ANTIOCH -- Garlic chicken. Potato salad. Macaroni salad.
That first meal after 36 years behind bars was as good as a gold album for Rick Stevens.
"Real food," he said. "In the pen, we call it fuel. That's all it was. Fuel, not food."
Today is the six-month anniversary of Stevens' freedom, his parole signed off by Gov. Jerry Brown after seemingly endless rejections by the state parole board.
It was half his life ago that the former lead vocalist for "Tower of Power" was convicted of one count of manslaughter and two counts of murder after a drug deal horribly bad.
Only the Supreme Court's decision eliminating the death sentence in California saved Stevens, his punishment commuted to seven to life.
On the inside, it was his status as singer for the Oakland funk group that kept him alive, said Stevens, the smooth voice behind "You're Still a Young Man."
Because of the case's publicity -- the Seattle Times called it one of history's Top 11 Most Notorious Rock 'n' Roll Crimes -- "everyone knew I was coming" when Stevens arrived in prison.
"Music served me well," Stevens said. "It was a blessing. I could walk among the Crips, the Bloods, the Nortenos, the Skinheads, bikers."
Not that Stevens was impervious to those who may not have been one of his devoted fans.
"I've had my back up against the wall. In prison, you might find yourself in a cell with a guy who is a complete a-hole," Stevens said. "You don't sleep until you ask the guards if it's cool. Sometimes you have to ask for a 'cell swap.' A lot of times, that happened."
Stevens said he not only deserved the conviction, but the original death sentence.
"Absolutely, he said. "It was fair. The jury found me guilty. I was ready for the gas chamber. I said to them, 'I know this was not an easy decision for a lot of you who felt I deserved it. I have no ill will toward you. God bless you all. Thank you.'"
Stevens talked by phone earlier this week, continuing his transition to freedom in Antioch where he lives with his oldest son. Stevens makes his first publicized appearance Thursday in San Francisco, delivering his trademark song on behalf of autism awareness and The Voices of Latin Rock concert at Bimbo's.
Stevens is a long-time friend of the event's other founder, Bernie Gonzales, whose 12-year-old son has autism. The event, coordinated by Vallejo residents Jeff Trager and Ron Sansoe, should show that Stevens still has the pipes, Trager said.
"Rick did his time. And now he's back singing one of the most requested Tower of Power songs in the group's 40 years," Trager said.
Emilio Castillo, the co-founder and still-leader of TOP, said in 2002 that Stevens "was one of the greatest singers that ever lived. If it hadn't been for the drugs, he'd have been a star."
Though Stevens was a few years removed from departing Tower when the murders occurred, his former colleagues were still stunned when the shootings went down, Castillo said this week from his Arizona home.
"We were all in total shock," Castillo said. "All of us were hanging out with some pretty heavy hitters in the drug scene, so stuff like that could happen at any time."Stevens served time in San Quentin, Vacaville, Folsom, and the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo. He did his last 21 years at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione.
Stevens read to pass the time. The Bible. The torah. The Koran. Daily newspapers. And watched PBS.
"It was an education," he said. "Some people study at Penn State. I studied at the state pen."
As the warden's assistant at Folsom and "quasi counselor" for other inmates, Stevens had a leash few prisoners had, much like Tim Robbins' character in "The Shawshank Redemption."
"I saw it with a bunch of guys in the penitentiary," said Stevens, incarcerated only a short time when he saw the film. "It was an eye-opening experience. You make the wrong move or say the wrong thing and you can get your head taken off."
The film, Stevens said, "was on the money. There is just as much stupid stuff going on in prison as here (in freedom)."
Castillo and other Tower players reunited with Stevens at a Sacramento recording studio a few months after the singer's release.
"Really emotional," Castillo said. "He was very apologetic and I just told him that I was glad he was OK."
Castillo, as a born-again Christian, said he was "personally overwhelmed by the power of God."
Castillo last spoke with Stevens in 2008 in prison.
"I was trying to get him a special leave to come and participate in our 40th anniversary DVD, but the prison wouldn't allow it," Castillo said.
Stevens said his 10 children from four marriages were never angry or bitter with their father.
"Unconditional love," Stevens said. "They saw the news and read the papers. I was always vocal about what happened."
Perhaps the toughest part of incarceration was quitting drugs cold turkey when Stevens first arrived. After three weeks, he was able to eat a candy bar and keep water down. He started working out. He entered prison life at 150 pounds on his 5-foot-9 frame and emerged 36 years later a solid 170.
Still, "you always had to be aware," Stevens said. "Always look behind you."
A movie about his life story is in the works by a Hollywood producer, with Terrence Howard possibly in the lead role, Stevens said.
For now, he's looking to start a new band, new recording career, and a new life.
"I'd like another shot at the golden ring," he said. "One more gold record, one more platinum."
"Rick is a really talented singer with a great presence and he has an extremely unique story, so I think the sky's the limit," Castillo said.
No matter how big a movie about his life could be or how well his music career recovers, Stevens said he'll never erase what he did or its memory.
"I'm sorry for what I did," he said. "I'll always remember it and it will always be with me."
One can't change history, Stevens said.
"It's all brought me back to this day," he said, laughing, "I'm still a young man."
What: Voices of Latin Rock for autism awareness
Who: Tierra, Generation, Esmerald, Puro Bandio, Dakila, and special guest Rick Stevens
When: 7 p.m. Jan. 24
Where: Bimbo's, 1025 Columbus Ave., San Francisco
Details: 415-285-7719 or www.latinrockinc.net
Cost: $10 students and seniors; $12 general