|San Quentin is the weirdest piece of real estate in the world. Built before Marin was developed, it has million dollar views but you wouldn’t want to be there for a million dollars. It’s in a scenic spot just across from the Larkspur Ferry, with a beautiful view of the city.
Several years back I was asked to play a concert in San Quentin for the Bill Graham Foundation. Bill was always good to me and I returned the favor, although I had no idea what to expect. His foundation helped prisoners, that’s all I knew. I accepted without really thinking. Then we drove up to the gates of San Quentin Prison and all bets were off. First of all let’s talk security.
There is no greater security than entering or leaving San Quentin. They search everything again and again, they check everybody’s ID six times, they read you the “Riot Act” when you arrive and again when you leave saying that if you’re taken hostage they won’t negotiate for your return. Comforting thought, that. There were at least a dozen guards with shotguns on either side of the stage, and machine-gunners in the towers that ringed the yard. We were in the exercise yard on an outdoor stage performing before what could only be described as a “captive audience.” The place was packed, I’ll say that. I guess there wasn’t much else to do, so we had 100% occupancy except for Charlie Manson and the guys on Death Row, but they could probably hear it.
The gig featured the Greg Kihn Band and Clearance Clemmons, The Big Man, from the E Street Band. As we were going through security, Clearnce flashed his Driver’s License at me and the picture showed a little white dude with glasses! I couldn’t believe it. Clearance thought it was hilarious. They had made a mistake at the DMV and he’d never changed it. The guards did not find it amusing and if it weren’t for the Bill Graham personal magic, and the fact that the man played with the Boss, he never would have got in. Somehow he made it inside and we were briefed by the Warden. He basically gave us the same speech, if we were taken hostage, yaddah yaddah…
The Warden seemed like a nice guy. He warned us to NOT mention jail, prison, incarceration, or anything that even carried the slightest hint of men behind bars. “These men have a short fuse, see that you don’t ignite it. Remember, these are the worst of the worst, the hardened convicts who wound up in society’s sub-basement. Don’t make it any harder than it has to be.”
We stood there looking at each other wondering what we had gotten ourselves in for. Johnny Cash I am not. But, the show must go on. Of course my band were born trouble-makers. Steve immediately started suggesting songs like ”Jail House Rock.” We decided to go against the grain and just play the gig like we saw it. After all those warnings and dire predictions, we opened with “Jailhouse Rock” then went into “I Fought The Law and The Law Won” and the place went insane. For a minute I thought we might have pushed things too far, but after some initial craziness, the crowd of inmates settled down and enjoyed the a trouble-free show. WE got five encores. They loved every note. I’ll never forget that show, or the looks in the crazed desperate men in the audience. The “Big House” is not where you’d normally find good rock and roll, but Bill Graham had a heart of gold.