It is not a comb, it is much more: a symbol of rebellion, self-assertion and individualism. It is executed in deep rage. The frown, the teeth biting violently on the lower lip. And that outstretched arm, with the middle finger in the foreground: “Fuck you.”
The Beatles crossing Abbey Road. Bob Marley and his joint … And Jonnhy Cash performing his rabid comb. These are probably the three most famous snapshots in rock history. Of course they are the most reproduced, the most stamped on t-shirts and posters. But the image of Johnny Cash (Arkansas, 1932-Nashville, 2003), a paragon of fierceness and nihilism, also has the value of keeping one of the most mysterious stories in rock history. So much so that, as in good myths, no one knows where reality begins and where fiction ends about the moment when Johnny defiantly raises his middle finger.
In 1968, Johnny Cash was trying to return to the world of the living. Years of using stimulants had earned him a legend as black as his inseparable D35 guitar. He joked about his bad reputation in his autobiography, published in Spain by Global Rhythm: “During my years on amphetamine I spent a few nights in jail, but never more than one night: seven incidents in all, different dates in different places. where local law decided that we would all be better off if they locked me away. “
Cash and his middle finger ended up becoming an icon, a symbol of individualism and fight against the establishment. And to this day it has continued to be.
The people, however, believed him a convict, for his bad head and for letters like that of Folsom Prison Blues, The one where he wrote: “I shot a man in Reno / just to see him die.” It was a song from 1955, but it had become an anthem behind the bars of the middle of the US Almost from its first radio broadcast, prisons across the country asked him to perform it for their inmates. And Cash, always merciful to the weak and the outcast, there he was going to touch her. In 1968, he believed that the time had come to pay tribute to the place that had given him so much: he would record a live album in the Folsom prison, the immortal Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.
Although the record company did not have them all, it was a resounding success. They even got Cash on a television show. He married fellow country singer June Carter, his second wife. Soon, the record company asked him to repeat, this time in the mythical San Quintín prison, a year later. Not only would there be a recording team for the relevant album, there would also be a television team from Granada Television. And a photographer, of course. The one that the star wanted. And Johnny chose the one who was considered the best, one who had introduced him to a certain Bob Dylan who knew a lot about selling his image. It was Jim Marshall, the artist who would immortalize the comb. But who was that gesture of contempt directed at?
THEORY # 1: The comb was intended for the jailers
The one preferred by mythomaniacs. His main support is the testimony of Merle Haggard, a country artist who at the time had not yet discovered his musical talent, but his criminal vocation, so he attended the concert as an involuntary public (prisoner of San Quentin). “Cash had lost his voice the day before in San Francisco, and he couldn’t sing very well. I thought he would prod, but he won over the prisoners. He kept the type and the attitude: he chewed gum, he was haughty and he gave the jailers the comb. Everything that the prisoners expected him to do ”.
THEORY # 2: The comb was intended for the television crew
The one preferred by the haters-media. Supported by Johnny Cash himself, who wrote the following words in the booklet of the album’s reissue Johnny Cash at San Quentin in 2000: “At one point in the concert I stepped away from the microphone and yelled, ‘Get off the stage! I can’t see the audience! Nobody moved, so I made them a comb. Hence the photography ”. Nice try, Johnny, but a bad memory: your version doesn’t quite adjust to reality – as your fan Adam Gimbel has shown – for a simple reason: he is not wearing the same concert clothes, his ineffable black suit, but a prison jumpsuit. The photo would therefore be taken during a rehearsal without an audience. The monkey, by the way, would go up for auction at a price of $ 5,000 (4,200 euros) in 2010 … it was sold for 50,000 (42,400 euros).
Be that as it may, the success of the comb was long overdue. In fact, the photograph only existed in Jim Marshall’s archive and eyes for decades. Marshall knew that Cash was an extremely modest man obsessed with good manners. There were the occasional reproduction, but they almost circulated as if it were contraband. Until, fed up with seeing it reproduced, Jim Marshall decided to publish it for the first time in your photo book Not fade away, in 1997. Marshall was asked about that magnetic image, of course. If he was already a curmudgeon in 1969, he was not going to be less so in 1997: “I have forgotten why he made a comb in this photo. Maybe it was directed at the television crew filming it, or I asked them to shoot it to the guards. Whatever it was, it has become a very famous and iconic snapshot. “
The photo reappeared at a perfect time. After a long journey through the desert, after the oblivion of a whole generation, Johnny Cash, The Man in Black, was back. Producer Rick Rubin had him record the album American Recordings in the living room of his house, in 1994. It was about a handful of his own and other people’s songs that made music lovers rediscover and fall in love with that phenomenon with a cavernous voice.
Well, the same thing happened: the whole industry that had turned its back on him for decades, suddenly, they were Cash’s best friends and fans. If even Metallica followed in his footsteps and recorded the video of St. Anger in San Quentin! If even The Simpsons asked Cash to voice a sad coyote in one episode!
The people around him, who had endured his hangs and depressions, that made his eyes bleed. Rick Rubin decided to demonstrate it graphically. After winning the Grammy for Best Country Album for Unchained In 1998, he posted an ad with the comb photo and the caption: “American Recordings and Johnny Cash want to thank the Nashville scene and country music radios for their support.” Pure irony, of course.
In the documentary Johnny Cash vs Music Row, Rubin commented on the genesis of that slap to the system: “Cash told me that he wasn’t going to tell me to do it, but he certainly wasn’t going to tell me not to do it. In fact, we wrote together the text that accompanied the photo of the comb. We talked at length about that ad ”.
The disdain for the industry turned into love from anonymous and famous fans: everywhere the members of the bands imitated the frown, the half-open mouth, the raised finger… Elton John bought the negatives. Cash and his middle finger eventually became an icon in rock history, a symbol of individualism and fight against the establishment. And to this day it has continued to be. Johnny Cash’s comb is probably the most famous in the world … unfortunately for everyone who has made it since then, from Liam Gallagher to Luis Bárcenas.
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