Rock stars behind bars

By Sergio Ariza

On May 3, 1969, Jimi Hendrix was arrested as soon as he arrived at Toronto airport, in his suitcase there was found heroin and hashish. The biggest guitarist of all time was released two days later after posting bail of $ 10,000 and declaring, a few minutes before giving a concert at the Maple Leaf Gardens, that he did not know how the drug had gotten there. After arriving at the stage he proclaimed "I want you to forget what happened yesterday, tomorrow and today. Tonight we are going to create a completely new world " It was not the first, nor the last time, that a rock star had problems with the law. From its architect, Chuck Berry, to today’s rock & rollers, its practitioners have had a rather special relationship with the authorities. These are some of the most famous examples.


Jim Morrison

The leader of the Doors had an extensive police record, so much so that before forming the band he had already passed a couple of times before the courts. But if you add the desire for freedom and anti-authoritarianism with high doses of alcohol and drugs, and you stir it with a totally self-destructive personality, then you have a Molotov cocktail on your hands. Especially if you are a rock star and you are fed up with your image as a sex icon. Of all the problems that the 'King Lizard' had with the law (we recall that he was the first singer who was arrested on stage) the most remembered is that which occurred in Miami in 1969. Before playing Touch Me Morrison began to ramble on about love and revolution, then a girl from the audience sprayed him with champagne and the singer answered "I know why you came, to see my cock"; then he grabbed the bottle and put it on his crotch, and began to simulate masturbation. Many people in the audience, which had a capacity well above that allowed, and many in the middle of acid trips, believed they saw the virile member of Morrison, and there was a big scandal. At that time the city was one of the most conservative places in the US, far from its current image of beaches and bikini girls, and after several protests to the judge the police issued an arrest warrant against the singer for indecency, and he handed himself in. Before the trial the Doors concerts started to be cancelled and the singer decided to leave the country. Shortly after he died in Paris. the official pardon did not arrive from the governor of Florida until 2010.

Johnny Cash

Of course, if there is a musician whose image is linked to prisons, outlaws and convictions it is none other than Johnny Cash. The legend of country music has a whole discography with songs about cocaine killers, people who kill another just to watch them die and records recorded live in prisons but his criminal history is not as interesting as his lyrics. Specifically, Cash was arrested in October 1965 in Texas for crossing the border from Mexico loaded with amphetamines (specifically, more than a thousand pills of Dexadrine and Equanil). But he did not even have to spend a single day in jail since he left the same day after paying a small amount in bail; in Folsom prison he was only there for his concerts.


Axl Rose

William Bruce Rose Jr.
already had a long record of arrests in his native Indiana before moving into the jungle of Los Angeles to head one of the last great rock & roll bands in history, Guns N' Roses. Already converted into megastars, and William into Axl, the singer filled the headlines of half the world’s newspapers when on July 2, 1991, during a concert, he saw a guy taking pictures (these were distant times, without cell phones) and demanded that security threw him out. But when he saw that they were not acting, he decided to take things into his own hands and threw himself into an ‘open grave’ in order to hit the individual and take the camera. After returning to the stage he said "Thanks to the lame ass security, I'm going home" and violently slammed the microphone on the floor. Slash stopped playing his Les Paul and the group left the stage, which was followed by a brutal riot, and a sentence for disturbing public order for the singer. In the end he evaded prison, something that he did not always manage in his more than 20 arrests; as when he was much younger he spent three months behind bars in Indiana.


Mick Jagger y Keith Richards

One of the most famous dates in the history of "the greatest rock and roll band of all time", is February 12, 1967. It was on that date when several policemen raided
Keith Richards' house, as they had been ‘alerted’ by the sensationalist newspaper News Of The World, that the band were taking drugs there. There were the guitarist and Stones singer, Mick Jagger celebrating a party with Jagger's girlfriend, Marianne Faithful, photographer Michael Cooper, gallery owner Robert Frase and George Harrison and his wife Pattie. Of course, the police waited for the Beatle and his wife to leave the house to make the arrest. Mick Jagger was tried for possession of amphetamines and sentenced to three months in prison, and Keith Richards was handed a one year sentence for allowing drugs be taken at his home. After hearing the sentence Richards remained serious and told the judge that he was not interested in his "petty morals" ; while Jagger was about to faint after hearing the sentence. That same day the Who recorded a version of Under My Thumb to support their friends. After an editorial in The Times condemning the harshness of the sentence, the two were released after spending a couple of nights in prison. Soon they would record their single We Love You that opens with the sound of a person entering the jail and the doors closing behind them. In the lyrics they sang "we don't care if you hound we and lock the doors around we". Their legend of being ‘bad guys’ was born, and they would continue to maintain it by being arrested again several times; mainly the guitarist who 10 years later almost ended the band's career when they found heroin in his room while he was in Canada.

Wayne Kramer

Wayne Kramer
had been the engine of the unstoppable MC5 with his Stratocaster painted in the colors of the American flag, but in 1975 luck, and the band, had long since abandoned him. His addiction to heroin had led him to deal it, and he had the misfortune to sell cocaine to a plainclothes agent, an incident that Mick Jones would immortalize in the Clash's Jail Guitar Doors. He spent two years in jail and when he left he formed Gang War with another guitar outlaw, Johnny Thunders, but the project did not last long and Kramer began a fruitful solo career that would lead him to write soundtracks for films and series of TV. He never forgot his time in jail, however, and ended up founding the organization Jail Guitar Doors to get inmates access to musical instruments, as well as playing for free in several prisons.

Phil Spector

As you can see most of the arrests of rock stars are related to drugs or public scandals - much less frequent are homicides or weapons crimes; but, sadly, there are these also. One of the most impacting was the imprisonment of Phil Spector, - the creator of the 'wall of sound' and producer of records by the Beatles,
Lennon, Harrison, Leonard Cohen and the Ramones, among many others, -  who, in 2003, shot the actress Lana Clarkson in his house in California. He was tried twice, in 2007 and in 2008, a year later he was sentenced to 19 years in prison, which he is still serving. Shortly after arriving at Corcoran prison, the most famous inmate there wrote him a note telling him that he would like to meet him. It was none other than Charles Manson. Apparently Spector did not take it very well and declared: "I used to pick up the phone and on the other side was someone like John Lennon, and now Charles Manson is trying to get a hold of me!"

Chuck Berry

The architect of rock & roll was arrested in 1959 for crossing the border with a girl who was going to work at the Missouri club he had opened. To top it off, the girl was a minor and a prostitute. The author of Johnny B. Goode spent a couple of years in the shade, something that was not entirely foreign to him since in 1944, at 18 years of age, Berry had already been arrested for armed robbery in his Kansas City hometown. During his sentence he formed a vocal group in prison and devoted himself to boxing. He was released on the day of his 21st birthday, on October 18, 1947; almost a decade later he would define rock & roll forever with his Gibsons.


The Prisonaires

I close this review with one of the most striking stories, that of the Prisonaires. In this case it was not a star who was imprisoned but a group that was formed by prisoners who almost became stars. The group was formed in the early 1950s in a Memphis jail by Johnny Bragg, a lead singer who had been locked up since 1943 when he was unjustly accused of rape at the age of 17. His companions were two gospel singers, Ed Thurman and William Stewart, sentenced to 99 years for murder, and two newcomers to the prison, John Drue Jr. and Marcell Sanders. The group benefited from the state governor’s, Frank G. Clement, policies in favor of redemption, that allowed them to perform outside the prison. In a short time their fame spread and the Sun Records producer, Sam Phillips, managed to get the prison authorities to allow the Prisonaires to record in his studio. So on June 1, 1953, two months before
Elvis Presley officially inaugarated the history of rock & roll with his first recording in the same studio, the Prisonaires arrived accompanied by a guard, and recorded the huge Just Walkin 'in the rain, written by Bragg. That single would be one of the reasons that would lead to Presley to Phillips’ studio and, if just for that, it already deserves all the praises. Of course, the story does not end happily exactly. Even though all of its members were pardoned little by little, their life would remain conflictive. Stewart died of an overdose in 1959, that same year Bragg was released but a year later he would return to prison after breaking probation. Elvis, always a fan, tried to help him but Bragg spent another six and a half years behind bars. It would not be his last period in prison, where he was almost 30 years of his life, but in the end he would have a small episode of recognition. In the year 2000, accompanied by his daughter, he attended the premiere of a special on Sam Phillips in Memphis. Among the scheduled events there was a visit to several places in the city, including the prison in which Bragg spent most of his youth. In front of his old cell he began to sing a cappella, Just Walkin 'in the Rain, when he finished, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis and Phillips himself were there giving him an ovation. Four years later he died at 79 years old.