It was a large dreary room, with nearly 1,000 chairs in three sections divided by two aisles. All the men in one section were white, all the men in the next were black, and all the men in the third were Hispanic, but every one of them wore a blue work shirt and blue jeans.
Above our heads, just under the high ceiling, uniformed men toting rifles paced the catwalks. The thick walls were a pale grim institutional greenish-yellow that had almost faded to grey. The tall curtain that divided the front and back of the stage was adorned with the large traditional theatrical masks of smiling comedy and frowning tragedy, just like on the Johnny Cash album cover.
Yes, we were treading in the footsteps of history. Spurs of the Moment was playing in the North Dining Hall at San Quentin.
Robert Flynn, the beatnik eminence gris to our hippie crew, was sitting in with us on drums, just for a lark since he was actually a pianist. He maintained a tight-lipped grin, “I think I know some of these guys,” he said.
“Convicts or guards?” I asked.
“Both,” he said. “They’re all cousins, you know.”
Otis Scarecroe, who resembled his stage name with a long wispy beard and stringy straggly hair framing his round Germanic-shaman face, peeked out from the wings, “An awful lot of guys out there look an awful lot like me,” he said with a dubious shake of his shaggy head.
Lee Rockwell, a good musician and a great songwriter, was our rhythm guitarist, fiddler and, in the parlance of the day, chick singer. She swore she could smell the testosterone.
The bass player — me — was thinking of a late pal, an ex-con who, whenever he had been transferred to a new joint and the little weasels tried to suck up to him because he was big and tough and gang-connected, would invariably sneer, “I didn’t come here to make friends. And they didn’t send me here for being a nice guy.”
The first guards we met at the gate, as they ushered us through a metal detector so sensitive that it was set off by the nails in my pointy-toed cowboy boots, told us solemnly, “You know, of course, that it’s our policy not to negotiate for hostages.” We went in anyway.
The second set of guards, who genially helped us load our equipment onto a truck and drove us across the grounds to the dining hall, cheerfully mentioned, “We don’t negotiate for hostages, you know. If you get snatched, you’re on your own.” We knew.
The third set of guards, who shepherded us around backstage, asked politely, “Did anyone remember to tell you that we don’t negotiate for hostages?”
We were all thinking about the shootout at the nearby Marin Civic Center several years earlier, when the kid brother of prison revolutionary George Jackson had smuggled guns into a courtroom and armed some San Quentin prisoners who had been brought there to testify. They took the judge, the prosecuting attorney and some jurors hostage, and made it as far as a van in the parking lot — the many cops surrounding them were letting the scene play itself out — when the San Quentin guards arrived and immediately riddled the van with gunfire. Nearly everyone, both good guys and bad guys (take your pick), was killed or permanently paralyzed.
“They told us,” we said. They also told us, when we first accepted the gig, not to wear blue jeans, or anything blue at all.
“If there’s an incident,” they said, “Our orders are to fire at blue.”
Michael Pritchard, an up-and-coming young local comedian who was opening the show, forgot and wore dungarees. The guards gave him an orange jumpsuit, the kind they dress cons in to take them to court, to cover up the blue jeans. He was a very big man, and the too-small jumpsuit could barely be squeezed over his legs but wouldn’t begin to fit up over his beefy torso, so the arms were tied around his waist. He looked so ludicrous that he got his biggest laugh just by walking onstage.
He held up for a while. His day job was as a counselor at a facility for juvenile delinquents, and he started his routine with anecdotes about his young charges, to whom the audience could well relate. If he’d kept sharpening that dark edge he would have been fine, but within five minutes he had drifted into some silly bits that might have played in a boozy club, but crashed bitterly in this harsh venue.
At one point — I forget the joke, now, if there was one — he held his arms out to the sides and ran around the stage making airplane noises. Nobody laughed. He tried a few standard jokes. Nobody laughed.
“Hey, do the airplane again!” yelled a con, and Pritchard’s face brightened as though a brave ray of sunshine had somehow slipped through a crack in the three-foot-thick walls.
“Oh, you like the airplane?” he asked hopefully, and began BRRRRR-ing and soaring around the stage again.
“Yeah,” yelled the con, “Do the airplane again — and fly the fuck outta here!” That got the biggest laugh of the afternoon. Pritchard acknowledged defeat, mumbling his feeble thank-yous and trudging offstage.
I thought the next act had better odds. Comedienne Jane Dornacker was a striking six-foot redhead with a reputation for raunch, who biggest claim to fame at that point was having written, when singing back-up for The Tubes, their best song, “Don’t Fuck Me There.” (Unfortunately, the band, or their record company, had wimped out and recorded it as, “Don’t Touch Me There.”) I figured a raunchy redhead couldn’t miss with this crowd.
But for some reason (fear? innocence?), she failed to play the raunch card. Her routine was tailored for a sophisticated San Francisco night club audience. She wore thick-rimmed “funny” glasses and a sweatshirt and nondescript slacks, and started with a riff about her “pyramid power bra,” and the cons wanted to laugh at the bra stuff, but had no idea what the hell pyramid power was. Then she went into some bag lady routine, and started putting on MORE clothes, layers of overcoats and galoshes and such. It was funny, in a way, but I couldn’t laugh because I was embarrassed at how badly she was bombing, and the jeers and catcalls drove her off in less than ten minutes.
Spurs of the Moment was next; “Listen, babe,” I said to Lee — she was also my girlfriend — “After the first song say, ‘Gee, it’s hot in here,’ and take off your sweater.”
“What? You’re kidding.”
“No, I’m not. ‘Gee, it’s hot in here.’ Trust me on this one. There’s no trick like a cheap trick.” We were announced to lukewarm applause, and launched into the mournful but uptempo “Lowdown Freedom.” The response was guardedly optimistic.
“Gee, it’s hot in here,” said Lee. She had gumption, that girl, and if she’d had a bigger voice and a smaller nose she’d be a star today. She set down her guitar, stretched, crossed her arms to her opposite hips and slowly peeled her light wool pullover off over her head.
Black, white and brown, the crowd rose to its feet with an ecstatic roar. It wasn’t just her splendid torso in a spaghetti-strap dusky-rose leotard that saved the day. It was the irresistible leonine motion itself, the achingly-beautiful classical gesture of an unashamed woman, tall and proud, coolly unveiling her glory with just a hint of a sheepish grin.
It was our crowd then. We played some blues for the blacks, some country for the Anglos, a couple of Richie Valens B-sides for the vatos. They cheered almost as loud as they had for Lee when I sang our closing number, the classic ’50s Leiber-Stoller “Framed,” and I delivered the last verse with appropriate pauses and dramatic flourishes:
Well, I denied the charge of robbin’ that liquor store.
I also denied the charge of carryin’ a loaded 44.
I denied the charge of bein’ drunk and disorderly, too.
But when the judge said ‘Step forward,’
my gun went off…
and I shot a hole in my bottle of booze!
And I was framed…
# # # # #
Robert F. Bradford — Adjunct Professor, English and Humanities (Dominican U of CA). Plays: two Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards, Midtown International Theatre Festival and Construct Theatre Company (New York), Black Box Festival (College of Marin), Ross Valley Players, Petaluma Arts Council, and Café Amsterdam. Stories in numerous publications.