Folsom Prison Blues

January 7, 2016

It’s been a long time since I blogged for you, friends, and, believe it or not, I do feel really bad about it. It’s not that nothing noteworthy happened, au contraire, many interesting things did happen to me, I just never found the time or inspiration to sit down and actually write. I did write quite a couple of new songs though, it’s not like I was just squandering days.

 

Anyways, I am going to write a blog soon about the full band tour (this weekend, hopefully), but today I am going to talk about something completely different. The last show of 2015, I played in a high security prison and I would like to tell you about the experience, since it’s something most of you are (hopefully) not going to experience first hand (unless you’re musicians, of course… well, you know what I mean…).

When I toured with Kathi from Special K. in November, I was approached by a man who introduced himself als Alex. He told me he was working with the federal state of Saarland as a kind of social worker in prisons and he asked me if I was interested in playing a show in a prison. Without even thinking about it, I told him that I’d love to. We emailed back and forth for a little while and he pulled a couple of stops and we agreed that December 21st would be great because Advent season is a particularly dreary time for the inmates.

 

At first, images of Johnny Cash were floating through my head. I saw Joaquin Phoenix joke about ‘Yellow Water’ in ‘Walk the Line’. I heard the stampede of prisoners in the far distance, but the closer the day of the show came, the more I was tortured by doubts. Will it be safe? (Stupid question, yes I know!) What should I say between songs? Should I talk at all? Which ones of my stories would be appropriate? Which songs do I play? Is it clever to play a song called ‘Freedom’? Should I play for criminals at all? Do they deserve entertainment? Especially the last two questions were torturing me when I heard that Saarbrücken prison actually accommodates all kinds of criminals, from thieves to murderers and worse. I remember having more than only second thoughts, but I was also excited, too excited to chicken out.

I arrived in Saarbrücken a bit early to meet Alex in his office. We talked openly about all my doubts and he was kind enough to take most of them away. When he got into my ca and we drove up to the prison I felt relieved. Still very nervous, but relieved.

 

Let me tell you, friends, it was one hell of an experience. You hand in your passport. Doors are locked behind you before the next door in front of you is unlocked. You’re not really allowed to walk anywhere unaccompanied (not that you could, there’s gates and doors everywhere!), the subtle feeling of claustrophobia is pervasive…. well, until we arrived in the hall where the show was supposed to be held. I was greeted by a couple of prisoners who formed the house band. When I entered the room, they were jamming away and producing some outstanding tunes. They immediately walked up to me, greeted me and talked to me and after about two minutes I completely dropped my guard, simply because I had forgotten that I was talking to inmates of a prison. It sounds cliché as fuck, but we connected through music within a second. We talked, we laughed. They helped me set up my equipment and do soundcheck. After that we simply sat down and started talking. They told me about their lives outside, about their families, about their fears of leaving, about the dreadful life inside. I hadn’t expected them to be that open about what crimes they had committed, but they were honest, they were sharp and at no time did they mention anything about not deserving to be there. (Note: Obviously I am not allowed to mention any details such as names or anything here, sorry!)

 

I asked them if they were actually scared to leave, scared of the world outside and while I am not sure if I am allowed to go into details here, there is one particular story that stayed in my mind and that I need to write about. There was this one guy who told me that he’d come out of prison after serving six or so years. He said that on the day of his release, he picked up his trolly and walked to the train station. He stood in front of the door of the side entrance, just waiting. He told me it was only five or ten minutes later, when an old lady passed him and opened the door to enter the main hall that he realised that he needn't wait for a guard any more and that he was able to open doors on his own now again. After all our conversation, it dawned on me (it might sound naive!) that I was talking to and later would be playing for people. Not sentences. People. I wasn’t playing to murder, 25 years, I was playing to actual people and that awareness eased up a lot of pressure.

 

I played two sets of 45 minutes each, my voice was absolutely fucked and I really had to battle my way through the songs, but the crowd (about 80-90 inmates plus a couple of guards) were absolutely fabulous. They were singing along (especially to Blood Brothers, maybe because they really know what it means to be separated from loved ones for a particular long time!) and applauding and shouting and having a great time. Between the sets the house band played three songs which were brilliant as well. Towards the end I asked one of the guitarists of the house band, let’s call him James, up to join me on ‘Freedom’ and ‘Close Your Eyes’. James was probably one of the finest musicians I have ever played with. When he sang, he could make the sun shine and the rain fall, when he played the guitar or the piano he could move mountains. He told me he was working as a record producer in ‘real life’. After my last song, I joined the house band for one last big jam session, which I thoroughly enjoyed. When I got off stage it was time for the audience to get back to their cells but almost everyone wanted to thank me, shake my hand. There was this one guy, 7 feet tall, bald head, bodybuilder, tattoos everywhere and he just looked at me and thanked me for the best two hours of the year. Fucking hell, people, I’m not even exaggerating here, it was mind-blowing and too much to process at the time. The guys of the house band helped me to pack all my stuff, we took some pictures, hugged and said goodbye. It felt strange. I felt strange… but that’s music people, that’s the power of music.

 

As I drove away I felt overwhelmed by the afternoon. Part of me pitied the inmates. It was enough to only get to peek through the keyhole of prison life to realise what it means to be in prison. I had learned that every one who is in there is actually a human being with needs, with sorrows, with fears. Some of them might be there for all the right reasons. Some of them might feel betrayed by their life. I am not doubting that they deserve to be there. I am not arguing against prisons. All I am saying is that I believe that the moral doubts I had before hand are the result of a very common perception among most of us, namely that we fail to see prisoners as human beings. Don’t, folks! They’ve made mistakes, they’ve hurt other people, they fucked up, some of them badly, but they’re still human beings. They’re capable of making people laugh, they’re capable of feeling pain and they are, at least some of them, capable of producing great music.

 

I felt very fortunate and honoured to play that show and if you are a musician, I highly recommend you get in touch with a prison near you and offer your services. It’s rewarding!

Again thanks to everyone who helped making the show happen, especially to my new friends of the house band (who will probably not read this!).

 

Here’s also an official article about the show.

 

New blog will follow soon! Don’t take any shit from anybody and happy new year!

 

x

John

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