JohnnyCashstartedplayingtheprison circuit in the late 1950s, living up to his own promises in songs (to "the prisoner who has long paid for his crime/but is there because he's a victim of the times") to play for men who "had their hearts torn out, as well as their minds, their nervous system and their souls," as he explained in the liner notes to his LiveAtSanQuentinalbum. As a young and then-unknown Merle Haggard said, "I was in the prison band in San Quentin when I first saw Johnny Cash. I was impressed with his ability to take 5,000 convicts and steal the show away from a bunch of strippers. That's pretty hard to do. Prison is a good place to find out the truth because them convicts won't lie—they ain't got no reason to give you any clout that you don't deserve. And we saw the truth that day."
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There's something in Haggard's sentence that could be difficult to understand, but I knew what he meant: it's the morals behind the musician, dug down deep, like that elusive mainline Lou Reed could never hit. To me, an artist's morals are as important as the music itself, as instructive and lasting as the lessons you'd learn from TheStrangeror ToKillaMockingbirdin school.
Cash was born with the same thing George Orwell was after when he renounced his Burmese police position and was tramping around London: an innate sense of fairness and kindness from a dirt-floor perspective. And then he persevered, finding himself even stronger after toppling into pills, booze and a failed marriage. He even made a comeback after the Beatles and the Nashville Sound wiped honky-tonk off the charts. And he was tangible to me in the same way the Minutemen and the Clash were—in the sincerity of his prison shows, in his openness about his addictions, even his musical shortcomings. On the SanQuentinalbum, he extended an open invitation for someone to tune his guitar and explained that he still couldn't read sheet music. This meant the world to a 18-year-old bass player with no previous experience, no lessons, no idea how to start making music for himself.
Cash was at his best when he'd cleaned up in the '60s, when he rekindled his interest in music, in God, in living. He used his career as leverage to help friends. He was given a television show, where he provided a forum for Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson; he picked up a fledgling Carl Perkins, giving him a job and a reason to break away from drinking. He cut two of the best live albums ever made. And he always stayed something of an outlaw. I learned this firsthand while interning at a radio station on the heels of Cash's AmericanVI:TheManComesAround.While on break, I ventured over to the country sister station and asked why Johnny Cash wasn't on their playlist. "He is," the DJ responded. "We play him during the late-night shows. He's a little edgy." Looking back, I shouldn't have expected anything else.
JOHNNY CASH BIRTHDAY BASH WITH HELLBOUND HAYRIDE, BASTARD SONS OF JOHNNY CASH, SPEEDBUGGY, LOS CREEPERS, SCOTCH GREENS, TOD STEDMAN, AND THE IRISH BROTHERS AT THE GALAXY CONCERT THEATRE, 3503 S. HARBOR BLVD., SANTA ANA, (714) 957-0600; WWW.GALAXYTHEATRE.COM. SAT., 8 P.M. $15. ALL AGES.