Continuing Michael Darlow’s first-hand account of filming Johnny Cash’s 1969 concert at San Quentin prison. This article first appeared in Now Dig This, the longest-running magazine dedicated to the Big Beat. All words copyright Michael Darlow…
We made an early start the next morning – Joe, Ray and the rest of the Granada crew to fly back to England to get the film into the laboratory for processing and the Columbia recording tape copied to 16mm magnetic film, ready to be synched up with the film ready for editing. I meanwhile was to fly to New York. A former Granada colleague, named Ollay, had recently moved to New York and had contacted me to ask if I might be interested in doing a programme about blues musician BB King, who was playing in a jazz club in Harlem that week. King, although revered amongst jazz enthusiasts in the States, was not yet particularly well known in Britain. So I had arranged to stop-off in New York, go to the jazz club with Ollay, meet BB King and hear him play, and then fly on to London the next morning. Later that day, after flying to New York, checking into my hotel, getting something to eat and putting my feet up for a couple of hours, I met up with Ollay and, a little after 10 pm, we took a cab up to the jazz club, which was in a basement in Harlem on 135th Street close to 5th Avenue.
We met BB King in his dressing room. He was charming and seemed interested in the idea of doing a film with us. Then we went and sat in the audience to hear him and his group play a couple of sets. By then it was almost 2 am and I was feeling exhausted so I said to Ollay, “I’m bushed. Can we go?.” Ollay said “Of course” and we stood up, waved our farewells to BB and went up onto the street to flag a cab. Remember, it was still February and very cold but there was still a lot of traffic and plenty of people walking along the sidewalk. We stood for seemed like ages trying to flag a cab but, although there seemed to be plenty of cabs about none would stop. Then suddenly I felt someone tugging at my left arm. I turned, expecting to see Ollay and found myself facing a black guy who said in a husky, urgent voice: “Gi’s your wallet!” I turned sharply away to my right, again expecting to see Ollay, but instead found myself staring into the face of another black guy who said even more sharply “Gi’s your wallet!” I knew that there had recently been a lot of white-beating in New York and the thought flashed through my head that I was about to get beaten up because I was a white guy out late at night in Harlem. “This is bloody unfair!” I thought. “Here I am, a decent liberal, English guy, who has just spent a week in San Quentin among some of the toughest criminals in the world, trying give them a fair hearing and now I am going to get beaten up just because I am a white guy!” So I pulled myself up to my full height and, in my best English accent, said: “Piss off! I’m British!” They were deeply unimpressed! One of them jammed a gun hard into my ribs and repeated: “GI’S YER WALLET!!” Then they grabbed my arms and slammed me back against the wall, jamming the gun even harder into my ribs – “GI’S YOUR WALLET!” Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, I pulled my wallet out of my inside jacket pocket (luckily my passport didn’t come out with it) and handed it to them. “Gi’s yer watch!” So I slid my watch off my wrist and gave it to them. “Turn out yer pockets!” I turned out my trouser pockets and handed them the loose change. Then they ran off, leaving me standing dazed, with my back against the wall. The next thing I noticed, there was a woman walking down the sidewalk towards me making a sort of loud howling noise, something between laughing and crying. The world seemed to have gone mad! It didn’t occur to me that the woman might be having hysterics because of what she had just seen happen to me. Behind her walking along the sidewalk there was a great wall of man: “Walk real slow, baby!” he said to her, still walking. And everyone, me included, started to walk ‘real slow’ away from the spot. It was a bit like the end of a Gene Kelly number – slowly we all, everyone on the sidewalk, started to walk “Real slow” but gradually we were all speeding up until we were all running like hell. I ran straight back to the club and said breathlessly to the two bouncers on the door, “Get me the police!” “Piss off!” they said. “We don’t want no cops here.” So I pushed past them and, although they tried to grab me, ran straight down the stairs and into the club where people were still sitting listening to BB King. I ran straight between the tables and up on to the low stage. BB stopped playing and, clearly startled, asked, “What’s wrong, Mike?” “I’ve just been robbed and the guys on the door won’t get the police!” “OK!” said BB, indicating to his musicians to stop playing, “We ain’t playing any more ‘til someone gets the cops for our friend Mike”.
After a few minutes two cops arrived – by this time Ollay had also returned – he had seen the muggers coming and, being a New Yorker, had yelled to me to follow him as he ran out into the passing traffic. He knew that to run out into the traffic was safer than trying to run off down the street but because of the noise of the passing traffic I hadn’t heard him. The cops took us out to a police car and drove us to the nearby ’precinct house’ – the full Bowery Boys police station number, brass rail and everything. They sat us down in an interview room and asked us what had happened. They also asked me why I was in America. When I explained that for the last week I had been in San Quentin, interviewing prisoners and filming a Johnny Cash concert, they began to laugh. They seemed to think it was about the funniest thing that they’d ever heard – this Limey guy coming over from England, spending a week in San Quentin interviewing some of the toughest gangsters in America and a Johnny Cash concert and then getting mugged in Harlem. “OK,” they said and closed their notebooks. “You can go now.” “Oh, no I can’t”, I replied. “Why not?” they demanded sharply “You have just told me that if I hadn’t handed over my wallet to those guys I’d now be dead. Well, I haven’t got a wallet any more. So I’m not going anywhere until you get me a cab.” “OK”, they said, took us out to a squad car and drove us down to the corner of the block. One of the cops got out of the car and started trying to hail a cab. But none of the cabs would stop for him either. Eventually, after about ten minutes, one did stop. I thanked the cops and we got into it. When the cab driver asked us why a cop had been hailing a cab for us and I explained, he drove to my hotel and refused to charge me anything. Next morning, still sleepless and pretty shaken, I caught my flight back to London. By the time I arrived the press had picked up the story about the British TV producer being mugged in New York. According to the press stories the amount of cash in my wallet had grown, from the actual sum of about £40, to over £400 and I had Sidney Bernstein on the phone demanding to know what the hell I had been doing on the streets of New York late at night with £400 pounds in my wallet.
The next problem emerged when Martin Smith, our film editor, got the 16mm film print back from the laboratory and tried to synch up the film with the tape copy of Columbia Records’ twelve track recording. It was only then that we discovered that, as a result of the length of the cable which had had to be used to link our master camera, inside the mess hall, to the recording truck parked outside the prison walls, the synch pulse from our master camera had become so attenuated by the time that it reached the Columbia Records recording machine that there were serious gaps in the pulse. As a result, instead of simply being able to match up the sound and picture at the start of each roll of film and then having them run in synchronisation with each other until the end of the roll, Martin was going to have to manually match up the images on the film, fame-by-frame, with the sound on the recorded tape – an extremely tedious and time-consuming task! He was also going to have to put in cutaways shots to hide the places where he was going to have to make edits in order to keep picture and sound in synch. With only five weeks in which complete the editing of the film and get show prints made in time for press previews ahead of the film’s transmission, this was going to mean working some very long hours.
The concert had lasted for about two hours but our programme was scheduled to fill only a one hour ITV slot which, allowing for advertising breaks, meant a running time of just 52 minutes. So there was no way we were going to be able to include in the film everything which had happened during the concert. On top of which if the film was to achieve the goals we had set ourselves in making it – to give British audiences an insight into the nature of American society – we needed to include material from the interviews and other material we had shot in the prison as well as material from the concert.
We decided to open the film with a short sequence made up of clips from old black-and-white Westerns and other movies, with a voice-over commentary written and spoken by Joe Durden-Smith, to remind viewers of America’s original foundation myth and some of the roots of American country music – of an unspoiled land of opportunity, of settlers making new lives for themselves, free to follow their faith in a new land which an old poster included in the sequence claimed, was “The Finest Country In the World”. We decided to cut straight from this sequence to Johnny entering the prison with June and then to the prisoners clapping and cheering as he enters the hall, walks along the front row shaking hands and then bounds up on to the stage and says “Hello! I’m Johnny Cash!” We see Johnny ask the audience what they want to hear and in response to their shouted titles, launch into I Walk The Line. We intercut shots of him and the other performers singing with shots of men in the audience listening, the barred windows of the jail and the guards armed with rifles looking down from the raised walkways as prisoners walk across the prison courtyard.
The film moves on with Johnny performing Folsom Prison Blues intercut with more shots of prison life and interviews with prisoners talking about life in San Quentin and about how, over time, they become institutionalised to the point where they can see someone stabbed or killed and no longer feel anything, and about how killings in the prison have become almost routine and how, when there is a killing, prison staff immediately move in to remove the body and all traces of what has happened.
Next we cut to a close shot of Johnny playing the mouth organ intro to Orange Blossom Special, intercut with shots of prisoners relaxing in the prison yard, of prisoners being searched by prison guards, etc. Then Johnny asks June to join him on stage and they sing Jackson and Darling Companion and we see June gently flirting with the audience, and how they are mesmerised by her. Then the film changes pace. We cut to a prisoner explaining how Johnny Cash represents an America which a lot of people look back to: “It wasn’t a chaotic thing in their minds, you know. It was Mom’s apple-pie and it might have been beans but everybody had a full belly.” Next we cut to Johnny introducing a song which, he tells the audience “Tells it like it was” and takes him back to his childhood: Daddy Sang Bass. During the performance we cut away to prisoners talking about their families, their upbringing and about how, being in prison, they miss their loved ones. One prisoner says he thinks that the “greatest crime that many of us have committed is that we were born poor.” Others talk about being “exposed to a kind of machine-like justice. It just spews us out” and that by putting us in prison “they’re just hiding us”.
A little short of half-way through the film Johnny introduces San Quentin, preceded by the business with the guard and the cup of water. The camera stays close on Johnny as he sings the song, cutting away from time to time to see the audience’s reaction, their growing enthusiasm and to see and hear how they cheer louder and louder when he sings lines like “San Quentin, I hate every inch of you”. When he gets to “San Quentin, what good do you think you do? Do you think I’ll be different when you’re through?” we see the men shouting “No!” and, when the song ends with the repeated line “San Quentin, I Hate Every Inch of You!”, we see the prisoners break into wild cheers and more and more of them rising to their feet cheering and shouting “More!”
As the cheering continues we cut to the Head Guard talking about prisoners being afraid when they come into San Quentin and the things they do in order to survive – joining gangs, paying protection money or, in some cases, “becoming homosexual to survive”; about how being afraid can cause prisoners to “not be themselves … some even wrapping toilet paper round their arms to make themselves appear muscled-up” and others causing trouble with staff to show their fellow inmates that “I’m on your side and I’m a big, tough guy.”
Next we cut to Johnny singing Wanted Man intercut with prisoners and the Head Guard talking about how all the worst, most violent offenders are sent to San Quentin, about racism and race riots in the prison. This is followed by A Boy Named Sue, then by prisoners talking about their crimes – armed robbery, violent assault, and a habitual thief who says, “I do it every day, you know, like a job. There are days when I don’t steal and then I get depressed, you know what I mean? So next day I go out and I steal double and then I feel happy!” Finally we come to the murderer describing his crime: “I regret it and I always will”. He describes how he was at a party and had drunk too much, how there was a woman at the party who was a friend of his from his work and who had also drunk too much; how, after the other guests had left, he and the woman had started to make love on a sofa when her twelve-year old son, who was supposed to be upstairs asleep, walked in, saw them and said “What are you doing to my mother?” “Well I blew it! I don’t know why. But I did – I strangled both of them. All that I can remember clearly is her starting to scream “He’s raping me! He’s raping me! Call the police!” I don’t know why, but I did. I strangled them both. I still don’t know why I did it. And the judge saying that I was to be taken to San Quentin and executed by law”.
During the murderer’s last sentence we cut away to a shot of the exterior of death-row at night and then, after a short pause, to the Head Guard, San Quentin’s executioner, starting to describe the execution routine, starting with the night before the execution when the prisoner is taken downstairs to the holding cell next to the gas chamber, arrangements for his last meal and so on. At which point we cut away to Johnny and the Carter Family singing the slow-tempo religious song: (There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me). After a couple of verses we cut back to the murderer describing life on Death Row, how he has witnessed a number of prisoners, on the evening before their execution, being taken by guards to each cell on Death Row to say farewell to the other prisoners before being taken down to the holding cell next to the gas chamber to await execution the next morning. We cut back to Johnny and the Carters singing two more verses of Peace In The Valley and then back to the executioner continuing to describe life on Death Row and finally back to the last verse of the song – “There will be no sadness, no sorrow, Dear Lord I pray, There will be peace in the valley for me.” Next we cut to the murderer talking about his early life and Christian upbringing, followed by Johnny describing his and June’s visit to Israel and how going to Canaan inspired him to write He Turned The Water Into Wine. As well as close-ups of Johnny, June and the Carters singing the song, we see close-ups of the prisoners’ faces as they listen. At the end of the number, as the prisoners applaud, we cut-away to close ups of religious objects – bibles, a crucifix, etc – in prisoners’ cells. Then the Head Guard starts to describe what happens on the execution day itself; how just before ten o’clock the Prison Warden calls the person in charge of the execution on the phone beside the gas-chamber and gives the go-ahead; how guards then go into the condemned man’s cell, dress him in a shirt and jeans and take him into the death-chamber; how his legs and his arms are strapped to the chair and a strap is fastened around his chest and then, at about three minutes after ten, the Prison Warden instructs the executioner to carry out the execution; how the door to the gas chamber is closed and sealed, and “the gas is applied”. As the Head Guard describes the process we see close ups of the chair, the straps which attach the prisoner to the chair, the gas chamber door and the levers and knobs that are turned to close and seal it, the phone beside the gas chamber and the gas cylinder and the small wheel above it which is turned to apply the gas. The Head Guard says that the time that it takes between the order being given to apply the gas and the man being dead is not longer than “ … fourteen or fifteen minutes, but he is dead for all intents and purposes long before that.” We then cut to a close up of the large electric clock on the wall beside the gas chamber and watch in silence as the clock’s second hand ticks away for twenty seconds and then freezes. We hold the frozen clock face for a few seconds in silent close-up and then cut to the Head Guard describing why, from the many executions he has witnessed, he believes that the execution process is painless. The murderer describes how, on the evening before his execution, after he had said his final good-byes to his mother, he was waiting in his cell on for the guards to come to take him downstairs to the holding cell next to gas chamber when a guard came into his cell and told him that he had better sit-down as he had news for him. The guard then told him that he had been granted a stay of execution.
Finally, after a very short pause, we cut to shots of San Quentin and prisoners walking across the prison courtyard within white lines painted on the ground and of armed guards looking down from the walk-ways above, while on the sound-track we hear Johnny singing San Quentin and the prisoners’ reactions: “San Quentin, you’ve been living hell to me … San Quentin, I hate very inch of you! …” The song continues and we cut to the film’s end-credits.
By the end of the first week of April, thanks to Martin Smith and his assistant’s hard work, the film was finished, had been viewed by the relevant Granada executives and passed for transmission and press screenings, publicity interviews, etc. were underway. Copies of the TV Times for the week starting Saturday 19th April, complete with a four-page article about the programme, numerous photographs and even a paragraph about me being mugged in New York, had been printed and were on sale in newsagents. Then, on Friday, 11th April, ITV screened the first episode of a Granada gangland drama called Big Breadwinner Hog. It opened with a large, sustained close-up of a man’s face having acid thrown into it and stayed in close-up as the acid burnt away the skin and ate into the man’s flesh. Next morning there were front page headlines about the horror of the opening scene of Granada’s new crime drama and the huge number of viewers who had complained. My wife, Sophie, and I had just moved house and, it being Saturday, were both in the kitchen of our new home with the radio on when the BBC News came on. The first story was about the huge row raging over the ‘gratuitous violence’ of the opening scenes in Granada TV’s Big Breadwinner Hog. Sophie, looking up from the cooking, said “You know who’s going to be the fall guy for this, don’t you?” “No”, “You! You and your Johnny Cash film.” “Nonsense,” I said. “Neither I nor our Johnny Cash film has got anything to do with Big Breadwinner Hog”. “You wait”, she said, “You’ll find I’m right.”
Sure enough, on Monday morning, as soon as I got into my office in Granada’s London HQ my phone rang: “Sidney Bernstein wants to see the Johnny Cash film as soon as possible.” An hour later I was sitting beside Sidney Bernstein in the company’s small basement viewing theatre watching the film. He sat in silence, not saying a word or giving the slightest hint of what he was making of the film until, less than five minutes before the end, the Head Guard started his detailed description of the execution process intercut with the shots of the gas-chamber and close-ups of the straps used to secure the prisoner to the chair, the telephone next to the gas chamber and the gas cylinder with the small wheel above it used to turn on the lethal gas. At that point Sidney started to move uneasily in his seat and then, as the last credits came up on screen and Johnny’s voice singing San Quentin faded away and the lights came up in the viewing theatre, Sidney Bernstein said, “The sequence in the gas chamber has got to come out. It must be cut. I watched that man die!” “No Sidney, you didn’t.” I said. “All you saw was the gas chamber and some knobs and things. You didn’t see anyone die.” “No! The sequence has got to come out. We can’t transmit it.” With that he stood up and, making it clear he was not prepared to discuss the matter any further, walked out.
For Joe, Martin and me that sequence, following straight on as it did from Johnny, June and the Carter family singing He Turned The Water Into Wine, summed up all that we were saying in the film. The glaring contrast between the ideals of Christian mercy expressed in the song and in the professed beliefs of many Americans, and the widespread use by the American state of the death penalty, epitomised what we saw as a fundamental hypocrisy at the heart of American society.
To cut a long story short, I refused to cut the sequence. My determination not to go along with Sidney’s demand was partly because this was the third time in succession that Sidney had intervened over a programme of mine at the last minute, after it had been seen and accepted for transmission by the relevant senior Granada executives, and ordered me to make cuts or major changes to what I regarded as crucial sequences in the films. The last time had been over a sequence in one of the films for which I had recently won the BAFTA for Best Documentary Series. I had refused to give way on that occasion and I certainly wasn’t going to cave in now. The result was a stand-off – Sidney refusing to even discuss it and me refusing to make the cut despite being repeatedly ordered to by various Granada executives. Later that week Granada publicly announced, without any explanation for the reasons behind the decision, that transmission of the Johnny Cash in San Quentin film had been postponed indefinitely.
Eventually, largely due to Denis Forman’s diplomacy (a big wheel at Granada who would eventually become chairman), a sort of compromise was reached. Denis would sit in the sitting room with a Granada staff editor, but without Joe, Martin or me present, and together they would go through the gas-chamber sequence shot-by-shot and see if, by making some small cuts and judicious changes, they could come up with a version of the sequence which would satisfy both Sidney Bernstein and me. Finally, thanks mainly to Denis’s diplomacy and knowledge of the way in which Sidney’s mind worked, by removing or slightly reducing the length one or two close-ups of objects in the gas chamber and, crucially, reducing the length of the final close-up of the gas-chamber clock ticking away the seconds between the gas being applied and the prisoner losing consciousness, they came up with a version of the sequence which, although weaker in impact, allayed Sidney’s concerns sufficiently for him to agree to the film being transmitted and which Joe, Martin and I could accept. However, by the time this had been achieved the original 19th April transmission date had passed and no new date had been set. Also, as a recognised form of protest over what had been done to our film, Joe, Martin and I had removed our names as the film’s producers and director, from its end credits.
On 4th June 1969 Columbia Records released its LP Johnny Cash At San Quentin. It became an instant, worldwide smash-hit. Finally, at 10.30pm on Saturday, 9th September 1969, Johnny Cash In San Quentin was transmitted on the ITV network with little or no publicity. Interestingly however, Joe and I had been credited in the TV Times programme-billing as, respectively, the producers and the director of the film. There were few reviews of the film and those that there were were mixed – a rave in Variety and a rather snotty one in the Sunday Telegraph. Even so, quite a lot of viewers wrote in to the newspapers to say how much they had enjoyed it. By the time the film was transmitted I had resigned from Granada, having had enough of Sidney Bernstein’s unreasonable last minute interventions in my programmes, and was at Derby Playhouse directing a production of “Look Back In Anger” – under the circumstances a pretty appropriate title!
Three years later when I was running a festival in Glasgow, I phoned Johnny’s Manager, Saul Holiff, to ask if Johnny would be willing to do a concert in Glasgow as part of the festival. Next day I got Johnny’s answer – “A definite ‘Yes!’” Unfortunately in the end, because of Johnny’s pre-existing commitments, we couldn’t make the dates work and the proposed concert didn’t happen. Although I never met Johnny again, over the years I was in touch with Saul Holiff from time to time and more recently, since Johnny, June and Saul’s death, I have been in touch with Saul’s son, Jonathan Holiff, who has made a very interesting documentary about his father’s relationship with Johnny. In July 1976, in response to numerous requests from viewers, ITV re-transmitted our film. Since then it has been re-shown on various channels in Britain and around the world, including on Channel 4 in 1992. In 2007 it was issued on DVD as part of a 2xCD Sony/Legacy package including Columbia’s unedited audio tapes of the show.
In later years I did return to Granada a number of times to make programmes, but always as a freelance. I also regularly kept in touch with Denis Forman and after Denis had retired from Granada, he executive produced and presented a couple of series for my small independent production company.
Today Johnny Cash At San Quentin and our film continue to sell around the world. To date, the album has sold millions of copies and was certified gold on 12th August 1969, platinum and double platinum on 21st November 1986, and triple platinum on 27th March 2003 by the RIAA.
San Quentin, you’ve been living hell to me ….
… San Quentin, I hate every inch of you!
But actually, I am glad that we made our film about Johnny Cash giving a concert in an American jail, and that that jail was San Quentin!
I still can’t quite believe that I can count amongst my friends the man who masterminded the making of this iconic film, featuring a giant of the music scene at his peak, or that I’ve socialised with someone who Johnny Cash told to ‘go f*** yourself!’ I remain eternally grateful to Michael for taking so much time to indulge my request for his reminiscences with such a detailed and heartfelt account of not just the concert but the events surrounding it. Thank you for allowing me to share it with others.