Closing a chapter in the pages of rock history


April 16, 2006


Despite the many attempts to enshrine and preserve its history, popular music remains our most ephemeral art form: It's here, and then it's gone. But if pop eats itself at an amazingly rapid rate, pop-music journalism and criticism is swallowed, digested and regurgitated as landfill even more quickly.

There has never been a rock writer inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for example, and neither that institution's museum in Cleveland nor the high-tech Experience Music Project in Seattle has a comprehensive library. A handful of anthologies attempt to trace the history of rock writing and collect its best practitioners (the strongest is editor Clinton Heylin's The Da Capo Book of Rock & Roll Writing), and a few Web sites allow you to search for out-of-print articles by past greats (includ- ing and But as I discovered while researching Let It Blurt, my biography of legendary rock critic Lester Bangs, there are huge, gaping holes.

Rick Johnson was a rock writer whose work should be much better known, and few who read him from 1975 through '88, the years in which he succeeded Bangs as the funniest and most incisive wisecracking bad boy at the late, lamented Creem magazine, will ever forget him. His fans included Bangs himself (who died in 1982) and Dave Barry, the syndicated columnist who cites Johnson as an influence on his own irreverent sense of humor.

But hardly any of "Ranger Rick's" work remains in print, and the only place to find it these days is in vintage copies of Creem that sell for outlandish collectors' prices on eBay.

Johnson was found dead in his apartment in Macomb on April 3. He was 55, and no cause of death has been announced pending an autopsy and toxicology report. (Johnson lived for a time as hard and fast as the rock stars he wrote about, but he had been sober for more than a decade.)

Born and raised in south suburban Dolton, Richard E. Johnson lived in Detroit for a few years in the early '80s while working at the offices of Creem. But the tall, quiet, pony-tailed Swede spent most of his life in downstate Macomb, where he moved to attend Western Illinois University, and stayed to freelance in between managing Cady's Smoke House, a local institution where he spent hours thumbing through the extensive stock of magazines, including a lot of glossy publications with writers who weren't nearly as good, but which wouldn't deign to publish his work.

"The stuff I write just wouldn't fit in anywhere anymore, plus I don't want anything to do with the music business," Johnson told me in early 1998, when I interviewed him for Let It Blurt. "I got out at a good time, when Creem folded ... Unfortunately, I had all my eggs in that basket, and I didn't really want to start from scratch, [though] I see magazines that might publish my kind of stuff sometimes, like Details and Spy." (In another interview a few years later for, he would add lad mag Maxim to that list.)

Johnson's "stuff" was wry, acerbic and often hysterically funny, and it was well-suited to the dire years in the '80s after punk and before alternative, when the rock scene was dominated by hair metal and soulless corporate pop creations that had far less flair and personality than the reviews, features and news stories in which he deconstructed them. Witness the master weighing in on the Doobie Brothers' ill-fated and quickly forgotten attempt at a hard-rock reinvention circa 1977:

"There are no fast songs to speak of, a major disappointment, considering the Brothers' hammerhead rep. If they really plan to dump their booger image for the teddy bear waters of Dinah Shore, they're going to have to make this new stuff work, not just stare at itself. It looks promising, but until they get decided, it's strictly reruns on the Doob tube."

Or this about the ascendance of a new teen heartthrob:

"Meet Shaun Cassidy, fast-rising star of tube and groove and latest idol of rube pubes. Already a star in Europe, Cassidy has parlayed his co-starring role on 'The Hardy Boys' into American shake appeal, as well. Following his smash remake of 'Da Do Run Run,' Shaun the Maun promises to be the biggest thing since the training bra."

And how about Johnson's glossary of "New Musical Instruments of the '80s," which included "the Tenor Breen" ("a plastic replica of Doug [the Knack] Fieger's smile that, when twanged, goes, 'Breeennn!!!'"), "amplified cheese," "fusion scissors" and "electric soap." (The writer also once defined the word "riff" as "the sound made by a very thin dog.")

Johnson always said the biggest influence on his writing was J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, though he also cited rock writers Bangs and Richard Meltzer. But if those greats read like Beat heroes Jack Kerouac or William S. Burroughs reinvented as punk rockers, Johnson wrote like a snotty 13-year-old overdosing on sugary cereal while watching Saturday morning cartoons. I mean that as a compliment, and his writing perfectly conveyed the spirit of -- and, as I said earlier, often stood as better art than -- the music he wrote about.

Yes, there are still plenty of wiseass comedians in rock journalism. But few have the heart or the intellect of Johnson. "The first time I talked to Lester [Bangs], he told me he liked me because I was the only one who knew who [the French existentialist philosopher Louis-Ferdinand] Celine was, as well as Carlos the Jackal," Johnson told me. "I dug terrorists, so we grooved on that."

Rock writing's equivalent of a terrorist tossing well-deserved bombs at over-inflated hypes, Johnson not only deserves to be remembered and read, we should hope that his work will be rediscovered by a new generation of bedroom critics who are sorely needed to tackle the omnipresent pop cons of the moment with the style and flair that stand as his legacy.