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Live Concerts From Prisons and Mental Institutions

Posted by Billyjam, December 16, 2013 08:08am | Post a Comment

The Cramps Live at Napa State Mental Hospital(1978)

In Bay Area rap history there are several instances of artists rapping live from jail - perhaps most notably the late great Mac Dre rapping over the phone from Fresno County Jail back in the early nineties and X-Raided at that same period rapping over the phone on series of occasions that would finally be released as the 1995 album Xorcist (in later years the still incarcerated rapper would get smuggled in recording gear to record albums). But there are also many instances of artists performing for inmates at jails and prisons, as well as other institutions.

Of the performances in mental institutions perhaps the best (and the best known) is from when The Cramps, in June 1978, did a live show from the California Mental State Hospital in Napa. Also performing were San Francisco's wonderful post punk act The Mutants. It was when the pioneering psychobilly gods had just had just finished up recording Gravest Hits - to be released the following year that would include the track "The Way I Walk" that they are captured performing in the Napa hospital concert clip above care of Target Video.

The great Leonard Cohen also did a series of free concerts about forty years ago in mental institutions but without much media attention at the time. According to Sylvie Simmons' bio I'm Your Man Cohen performed, like the Cramps, at Napa State Hospital as well as at Henderson Hospital (in the UK), and at an unnamed facility in Montreal (Canada). Reportedly he booked these shows "without fanfare" and on his own dime, reportedly telling a reporter a few years later that he was drawn to mental hospitals because he had "the feeling that the experience of a lot of people in mental hospitals would especially qualify them to be a receptive audience for my work." Cohen later commented, according to Simmons, that “I’ve always loved the people the world used to call mad.”

Of all the live from prison concerts (and there have been a good many over the years) the one that still appeals most to me is Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison - the live album concert recording by the man in black that knew a thing or two about incarceration (he landed in jail seven times - although never for long stretches) that was released in 1968 but had been in the a dream of Cash's since his 1955 song "Folsom Prison Blues." In January 1968 Cash and band performed two shows at California's Folsom State Prison that would make up the hit album and lead to the sequel of sorts - Johnny Cash Live At San Quentin a year later (album cover right).

Below is a clip of that show at the Bay Area prison in which you can truly feel the release of subdued pain and emotion from the inmates when Cash, in his raspy but soulful voice, sings lines like "San Quentin I hate every inch of you…..San Quentin may you rot and burn in hell. May your walls fall and I may I live to tell…..and may all the world regret you did no good!" Really powerful and accurate commentary on the United States prison system that is perhaps more accurately fitting today than when it was recorded over four decades ago.


Johnny Cash "San Quentin" (Live from San Quentin 1969)

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Johnny Cash (20), Mac Dre (17), X-raided (12), Leonard Cohen (9), Live Concerts From Prisons And Mental Institutions (1), The Cramps (10)