Tag Archives: 1968

4th Favorite Beatles Album: The Beatles

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The Beatles
1968, Parlophone. Producer: George Martin.
Gifted Vinyl, 1988.

IN A NUTSHELL: The Beatles, aka “The White Album,” is, for the most part, a bunch of songs by the solo Beatles. It’s an Easter Basket of a record, with some favorite treats, some stuff you just kind of like, and even a (“WTF?”) stick of deodorant. I’ve come to appreciate the hit-or-miss nature of the songs, as they rise and fall in my estimation as I age and change. There seems to be no genre unexplored, and there was certainly nobody to tell them NOT to make such a weird record. And in the end they produced an album like no other.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.

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I usually start with a bit of a background story for these posts about these albums. In the spirit of “The White Album,” it feels appropriate to instead start off with a bunch of random, disconnected Beatle memories and thoughts.

When I was a kid, my dad used to tell a story that Ringo Starr had once stopped at our house in rural Pennsylvania, knocked on the door and asked how to get to Pushnik’s, a nearby hotel with a nightclub. (I don’t believe it was true.)

I worked on the third shift at Hershey’s Chocolate Factory in the summer of 1987, and I had a bit of a crush on a co-worker. One night during work she said she hated The Beatles. The crush immediately deflated.

John Lennon seemed very scary to me as a child, as if he had things to say that my parents might not want me to hear. When he was murdered, I was surprised by how many people were saddened, even people who I wouldn’t have expected, like my fat, old YMCA basketball coach. (Who I hadn’t thought about until just now, and I suddenly remembered that time he was alone with me, a 13-year old, and he asked me to take off my shirt and try on my basketball jersey, then he told me to lose some weight. That was pretty creepy, now that I think about it. Even back then if felt creepy.)

In high school, I watched the documentary The Compleat Beatles on the old TV show Night Flight with my buddy Rick, and he said the following two sentences, in order, with no break: “Paul McCartney is the worst, he had no business being in The Beatles. He’s a musical genius, I love him.”

J.B. and the So-Called Cells, my band with Dr. Dave, play many Beatles’ songs, and in my younger years I learned the entire bass line to “Oh! Darling.” This doesn’t sound too difficult at first, but then you realize that McCartney plays it differently every goddamn time through the song! (I no longer remember its many permutations.)

In the September 1976 issue of MAD Magazine, there was a “future Where-Are-They-Now?” piece, imagining celebrities 20 years in the future. It included photos touched up to make people look older, and I still sometimes picture The Beatles as those images. I envision George Harrison as a long-haired, bald Anglican priest quite regularly. (Boy, it would’ve been great for Lennon to reach 1996, right?)

I saw Paul McCartney perform at Fenway Park in 2009. He was 67 years old, played for about 3 hours and he and the band sounded incredible. They played lots of Beatles songs. It was a dream come true.

George Harrison may be the most underrated guitar player ever.

My friend Dave Finney, who is a musician with a a great EP called Recycle My Soul, recently recommended the book Dreaming the Beatles, by Rob Sheffield. It’s an excellent book, and very different from other excellent Beatle books, and I also highly recommend it!

I heard one time that back in the 70s and 80s, Ringo Starr was the third-most-recognizable person on the planet, after the Pope and Muhammed Ali. The Beatles famously met Ali (then Cassius Clay) in Miami on their first trip to America.

In Haifa, Israel, near the Bahai Gardens, there’s a mosaic mural that, oddly, features Ringo.

At a family wedding in the mid 2000s, my sister-in-law brought a guest who was a music documentary filmmaker and he had the phone number for Paul McCartney in his cell phone. He’d worked on The Beatles Anthology TV series in the 90s. I didn’t ask to see the number to confirm – it seemed rude to ask. And he wasn’t sure it was still a working number, as it had been years since he’d had to call it. But over drinks he told me Paul was friendly and business-like, and that George was very funny. Then he shared a bunch of funny stories about other famous classic rockers he’d worked with on the BBC Classic Albums series.

In the brilliant film Fletch, Fletch visits the hospital records room as Dr. Rosenrosen, when he gets asked to assist on an autopsy. After passing out, he is roused and informed that he’s in the records room. He immediately asks for “The Beatles’ White Album.” (And a glass of hot fat and the head of Alfredo Garcia.)

I got “The White Album” on vinyl as a 21st birthday gift from my sister. I excitedly played it, but was not immediately impressed. At the time, I was really only familiar with the songs that had been played on the radio often. Beatles “deep tracks” weren’t well-known to me, and I didn’t know what songs were on which albums. So upon pulling the discs out of the sleeve (it was a two-LP set) the only songs I really knew well were “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Blackbird,” “Rocky Raccoon,” and “Helter Skelter.” And, of course, “Birthday,” thanks to Farmer Ted. That left 24 songs I didn’t really know.

Those 24 songs, on first listen, didn’t really sound like Beatles songs. I mean, sure, yes, I could make out the distinctive voices of Paul and John and George and Ringo, and the nonpareil melodies and harmonies were evident. But there was a particular “Beatle-esque” quality that seemed to be lacking. And I noticed that it was lacking even in the songs that I did know – apart from maybe “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “Helter Skelter.”

This blog is not a history of The Beatles – so many folks have done that so well that I’m not even going to try. But lots was happening among the band members in 1968, so suffice it to say that this album lacked that certain Beatle-y something because The Beatles is the album where John, Paul and George – and even Ringo – were basically testing out their solo stuff. Even the photos included in the album were four individual close-ups of the band members, plus a bunch of random solo photos, and NOT shots of jolly mates frolicking in matching suits. And though I was initially unimpressed, over the years this album has rocketed up my Beatle chart. The lack of a unifying spirit to the album has become its main draw to me now. I seem to find something new in the album with every listen. It’s almost like the record has changed with me over the years.

This painting by John Patrick Byrne was nearly used as the cover for the album, (according to Wikipedia).

The Beatles is like an Easter basket of candy. There are plenty of Reese’s eggs and Kit-Kats and lots of chocolate, plus a few jelly beans, and then, let’s face it, one or two stale marshmallow peeps. (There’s even an equivalent to finding a stick of deodorant in your basket.) The point is, there are THIRTY mother-effing songs on this record!! And just like candy, everyone has their favorites. I don’t think I can go into detail on each song. Some are going to just get a brief mention. I hope I hit your favorite song! I’ll do my best.

SIDE ONE

I figure the best way to tackle all these songs is to go through it the way I first heard it: as a double album, four sides. I’ll start right at the beginning: “Back in the U.S.S.R.”

What a great way to kick off an album, with the sound of a jet airplane, a cool guitar squawk, and a some old-fashioned rock-n-roll piano! It’s a Paul-song, with music and lyrics written as a sort of parody of/homage to The Beach Boys and Chuck Berry. George and John provide perfect 60s surf harmonies, and George and Paul share lead guitar – George on the first solo (1:23) and Paul on the last verse (2:03). By the way, that’s John Lennon on bass, and Paul himself on drums, as Ringo had briefly quit the band due, in part, to Paul’s criticism of his drumming on the song.

Next up, blending into the diminishing sound of that BOAC jet, is a song that is one of my favorite Beatles’ songs ever, “Dear Prudence.”

This one’s a John song, a soft, acoustic, finger-picked ballad that builds beautifully into an inspirational, electric epic. It was written to encourage Mia Farrow’s sister, Prudence, to have a little more fun while they were all in India meditating. I love Paul’s repeated lone bass note (0:19) at the beginning, balancing on the perfect dueling guitars of George and John. Although it’s a John song, Paul nearly steals the show with his wonderful bass and – once again – DRUMS! (His fills and rolls, particularly beginning at 2:50, are so Ringo-like that some people still insist Ringo played them.) But forget Paul – put on your headphones and listen to John and George play guitar. They work together brilliantly, curling around each other, John holding down the rhythm, George playing lead … check out 1:25, 1:43, 2:14, 3:30… Just listen to the whole song, it’s amazing. And if flows into another excellent song, Lennon’s “Glass Onion.”

The lyrics cleverly recall many old Beatle songs, spoofing the mystical nonsense that was swirling around the band at this time. It’s a short song with really cool-sounding bass and guitar from Paul and George, and terrific vocals from John. (I love his “oh yeah!” at 1:13). Ringo’s back on drums, too, and while I myself could’ve used a little less of the string section, it’s still a great track.

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is a fun song I used to sing to my kids at bedtime. It was my favorite Beatles song in college, but now I find it very ‘eh.’ “Wild Honey Pie” is one of those stale peeps of a song. “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” is a sort-of singalong kids song with funny lyrics (and a Yoko Ono cameo vocal) about asshole cowards who go “trophy” hunting. Then we arrive at one of the all-time greats, the George Harrison classic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

It’s a slow, bluesy number that opens with Paul’s piano, then George’s mellow vocal begins. It’s a song with a lyrical theme that Harrison would return to throughout his solo career, a wish for the power of love to triumph, and the potential for music to make it happen. (Or not. The interpretation is sort of a glass-half-full/half-empty kind of thing.) McCartney’s harmony vocals are great, and Ringo’s drums are subtly brilliant. But, of course, the star of the show is guest Eric Clapton, who plays lead guitar throughout and really does seem to make it weep.

Side one finishes off with my favorite song on the album – oh wait, I think I said that already about another song. A John Lennon masterpiece, “Happiness is a Warm Gun.”

It’s got three separate sections (“The Dirty Old Man,” “The Junkie,” and “The Gunman”) that each have different lyrics and different sounds, but that all fit together due to Beatle Magic. George’s guitar sound is phenomenal throughout, as is Paul’s bass and harmonies. And Ringo makes the sections flow together. I love the sound of the band in the “Mother Superior” section (1:14), and the 50s doo-wop vocals after 1:36. Also, Lennon is really a great vocalist – and his final “guu-uu-uun!” (2:22) is thrilling. I just love how weird and cool and different this song is. Well-done, boys.

SIDE TWO

Side two kicks off with one of those tremendously catchy, timeless songs that Paul seems to write in his sleep – “Martha My Dear.” It’s a Paul solo song, with hired musicians. And as much as I love it, it’s no “I’m So Tired.”

It’s a John song, and I heard this song for the first time in the Beatles documentary The Compleat Beatles. I wondered then, and I still wonder, why it wasn’t a radio staple. John’s voice is great, swooping between anguish and frustration as insomnia and paranoia get the best of him. Of course Paul’s bass is excellent, as is George’s guitar, particularly in the chorus (0:48, for example). It’s a great example of the band working together.

A great example of a Beatle working solo is everyone’s favorite song – “Blackbird.”

It’s just Paul with an acoustic guitar, tapping his foot, and singing a song about the US Civil Rights movement in the 60s. I don’t know how to play guitar, but I have heard that Paul doesn’t play traditional chord fingerings on the song, and that this makes it a popular song for guitarists moving out of the novice realm to learn and butcher (until they get it right!) It’s a beautiful song, and one that was rightfully left untouched by further studio production. A voice, a guitar and a tapping foot are the perfect arrangement for it.

Side Two continues with “Piggies,” George’s darkly funny lambaste of consumer culture (with harpsichord!). Then comes “Rocky Raccoon,” a humorous country ballad, and the last Beatles song to ever feature John Lennon on harmonica. “Don’t Pass Me By” is the first Ringo composition to appear on a Beatles album, which reportedly took him 7 years to write. “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” is a Paul solo song (with Ringo drumming), more akin to “Wild Honey Pie” than “Blackbird,” that clearly serves as evidence of the boredom that must accompany long hours in a recording studio.

Another Paul solo song, and one that would have fit nicely on even the earliest of Beatle LPs, is the lovely “I Will.”

Ringo and John help out on percussion, but otherwise it’s just Paul on acoustic guitars, harmony vocals and “vocal bass.” That’s right, he scats the bass part. The lyrics are rather simple, perhaps in the “silly love song” vein that he was pilloried for later (a criticism he mocked with a Number 1 hit.)

Paul wasn’t the only Beatle recording solo songs for The White Album. John contributed the beautiful song “Julia,” written about his mother who died after being hit by a car when John was 17.

It’s just John finger-picking an acoustic guitar and singing along. I’ve always loved this song, but since I met and married a woman named Julia nearly 30 years ago, I’ve grown fonder and fonder of it. And listen to that last chord John plays – it’s really wonderful.

SIDE THREE

Side three opens with what may be the only truly Lennon/McCartney-penned song on the entire album, “Birthday.” It’s a guitar heavy, blues-based, party romp that leads into a different style of blues, the Lennon-penned “Yer Blues.”

I love the dirty sound of the Harrison and Lennon guitars coupled with McCartney’s heavy bass. And Ringo plays great fills throughout (check out the fill at 3:00). The song is meant to be a spoof of the British blues boom happening around 1968 (Led Zeppelin, Cream, John Mayall, etc), but it sure doesn’t sound like Weird Al. Lennon totally sells his vocals, and the guitars in the faster section (2:30 – 3:17) are terrific.

Side three really has a tremendous run of songs. After those rockin’ numbers, another soft Paul solo song appears, “Mother Nature’s Son.”

It’s an acoustic song on par with “Blackbird,” in my estimation. Paul’s playing is charming, even the little goof at 0:39. It’s a celebration of nature, with some lyrics contributed by John. I think the song would have been even better if George Martin’s backing brass arrangement had been pared down, or deleted. I don’t think it’s necessary, but it’s still a great song.

As is “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide, Except Me and My Monkey,” a Lennon song that almost sounds punk rock!

Have I selected a favorite song on the record yet? If not, this is the one. I love Paul’s ascending-scale bass, I love the keening guitar sound of the riff, I love the busy guitar behind the lyrics. I even love the psychedelic lyrics that don’t fit into the space they’re given. There’s a weird bell that rings through the entire song, too, that I don’t love as much as I love Harrison’s lead guitar. It’s purely strange fun.

But you know what? My actual favorite song – and this time I mean it – is the next one. Lennon’s sharp take-down of phonies, specifically the guru the band sought out in India, “Sexy Sadie.”

There’s so much to write about this song. First off, Paul’s piano intro and Ringo’s drum entrance. Next, John’s voice, which truly captures the disillusionment he obviously felt after investing so much of himself in the teachings of someone by whom he later felt duped. The backing vocals of Harrison and McCartney, the “wah-wah’s” and “see-see’s,” and especially the “Sexy … Sadie” as the chorus begins, about 0:54. George unleashes some great guitar in the second chorus (1:56) to the end. The whole thing is just brilliant.

And this side of The White Album keeps delivering, with the frantic song – sometimes called the first heavy metal song ever – “Helter Skelter.”

This ride seems like a whole lot less fun than its namesake song.

It’s a raucous, furious song with lyrics about a British amusement park ride that seems far more tame than the song implies. (Hmm… maybe it’s not about a ride…) Paul screams his lungs out, while Lennon plays bass, driving things forward, and Harrison rips off a series of descending runs and a cool solo at 1:37. Ringo bashes his cymbals throughout (famously causing “blisters on his fingers”) and the band manages to sing cool backing vocals, too. There’s also two false endings, at 3:09 and 3:44. The song sounds like rather mischievous fun, like nothing else. Certainly it sounds nothing like Harrison’s “Long, Long, Long,” which closes Side Three.

Its lyrics could be about a woman, or could be about his spiritual devotion to a higher power. The song makes great use of dynamics, and Ringo’s drumming is perfect for it. The acoustic guitar is simple and lovely. The song’s the perfect way to close out a near-perfect side of music.

SIDE FOUR

It opens with a song that, when I saw its name on the label, I expected to jump around and shake my fist to it. But it turns out that “Revolution 1” is not the “Revolution” I knew and loved through my teenage years. That song was released only as a single. The White Album version is instead a slow doo-wop song with the same lyrics. Great Harrison guitar in both. Which isn’t the case in “Honey Pie,” which has a guitar solo by Lennon. It seems to want to recapture the charm of “When I’m Sixty-Four,” but it doesn’t.

Savoy Truffle” is another George song, and one that shows that despite his frequently dour appearance, he was really a funny guy. The song – on which he plays a ferocious guitar – is about pal Eric Clapton’s fondness for chocolate. John Lennon also displays a different side than his usual sarcasm on the charming children’s song “Cry Baby Cry.”

The first verse is simply John on acoustic guitar, but Ringo soon joins on drums, and by the second verse Paul is once again shining with an inventive bass line for a simple song. I used to sing this song to my kids at bedtime, and images of “the Dutchess of Kilcardey” and “the local Bird & Bee” were perfect for conjuring dreams. It’s a cool song with great harmonies, and an addendum from Paul (“can you take me back?”) that really wraps it all up.

So, now we get to the stick of deodorant. Just as no one would describe such a practical gift as “a bad piece of candy” even if it’s received in one’s Easter basket, I can’t really call “Revolution 9” a “bad song.”

True, it appears on an album by a band that is well known for recording songs, but is it a song? I suppose if John Lennon says it’s a song, then it’s a song. Wikipedia calls it a “sound collage,” and I think that’s a better term. Whatever you call it, I have never been able to listen to more than about 4 minutes of this longest-ever Beatles recording. I really tried for this post – but I couldn’t do it.

The album ends with a song that I don’t really love, but is perhaps the perfect way to end this wonderful monstrosity of an album: the Lennon-written, Ringo-sung “Good Night.” It’s a way-too-schmaltzy lullaby, and elicits the final “what the fuck?” from the listener. The band released a beautiful four-part harmony version a few years ago, which is probably a better version, but is not what was really needed after 28 disparate, crazy songs, plus one sound collage.

After all that, I can’t really say anything else besides “Go listen to this record!”

TRACK LISTING:
“Back in the U.S.S.R.”
“Dear Prudence”
“Glass Onion”
“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”
“Wild Honey Pie”
“The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
“Happiness Is a Warm Gun”
“Martha My Dear”
“I’m So Tired”
“Blackbird”
“Piggies”
“Rocky Raccoon”
“Don’t Pass Me By”
“Why Don’t We Do It in the Road”
“I Will”
“Julia”
“Birthday”
“Yer Blues”
“Mother Nature’s Son”
“Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey”
“Sexy Sadie”
“Helter Skelter”
“Long, Long, Long”
“Revolution 1”
“Honey Pie”
“Savoy Truffle”
“Cry Baby Cry”
“Revolution 9”
“Good Night”

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89th Favorite: Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, by Johnny Cash

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At Folsom Prison. Johnny Cash.
1968, Columbia Records. Producer: Bob Johnston
(1999 Reissue)
Original purchased ca. 1994. Reissue purchased ca. 2004.

at folsom album

squirrelIN A NUTSHELL – A magical recording of a red-hot Johnny Cash and his band (and friends) in concert for 2,000 inmates at Folsom Prison. The song selection and honest, direct performance create a palpable sense of love and understanding between performer and audience that is captured distinctly. Truly an album that is greater than the collection of songs. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – it was more rock ‘n roll and less country.
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It might shock those who know me today, but I went to church a lot when I was a kid. My family were members of the Covenant United Methodist Church, and we went there religiously!

cricket

But seriously, we did attend church nearly every Sunday. I was a bit of a skeptic even as a child, asking my mom one Sunday morning – in an attempt to get out of going to my ages 3/4 Sunday School class – “Why do I have to go to Sunday School? Jesus never shows up.”

Another person who never showed up was my dad. He’d drop off my mom, sisters and me at the church in the 1962 Ford Fairlane fairlane and hightail it out of there faster than you could say “my dad moves in mysterious ways.” He’d return in two hours to bring us back home, and my sisters and I would ask, “Daddy, where did you go?”

“Daddy goes to his own church,” my mom would answer for him. This seemed perfectly reasonable to my preschool mind – after all, my parents had had their own individual lives before they met, I assumed, so I figured that when they got married, they’d tested out each others’ church and come to the realization that each was happier attending their own church. So, there you go – forget the fact that they spend all of their time together, every minute of every hour outside work in each other’s company … on Sunday mornings, Daddy goes to his own church. I’d routinely ask them if I could go with dad to his church some Sunday, instead of mom’s, but they never answered directly.

churchFinally – after weeks of inquiring – my sisters and I were told that, just for this one week, while the girls went to church with mom, I’d be attending Dad’s Church, a church which apparently did NOT require me to don my blue striped suit to attend. We dropped them off that sunny Spring morning, and two hours later, we men-folk pulled up to Mom’s Church in the peacock blue Fairlane, and as the women-folk crawled into the car, I happily announced, “Daddy’s church is fishing!!!

After that day we kids were stuck attending Mom’s Church, and only Mom’s Church, every Sunday morning.

(This episode is one of the more damaging pieces of evidence on the daunting pile that I’d love to say doesn’t exist, of proof that being the sole boy (and youngest child) in our family had clear and significant advantages. The only real evidence I can offer to the contrary is the fact that, as adults, I’m just as fucked up as my sisters are.)

Eventually my dad gave up his church – or, rather, he rescheduled the services to Saturday mornings and Sunday evenings – and he joined the rest of us in attending Mom’s Church. I didn’t mind church too much. The hour-long worship services in the sanctuary were BORING, but you got to stand up and sing sometimes, and some of the bouncier, rockin’-ish hymns were fun to hear (especially as sung by my mom, who my sisters and I thought had the most beautiful voice!)

Sunday School came after worship, in the vaguely Pine-Sol and cookie-scented classrooms. It offered an hour of Bible lessons and Arts ‘n Crafts with a Jesus-y theme – jesus art time spent with kids who were my “church friends” – kids that I only interacted with at church, who I thought it would be weird to see outside of church, and who all heeded a tacit agreement among ourselves – even though we spent an hour each Sunday laughing together and learning about Christ-ly living – that we would barely acknowledge each other if encountering one another in the hallways at school, or the Lebanon Valley Mall.

Sunday School students were a little bit like Gay Bar patrons in the 70s, with less beer and fewer cowboy hats.

gay bar

Our church was not the stereotypical “Fire and Brimstone” church, with lessons about Hell and sin and trembling before God. Our church was very much focused on Jesus, and what he was about and how he acted. The lesson each week – regardless if the topic was friends or anger or Christmas or sin – was basically the same: “You know, Jesus really handled himself pretty damn cool in a sticky situation. You should try to do the same.”

cool jesusI thought he sounded awesome. Jesus was the cool grown-up who, when all the other grown-ups were shushing the kids and telling them to keep quiet because the adults were talking, said, “Hold on, man! Don’t yell at the kids – bring them to me, I’ll hang with them for a little while. Hey, you kids wanna play Chase!?”

jesus children

(I’ve tried to be That Grown-Up when I’m around a bunch of kids. It’s friggin exhausting.)

And when Little Person/tax collector Zaccheus climbed up a Sycamore tree to get a better look at Jesus – shocking the morals of the first-century crowd, who gave him and his tax-collecting ass all kinds of shit – Jesus was all, zaccheus“Everybody, chill out! Yo, Zack! Come on down, and you and I will go get a bite to eat!” This further pissed off the crowd, who were all, like, “Seriously?” and “I know, right??!” This made Jesus seem really friendly, but a little bit punk, too.

When a gang of bullies was going to throw rocks at a girl they thought was being mean and trying to kiss boys and stuff, Jesus stepped in and said, stoning“Dudes! As if you guys don’t run after the girls sometimes and try to do stuff to them, right? How about this: anybody who’s never done that stuff can throw a rock. Okay? Okay?? Well??” And the bullies were all mumbling, and dropped their rocks and shuffled off.

He just seemed so nice – like the nicest, fairest teacher you ever had, who never treated the popular kids better, never yelled at the class when they were noisy, and even spoke kindly and gave hugs to that big weird kid with the thick glasses who made noises and always had that snot around his nose. He said you should love your enemies, you should turn the other cheek if you get hit, you should forgive the people who hurt you, and then when everybody told him how cool he was, he was always humble and gave the credit to his dad.

And on top of all that, he did magic!! He healed lepers, walked on water, fed a whole mob of people with, like, just a trout and a bun. He even brought a dead guy back to life!! He was like a hairy, friendly, hippy magician – just like Doug Henning!

doug henningBut I was less impressed with all of Jesus’s magic tricks than I was with how nice he seemed. I mean, I was 7, 8 years old … I’d been around the block. I knew magic was magic, and I’d seen guys on TV slice Cher into pieces and put her back together, or catch bullets in their teeth, and I knew a friend’s uncle who could pull a quarter out of his ear. I myself even got a magic set for Christmas that made little foam rabbits disappear beneath plastic cups. Magic was just magic, I figured, even 2,000 years ago, and even though you never knew how the trick was done, there always was – clearly – a trick. So, that water-into-wine business didn’t matter to me. But the kindness stuck with me.

My family continued to go to church. For a few years in Middle School, after a family crisis, we got VERY earnest in our devotion. trombone jesus(That’s a whole other story that has EVEN LESS to do with Johnny Cash than this story does!) But that fervor eventually waned, and by the time high school ended I wasn’t showing up at church very often – only when I had a trombone solo as part of a service.

By the time I graduated college, I didn’t think about religion much anymore. I was still very impressed by kindness and peacefulness, and I began reading books about Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and lesser known peace advocates like Chief Joseph and Abdul Gaffar Khan.

I still thought of myself as a Christian, however, just because … well, that’s how I was raised. And then one day, cornfields while working in the corn fields with my friend Eric V., who introduced me to so many great bands, we were having the kind of talk that walking 8 hours in the summer sun in humid Central PA through an itchy field of razor-sharp corn plant leaves can sometimes engender: a discussion of religion. At some point (and he and I worked in tandem all year round, and lived together, and commuted together … and I like to talk, so you can imagine there were far more conversations between us than can be crammed into one blog post, even one as endless as mine tend to be) I stated that I still thought of myself as a Christian.

“Really?” he asked. “Why do you say that?”
“Because,” I answered, “I think that Jesus really demonstrated a great way for people to live together, with kindness and love.”
“Do you think he died for everybody’s sins, and came back to life?”
“Well,” I said, “no, I don’t think that really happened. I think they just made up that story to sort of propagate his myth.”
“Because that’s Christianity,” he said. “If you don’t think that story is true, you don’t sound like you’re a Christian.”

I had to agree that disbelieving – and even snickering at the thought of – such a core tenet of a a belief system did call into question how firmly I believed.think I wrestled for a while with what I should call myself, and still clung – tenuously – to the Christian label, even though I never went to church or worshiped or thought much about faith. I felt like, since I believed in “The Golden Rule” I might as well check the “Christian” box. Then, in deep conversation with another important friend, Bill D., I stated my belief in the golden rule, and he laughed at me.

“What are you laughing at?” I asked.
“Oh, I thought you were joking,” he said. “You really believe that – do unto others as you would have them do unto you?”
“Yes,” I answered. “I do. Don’t you?”
“I think you should do unto others what they want you to do unto them,” he said. “Maybe people don’t want to be treated like you do. Isn’t it better to meet their wishes, instead of putting yours onto them?”

God DAMN this fucking religion bullshit is complex. I officially went Atheist.

I was young then, without a family, so I had lots of time to think about the kind of shit that seems important when you don’t have other people in your life who depend on you. I thought a lot about what was important to me, and what I kept returning to was this: kindness. Things like being nice to kids, inviting little weird guys in trees to dinner, standing up for people in trouble. Unlike magic, you don’t have to go “Ta-Da!!!” after doing these kinds of things. Put whatever label on it you want, meet with whatever group of people you want, in whatever structures you see fit; sing whatever songs, chant whatever chants, listen to whatever reliable speaker you think does the trick; tell whatever stories, old or new, that you want to hear, and wear whatever goofy clothes or hats or accessories you want … do whatever it is you and your group feel you have to do, and if your main message is kindness and love, then it sounds okay to me.

superbest friends

Just don’t try to make me wear your goofy hats.

For someone like myself who worships kindness, Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison is a record greater than the sum of its songs. It is a live recording of two concerts Cash played at the prison in 1968. I first heard it in the early 90s when I began dating my wife. roommate partner Her roommate, Randy, had 5 zillion vinyl albums in the living room, and – quite remarkably – seemed to play them all – a different record played every time I visited. (In retrospect, I wonder if he was trying to find the album that would drive me away? Not that he was interested in my girlfriend, or that he and I didn’t get along, or anything like that, but we all know how annoying the Roommate’s Significant Other can be …)

I knew who Johnny Cash was. He had a TV variety show when I was really little that I sort of remember my folks watching. tv show He was also perhaps the greatest villain on my favorite TV show ever, Columbo. I knew he sang “Ring of Fire” and “I Walk the Line” and “A Boy Named Sue.” He was the man in black, and sang in a very deep voice. But he was a country singer, and so I had always dismissed him as someone whose music I probably wouldn’t like.

When I heard the album playing, I immediately knew it was Johnny Cash – his voice is truly unmistakable. The songs were okay – mostly short, twangy country songs in a spoken/sung style – but what stood out to me was the energy coming from the audience on the record. I’m not a huge fan of live recordings – the songs tend to not sound as good as the original versions, and if they do sound good it just makes me frustrated that I didn’t get to SEE the live performance. (I’m looking at you, Live at Hollywood High.) But this live recording was different – from the announcements by the prison staff, to Johnny’s between-song banter, to that fabulous crowd reaction – it captured something about the performer that made me want to listen again.

in concert

I bought the CD soon after my wife and I moved in together and I no longer had access to Randy’s 5 zillion records. I usually only listen to it if I have enough time to listen to the entire disk. For me, it’s similar to a concept album, like The Who’s Tommy or Pink Floyd’s The Wall, in that it has good songs, but there’s more to it than just a collection of songs.

The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky is credited with saying “The degree of civilization of a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” I have never entered a prison, so I am not in a position to judge. babyfaceHowever, it is apparent from media reports, books, TV shows, and simply conversations with friends and acquaintances that the treatment and well-being of prisoners is NOT a major concern of most Americans. Prisoners remain a group in America that nearly everyone – rich or poor, Republican or Democrat, Blue Collar or White Collar – seems to feel good about hating. Good folks who donate to charity, thoughtful folks who strive for inclusiveness and tolerance in their lives, decent folks who place others’ needs before their own … each of these groups is largely made up of people who would be happy to forget about the 2.4 million people behind bars in America.

And on the one hand, it’s easy to see why people want to forget. There are people behind bars who have done such incredibly horrible things to other people – babies, children, elderly, etc – that I didn’t even want to find appropriate links. It’s incredibly easy to hear about such crimes and find oneself thinking, “After hearing that, I don’t care WHAT happens to that guy,” and feeling happy that someone else can think about the particulars. And easier still to convince oneself that “those people deserve anything and everything that happens to them behind bars.”

What is difficult to do is to remind oneself that the people in prison are just that – people – and treating people kindly is a good thing to do. johnny stage 1 Johnny Cash entered Folsom Prison in 1968, with his band, The Tennessee Three, along with guitarist Carl Perkins (of “Blue Suede Shoes” fame) and The Statler Brothers and Johnny’s wife, June Carter, and treated the people there kindly. Despite their evil deeds, he understood they were people. His son, John Carter Cash, has said, “He knew that he was singing for murderers, rapists, and killers but he also knew that he was singing for people that were suffering greater hardships than they were due.”

Cash’s love of people is what shines through on the record. He selected songs that would resonate with the men in the prison – songs of longing and regret, songs of prison life, songs of violence – and performed them directly and honestly, like one of the guys.

The show opens, naturally, with a simple “Hello. I’m Johnny Cash,” and the band starts in on the Cash original “Folsom Prison Blues.”

The lyrics offer the perspective of a prisoner watching a train roll by the prison day after day, and how sad it makes him to see all the free people moving past his window. He imagines riding the train far away from Folsom, and his miserable life inside. What makes the song resonate, however, isn’t that he’s bummed out to be in prison, it’s his admission that a) he killed a man in Reno (“just to watch him die”) and b) he knows he has to stay at Folsom. He’s not bragging about the killing (even though the lyric does elicit some whoops and hollers from the prison audience), and he’s not blaming anybody else for his predicament. He’s just describing the common human feelings of regret and loss, from the prisoner’s perspective. It’s a human song, but what makes it fun to listen to is that the band is HOT! Drummer W.S. Holland plays some of the fastest, tightest rolls I’ve heard, and he really makes these train songs (there are a few on the album) swing. And the lead guitar (I don’t know if it’s Carl Perkins, or Luther Perkins (not related), the guitarist for The Tennessee Three) is crisp and twangy.

This is the first of several songs about prison from a prisoner’s perspective. All are lyrically grim, but – as with Folsom Prison Blues – some of them are bouncy songs, fun to sing and hear. Take, for example, “Cocaine Blues.”

This song has lyrics that would make any Gangsta Rapper proud (although you’ll be hard-pressed to find the same proportion of critics of Johnny’s country (white) lyrics as you’ll find of rap (black) lyrics …) And Johnny sings them with gusto and charm, and makes the entire ordeal of murder, running from the law and being condemned to life in Folsom sound like downright fun. This might sound like a dangerous or ill-considered choice of songs to sing in a prison setting, but the whoops and cheers that are heard from the audience throughout the song make it clear that Cash is connecting with them, freeing a little bit of them through song. Clearly the prisoners know they are (mostly) in Folsom for a reason, and most of them are likely regretful and full of shame; and the lyrics reflect on the poor choices and bad decisions that were made, and – as with “Folsom Prison Blues” – don’t offer excuses or blame others. But the chance to hear a rousing song that touches on humankind’s darker nature, a side that everyone has, and most can keep in check, but that doesn’t go away when you’ve gone to prison, is welcomed by them all, and the connection with the singer is palpable.

f u johnnyJohnny holds this connection to the audience throughout the recording, whether reminding the crowd between songs that the show is being recorded, so “you can’t say ‘hell’ or ‘shit’,” or telling them that the last drink of water he had from Folsom tasted like it had “run off Luther’s boots.” He sings “Joe Bean,” a song of a man being hung for a crime he didn’t commit (although he did kill 20 other men apart from the one he DIDN’T kill …) and “I Got Stripes,” with wife June Carter Cash, a straightforward song about prison life. It’s the selection of songs that makes the album great, as much as the performance of the songs. One of the most daring is the (literally) gallows-humored Shel Silverstein song “25 Minutes to Go.”

It’s a sound of joy – difficult to fathom, given the lyrical content – but joy nonetheless. Johnny Cash is giving the prisoners joy in these songs, and they are grateful – the gift of joy might not sound like a great gift, but it is something these people have craved.

But Cash doesn’t just rouse the audience with funny songs of murder and death. He also touches on regret and sadness, a theme everyone can relate too, but maybe none as much as a prisoner. The heartstring-tugger “A Picture of Mother” describes the friendship that arises between prisoners. stir crazy 3 It’s a simple, honest song that addresses something that is rarely considered in the media – friendship among inmates. One of the ways society propagates the de-humanization of prisoners is by the indifference to – and downright mocking of, sexual assault of prisoners. “Prison Rape” has become a punch line to such an extent that the simple concept that friendships can develop among prisoners is almost never considered outside the context of “prison marriages” or dangerous gangs. But Johnny leaves the prisoners’ humanity intact as the song reflects on the simple fact that when your friend is leaving you and you’ll likely never see him again – as in the case of one man being freed while another has years remaining to serve – it is a cause of mixed emotions. While Cash sings, a hush settles over the crowd, and no whoops are heard in this song until the final words are sung.

The prison song “The Wall” is another song that must resonate deeply among inmates.

Its grim description of despair and loneliness is broken up in the middle by Johnny’s giggling at an unheard comment from the crowd. There are a few places in the record where Cash laughs, or talks to individual inmates, and these were not removed from the final record. It all adds to the feeling of connection between performer and crowd that is experienced throughout.

Other tear-jerkers include “The Long Black Veil,” a song about honor among friends, and the consequences of bad choices; “I Still Miss Someone” – not necessarily about a prisoner, but particularly poignant here; and “Give My Love to Rose.”

Perhaps the saddest song is “The Green Green Grass of Home,” in which an inmate is released and visits his hometown, his family and friends, only to wake up and find he has been dreaming. When I listen to these songs I wonder what it must have been like to be a Folsom inmate and watch this concert unfold. It must have been a resounding, emotional, life-affirming experience – the type of thing that I imagine few – if any – prisoners ever experience during their detention. These considerations – and the fact that you can feel them throughout the recording – make this record truly greater than the sum of its parts.

But Cash also gives the boys some levity and laughs, too. The concert I’ve described so far would’ve likely led to a mass suicide at Folsom. johnny juneHe garners big laughs from the crowd with songs such as “Dirty Old Egg Suckin’ Dog,” and “Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart.” And he gets the crowd excited with fun numbers “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer,” “Orange Blossom Special,” (again featuring Holland’s machine gun drumming, and exceptional harmonica work from Cash), and the famous song “Jackson,” sung with his wife, June Carter Cash, whose appearance on stage, and charming banter, (Johnny: “Boy, I like to watch you talk!” June: “I’m talkin’ with my mouth! It’s way up here!”) nearly brings down the house.

The album ends nearly perfectly, with the gospel song “Greystone Chapel,” written by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley.

sherley

Cash had never heard the song until the day before the concert, then taught it to the band the night before the show and debuted it at the time of the recording. It has some of the best country-twang electric guitar on the album, and the performance by the entire group – Johnny, June, The Statler Brothers, Carl Perkins and The Tennessee Three – is alive and heartfelt. Its story of salvation of the sinner through the acceptance of Jesus Chris – this time set in the Folsom Prison chapel, called Greystone Chapel – is a common gospel theme. It ends the concert with a message of hope, the type of hope that lifers in prison must cling to – that a better place exists for them, even if it is on the other side of death.

The idea that another place exists after death has never made much sense to me, and I’ve never had much use for the rest of the “magic” associated with religion. But the kindness and humanity on display in this album creates its own kind of magic, a magic that I love to revisit. Perhaps this magic is the same magic that Jesus created when he was showing love to the children and tax collectors and prostitutes. Maybe the stories of fishes and loaves and water into wine grew from the fact that he was touching some human part inside people who had never before been shown their own humanity.

Maybe in 2,000 years people will be talking about a different JC, and folks will offer up At Folsom Prison as evidence that Johnny Cash once melted prison bars and freed a couple thousand men using just a guitar and his voice.

cash heaven

TRACK LISTING
Folsom Prison Blues
Busted
Dark as the Dungeon
I Still Miss Someone
Cocaine Blues
25 Minutes to Go
Orange Blossom Special
The Long Black Veil
Send a Picture of Mother
The Wall
Dirty Old Egg-Suckin’ Dog
Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart
Joe Bean
Jackson
Give My Love to Rose
I Got Stripes
The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer
Green, Green Grass of Home
Greystone Chapel

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