Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Archive Review: The Rick Johnson Reader (2007)

The Rick Johnson Reader
Hmmm…where to start, where to start? How do you sum up the tragically short career of a rock critic, that most ephemeral of literary pursuits? After all, only a few bona fide, truly insightful rockcrits have ever made the jump from the fleeting, yellowing page of the periodical to a culturally-significant-and-acceptable placement between the covers of a book. Dave Marsh has always done it well, Greil Marcus, Meltzer, Christgau…heck, the almost-famous Lester Bangs had to wait until he died to earn his own ISBN number. Of the current crop of music writers – most of whom lack the passion and reckless temerity of the aforementioned first-gen giants – only Jim DeRogatis is worth reading. Weaned on ever-evolving musical trends and “bloato hype,” today’s rockcrits aren’t fit to hold Lester’s stash, so why should we trust their opinions?

So where do you start when talking about Rick Johnson? Well, he was this guy, you know…“Ranger Reek,” a writer and critic…beloved by a smallish legion of fanboys and serious music geeks that troll eBay to this day looking for dog-eared copies of Creem to purchase. Ostensibly a “FOL” (Friend Of Lester) at the same time that Cameron Crowe was ditching his junior prom to write for Rolling Stone, Johnson was my reviews editor at Sunrise, a small mid-1970s politics-and-culture publication that today would be called a “zine.” Through his friendship with Bangs, “Reek” – as he was known to his readers – made connections at Creem that would later come in handy. In fact, Reek left Illinois in 1980 or so to live in the Detroit area and work at the Creem offices as a writer and editor. In between, he followed friend and editor Bill Knight from Sunrise, after its demise, to write for Prairie Sun, a record store-sponsored tab that carried on the great Midwest rock tradition.

Johnson’s brief writing career extended from around 1972 until 1984, when the ownership of Creem gave up on Michigan winters and moved lock, stock, and barrel to L.A. As best as I can tell, the vast bulk of Reek’s writing was done for three publications – Sunrise, Prairie Sun, and Creem – with a few pieces published by ‘70s-era cultural rag Fusion, skin-mag Oui, and a handful of other print forums. After leaving Detroit, Johnson went back to Macomb, Illinois, where he had previously attended college. Sadly, he published few pieces afterwards; even more tragically, he died last year, at the still-young age of 55, an obscure writer whose passing was noted only by friends and a handful of colleagues in the music journalist community.

So where do you start when talking about Rick Johnson? First, and foremost, he was deserving of a much larger audience than he ever received. If the magazine publishing world hadn’t become the namby-pamby, corporate-drone-filled haven for safe-as-milk scribes that it is today, some editor somewhere might have recognized Johnson’s literary brilliance and offered him a place for his words. But it did, and they didn’t, and Reek’s voice was silenced by small minds with no vision, and obviously no sense of humor; uptight assholes more worried about not upsetting the reader and keeping their own gigs than in publishing something insightful and entertaining and the least bit edgy.    

Not that Johnson was a controversial writer…on the contrary, he was a unique product of his day and age. Unlike his obvious influences – writers like Bangs or Meltzer, whose cultural perspective was formed by Beatnik poets like Ginsberg and Kerouac, and by Elvis and Chuck, Bob and the Beatles – Johnson’s creativity was shaped and molded by ‘60s garage-rock, baseball, television, and mass market advertising. His best and lasting role was that of the cultural commentator, and his overt influences typically spilled over into his reviews. Unlike some writers, Johnson never tried to stir things up; but when you start with the intellectual ammunition that he had at his disposal, and hurl your words-and-phrases rapid-fire at your readers like molten slag from the barrel of a critical Gatling gun, you’re likely to upset somebody’s tender vittles.        

Johnson was, above all else, a highly entertaining writer. Erudite and well-read, he was one of the few members of the rockcrit literati that could mix classical literary references with bits-and-pieces of TV sitcom humor and contemporary events to make some obscure point seem important and relevant. Reek’s work was (and is) always fun to read; as a writer, he was a clever wordsmith, quick with a phrase and inventive in his use of language, witty to the point of absurdity. Whereas Bangs might wander off aimlessly in search of an expression or reference worth quoting in his reviews, Johnson typically cut to the heart of his subject; even when he was being purposely surreal, he usually managed to tie it into the review in the end.

After his death, many of Reek’s friends and admirers in the world of music journalism lamented the fact that no collection of his work existed outside the bounds of over-priced copies of Creem. Bill Knight, Johnson’s editor at Sunrise and Prairie Sun and a professor of journalism at Western Illinois University, took on the task of editing Reek one more time. Knight got the “old gang” back together during the summer of 2006, two dozen former writers (including yours truly) who volunteered to type up Johnson’s old reviews and articles for use in a collection that was published this year as The Rick Johnson Reader: ‘Tin Cans, Squeems & Thudpies’.

The material chosen by Knight to represent Johnson’s writing legacy includes some of his best, brightest and funniest work. From album reviews, which provide the bulk of the book’s content, and television commentary to baseball forecasting and book and videogame reviews (a form of criticism that Reek pioneered), ‘Tin Cans, Squeems & Thudpies’ illustrates Johnson’s unique and original writing style, his absurdist sense of humor and, most of all, his ability to stay critically detached – it’s only rock & roll, ya know! The book features a lot of material from Sunrise and Prairie Sun, which is where Reek published an abundance of great writing, and which are nearly impossible to find these days compared to the early 1980s issues of Creem that his words appeared in.

All other considerations aside, the album review was Johnson’s true forte, and he brought no little insight and a great deal of joy to his work in this area. Reek was never beholden to the label hype machine, and he had great fun poking holes in sacred cows. He was never afraid to write about a little-known band like the Gizmos or MX-80 Sound, and was not reserved about fragging the overblown work of a behemoth like Jefferson Starship or the Eagles. He had his favorites…as do all critics…typically straight-ahead rockers like Thin Lizzy or the New York Dolls, but he would also hold their feet to the fire if so required. Johnson wrote an impressive number of reviews during his all-to-brief career and, after reading this book twice, I can honestly say that his work is never dull and always entertaining.

The Rick Johnson Reader: ‘Tin Cans, Squeems & Thudpies’ should be required reading for every hopeful rock critic, and most current so-called writers, the book providing an example of how good music writing can be. The best compliment that I can give Reek is that, after reading several of his reviews, I either bought the albums or put them on my “want” list for future purchase. Music lovers should rejoice in the collection, as it offers a snapshot of a decade in pop culture. Bill Knight and his crew have provided a valuable service by preserving Rick Johnson’s words for posterity.           

As a young rock critic, Rick Johnson was my first editor when I was published in Sunrise. Our brief friendship, which began around 1975 and lasted into the early 1980s, launched me on the dubious career path of the rock critic. I don’t know if I should thank Reek or curse him, but mostly because of him, I’ve had a hell of a ride. Deserving of space on your bookshelf, ‘Tin Cans, Squeems & Thudpies’ is an essential collection and a fine memorial to Johnson’s work. Buy or die, buckaroos!

Buy the book from Amazon.com: The Rick Johnson Reader: 'Tin Cans, Squeems and Thudpies'

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You know, today just out of nowhere I started thinking about Rick Johnson's work in Creem and how much I loved it. So I hit the Google and learn about the existence of this book, which I just ordered. So pleased. Rick was a great talent and a funny, funny writer. I have borrowed or adapted so many lines of his through the years, sometimes without even realizing it. Can't wait to read this book!