A 2012 reproduction of Crime’s San Quentin flyer.
So if anyone has been looking for an index of how the world has changed since 1978, here’s one valuable piece of data. That Labor Day, the San Francisco punk band Crime played a show in San Quentin State Prison. The members of the band wore matching dark blue police uniforms, and as they played such originals as “Crime Wave,” “Piss on Your Dog” and “Rockabilly Drugstore,” inmates waved flyers that screamed “CRIME,” the band’s block-letter logo, above a drawing of a leather-clad dominatrix in a jail cell. I’m no expert, but I don’t think any festivities along these lines are planned for San Quentin this year. I bet they’re lucky if the warden lets them watch a rerun of The Voice.
How did this supremely unlikely event come to pass? Drummer Hank Rank told an interviewer from Amoeba Music a few years ago:
Contrary to popular perception, there were not many venues for early punk bands. Bill Graham publicly declared that he would never allow a punk band to play any of his venues, and many smaller clubs were scared by what they read about the goings-on at punk shows. That’s why we were open to the idea of Museums Without Walls that put art and music in unlikely places, so when we were contacted with the opportunity by Lynn Hershman (now Leeson), we jumped. We were the only punk band on the show that hot sunny day in the exercise yard at the Q, and neither the prisoners nor the guards knew what to make of us. The window of the cell where Sirhan Sirhan was in solitary was directly opposite where we played, and I’d like to think that our show was the worst punishment of his life.
Hank Rank and singer/guitarist Frankie Fix described the show in a contemporary interview with New York Rocker:
On Labor Day of this year, Crime entered San Quentin and performed for over 500 prisoners. “It was something we had wanted to do for a long time,” said Rank. “We knew we’d be playing for a crowd that was really into crime.”
As the prison gig approached, Crime almost got cold feet. “As it got closer,” said Rank, “things we were hearing got scarier. They said we couldn’t wear blue jeans or a work shirt ‘cause in the event of a riot, they wouldn’t want us to get shot, mistaken for prisoners. Then they told us about the no-hostage rule which is that if you’re taken hostage by a prisoner, they will not bargain for your life. If he says he’s going to kill you if they won’t let him out, they’ll say ‘Fine, kill this person. We don’t care. We’re not letting you out.’”
According to the band, the San Quentin gig was not their best. “It was in the daylight,” explained Fix, who rarely rises before 5 p.m.
“It was blazing heat,” said Rank, “and they had a little speaker for a PA. And imagine, you’re looking out there at a mass of 500 people and all I could see were crimes written on their faces: rape, murder, mutilation. All the disgusting side of humanity was sitting there looking at us.”
Gimme Something Better, an oral history of Bay Area punk, gives a few more details:
Hank Rank: There was sort of a demilitarized zone between the stage and the prisoners. There was a rope, and then the prisoners were all behind that. And they really divided right down the middle, blacks on one side and non-blacks on the other. When a black group would play, all of the non-blacks would stand up and move to the far side of the yard. When a non-black group would play, the exact opposite would happen. So when we hit the stage, they all got up and moved away [...] It was a tough crowd. They didn’t exactly get the music, and the guards up on the tower with their guns, looking down, shaking their heads. Nobody there knew what to make of us.
Joe Rees [of Target Video, who filmed the show]: Up on the walkway was a black female guard with a high-powered rifle. She had an afro, and it was bleached blond. You’d think that she was part of the show. Policemen performing the music. Inmates with their eyes hanging out. It was so bizarre.
Johnny Strike [singer/guitarist]: Frankie was so nervous, he was popping Valiums. By the time he hit the stage, I looked over at him and I was like, “Oh man. He’s totally out to lunch, he’s singing the wrong song.” Somehow we pulled it off.
Murder By Guitar 1976-1980, released last year, collects all of Crime’s original studio recordings. Superior Viaduct put the album out on vinyl and MP3 this summer.
According to at least one Crime discography, Target Video released the whole show on VHS, but YouTube only has this great clip of “Piss on Your Dog.”