Every Record I Own - Day 193: Johnny Cash At San Quentin
I don’t have the same emotional connection to At San Quentin that I had to yesterday’s Greatest Hits. This LP came into my collection years later as a gift, and though I didn’t listen to it much, I held onto it because there’s no good reason to get rid of a classic-era Johnny Cash record. But listening to the live album now is a good reminder as to why Johnny Cash is an American icon.
This is the album, after all, that was being recorded when some member of the film crew took the famous picture of Cash giving the camera the middle finger, supposedly because the cameraman was getting in the way on stage. Over the course of At San Quentin, you hear Cash complain about the studio executive’s expectations for the performance and you hear him check with men in the audience to make sure the film crew isn’t blocking their view of stage. There are more than a few curse words beeped out on the recording, but the LP doesn’t seem to have much editing of between-song banter, and the overall vibe channelled by Cash is one of disdain for the higher-ups and a very real empathy for the prisoners. All in all, the song performances are fine, but the record is more fascinating for everything surrounding the songs. It’s a prison record, after all.
It’s hard to think of a contemporary artist who could approach a prison concert with such candor while being met with such gratitude and enthusiasm from the crowd. Johnny Cash may have been a flawed man, but he had a code, and his constant triumphing of the downtrodden is a reminder that today’s redneck bootstrap conservatism is about as far removed from the virtues espoused by America’s most beloved country singer as you can possibly get.