This essay was first published in Issue 21 of Paste magazine in 2006. As the U.S. still has the highest per capita prison population in the world—by far—we’re republishing it now.
If I hear Pete Yorn equate his “Strange Condition” to “a day in prison” one more time, I swear I’m gonna wring his scrawny neck. How dare he stand out there in the free world and compare some dumb love to the gulag.
“A day in prison?” I betcha he couldn’t even survive a night in jail. Such were my wicked thoughts as I paced to the radio in my 7’ x 10’ cell at the State Correctional Institute at Chester, Penn. I had good reason to be miffed at creaky Pete’s croak: I’d stopped counting my own days in prison once I got to a thousand.
Now don’t get me wrong. I dig Pete Yorn. When his sound’s around to be dug, anyway. Smart, sly, a little off. And “Strange Condition” isn’t a bad song; might even be a good one, far as I can tell. But this lazy metaphor is beneath him and most certainly beneath contempt. Worse, it’s an insult to everyone who’s spent time behind bars, never mind the two-million-plus Americans currently serving.
You don’t know hurt, Pete, ‘til you’ve been caged.
But Yorn’s hardly the first pop star—alterna or otherwise—to stoop to such shallows. In fact, he’s part of a seamy tradition of songsters who think it wise or clever or—egad—cool to sing as if they know what jail feels like.
Take Sir Cliff Richard’s tragic mistrack, “Locked Inside Your Prison.”
Your love is like a prison wall
And it’s getting higher
I get so far and then I fall
I can’t get through the wire
Oh oh oh I’m locked inside your prison
Gimme a break. These aren’t the sentiments of a guy who’s even seen Inside, let alone been there, unless, perhaps, he went In, was turned out, then was forced to forever croon inanities. Why else with the “Oh, oh, oh?” The only good thing about Cliff’s song is that no one remembers it.
The Postal Service—a credibly memorable duo—incredibly take a club to task in “This Place Is A Prison,” a beautiful song that makes no sense. I know whatcha mean and I dig whatcha do, but you’re wrong. I’ve known clubs and, Postmasters, they’re no prison. Perhaps a zoo might be a better analogy, one where the captives have all come voluntarily. Lined up and paid their way in even. And before all you animals get in an uproar—I’ve been to the zoo; I’ve also been captured and caged, and I’ll never go again.
What does it take to get a drink in this place?
What does it take, how long must I wait?
Boo f—ing hoo. You want wait? Try waiting for count to clear, for Main Line to finish, for yard to be called, for mail that can’t come ’cause a cruel guard won’t deliver. Try waiting for some state to set you free.
What does it take to get a release date in this place?
Well beyond the pale, wan metaphor of these ultra-bright pop-ists comes the mealy-mouthed, messiah-plexed Scott Stapp, whose “My Own Prison” is nothing short of a sham conceit. Yeah, I know. The Stapp got popped for reckless driving, but he only spent a few hours with the cops—crying and signing crosses undoubtedly—and his so-called prison is constructed strictly from bullshit and histrionics.
Come to think of it, maybe the Creedless wonder deserves a break today. I mean, imagine being sentenced to be Scott Stapp for the rest of your life. Now that’s hard time.
Probably the most flagrant foulster of late has gotta be Richard Ashcroft, whose “Break the Night with Colour” video poses in image what the ex-Verve frontman fails to know in life. If you’ve seen the clip, you’ll be aware that tricky Dick is seated at a grey-green and white baby grand in a jailhouse holding pen. If you know anything about jailhouse holding pens, you’ll know the charade is at best a monstrous absurdity. Now I’ve never been locked-up ’cross the pond (thankfully), but I bet a thousand pounds sterling there’s not a holding pen in all the old land that’s outfitted with a baby grand.
Hell, in New York’s Tombs you’re lucky if you get a bit of bench space, let alone a seat at a piano. And you couldn’t play it if you did—everyone’s handcuffed. Maybe the ivories are a figment of his barred imagination. Who knows? But this is certain—they’re a crass incongruity. The stuck clock’s a nice touch, though, and the tune’s got a feel about it, too. The desolate, the hurt, the all-by-myself. But Richard, it’s a pose. And you’re supposed to have better posture.
Oh, and Steve Tyler, that Rikers Island shirt I saw you sport on some A&E special wasn’t cool. You ever been there? No? Well, I have. C-95. And it was anything but cool. In fact, just going through whatcha gotta go through to get to Rikers will knock the cool right outta you.
Getting cuffed and thrown into the back of a patrol car is just the NYPD Blue part of the ordeal. What the program doesn’t show is—once you’re booked and fingerprinted—you get stripped to your soul, made to bare every orifice, and then you’re tossed into a standing-room-only cage with some very angry men.
Then you wait. And you wait. And you wait some more. You may get a phone call; you may not. You will get a ride downtown to those infamous Tombs, which might not be so bad if the ride wasn’t in the back of a paneled van half the size of the cage you just left and crammed with even madder men. And that hours-long wait outside the gate where you get intimate with the sour smells of your fellow detainees? That kinda kills cool dead, too.
Then comes the cuffed night, the shackled crawl to court, the who-knows-what-will-happen, and the windless postponing of that which will. Remanding, the bullpen shuffle, more cuffs, more shackles, the long ride over the East River and through the ’hoods among some very dangerous despair. The checkpoint, the drop-off, another strip search, another bullpen or two, bologna if you dare, then injection into a dorm built for a couple dozen but housing 64.
There the fun really begins. The inmates size you up. Some circle, some just stare. All wanna pounce. Predator or prey? There’s no in between. What you do in the next five minutes will determine what’ll be done to you. Or won’t be. So you scan the plug-ugly mugs and pick out the biggest and ugliest of the bunch… step right up and—Bam!—hit him with everything you’ve got. It probably won’t faze him, and you’ll probably get your ass kicked as a result. But you’ll have made your introduction.
And the brash’ll give you enough hard time alone to rehash the missteps you took to get where you’ve been told you belong. You’ll second- guess, twice, then you’ll guess again. You’ll woulda, shoulda, coulda ’til you’re blue in your marrow. You’ll want to wall yourself, hard. And you’ll want to cry. Try that shirt on for size.
But there’s one thing that goes well beyond the idle posing and poor posture, and that’s an idol’s threats. I’m talkin’ ’bout Kathleen Edwards’ incredibly unnerving “In State,” where the unfair lass rings through with what seems to be an eerie endorsement of the snitch:
I know where the cops hang out
I know where you’ll be found …
Maybe 20 years in state will change your mind
Now I don’t know what this guy did to her, but I’m pretty sure it’s not enough to have him ratted out and sent up the river for 20 years, otherwise she’d have already called the cops and had him hauled away. Does she have any idea what that would do to a man? Maybe dear Miss Edwards oughta check out the lives of those who’ve lived through this before she starts running off at the rat mouth.
Like Merle Haggard, who never met a pretense he didn’t stomp. Cite “Life in Prison” and its unflinching truth. Haggard spent most of his early life in and outta one lock-up or another, including a hard three in the Q, so he knew damn well what he was singing, and from where he’d come. And he’d never sing of sending someone there.
Or Steve Earle, whose own exploits are infamous. Earle spent four-and-a-half months in a Tennessee cage before he re-burst clean on the scene. And though the sabbatical may’ve saved his life—his voice, his body, his soul and his song prove it was no picnic he’d ever invite someone to.
Or Chet Baker—who was arrested more times than history remembers; did a year-and-a-half in an Italian jail; was kicked outta West Germany (twice), Switzerland and England; got his face rearranged in San Francisco; and spent most of his wild life on dope. Yet not once did he stoop to singing about it all. He didn’t have to; it was evident in his every breath. You think Chet’d call the cops for anything? Me neither.
It’s highly unlikely that Courtney Love (three arrests in three cities), Pete Doherty (three arrests in one day) or Marilyn Manson (multiples of both) would ever fuzz up either, let alone sling it in song.
It irks me that some of the above irk me so. I mean, these are a few of my favorite acts. The Postals beaming in from KCRW, Edwards sallying forth on WXPN’s World Café Live, Ashcroft sounding the streets of London; this music made my exile endurable. But because I so dig them, and because they’re so dug, I gotta hold ’em to higher standards. They know better, and they should do better. Otherwise everyone’ll start using the jailhouse as their way outta writer’s block.
And everyone’ll put on the prison pose, a tragically unhip and potentially dangerous proposition. You know what they say in NA: Fake it ’til you make it. And if you keep faking jail, you might just end up making it there.
That you do not wanna do. Prison is no place to make anything; it’s a place to break. To be broken. I’ve seen some of the meanest minds of my generation reduced to rubble and blubber, wallow and woe. Me included. I’ve listened to the lip serviced in the guise of “Corrections,” mandated the meaningless mantras, and I’ve lain prostrate against the hard padded bosom of the State. I’ve hurt; I’ve harmed; I’ve held on, to whatever sliver of life I could concoct. And I didn’t leave with some fake-ass T-shirt. Or a twee little song in my heart.
Incarceration, my friends, is nothing to sing about.
Once upon another age, doing time was something to be ashamed of. Sure, there was Nietzschean proud, but you kept it sequestered. You lied about where you went (to “college”), not where you didn’t go (cite James Frey). Now dishonor’s become a badge of honor—shame’s put the name in the game. Blame it on hip-hop; chalk it up to New Agery. Whatever. It’s still ugly. While it should be applauded that folks can now own who they are, a big Bronx cheer has gotta go to those who wanna be who they aren’t.
And if there’s gotta be song, let’s leave the singing for those who truly know the low. The U.S. has the highest per-capita prison population in the world: 655 for every 100,000. Again, that’s over 2.3 million people locked up right this very minute. Add those on probation or parole (another form of lock-up) and the figure triples. Seems to me that’s a whole lotta song to be sung, and more than enough singers to sing it.
John Hood a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Miami Herald, The Herald (Glasgow), BlackBook, Flaunt, HuffPost, Spin and other publications.