Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Rick Johnson, 1950 - 2006

A few days ago, I told you a little bit about a writer named Rick Johnson. Tremendously talented, woefully underappreciated, he passed away last year at the age of 56, having spent the greater part of the past 25 years managing a smoke shop and news stand in Macomb, Illinois, rather than raking in the mad bucks he should have been getting for his literary efforts.

I have an old issue of CREEM magazine in front of me. The cover date is October 1979. Rick Johnson is prominently featured in the issue. As a tribute to this man whose writing I so greatly enjoyed, I’m going to fill this space with a few bits and pieces of his stuff from that issue.

(I suspect that 28-year-old issues of now-defunct magazines are somewhat in the public domain. If this is not the case, I apologize to those who own the words and promise you that all proceeds arising from the publication of this piece will gladly be transferred into your hands upon notification of your displeasure. The money you’ll spend on postage to notify me will probably be more than you’ll get back, though, so you might want to weigh your options.)

CREEM was like most magazines, in that it had full-length pieces covering multiple pages as well as shorter bits of filler. Luckily for my purposes here, the filler was usually credited. Here’s one that Johnson wrote.

NEW YORK – In yet another move designed to keep rock writers from going overboard in their criticism of various artists, Scripps-Howard Newspapers have compiled a list of eighty-nine “red flag” words that “used innocently or truthfully, can lead to a libel suit.”

For example, if one were to refer to Carly Simon as a PROFITEERING STOOL PIGEON, Peter Frampton as a FASCIST MONEY GOUGER, Roy Thomas Baker as an INCOMPETENT ADULTERER OF PRODUCTS or Clive Davis as a SCANDAL-MONGERING, PRICE-CUTTING, ATHEISTIC KEEPER OF A DISORDERLY HOUSE, you could not only be sued for libel, but they’ll take away your black/red/yellow typewriter ribbon as well.

However, if you simply refer to these people as STUPID ASSHOLES, you’re in the clear!

From a review of PRIME TIME SUNDAY, a then-new show on NBC:

PRIME TIME SUNDAY, NBC’s latest vehicle for Tom “I-Leap-Through-The-Screen” Snyder and his Kama Sutra eyebrows, is without a doubt the worst new program to hit the screen since ALL STAR SECRETS. With all the flow of a local news show experiencing technical difficulties during the hog quotations, Snyder leads a bumbling crew of network second-stringers through a poky dodo maze of disconnected live interviews, features that bombed in PARADE four years ago and trademark Snyder ad-libs that carry the approximate humor value of comfortable driving weather.

A review of Queen’s latest album at the time, LIVE KILLERS:

The first thing people will want to know about Queen is: can they reproduce their “sound” in person? Well sure, just give that great moment in wiggle-voice, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a spin. Freddie starts it off by singing the opening lines and then the band leaves the stage and puts on the actual studio recording for the audience to figure out. The liner notes call this a “typically uncompromising” move on their part. My own notes call this “the biggest heap of bullshit since that truck full of moo overturned on the highway.”

The second thing folks want to know about Queen is: why does the rest of the band put up with Freddie and his pigeon-butt? Good question, candy ass, but hell, take a gander at co-boss Brian May. If Truman Capote were God, Freddie and Brian would be his salt and pepper shakers.

The third thing congressional fact-finding committees are currently investigating is: what are the words that are bleeped out of the intro to “Death On Two Legs?” Freddie goes, “This is about a (BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP) …” What do you think he said? This is about a CHICKEN-HAIRED MEMBER OF THE ROLLING STONES? This is about a MOVING EXPERIENCE I ONCE HAD IN A GARDEN HOSE SHOWROOM? Or possibly, this is about a MINUTE AND A HALF?


The last thing anybody should WANT to know about Queen is this: should I spend my hard-earned pimping money on this double album, or save it for something I can really use, like a dead weasel?

Have the weasel gift-wrapped.

Finally, I give you excerpts from the cover story written by Johnson, IS HEAVY METAL DEAD? (Subtitle: Last Drum Solo at the Power Chord Corral)

As hard as it may be to believe at this late date (check your calendar), some cricket dicks still don’t have the slightest clue as to what heavy metal is, much less what it’s ALL ABOUT. Like all other dumb labels for music (New Wave, Southern Rock, $7.98) it’s nearly impossible to define and none of the groups ever really fits the definition anyway. So the next time somebody stops you on the street and asks, “Hey, Bernice, what IS Heavy Metal?” it’s generally just best to say that Ted Nugent IS and Horslips ISN’T; “Whole Lotta Love” IS and “Mandy” – well, if it gets that far, just tell ‘em to go stick their ear to a lawn mower and LISTEN.

Heavy Metal is rock ‘n’ roll that gives your ears the urge to make voodoo dolls out of your stereo speakers. It’s as LOUD as having an eviction notice nailed to your forehead, as SCREECHY as a rusty craniotomy saw in the hands of Moe and so HEAVY that it can sometimes only be listened to while curled into a modified gagging dolphin position. Add some lyrics that are as memorable as your most unforgettable blackout and production values that vary between thin and asleep-at-the-wheel, and you achieve a certain transcendental cruddiness that can make grown men and women jump up on aluminum folding chairs and holler IN-A-GADDA-DA-VIDA!!

[He goes on to explain the form, and its charms, a bit more. Then he bemoans the fact that it’s becoming harder and harder to find the good stuff. We pick it up as he looks at individual performers or groups and calculates the chances of their being able to produce anything worth listening to in the future.]


... made the unfortunate mistake of releasing THE perfect HM album, numero II, which had more steaming chunks of white-hot metal than a burning stove dump. After this stigmatizing flash of dumdum genius, there truly was no place to go but downhill, a task they engaged upon with characteristic zeal. Lately, the lemon grower’s delight have made an effort at some basic home improvements, resulting in music nearly as stimulating as a tire fire. This is one hot air device that’s never gonna leave the ground again, particularly since old Crisco lungs sounds like he’s singing through a fish tank filter.


... they’re so damn pedestrian I’m surprised they don’t wear WALK/DON’T WALK signs around their necks. Catch ‘em live sometime and you too can experience the emotions of a white line on pavement.


... a rhythm section as heavy as a narcoleptic five-year-old tapping on a tenement banister with a chicken bone…


... have lately speeded up their unpartitioned mung heaps in a senseless effort to “get with it.” Forget it, chumps, you were always at least 40 m.p.h. BEHIND IT and that’s why you were great. Since their material is the very epitome of a Grave Disservice, I’d go along with the guy on FLASH GORDON who complained to the king of the Clay People, “I’m sick and tired of gettin’ pushed around by a bunch of mudpies.”


I think Paul Rodgers’ old band Free played the leading role in dead-ending the HM approach, with their slowed-down hay rotters that dribbled along like blood exiting the nose of an O.D.ing downer freak. BadCo seams intent on carrying on that tradition with all the imagination of a slipcover. Their latest LP, DESOLATION ANGELS, does show signs of life, but then so does my dead underwear pile.


Once a thundering pieplate full of swandive bass throbs and back-projected keyboards so cheesy that the Heep were named The Dairy Farmers’ Friend, this group has since been reduced to Ken Hensley’s plaything. I wish somebody’d get him some Colorforms or something before he breaks Rod Stewart's record for most consecutive indistinguishable LPs.


Is this now, or was it ever, an actual group? Ronnie M. has his hot dog in so many campfires you never know what to expect… I wish Mr. Montrose would either pick the crud out of his teeth or stop blocking the mirror.


… they make SLADE look like JEOPARDY champs…


… Plagued by personnel shake-ups, untimely illnesses and a disturbing trend toward allowing saxophone players near their studio, I’m not sure whether to go fluff up the pillow on their deathbed or hang in there and wait for Phil Lynott to bring the snakes BACK to Ireland.


… make Black Sabbath sound like nerf Heavy Metal. Great stuff, comparable to cleaning out a septic tank with a toothbrush.


Used up all their material on two fine early LPs (LOUD ‘N’ PROUD, HAIR OF THE DOG) and have been dragging Riff River ever since for new bodies.


Though originally labeled as the Canadian Led Zep (heaven forbid), Rush cranked out a couple goodies before they turned to mini-series about futuristic Alex Trebek types. It’s also hard to ignore the voice of Geddy Lee which sounds like snip ‘n’ fix time at the kennel.


One of the very few promising new practitioners of slash and burn agriculture… The Netherlands-bred Van Halen brothers somehow managed to avoid the Dutch national character (twerpyness) and singer David Roth howls like he left something stuck in a dike as well.


Sometimes referred to as the poor man’s Blue Oyster Cult, these limeheads gun their acid tractors faster and louder, but with all the imagination of Naval Jelly. Casper the Friendly Ghost in leatherette.


... both their albums sound like they were recorded in a fire hydrant.


Their vocals recapitulate the history of minor mouth pain…


Some of their earlier stuff briefly filled the Led Zep gap, but their last couple of albums packed all the wallop of a wet tea bag. Excellent background music for looking over wallpaper samples…

There will never be a collection of Rick Johnson’s stuff published – unless I hit some sort of mega-lottery. It’s a shame, really. He had a unique voice, and some more famous writers – most notably Dave Barry – cited him as a major influence.

Rest in peace, Rick. I think that, outside of Twain, you may have made me laugh out loud more often than any other writer during my teen years. Thanks, man.


Suldog said...

I had to do some minor editing on this piece and, in so doing, I lost a comment made by Mushy. Here it is, though, saved from my e-mail!


"Wow, that was interesting stuff. I never read the mag, but now wish I had. Very honest, and sometimes truthful impressions of the bands.

Thanks for taking the time to put all that together.

Kinda puts my little "Friday Night Blues" pieces to shame!"


(Never say I don't put in the extra effort here...)

Suldog said...

By the way, "Mushy" is linked over on the left. You should visit him. He's an interesting fellow.

tabs4959 said...

I love the line about having the weasel gift wrapped. I have looked for this piece for a long time. I was starting to believe that I had just imagined reading the line in the past. Thanks for some funny stuff!!

Jeffrey Morgan said...

Thanks for the very nice--and much deserved--tribute to Reek; he was one of the great ones.

Jeffrey Morgan

kevin e. Kral said...

he hoots, but he knows not whereof he hooteth. I had no idea that Rick Johnson was no longer with us. I owe him so much; I could never begin to thank him adequately for all the joy he brought into my life. Please send me a postcard and tell me where he is interred or memorialized, so I can pay my respects - I live near Macomb, but in Iowa. Kevin Kral, 2603 Falbrook Dr. NE, Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52402 (319)202 0758. Thanks; I know you understand.

Jim Kerrigan, Fort Worth, Texas said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I've been trying to find the author of the Freddie and Brian as Truman Capote's salt and pepper shakers for years. One of the best lines in the history of rick journalism. I was wondering if it was Lester Bangs, but St. Lester gets enough props, so I'm glad it was the mighty Rick Johnson, so I can give him full (if sadly posthumous)credit. I miss CREEM magazine like mad. Every time I make the mistake of picking up a Rolling Stone, I thank God (or Truman Capote) that I had CREEM in my youth...

Tommy Mambo said...

Rick Johnson was the heir apparent to Lester Bangs, but the demise of the rock and roll music business guaranteed him a one way ticket to Palookaville.

RIP Rick, loved your stuff.

-Tommy Mambo

Anonymous said...

I read the Heavy Metal piece when it came out and the line about the narcoleptic five-year-old has stuck with me lo these 34 years. (I have passed it as my own on several occasions) So sorry to hear of his passing, a true talent.

Anonymous said...

Are these snippets from the 1st Creem Heavy Metal special from 1981? If so, I would REALLY love a photocopied copy of this entire article; I bought the magazine when it first came out, and it mistakenly got misplaced; any help would be greatly appreciated.

Patrick Murphy

Anonymous said...

RIP Ranger Rick..........for so many of my teenage years I eagerly awaited your CREEM contributions..........you never did disappoint. My biggest regret is that I did not make a stronger effort to meet you in the late 80's, on one of my Macomb record store crawls. A personal fave is your CREEM Lil Debbie piece. Sooooooooooooooooooooooooo funny!!!! If anyone can ever put all your writings in an anthology, I will be first in like to buy it. With your passing, heaven got a whole lot funnier!!

Anonymous said...

Normal kids in my school wanted to grow up to be lawyers, doctors, teachers...my best friend and I got ourselves onto the high school newspaper staff because we wanted to grow up and be Rick Johnson and J Kordosh. That's pretty weird for girls, but still we persevered. And failed. But while we tried, it sure was fun. RIP Rick Johnson.

Mike in Ohio said...

Lester Bangs, blah blah. Dave Marsh, big fucking deal. To me, Rick Johnson made Creem the greatest rock magazine that ever was, or ever will be. RIP, Rick.