Johnny Cash’s iconic prison performances and Jim Marshall’s remarkable photographic record of them.
There are a few concerts that become the stuff of legend – a tipping point for an artist’s career, a moment when everything palpably changed. Johnny Cash’s two seminal live prison albums, released in 1968 (At Folsom Prison) and 1969 (At San Quentin), are unique in that they weren’t even performed for the paying public – these gigs are even more exclusive than the Sex Pistols’ legendary Manchester shows (and less likely to later result in disputed “I was there” claims), and both shows have become the stuff of legend and mythology. The myths see an ex-con returning to the place of his incarceration as a redeemed, if not repentant figure, and Cash was happy to indulge them – but the truth is that Cash had never actually been in prison (not as a convict, at least) and these two shows were far from his first performances in such places. He’d played Folsom Prison, and others, several times during the 1960s and it was this familiarity that made him determined to record the albums – he knew just how explosive these shows would be, both in terms of the inmates’ reaction to the show and the country establishment’s reation to the very idea.
By 1968, Cash was an artist who had almost thrown it all away on drugs, drink, bad behaviour and general self-destruction, but was now sorting out his life and looking for a fresh start, musically, personally (with June Carter) and spiritually. He was a country artist who, at 36, might have seemed over the hill and far away in the era of psychedelia, heavy rock and prog, an era where rock stars and their fans had not yet had the chance to grown old. Cash had always been that big cooler than the average country star – he had a rock ‘n’ roll vibe about him and he’d proved himself to be a serious artist, with concept albums dating back to 1960. But there was still the possibility of him slipping into irrelevance and obscurity as the new decade beckoned. Cash would do some forgettable recordings and make some fashion faux pas later in his career, but these two albums – more incindiary than any rock live LP – effectively established him as cool forever. Cash would be the outlaw, the voice of the oppressed, the Man in Black forever, and that’s entirely down to these two LPs.
Cash took photographer Jim Marshall (not related to the inventor of the Marshall Amp) to both shows, and his book of photographs documenting the events is a remarkable work. Things strike you immediately. One is just how well Cash photographs – he makes posed shots look casual yet iconic, particularly in the Folsom photos. With his black suit, quiffed hair and a swagger than is obvious even in these still images, he has the look of an outlaw. He’s a handsome – but certainly not pretty, but with a lived-in ruggedness – man, and there’s a sense of danger about him. No wonder people believed that he had been to prison – you look at Cash here and see a tough, no-nonsense guy, someone who you could trust with your life but who wouldn’t hestitate to knock you out if you stepped out of line. There’s a sense of integrity here that is admirable. People don’t look like this anymore, I thought regretfully, as I studied the images – where are men like this today? Imagine rehearsal shots of any modern acts of a similar age and you’ll see primped, preening popinjays with no substance to them. Cash, unquestionably, had susbstance. But then, so did everyone it seems – the book is a fascinating collection of worn out, lined faces with expressions that tell their own stories.
The other striking thing is the photography itself. There’s an awareness that perhaps one reason that Cash looks so iconic is because of how he is photographed. I don’t mean creatively, though that’s obviously important and we’ll come to that in a moment. I mean technically, the film and the film camera. Digital photography is a marvellous thing in many ways, but it’s too immediate, too clean and too easy. There was a certain technical skill required to take a photo in 1968 , and a certain time needed to do so. These photos are an extensive documentation of the two events, but they don’t feel as though Marshall was shooting willy-nilly, cranking out shots and then picking the best – there’s a feeling of consideration here and, as importantly, a sense of substance – these are images designed to be physical, tactile objects, as prints or in print, and they feel different. It’s not just these images – look at any iconic news image of this time and compare it to their modern equivalent. I hate to sound like a luddite – but film is more authentic somehow. Of course, black and white film also feels more real – maybe because the tradition of news photography has conditioned us to think that wasy. Interestingly, the colour images in the book are a lot less striking.
Of course, you could hand the average person a camera in 1968 and the results would not be of this level. Let’s not get too hung up on the technical qualities of film vs digital, or the photogenic qualities of the subject matter. It’s Marshall’s eye that ultimate makes this a vital document rather than just a historically interesting one. like all the best photographers, he might have had the perfect subject matter to work with, but it’s his choices – what, when and where to shoot – that create art. Cash had personally commissioned Marshall to photograph the shows, and that trust and comfort allows the photographer to get moments of intimacy as well as extraordinary images of the event itself. The back stage shots and images of Cash and entourage entering the prison are suitably tense and sombre – it was, after all, a high security prison with the potential for sudden violence – and have the feel of news reportage about them. The performance shots are remarkable – Cash, alone on stage, sat on a stool with his feet dangling over the edge of the stage and the inmates seemingly inches away with no barrier – most pop bands today wouldn’t even trust their own paying fans to get that close.
Cash’s two prison albums of the 1960s are not perfect by any means – At Folsom Prison was recorded in the wake of Cash’s attempts at country populism and contains too many novelty songs and weak numbers. It works as a piece and a record of an event rather than a collection of songs, even though the best moments are unquestionably brilliant. At San Quentin is the more musically substantive of the two and includes the hit single A Boy Named Sue, that Cash and the band pretty much improvised on the spot based on Shel Silverstein’s lyrics. At Folsom Prison is, however, the more electric recording, and both are seential parts of any worthwhile record collection.
Cash would attempt to squeeze more momentum out of the format, though neither På Österåker, recorded in a Swedish prison in 1972 and released a year later, and the TV special A Concert Behind Prison Walls, broadcast in 1974 and postumously issued as an album in 2003, are as impressive. The Swedish album has little in the way of iconic songs and the TV special feels like an unnecessary repeat of the other two albums. Cash, at one point an enthusiastic prison reformer, seemed to lose interest over the years – possibly because his own attempts at reform, mainly with convict Glen Sherley who wrote the song Greystone Chapel that Cash performed in front of his at Folsom – ended badly (Sherley was given parole and a job with Cash, but couldn’t get his life together; after making several violent threats, he was fired by Cash and disowned by Nashville; in 1978 he shot a man, and unable to face going back to prison, took his own life).
Cash’s career by that time was heading for obscurity, his outlaw country days feeling a long way behind him as he was absorbed into and then eased out of the mainstream of both popular culture and country music. As country became ever glossier in the 1980s, Cash tried to keep up but became ever more irrelevant – it wasn’t until the American Recordings in 1994 that Cash would regain his cool cred and find a new audience outside the increasingly slick and commodified country music world. By the time of his 2003 death, he was once again seen as the defiant outlaw and iconic musical rebel, and his two prison albums of 1968/1969 became totems of that image – the voice of the underdog and bird-flipping anti-establishment hero.