Continuing Michael Darlow’s first-hand account of filming Johnny Cash’s San Quentin concert in 1969. This article first appeared in Now Dig This, the longest-running magazine dedicated to the Big Beat. All words copyright Michael Darlow…
By now a transmission date for our film on the ITV network had been announced – Saturday, 19th April, just seven weeks after the concert. This meant that, allowing time for press previews and promotion, we were going to have just five weeks, from the end of shooting, in which to get all our shot footage processed, then edited and approved by Granada’s bosses, to mix the sound track and get show prints made in time for press previews and transmission. Then, on 14th February, just three days before Joe and I were due to fly out to California with Ray Goode and his crew to start filming the interviews and shots of life in San Quentin, a documentary series I had made a year earlier about civilian life in London, Berlin and Leningrad during the Second World War won the BAFTA award for Best Documentary Series.
There was already quite a lot press interest and speculation about Granada’s forthcoming film about Johnny Cash doing a concert in San Quentin, “…one of America’s most notorious jails!” That interest now ratcheted up a couple more notches.
At this point it may be helpful to remind readers of the social and political state of things in the USA in early 1969. Historians say that by the late 1960s America was ‘more socially and politically divided than at any time in the previous one hundred years’. Racial tensions had reached a pitch of intensity not experienced since the American Civil War ended in 1865. There had recently been serious riots in the poor black areas of major cities all across America – in New York’s Harlem, in Watts in Los Angeles, in Detroit, Chicago, etc. On 4th April 1968 the civil rights leader Martin Luther King had been assassinated as he stood on the balcony of his hotel in Memphis Tennessee by a white racist gunman, James Earl Ray. The Vietnam war was at its height, provoking mass anti-war demonstrations, a nationwide hippy, anti-war movement, whose slogan was “Make Love Not War!”, was sweeping America and Columbia University had been occupied by anti-war students. By early 1969 more than 650,000 US service men were serving in Vietnam and the US Government had re-introduced a system of compulsory military conscription similar to the systems which had operated during the Second World War and the Korean War. Known as “The Draft”, the system was based on a set of eligibility rules combined with a form of lottery. The result was that the great majority of the young men conscripted came from the least well-off families. Accusations of “draft dodging”, particularly by young men from rich families and those with useful political connections, were rife. By early 1969 “Anti-Draft” protests, sit-ins and marches were regularly taking place all over the USA.
In the spring of 1968 President Lyndon Johnson, who had become President after John F Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, and who, in his 1964 presidential election campaign had promised voters that he would de-escalate the war and stop sending American boys to fight in Vietnam but had later, as president, done the exact reverse, announced that he would not run for a second term. In June 1968 Robert Kennedy, who had been leading in the race to become the Democratic Party’s candidate for the November 1968 presidential election, had been assassinated in a Los Angeles hotel by a young Palestinian, Sirhan Sirhan and in November 1968 Richard Nixon, running against Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey, had narrowly won the election and on 20th January 1969 entered the White House as President.
Driving into San Quentin on the first morning of our five days filming in the prison ahead of the concert, Joe, I and the other members of the crew all felt a heightened sense of tension: not exactly fear, more a mix of curiosity and apprehension which went beyond the usual sense of mixed tension and excitement which is part of the first day’s shooting on any film. We were all very aware of San Quentin’s violent reputation and felt not only a shared a sense of danger but of heightened alertness. For the next five days we were going to be moving around among thousands of the most dangerous criminals in America, many of whom had violently attacked and seriously injured people. I had told the crew about the Head Guard’s warning that, despite the fact that there would be at least one prison officer with us at all times wherever we went in the prison, that on its own was not enough to guarantee our safety and about the deal I had done with the gang leaders. For the next five days our safety would largely depend on whether the prison’s gang leaders kept their word.
After unloading our equipment, we walked the few yards from the prison car park to the main door of the prison itself where a prison guard was waiting to meet us. He explained to the other officers on duty at the door who we were and what our business was. Then, after we had each given our names to the officer at the reception desk and shown him our passports, and other guards had patted each of us down all over to make sure we weren’t taking anything illegal into the prison and other officers checked each piece of our equipment, and the guard with the rubber stamp coated and invisible ink had stamped our hands, the guard standing by the door un-hooked his large bunch of keys from the belt round his waist and unlocked the heavy iron-barred door to the long corridor leading into the heart of the prison. The echoing rattle of keys and chains, and the clanging of heavy iron-barred doors being locked and unlocked would echo around us for the whole time wherever we went inside San Quentin.
That first morning in San Quentin, we quickly became aware of the racial tension and segregation inside the prison – a segregation not imposed by the prison authorities but an apartheid imposed and policed by the prisoners themselves. We almost never saw a white prisoner walking or talking with an African-American prisoner or a white or African-American prisoner talking to a Hispanic. The segregation was most striking when we took our camera up on to the walk-way on top of the walls surrounding the huge, triangular central courtyard of the prison, where prison officers, armed with rifles, stood looking down on the prisoners in the courtyard below during their recreation breaks. One wall of the courtyard was occupied exclusively by white prisoners, who leant against the wall and smoked and talked among themselves. Against another wall stood groups of African-Americans smoking and talking and against the third wall Hispanics. We rarely. if ever, saw anyone from one racial group go across to speak to a member of another racial group. The racial antagonism between the different groups came out even more strongly when we were filming interviews with prisoners about their lives, particularly when white prisoners spoke about African-Americans, accusing them of being lazy, of sponging off the state and expecting special treatment because of their colour. More than once, when we interviewed an African-American, white prisoners came over and stood behind the camera pulling faces and making threatening and obscene gestures at the African-American prisoner we were interviewing in the hope of intimidating him or putting him off what he was saying. On other occasions white prisoners would come and stand behind the prisoner we were interviewing and pull faces or make rude signs at the camera in an attempt to make the interview unusable.
Nevertheless, most of the time filming in San Quentin was pretty straightforward. Always accompanied by a guard and sometimes also by a member of one of the gangs, we were allowed to move around the prison pretty freely, interviewing prisoners and filming what was going on in the prison workshops, recreation areas, cell-blocks, on the walk-ways and, with prisoners’ agreement, in their cells. Almost nowhere in the prison was out-of-bounds to us. The one major exception was Death Row which was separated off from the other areas of the prison, with strict security checks before you entered. So, although we were allowed to visit Death Row and briefly look around, our filming there was strictly limited. Many of the prisoners awaiting execution on Death Row had been in San Quentin for many years as they and their lawyers went through the elaborate US system of appeals and challenges trying to have their convictions quashed or their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment. We did, however, manage to film one very powerful interview with a murderer, who had murdered a woman and her twelve year old son.
Death Row was noticeably quieter than other parts of the prison, the cells were larger and the atmosphere seemed somehow more relaxed. Later, when we interviewed the Head Guard he told us that the prisoners “…live a comparatively good, easy life up there. They’re fed exceptionally well, but they do a lot of cell time. The only time they get to come out of their cells is at exercise times or when people come on visits.” The murderer also talked about the boredom of life on Death Row, “But”, he added, in explanation of the apparent peacefulness of Death Row, “I think everyone’s scared up here, but they don’t like to admit it.”
After our visit to the cells on Death Row we were taken downstairs to the Gas Chamber itself, where the Head Guard, who was also San Quentin’s executioner, took us step-by-detailed-step through the process of taking a man into the gas chamber, strapping him to the chair, closing and locking shut the gas chamber door and then, on the word of the Prison Warden, turning on the lethal gas. As well as the interview with the Head Guard we took close-up shots of the gas chamber, the chair into which the condemned man is strapped and of the various buttons and gas taps pressed and turned on during the execution process
As explained, most of the time filming in San Quentin was pretty straightforward. But there were exceptions – moments when filming became decidedly dangerous. The worst was one lunchtime when we were filming in the prison canteen, ‘the chow hall’. By then we had been filming in the prison for some days and had perhaps become over-confident. As in any canteen, the prisoners collected trays from a stack near the counter and then moved along the counter, behind which other prisoners were serving the food. The trays used by the prisoners were rather like large airline trays with hollows in them for each different item of food, except that, unlike airline trays which are usually made of a light plastic, the trays in San Quentin were made of steel. The canteen was a large hall and was crowded with about three hundred prisoners as we started to film, taking shots of men queuing at the counter, being served by the prisoners behind the counter and then going over to sit and eat and talk with other prisoners at long tables. With all the noise in the canteen, the clatter of steel trays and cutlery, and the general hubbub of hundreds of men talking, we were taking general shots of the activity in the chow-hall rather than recording interviews or filming specific conversations between prisoners. Ray, our cameraman, was in front filming and I was standing immediately behind him pointing out various things to film. The sound recordist, with his portable tape recorder strapped to his waist and a microphone on a boom pole was beside and half a pace behind Ray. The prison guard who was with us was standing beside me. Suddenly I felt the guard tug my arm and heard him say in a low, urgent voice, “Get out! Get out!” I pulled my arm sharply away and said to Ray, “Keep going”. The guard immediately grabbed my arm again and repeated even more urgently “Get Out! Get Out!” Again I tried to ignore him and pull away, telling Ray to carry on filming. But when the guard grabbed hold of me a third time, this time with both hands and repeated the command to “GET OUT” even more urgently and started trying to physically bundle me and the sound recordist towards the chow-hall door, I thought I had better obey. So I grabbed Ray’s shoulder and said to him and the sound man, “Come on, we’ve got to stop and get out of here.” Once we were all safely outside in the corridor, I asked the guard, “What the hell was all that about? We were getting some good stuff in there.” The guard replied, “You couldn’t see, but over to the right, half behind you, a prisoner was objecting to your filming and was about to throw his tray of hash at you. If he had thrown his tray, all the other prisoners would have thrown their trays as well. And you would all have been killed, buried under three hundred steel trays of hash!” Chastened, and not a little shaken, we walked away down the corridor with the guard and didn’t try to film in the chow-hall again.
Saul Holiff had told me that, three days before the San Quentin concert, Johnny was booked to do concert in San Diego, close to the big US Navy base. San Diego is in the south of California, close to the Mexican border, so Joe and I arranged to fly down from San Francisco on the day, go to the concert and afterwards go
backstage to meet Cash and talk through plans for the San Quentin concert and our filming. By the time we arrived the concert hall was already packed with hundreds of out-of-uniform sailors, their wives and girl-friends. Walking through the hall to find our seats Joe and I became uneasily aware that, although we were now close to the Mexican border, there was hardly a single Hispanic or African-American face in the hall. We were well aware, of course, of country music’s common association with white supremacy and segregation, and its reputation as the “redneck soundtrack of the racist South”. But we believed that Johnny Cash was different. Although his songs often spoke for poor, dispossessed white southern share-cropper farmers, his music also seemed to speak for the poor and dispossessed of all colours and creeds. Cash had spoken out openly for the rights of Native Americans, was known to oppose the US’s role in Vietnam and had even received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan.
Just before the concert began, a well-built middle-aged man entered with his mink-coated wife on his arm, walked down the centre aisle and took a seat in the middle of the front row. We, like the rest of the audience, immediately recognised him. He was Commander Lloyd Bucher, who a year earlier had been in command of a lightly-armed of a US Navy spy ship, the Pueblo, in international waters off North Korea when it had been surrounded by a flotilla of well-armed North Korean ships. Heavily outnumbered and outgunned, Bucher had surrendered his ship and crew along with a large quantity of highly secret papers and electronic equipment. Following negotiations between the US and North Korean governments, Bucher and his crew, who had been tortured and half-starved during their captivity in North Korea, had been released and returned to the USA. On 20th January 1969 a highly publicised US Navy Court of Inquiry, at which Commander Bucher and members of his crew were the principal witnesses, had opened at the US naval base in San Diego. It was still sitting in late February when we went down to San Diego for Johnny Cash’s concert. Bucher had become a controversial figure – widely condemned by many ordinary Americans for surrendering his ship without putting up more of a fight but also seen by others, particularly his crew, as a hero, not only because by surrendering he had probably saved their lives but also because of the way he had tried to protect his men during their captivity even though this had resulted in Bucher himself being subjected to numerous beatings by the prison guards.
Johnny Cash’s extraordinary natural rapport with his audience was obvious from the first moment when he came on stage and greeted them with his familiar opening catch-phrase: “Hello! I’m Johnny Cash,” He was clearly a born showman, who responded instinctively to his audience’s mood and character. As explained, Jo and I had become uneasy when we entered the concert hall and saw that the audience was made up almost entirely of white people. But as Johnny got going, singing his familiar, well-loved songs – Busted, Ring Of Fire, Orange Blossom Special, Folsom Prison Blues, and duetting with June, other members of the Carter family and the musicians in his group, we relaxed and started to enjoy ourselves. However, our unease suddenly returned when, without warning, Johnny turned and looked straight down at Commander Bucher sitting in the front row and said: “And now I am going to sing a song about a great American hero – The Battle of the Alamo!” As the audience whooped and cheered and Johnny launched into Remember the Alamo, the song originally written by Tex Ritter, Joe and I shrank in our seats ….
A hundred and eighty were challenged by Travis to die ….
…. With the words of farewell from a garrison valiant and proud
Grieve not little darling my dying if Texas is sovereign and free
We’ll never surrender and ever with liberty be ….
What was Johnny trying to do? Was he seriously suggesting that Commander Bucher was an American hero on a par with the legendary Colonel William Barrett Travis, the commander at the 1836 Battle of the Alamo during the Texan War of Independence? Travis, confronted by a much larger force of Mexicans, had refused to surrender and died along with
all his men. Or was Johnny, by recalling the Battle of the Alamo, criticising Commander Bucher for, unlike Travis, surrendering without putting up more of a fight? We didn’t know – even today I am not sure. The phrase “Remember the Alamo!” had become a well-known American battle cry, a challenge to men to be courageous and, like the men at the Alamo, show their manhood. But the story of the Alamo also had associations with slavery and white supremacy – the reason why the Texan settlers had risen to fight for their independence from Mexico was that the Mexican government had passed a law abolishing slavery and the Texans wanted to continue owning slaves to work their land.
By the time Johnny Cash had finished singing Remember the Alamo the atmosphere in the hall was electric. If, as the audience stood cheering at the end of the song, Johnny had said “Now let’s go out and find a bunch of Mexicans and lynch them!” I think a lot of the audience would have done so. It was a very ugly, tense moment and Joe and I shuddered. Of course, Johnny didn’t make any such call and instead simply got on with introducing his next song.
When the concert was over Joe and I went backstage to meet Johnny as arranged. We had one burning question we had agreed we must ask Johnny so, once the initial introductions and pleasantries were over, I plunged straight in. “Mr Cash,” I began hesitantly, “is there any chance – um – that you could – er – write a song specially for San Quentin? Something rather like Folsom Prison Blues?
“Go fuck yourself!” he said, turned and walked off the stage.
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry, Mr Cash, I ….” I stammered. But Johnny was gone. Then June, who had been standing beside Johnny and had watched him go, turned and came over to us and whispered in my ear, “That means he’ll do it!”
Confused and not knowing what to think, Joe and I returned to San Quentin to finish our filming in the prison and prepare for the concert.