a visceral attack on the prison itself, as Cash sings “San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell” to a chorus of raucous cheers from the prisoners.
Even as a small boy, I loved the rugged iconoclasm of that line, delivered under the watchful eyes of the very guards and establishment that had invited him in. Hidden inside the song, however, is an even more subtle attack on the nature of the prison system itself:
“San Quentin, what good do you think you do?
Do you think I'll be different when you're through?
You bent my heart and mind and you warp my soul,
Your stone walls turn my blood a little cold”
For all the dehumanizing experience of prison life, Cash has a genuine affection for his audience, notwithstanding that most of them would have earned their way in there. As Cash puts it in his introduction to San Quentin, “I think I understand a little bit about 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 how you feel about some other things.”
Cash wins the prisoners over with a mix of honesty and irreverence, but he offers them hope in the same place he found it himself in his darkest hours: in religion. You can almost feel the beaming smile of June Carter behind him as he sings “There’ll Be Peace in the Valley” and “He Turned the Water Into Wine.” “The Old Account Was Settled Long Ago,” has a full church service feel, with the Statler brothers and the Carter family pitching in with verses.
It is in these moments that it is clear that Johnny Cash didn’t come to the prison to sell records. He is there to give these men some hope at a dark time in their lives. I’m not a religious man, and the devotionals aren’t my favourites, but they are what gives the record its heart.
“Live at San Quentin” is a labour of love for a group of people who hadn’t seen a lot of it in their lives. It is also one hell of a live record that shows community of spirit can happen anywhere where there is a willing heart and a collection of amazing musicians.
Best tracks: Big River, I Walk the Line, I Don’t Know Where I’m Bound, Starkville City Jail, San Quentin, Folsom Prison Blues, Ring of Fire