RIP Jesse Morris — “Punk Rock Johnny Cash”

Update: A benefit concert and radio tribute are planned for this Friday, Nov. 11, and Sunday, Nov. 13. Details.

We’re saddened to get word that Jesse Morris, whom you may know as “Punk Rock Johnny Cash” and one of the most beloved BART buskers, died on Sunday. This morning, our own Ed Casey alerted us that friends and fans on Reddit and Facebook have been posting tributes to Jesse. We also heard from several of Jesse’s friends about the sad news.

Many of you have seen Jesse performing at BART — we first wrote about Jesse in 2009 on BART Diaries. Jesse was interviewed by BART.gov and talked about why he likes playing in BART stations:

“The acoustics are good down here, the people are friendly,” he says. “They stop and listen, they tip, they smile … I have a good time down here.”

Although Morris has a night job at a bar, and writes and plays original material with his band, Jesse and the Man Cougars, he keeps coming back to play at BART.

“I consider it a job,” he says. “Just like some people might work in an office, I work at the station entertaining people. I get to do what I love, and I can make a living at it.”

SFGate had just written about Jesse and his band, Jesse Morris and the Man Cougars, this January:

How did you name your band?
Jesse came to rehearsal and teased the “old guys” for having young, beautiful girlfriends, saying, “You guys are like a bunch of man cougars.” And the name stuck.

Photographer Bill Cendak shared this photograph of Jesse with us, taken at a band practice at Lennon Studios on Nov. 2, 2011. Jesse Morris and the Man Cougars were due to play at the Uptown this Friday. Cendak has been photographing Jesse Morris and the Man Cougars ever since the band started.


Photo by Bill Cendak

Jesse’s presence made a big impression on photographer Troy Holden, who pointed us to this portrait of Jesse at the 24th Street BART station.

“I see this fellow once each week playing Johnny Cash cover tunes. When I asked him if I could take his portrait, he flipped me off. Not until later did his gesture register with me.”

Jesse was referencing this iconic photo of Johnny Cash, taken in 1969 during his San Quentin performance.

Reader Jenner sent us a photo of Jesse and the Man Cougars at Bender’s earlier this year.

MC #1

Here’s an older photo of Jesse at the Montgomery BART station.

my johnny cash bart guy...
Photo by fiveinchpixie

If you are a friend, family, or fan of Jesse Morris, we would like to hear from you. Please comment or email us at muni.diaries.sf@gmail.com and help us honor a great musician who brought light to our daily transit experience.

77 comments

  • Max

    He brightened my morning countless times. I sometimes asked him to play some obscure songs that i thought he wouldn’t know. He always knew them. What a talent. While obviously troubled, he channeled his life into improving all of us commuter’s boring days. I am deeply moved by his passing. He was an artist through and through and will be missed by thousands.

    • K

      this is very sad. i enjoyed many a morning listening to that punk cowboy sing. and sing he could. i never listened to johnny cash. but loved hearing jessie on my way to work singing Folsom Prison Blues….crusty, punk’d out after a long nite bender. beautiful voice. his name is jessie. i will miss him.

  • That’s really sad, he was a talented guy.

    Any word on how he died?

  • Ami

    I was a new buddy to Jesse after being musically enamored of him as he sang to people outside the Independent several years ago. He would pop up regularly at different BART stops all over the Bay Area. More recently, he became a fixture at 24th street station and I decided I finally had to befriend this guy. He had realized that he might be able to make a real go at this Johnny Cash thing (he was already in the Man Cougars), and just released a CD to that effect.

    Jesse had a velvety, booming voice that welcomed reticent BART riders en route to work down deep into the subway station. You’d hear his voice, and you could not avoid a smile. You would be disappointed to discover a poor substitute attempting to entertain on Jesse’s “days off.”

    From what I’ve learned from his vast network of friends and loved ones is that Jesse struggled throughout his lifetime with depression, and how f-ing serious and debilitating it can be. He left us on his birthday this past Sunday of his own hand.

  • Jake

    For the past four years, I looked forward to seeing Jesse either at the BART station where I got on or where I got off. When my Mom was dying from cancer, I bought her one of Jesse’s CDs, She loved Johnny Cash, and she loved SF, and he was kind of a bit of both.

    I talked to him about performing at a party I was going to have, but the party never happened. The last time I saw him, he said “Let’s go to Oakland and get drunk!” I told him I’d meet him after work, but I couldn’t because I had to work so late.

    Damn it.

  • Yatima

    Heartbroken. I loved hearing him.

  • Brooke

    this comes as very sad news to me. jesse always made me smile and his voice was amazing. i bought his CD last year and am so glad i did. rest in peace jesse and thank you for brightening countless days!

  • Mark

    I have his CD but never played it
    Saw him often at 24/BART
    Wanted to go see him somewhere else
    May have told you about him
    He was just a kid
    Sounded great!
    Life is transient
    Do it while you can

  • What a bummer. I hadn’t gotten up the nerve to talk to him yet, but thought he was fantastic. Amazingly talented.

  • When my sister turned 40 a few years ago my present to her was to call or text her 40 times. I gave Punk Rock Johnny Cash $10 to sing happy birthday and recorded it on my phone. I’m going to be up all night looking for it on my computer. I’ll be sure to post it when I do find it.

  • silvi

    i’m so sad to hear this amazing johnny cash bart crooner has died. it always made my day better to hear him sing. one comment says he suffered from depression and committed suicide. i don’t know if that’s true, but i do know it’s so so so important to talk about depression and mental health, to listen, to pay attention, to talk, to sometimes ask hard questions, and to be a friend, even if it’s just for a moment, even if it’s with a stranger. if you or someone you know needs support, reach out. if you suspect someone’s having a hard time, ask them. if you don’t have someone you feel you can trust, there are people who want to talk to you. really. there are people who care, even if you don’t. suicide prevention lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK. http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org there’s too much silence and shame around depression and suicide. too many people are suffering. let’s end the silence now.

    • Sharon

      Lost my Dad to suicide. He never reached out for help and no one saw the clues. It’s just like having cancer, it’s a disease and needs to be treated. So sad to hear about Jesse’s passing.

    • Brian

      God Bless Jesse and all of the indavidual people like myself who listened to his music. Ill never lose the songs. Thankyou Jesse for the many many awsome mornings. Love And Respect. Brian Ottawa Ontario Canada.

  • S.A.

    I don’t ride Bart often so I rarely saw him. But I’m so glad the last time I did (just slightly late on the way to the airport) I tossed some money in and told him I much I enjoyed him. Glad I did.

  • A couple thoughts on the guy:

    1. I think at this point in my life, I’ve heard his cover of “Ring of Fire” more than the original.

    2. When I heard him covering “Hurt” once at the 16th Mission station I was deeply confused for a moment — then I remembered that in his later years, Cash had done a bunch of covers, including “Hurt.” There’s something amusing about doing a cover of a cover.

  • It was like Johnny Cash came back!I met Jesse at the bart station a few years back and got his number which still exists in my phone to ask him to play a show with us (THE HOOKS)we were big fans of his and Johnny’s i guess now threre jammin together.
    R.I.P.
    You will be missed,i will have to busk a tune or two for you in your memory.

  • I used to take BART to work from 24th street. I hated my job, but the days weren’t so bad when I’d get to hear Jesse performing on my way into the station.

    I walked past Jesse on the street at 16th & Mission about a week ago. Such a tragedy that we’re here one day and gone the next.

    I wish I could’ve heard him one last time.

  • I met Jesse 7 years ago. He was one of few nice guys at the Hazmat and Slaughter House. We always ran into each other at the most random places in the bay – grocery stores in Oakland, streets of SF, buses in Concord… He meant the world to me and I let him know just last week, which makes this all the more awful. His talent, his fucking personality, his friendliness and genuine personality…. you don’t find that often. I’ve met hundred of people in the past 7 years and most I could give two shits if they passed just cuz we didnt connect. But Jesse was different; he was an amazing and sweet and fun guy. I am so pissed he is gone.

  • BernalDweller

    My trip down the stairs/escalator at 24th/Mission was always a little brighter when I saw this young man by the BART gates. I’m really saddened to hear he is gone. He was truly talented.

  • Dan Robinson

    I was always amazed by Jesse’s voice and he always made me happy about my city and even happy to be going to work in the morning. Strangely, yesterday, when I didn’t see him at 24th, I saw a female busker playing Folsom Prison Blues at Embarcadero station. I tipped her for giving me my fix on Jesse’s day off.

    I hope Jesse knew how many people truly appreciated his talent and his generosity in sharing his music with us.

  • cjonesplay

    I’m another person who relied on Jesse every Friday morning on my way to work. I bought his CD a couple of months ago and he disappeared for a while. Then, out of nowhere I saw him last Thursday when I was having a terrible day. I passed by him on Valencia and he was singing “Sunday Morning Coming Down”. Tears came to my eyes as I dropped him a dollar, but he couldn’t have known how much the sound of his voice meant to me at that moment.

    The last time I saw him was on Friday AM 24th BART, when he sang “Folsom Prison Blues”, and I was so glad he was back. Now I can’t believe he is gone, and I just wish he could have known how much people like me appreciated his awesome voice. I’ll miss you, Jesse.

  • HeyRed

    sigh. i’ve dealt with depression, often that kind of debilitating, for most of my life. i’ve learned how to keep mine from sinking into the basement, but it still affects my daily life. it’s especially difficult for me to wake up and turn my power of positive thinking to ON in the morning. each time i saw Jesse on my way to the train (me usually unintentionally glowering, him ROCKING OUT!), it snapped me right out of my stupid moods and made me recall why i love where i live, and how many good people are in my life, and that “everything is really just fine”.

    ugh. folks, it never needs to come to this. REACH OUT. Jesse, i’m so sorry it got so bad in your noggin. i wish you knew how many people appreciated you, and that it could have maybe sunk in and helped at least a little. rest in peace.

  • Kdub

    A few years ago, he played at our wedding. Below is the Yelp review I wrote after that day. He was an amazing guy.

    _____

    Dude, are you fucking kidding me? One of the reasons I pay $1,900 a month to live in a dark, dank apartment in this town is because we have the Johnny Cash Guy.

    Please allow me to regale you with my unique Johnny Cash Guy story.

    Nearly three years ago, I was drunk at the Zeitgeist. This wouldn’t be worth any sort of special mention since I’ve drunk at the Zeitgeist a lot. But on this particular night, I was sobbing into my Jack n’ Coke. I’d just been dumped by some chick and was feeling mighty sorry for myself. My friends had selflessly volunteered to get drunk with me so I wouldn’t have to drink alone. They give and they give, non?

    So anywhore, many Jack n’ Cokes are consumed and some weird, drunken, ill-advised friend-making-out occurred. I ended up making out with this friend of mine and it was hot and electric and–my memory is fuzzy here–but apparently, when we pulled away, I looked at her and said “Cool, we just made out while Johnny Cash is playing on the jukebox!”

    Bear with me people, this is a sweet story.

    A year and a half later, that friend got down on one knee and asked me to be her wife. Complete with the diamond ring and everything. We sorta lollygagged on the whole wedding planning tip though until the Prop 8 thing lit a fire under our asses.

    One of the things my wife-to-be was pissed about is how we didn’t have “a song.” She complained that with every other boy/girlfriend I’d ever had, I had songs that were “our songs” but that she and I didn’t have a song. Was I just lazy? Did I love her less than the others? (None of the above. It’s just that, at 38, one starts to think less about having a song and more about having a suspicious mole removed.)

    Okay, so yeah. One day I’m heading to the Old Nine to Five when I get to the 24th Street BART Station and heard the familiar strains of the The Johnny Cash Guy. Seriously, that dude can make even going to work hurt a little less. Then, on the escalator heading down into the bowels of the city, INSPIRATION.

    I turn around and catch him between songs. I hurriedly explain the above story and he sorta shrugs and gives me Intimidating Rocker Look #984 that says “You’re cutting into my play time.” So I finish up and tell him I want him to come play at my wedding. He shrugs and gives me his number.

    So procrastinate on calling him (see Intimidating Rocker Look above), but finally I do. I remind him of who I am, and he’s nice as fucking pie. We shoot the shit for a while and nail down the time and date and address. I explain to him that I just want him to play ONE song and one song only. I’ll happily pay him for the entire hour, but I just need one song. And I’m so fucking excited I’m about to wet myself and I think there’s no way I’m gonna be able to keep it from my wife-to-be for two whole weeks.

    Except that I do.

    An hour before the ceremony, she pulls me aside and says “I have a wedding present for you. Apparently we’re supposed to get each other presents.” She hands me a box, in which is a beautiful little flask, on which she has engraved “You’re My Girl.” I get all teary then say “But I didn’t get you anything. I’m sorry!” She pets me and says “It’s okay.”

    Cut to the ceremony, which was funny and moving and touching and wonderful and everyone wept. Our friend Cindy married us, and she rocked it. She pronounced us wife and wife and told us we could kiss.

    As we were finishing our kiss, the strains of “I Walk the Line” could be heard in the distance. Slowly they got stronger and louder. She looked at me with a weird look, and I said “This is MY wedding present to you.”

    And out comes Jesse, strumming his guitar, voice as bold and brash as the Man in Black himself, serenading me and my brand-new wife, singing a song about love so true and about a willingness to be everything your partner needs you to be, a willingness to be a stand-up dude.

    So imagine that, I managed to give her a song to call “ours” AND the Johnny Cash Guy all in the same afternoon and on our wedding, no less. Big fuckin’ THANKS to Jesse for being a part of our day and making me look like a rockstar in my new wife’s eyes. Thanks again, man. You are truly as much of a stand-up dude as Cash himself.

    *** If you wanna book him, send me a message and I’ll send you his number.

    • james geppert

      lovely story. thank you so much for sharing, it totally made me cry in a good way.

    • jeff

      Kdub,
      Thank you for your story and congratulations on knocking it out of the park on your wedding present. Celebrating our lucky #12 July 2nd and always wanted Jesse to play for us as he did for you two. Looked him up today thinking he must be on tour and am so sad to read everything here. So glad to have his CD and so glad to hear your story. SAD but so happy for you and your wife.
      Best wishes.

      Jeff

  • wretched ryan

    i had the great plesure of being jesses friend,and band mate in HEP.SI for many years.he was so talented and died way to young.rock and roll has lost a great comrad!

  • Sam

    I think this is so very sad, It seems the greatest people are always plagued with addiction and/or depression. A great talent that will be missed. Thanks for all you did when you were here Jesse.. And it was a lot.

  • Neil

    Before our daughter was born we wanted to have a non-baby-shower bash, so we organized what we called the “Pre-Birthday Party”. There in our sunny Bernal back yard, we gathered with our closest friends and family and celebrated the upcoming arrival of our kid. My wife wanted to make it more than a usual food/drink/hang, and wanted to share one of her favorite kinds of music with our girl while in utero. She simply *had* to have Jesse play at our party. As expected, he was terrific, and it made the occasion so memorable. Whenever we talk about that party with people who were there, it is always Jesse that people remember. What a wonderful part he played in the process of celebrating the arrival of our beautiful girl. We will always appreciate him for that.

  • Delilah

    How many people can say they made someone look forward to a BART ride? Two years ago I had to take BART regularly to a soul-sucking job that made me question my faith in humanity. One day, taking the escalator down to the 16th St station, I heard someone playing Johnny on what I thought was a boom box. It was actually this fella. He was so perfect and so sweet, singing Delia’s Gone, one of my faves. His music gave me something to look forward to and actually made me sad when I quit that hateful job and knew I wouldn’t see him again.

  • how heartrending. on his birthday..he will truly be missed….

  • So sad. He seemed like such a great guy. I talked with him a few times when he was working the door at Mini Bar, and he was always real friendly and genuine. Much love to his friends and family.

  • Danielle

    Jesse was a good friend of mine. I met him four years ago, he was busking at Montgomery BART, and I was working at the Peets Coffee in the station. I remember screwing up the nerve to go talk to him, and telling him how much his performance of Cash and Ramones songs had made my day. I knew then that we had to be friends, because he was so exceptional. In the last four years i’ve known him and loved him through good times and bad. Jesse was the most talented, charismatic, raccous, funny, charming, warm and wonderful person. He became one of my dearest friends, and his magnetic personality drew all of my other friends to him. I found out yesterday morning of his passing through a friend. We both left our respective jobs for the day and wandered downtown together for a few hours, grieving him. For anyone that only knew him in passing, he was special. Tremendous. He will be missed is an understatement. He touched my life and I can only say that I am grateful to have known him and loved him.

    • Lewis

      I’m a journalist writing a article on Jesse and his passing. I’d love to talk to you more about him, and if you could drop me an email, we could go from there. LewisWolfeOnline AT gmail.com

    • james geppert

      hey sweetie, it’s neighbor james. i haven’t seen u n ages. i of course had no idea u knew jesse. hope u r ok. so sorry 4 your loss & hope 2 c u soon.

  • Ami Lawless

    … everyone that knew him/or had seen him perform is in morning right now. Jesse was a guy I am honored to have called friend. On my 45th b-day party at Sub/Mission this past July him & I did a duet of Folsom Blues…it was magical. Although I am beyond pissed at him for taking his own life, I know that he is at peace and no longer in pain. We’ll meet again Jesse and when we do- I’m gonna kick yr arse dude.
    Also there is a benefit show planned for his family/to help with expenses this Friday November 11th at the Uptown in Oakland. please help spread the word. Cheers y’all!

  • Todd

    I am so saddened to hear this, and I’ll miss his singing echoing throughout the local BART station. Mornings will just not be the same without him.

  • jason

    for my first year and a half in san francisco i would take the 24th st bart to work in the mornings. although he was not always there, it was always a good start to the day when i’d be lugging my bike down the stairs and i’d hear johnny cash in the distance. i remember seeing him on the bus once, guitar case in hand on his way to a show, and hitting on a girl from los angeles. i thought to myself, ‘hey, that’s the johnny cash guy, man he does a mean johnny cash.’ so sad that he is now gone. rip buddy.

  • csparson

    This is so awful. I hope that someone can get this thread to his family. I would love that they know what an impact he had on peoples lives.

    For me, going back to the days where he was big and had a pink mo-hawk, Jesse never played a song that I didn’t like, as far as I can remember.

    On Friday (11/4/2011), I saw him at the 24th Street Bart Station and told him I was happy that he had recorded the Ramones “The KKK Took My Baby Away” on his second CD. I told him that one of my happy memories was coming across him at the Embarcadero BART Station and hearing him singing that song, years ago. He started singing it right then and it made me feel special.

    I told him exactly what I would have wished I told him if I would have known he was going to kill himself in two days and he still did it. What do you do?

    I was always happy to see him and he always made me happy — for years now. This kills me but, I hope his family can find solace in it.

    I have both his solo recordings — my daughter knew who he was — I’m crying now.

    • eugenia

      I’m going to the Uptown Friday and will make sure to get this thread and the emails we’ve received to Jesse’s family. The outpouring of stories has just been heartbreaking and amazing.

  • Colin

    I did sound for them a few months back at the Riptide. He was a very nice person, and I’m shocked that he died. I wonder what the cause of death was.

    RIP, bud.

  • valdezzee

    Good bye my friend ill miss you

  • I am Jesse’s grandmother…I now live in So. Oregon, along with his mother, uncle and aunt. Needless to say we are all absolutely DEVASTATED by his death. He was much, much loved by all of us and his passing leaves a great big emptiness in our lives…I hope this pain goes away somewhat as time goes by. Jesse was always a happy little boy, music was his passion. When he was a teenager, he and I attended an AA meeting together (we shared this family disease) and he noticed a piano in the back of the room. When the meeting was over, Jesse went over to the piano and sat down, and started to play a happy tune, and I asked when in the world he had taken piano lessons….He said NEVER..he just knew how to play the piano. When he would visit me on occasion up here in Oregon, he would sit in the living room when I was busy in my office, and practice on the guitar, which he did daily….and all of a sudden, I would hear Classic Guitar, Latin Guitar…oh, such lovely, haunting music…He never took lessons here either, he just knew how to do it. Oh Jesse, WHY did you leave us????? I am really glad to read all your comments about this very special person…my grandson Jesse Morris.

    • Michelle Seymour

      I hope this tragedy is an eye opener for a family that needs to forgive each other for anything that may have happened in the past, as i am sure that is what Jesse would have wanted. not further drifting of people who obviously need each other, no matter where they are in life… I have seen this happen in other situations like this.

    • Michelle Seymour

      And i am very sorry for your loss, and your whole families loss. i had met him a few times and could see what a wonderful person he was. please know you your family is in my thoughts and prayers.

  • Anna Wrexxit

    I am brokenhearted after hearing about this. I knew Jesse (Jaundice, as he used to be called, lol) when he was in Hep.Si, and he was always the voice of reason, in a world full of chaos. At least to me, he was. This is a huge bummer. Will miss you. Unlike others, I’m not mad at you, dude. Depression is crippling, and I deal with it on a daily basis. I understand.

  • Octavia

    I understand too. I’ll never support or do what he did, but I *get* it. I hope you’d say the same…I wish he had been able to feel it that way.

  • Nathan Williams

    Oh God Jesse WHY???????

    im too fucking sad to write anything decent right now…

    I hugged him goodbye a few months ago
    and i was really worried about him.
    I called him and BEGGED him to come back to the people that care about him……he was isolating and not returning calls for months and months…

    I regret not going to his house and ringing his doorbell over and over to get him to come outside

    i regret not seeing his band play
    the only way i could talk to him anymore
    he would never return phone calls that last 2 years..

    I wish we could pass a law and force people
    into intervention(like an awesome spiritual jail)

    for like a year……..

    someday…..

    fuck jesse
    dude…….im so fucking sorry you hurt so bad dude..

    im so fucking sorry on so many levels

    you were so fucking beautiful man….

    you were so mature
    the advice you gave me regarding my girlfriend
    was like a crushing truth hammer….

    it tattooed an impression on me to be more honest
    and caring for her..

    GODDAMMIT JESSE!!!!!!!!!!!

    NOOOOOO!!!!!!

  • Chuck

    Helen – I too attended meetings with Jessie. It’s where we met a few years ago. At that point he had a no BS approach to recovery and was receptive.

    Though he has passed on, know that while he was here he helped others.

  • Michael

    stumbled on to a website that has videos, saw a video of Jesse, was very interested where he played so I googled his name to find out he is gone. truley sad, he really was awesome.

  • Tyler B

    I actually met Jesse when he was tending the door at the MiniBar on Divis. I smoke when I drink, and he would always be so nice, and charismatic when I was out there chatting with him. Sometimes playing a ukulele or on the off chance you caught him in a humorous mood, would do a Chris Farley impersonation that would have you in tears.

    Caught him at Benders with his band and he was amazing as well. Really too young and too nice of a guy to go. Rest in Peace Jesse, the world hardly knew ya’.

  • cathleen m

    fuck. i loved this kid.
    i called hom Johnny CLASH!

    i told him that and he chuckled.

    will you miss you… damn….

  • Cricket

    Met Jesse in Missouri. Sad news. The gang played for a small group of friends. Amazing! Loved It!
    In reading the posts I am deaply touched. Wish would have had a chance to know this man of such talent. Love n Light to family and friends and those who were touched by his presence.

  • mikey

    Helen-Jesse bugged me from time to time to play drums for him.Always working too much.Sorry Jesse.I think we got along because I was an older jaded musician and he was a younger jaded musician.
    Best wishes

  • Rindi

    I new jesse for over 6 years i also have many stories, i would be happy to share with you.

    Rindicornejo@yahoo.com

  • Rindi

    so sorry that last comment was supposed to be a reply to the jourlaist….

  • GlenBob

    Jesse was awesome and he turned the drudgery of the Bart commute into something special. He played Johnny Cash with such talent, respect, and love. I looked for him every day. This is so sad.

  • Jack

    I’ve recorded Jesse several times and put the recordings up on a blog. If you would like to hear the last song I recorded of him, well, I just put that up after hearing of his passing. Go to ontheflip-side [dot] blogspot [dot] com Thanks for the music and the kindness Jesse!

  • Sleppa

    For me it’s a stark case of not knowing how good something was until it has been removed. Now Jesse has been taken, or should I say he took himself away, and knowing what I did know about him, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
    Gonna miss you big guy.

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