“Who Shot John”
The three previous songs were upbeat, driving, in major keys. Each number started off faster and hotter than the last, until “I Felt Like Jesus” got as far into the red as this music can go before breaking the sound barrier into a whole other genre of rock and roll.
On stage or on record, a veteran showman like Chuck Prophet knows when to change up the pace, and this is that time. Unlike the first half the album, “Who Shot John” is a minor-mode adagio; heavy, narcotic, and sulphuric like “Hurdy Gurdy Man” or “Hey Joe.”
The bass line has a warm fuzzy coating. Every instrument moves a lot of air on this song.
Close your eyes and you can feel it blowing through your hair, reminding you that SF isn’t just a metropolis defined by its verticality and rigid street grid, but also California coastland in the middle of big sky country.
Open your eyes and the Avenues are sand dunes once again; tumbleweeds roll past your boots as your gaze takes you out over the blue Pacific to the Farallones. Or maybe you’re heading the other direction, loping down one of the thousand-foot long South of Market city blocks in white-out summer fog with no other pedestrian in sight. Either way, this song creates open space, room to think.
The previous track left us standing by the Broadway Tunnel, and that’s where this one picks up–somewhere in San Francisco’s historic downtown grid, under unclear circumstances. These lyrics beckon us in to explore dimensionalities rarely encountered in three-minute songs. Its title warns us there is going to be another body–or is there? Consider the first line: They say I shot Montgomery, shot him in the chest/It never went to trial, Montgomery confessed.
Do you know what just happened there? I don’t either, but it seems like somebody is playing the California judicial system like a stretched-out pawnshop accordion.
The ground doesn’t get any more solid in the second verse: “Eddy got probation, went out and robbed a bank…” Convention suggests that Eddy would have robbed the bank first and then got the probation, but not necessarily. We’re given just enough information to remain uncertain.
“While out at the end of Jackson, Fatty walked the plank…” A-ha! Now we have some historicity to hang our hat on. The career of Fatty Arbuckle did indeed walk the plank in the wake of his 1921 scandal. But that action went down in the St. Francis Hotel on Union Square, not on Jackson Street.
Jackson, however, was one of the more notorious thoroughfares of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, and in those days, Jackson Street turned into a 500-foot long wharf jutting out into the bay once it reached land’s end beyond Montgomery St.
People were rarely made to walk the plank in those Wild West days, but they were subjected to just about every other form of depredation on that waterfront, including lynch mobs and shanghaiing.
The verse finishes out with more paradoxy: Eddy writes a letter from prison asking our first person narrator who shot John, then Eddy “drops a kite” from prison telling him who shot John. We don’t know who to believe here: Eddy, the unreliable narrator, or neither.
There’s a reason everything is so vague and nothing can be pinned down on anyone: All this speculation about who did what is just a ruse to throw us off the trail, to lead us away from the truth, which is that this song is not about anybody, but about the streets of San Francisco themselves.
Consider Cyril, and Eddy, and Montgomery. They are characters in the narrative, yes, but they are also familiar San Francisco street names, and this is no accident. Montgomery is one of San Francisco’s best-known and most central thoroughfares. It is named after John Montgomery, the U.S. army officer from the East Coast who presided over the hoisting of the American flag above the newly conquered territory of California in 1846. He was certainly a real character, but his tenure in San Francisco was brief and scandal-free.
We all know guys named Eddie, but how many of them spell it “Eddy,” with a -y? It’s a highly unlikely spelling for a first name, yet San Franciscans will instantly recognize Eddy as one of the great streets of the Tenderloin.
That leaves Cyril, a street that is hiding in plain sight. It’s not a widely known fact, but once Fifth Street crosses Market, it becomes Cyril Magnin Street and doglegs north two blocks before terminating at the intersection with O’Farrell (the street where the Mitchell Bros. Theater from “The Left Hand and the Right Hand” is found).
Cyril Magnin is the street that runs on the west end of the Powell St. BART plaza; it is the way you walk when you want to bypass the Powell Street crowds. Though not a brand-name street like Eddy and Montgomery, “Cyril” is an anonymously iconic San Francisco thoroughfare; it is the divide between the tourist zone and the Tenderloin.
If you’re still not convinced, consider this: In the verse, Cyril is rhymed with girl. If it were simply a matter of coming up with a masculine name to rhyme with girl, you’d have a much easier time with Merl, Burl, or Earl. Cyril must have been chosen for a reason.
That reason, I think, is self-evident. The streets themselves are the heroes in this song: Montgomery, Eddy, Jackson, Cyril, and even the name in the title track itself–yes, there is a John Street; it’s exactly one block long and sits at the edge of Chinatown. It fits into our map perfectly.
Never mind my preamble about the Avenues and South of Market. “Who Shot John” is a people’s map of downtown San Francisco, reminding us future “last beatniks” that no matter how expensive San Francisco becomes, the best things in the city are still free. That’s because the best things are the long walks awaiting you in all quarters, especially historic San Francisco. Every one of these “Who Shot John” streets can be accessed in one single stroll from Powell Street BART, up over Nob Hill, and down past Montgomery.
This really is the people’s tour of San Francisco because it requires no special training, equipment or knowledge, just a poet’s compass and a free afternoon. Get off at Powell Street BART and find the northwest corner of the BART plaza so that the cable car turnaround is a block behind you and the Tenderloin is straight ahead. You are standing at the corner of Eddy and Cyril.
Head north for twelve blocks up and over Nob Hill, using the Powell Street cable car if you prefer. When you reach Jackson you can think about heading downhill, or you can go another two blocks (crossing the one-block long John Street) and arrive at the portal to the Broadway Tunnel.
Turn right on either street and you will head down into Chinatown, North Beach, the Financial District, Jackson Square and what’s left of the Barbary Coast before you find yourself spat back out onto Market Street down by the Embarcadero. When it’s all over, you will be a changed person, and you might just end up knowing who shot John.