Punk-Rock Johnny Cash

Sometimes there are people who, when they die, leave the world a noticeably darker place. We feel a disproportionate sadness when they pass---even though we might not have known them very well or even known them at all---because we know that the earth has lost someone beautiful, a bright, shining star in a dim world. And even though we didn't see them every day, or even every year, everything feels a little heavier knowing that person is no longer with us. Robin Williams, David Bowie, Katharine Hepburn, to name a few. But some of these angels are closer to home, people you actually encountered in your life, and when you find that they're gone it's like a medicine ball to the gut.

I'm gonna tell you a story about one of those people.

My wife and I are no different than any straight couple---we hooked up in a bar, like Jesus intended. The bar in question is called Zeitgeist, and it is one of San Francisco's more famous bars. It used be known as a no-nonsense bar for bike messengers, bikers, druggies, and hard-drinkin' folk. Now, like everything else in my former town, the landscape has changed, and yuppies, Marina folks, and techbros flock to the legendary establishment. It's been on Bourdain, surely the kiss of death (even though the back of my head actually made it into a shot for the show; see below) and, as such, has ceased to be as relevant as it once was. But back in 2006, Zeit was still clinging to its dirty cred, and I found myself there one night, drinking myself into oblivion. That wasn't terribly unusual. I could often be found at the Zeit drinking myself into oblivion---it's what the place was built for.

A still shot from the episode of Anthony Bourdain's Layover episode where he went to Zeitgeist. See the
silver-haired gent that the arrow is pointing to? I'm his date in the red shirt. 

But on this particular night, I was three weeks into a scorched-earth breakup that left me reeling. I was in bad shape, y'all. The girlfriend had fled, inelegantly, and I was nursing some serious wounds. Friends were taking turns taking me out every night and listening to me cry into my Jack and Cokes, patting my back, telling me there were other fish in the sea, yadda, yadda. This night, it was my friend Jen's turn. And in a weird twist of events, the person who would end up becoming my wife but who, then, was barely an acquaintance, tagged along as well. This was a little awkward since I'd met her through the ex-girlfriend I was now bemoaning. 

I will fast forward through the first six or so hours of the night, where I consumed eleventy-million Jack and Cokes and was a ranting madwoman about my ex, who I'd now started referring to as The Goiter. It was late, and we'd moved inside because even all that whiskey couldn't prevent us from eventually realizing that it was freezing outside. The jukebox was loud and my head was fuzzy, and what transpired next was some highly ill-advised, friend-on-friend making out. This was during a strange time when all of my straight, married, female friends went through a phase where we were all making out with each other "to see who is the best kisser." Thankfully, it was short-lived, and we all got over it quickly; however, this particular evening fell during that time period. And The (Eventual) Wife, as a bona fide, dyed-in-the-wool, butch dyke, was puzzled as to why all my straight friends were making out with each other as well. But, like any good Lady Who Loves Ladies, she was also delighted since it resulted in her making out with a lot of pretty girls during that time.

Anyway---and please forgive me for the fuzziness of my memory about this drunken night nearly 10 years ago---we started up the conversation about who was the best kisser…again. As was apparently our M.O. for the time, Jen and I promptly started making out. Then Jen and The (Eventual) Wife made out and, predictably, it was then my turn to make out with The (Eventual) Wife.

We were not wearing our sober pants that night.

I was attracted to her, absolutely. But even in my haziest, booze-soaked memories, I can remember also thinking "I hope this gets back to The Goiter." I mean, they were still friends, right? I had met The (Eventual) Wife through The Goiter, so technically she was The Goiter's friend, and she and I shouldn't even still be hanging out. So of course, stinging from getting my heart shat upon, I had the ulterior motive of wanting the gossip to get back to The Goiter that The (Eventual) Wife and I had made out. In your face, bitch. Do you see how everyone likes me better than they like you? Even your friends? You were stupid to let me go. No, seriously, I'm glad I took a pocketknife and whittled down your dildos until they were the size of toothpicks!

And so I leaned off my barstool and into The (Eventual) Wife and closed my eyes. Two things I remember about that kiss:

  1. Well that was soft and lovely and electric...more please
  2. Holy fuck, we just made out at Zeitgeist to Johnny Cash playing on the jukebox!

Since you all know she is now my wife, I will skip all of the details of how we eventually ended up hooking up, but at the end of 2007, she got down on one knee and proposed to me. And if we thought we'd have time to plan a leisurely wedding, we were shown otherwise by the entire Prop 8 furor that erupted a few months later. The State of California made same-sex marriage legal in May 2008, but then a bunch of hateful homophobes (i.e., the "Christian Right," which is neither Christian nor right, but don't get me started) decided it was okay to single out one group of citizens and create a ballot measure to ensure that group did not have the same civil rights as everyone else in the state. This measure, Prop 8, would be voted on in November 2008, during the presidential election. It was becoming apparent that if Prop 8 passed, same-sex marriage would again be illegal in the State of California. But most experts were saying that the vote would not extend to people who had gotten married in the window between May and November when it was legal (i.e., the ruling could not annul your marriage; your marriage may not be recognized by the federal government, but the State would continue to recognize it as a legal marriage).

So, suddenly, the wedding with the 263 people on our initial guest list became a small, intimate affair. There was no way we could pull together the money to afford a circus-level wedding in such a short time, and none of our parents was in a position to help financially. So we rented a cool house with a great backyard in Potrero Hill and invited just our parents and the smallest handful of friends. I still remember that day vividly---being mildly hungover and fairly nauseated and lying around in the big plush master bedroom with my two best friends trying to read them my vows without crying, wondering how I would get through them at the altar.

And I remember The (Soon-to-Be) Wife coming up the stairs with a neatly wrapped box. She was ridiculously proud of herself because someone had told her it was customary that the two people getting married exchange gifts on their wedding day. And so she'd gotten me a gift. We sat together, on the end of that big, fluffy bed (our "wedding night" bed!), huddled together like co-conspirators, as she explained that this was her gift to me to thank me for agreeing to spend the rest of my life with her then gently placed the box in my lap for me to unwrap.

I remember my carefully crafted response: "What?!? We're supposed to get each other gifts?!? No one told me that! I didn't get you anything!" Oddly, she seemed more pleased by this, as though she were proud that she knew something about all this girlie wedding shit that I didn't know. I unwrapped a beautiful silver flask, etched with the words "My Girl" along the bottom. It was beautiful and very us. The flask fit perfectly into my cowboy boot.

*****

Let me take a step back to mention that The Wife, while being a big ol' butch, is also the sappiest human being on the planet. When we first got together, I was constantly shocked at the crazy, sappy shit that fell out of her mouth on the reg. My response was always "Wait…really? Did you just say that? I mean…awwwwww…but also, really honey? That was totally gay."

And one of the ways her sappiness manifested itself was how butthurt she was that she and I didn't have "a song." You know how, when you fell in love with your first girlfriend or boyfriend in high school, you guys always had "a song?" Usually, it was something tragic like Bryan Adams crooning the horrible and interminable "Everything I Do, I Do It for You" or, if you're as old as I am, Bryan Adams crapping out "Heaven." Either way, we all sort of cringe when Bryan Adams comes on the radio now for a variety of reasons.

But now, here I was, approaching 40, being chastised by The (Eventual) Wife because we didn't have a song. She'd sigh and say "Funny how every time a love song comes on, you're all like 'Oh, this was mine and Robert's song…' or 'This was mine and Mitch's song…' Yet you and I don't have a song!" At the age of 38, let's just say I was more worried about identifying suspicious moles on my backside than I was worried about picking out a song. This became a running joke between us. I'd hear some Ozzy song on the radio and say "This should be our song!" And she would sigh and roll her eyes and say something about how I must not be as important to her as my past boyfriends.

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Hey honey, how about "All Hail Satan" as our song?

*****

The other part you need to know about this story is that, during this time---in the mid-to-late 2000s---there was a particular busker who regularly played in the 24th Street/Mission BART station. He was known as the "punk-rock Johnny Cash" because, while his safety-pinned leather jacket, neck tattoos, and red Mohawk indicated that he was all punk and nothing but the punk, when he started strumming his guitar and opened his mouth to sing, the kid sounded just like---and I mean, JUST LIKE---Johnny Cash. It was fucking uncanny. So uncanny that everyone in SF at the time knew about the Johnny Cash Guy. He was a local legend, back when the city still had those not so very long ago. 

The Man in Black and Jesse Morris (aka Punk-Rock Johnny Cash)

He'd stand there, most mornings, right at the turnstiles---as people were rushed and harried and pushing their way angrily to work---strumming his acoustic guitar and serenading commuters with "Folsom Prison Blues" or "A Boy Named Sue." And people actually stopped and listened to him sing, and that shit never happened in BART stations. At 8:00 a.m., it's all about getting from Point A to Point B with your headphones on and your face buried in your book so that your brush with the public is as minimal as possible. He was unbelievably talented, to be sure, but I also think half the reason he did so well for himself as a busker was the simple juxtaposition of his voice and his appearance. Who wouldn't be floored---at 7:00 in the morning, no less---by a fierce, Sid-Vicious-looking motherfucker crooning "Ring of Fire" like the Man in Black himself?

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I wasn't used to being intimidated by people, but the Johnny Cash Guy was intimidating as fuck. The scowl, the sheer number of tats, the nose ring, the crazy hair. He made me and my 9-to-5 existence seem trite and conformist. But as our wedding day approached, I would nervously listen for him each morning as I hit the BART escalator, ears straining for the notes of his guitar to see if he was there, knowing what I wanted to do but always lacking, at the last minute, the fortitude to do it.

And then one day, as I shoved my ticket into the machine, prepared to keep walking past him as usual, but I suddenly stopped and said "Hey, so um, I have a question for you… Got a minute?"

I have no idea why I found this dude intimidating.

*****

The ceremony was amazing. Our best friend married us. I managed to make it through my vows without crying, mainly because The (Extremely-Soon-to-Be) Wife and the aforementioned best friend were both blubbering messes up on the altar, and someone had to hold their shit together.

Since the wedding was low-key, we were doing all of the music on our iPod. We'd chosen the songs we each wanted to walk down the aisle to before we said our vows, and we'd chosen Queen's "You're My Best Friend" to walk back down the aisle after Cindy had pronounced us wife and wife. The Wife had put her brother in charge of manning the iPod, starting and stopping each of the songs at the appropriate moment.

As we turned away from Cindy and toward our friends and family as she pronounced us married, it was silent. The (New) Wife squeezed my hand, and I knew she was thinking "What the fuck, Dave? All you had to do was press 'Play' and 'Stop' on three songs…why hasn't Queen started yet?! We're just standing up here like fools…any time now, Bro."

And just as I felt her palm break a sweat, the strains of a guitar could be heard from inside the house. It got closer, louder, stronger, and soon there was no doubt that a real person was playing, and it was not Queen. And just as I saw The Wife's brow furrow, out stepped the Johnny Cash Guy, in all of his tattooed, leathered-up, flamboyant glory, his voice, clear as a bell, belting out "I Walk the Line." He sauntered down the aisle as he played, ending up right in front of us: "Because you're mine/I walk the line/Because you're mine…" My father-in-law, who had his back to him when he started singing, said "It was so spot-on that I thought it was a CD of Johnny Cash that you were playing. I had no idea it was a real person!"

After he finished playing "I Walk the Line," all the wedding guests cheered, and
Jesse said "Fuck Prop 8! Y'all have a great life together."

I studied my new wife's face as the full realization of what was happening sunk into her face. I squeezed back and whispered "This is my wedding gift to you." She squeezed my hand then threw her arms around me. "You got me THE JOHNNY CASH GUY as a wedding present?!?!" She exclaimed with glee. I kissed her happy little face and said "I did more than that. I got us A Song. This is now officially Our Song, okay?"

It was, honestly, a movie moment. One of those moments that happen at the end of stupid-ass rom-coms, the very same movies that The (Butch) Wife always cries at as I sit next to her and roll my eyes. And how often do you get those in life? How often are you able to give those moments to another person you care about deeply?

And they lived happily ever after...

*****

So that made it all the more personal when The Wife and I found out, in 2011, along with the rest of San Francisco, that Jesse Morris, aka "The Johnny Cash Guy," took his own life at the age of 27. Morris was diagnosed as bipolar at an early age and suffered from panic attacks. He had checked himself in and out of hospitals and rehab since he was a teen when he was off his meds and self-medicating. He had attempted suicide just two months before his final attempt resulted in his death. He was mourned by thousands, my wife and I among them. Tributes to what an amazing human and musician he had been started pouring in. For a good article about Jesse, start with this one. Also, his YouTube video of Folsom Prison Blues can be found here. Like the rest of the Bay Area, we grieved for the loss of this tortured, but incredibly kind and gifted, soul. It broke my heart to think I'd never again hear his voice ricocheting off the walls of the subway as I ascended the escalator after a long day. That voice was silent now. 

“He could mimic anybody,” [band member] Dean said.
He had a voice like “honey on tits.
He could do me better than me,
he could do Cash better than Cash.”

It's coming up on five years since his passing, but I bet not a week has gone by in those years that I haven't thought of Jesse. He wasn't a friend. Technically, he was just a dude I hired to play a single song at my wedding. I certainly didn't know the pain he was in. I didn't know anything about him, other than he had a brother who was transitioning to becoming his sister, and he thought the Prop 8 mess "was fucking bullshit, man." But he had a gift, and he brought that gift to our wedding and laid it down, literally, at our altar. He gave us an indelible memory that made our special day even more unique.

Rest in Peace, Jesse

I don't know why I was in the mind to write about Jesse today. It's not the anniversary of his death or anything. I just finally wanted to sit down and write about some guy that was beautiful and he meant something to me. And the world, for me, sucks a little harder knowing he's no longer out there in it, doing his thing, making his music, fighting the good fight.

Rest in peace, Jesse. "The world wasn't meant for one as beautiful as you."