David Byrne–what a creepy looking guy! Rogue eyeballs and an Adam’s apple that calls its own shots. So stiff that, if he stood in a draft, he’d twang (as Cher pointed out in a recent Scooby Doo episode). Seems like he’s coming to take you to his leader, or maybe on a suicide Pepsi date,” Rick Johnson, 1982.
During the 1970s, CREEM magazine, the snotty, irreverent alternative to Rolling Stone, was dominated by two uniquely different writers. During the early 1970s, Lester Bangs served as both editor and scribe for the Detroit based monthly. While Bangs could be quite funny, he often was a raging moralist that saw both artists and albums as part of a grander society struggle in the war of good versus evil. When Bangs departed the magazine, his void was largely filled by humorist Rick Johnson, who primarily viewed music as a fun lark. Bangs worshipped Lou Reed; Johnson laughed along with Devo records.
While Bangs had the good sense to die young and become the less hygienic/handsome James Dean of the rock critic pantheon, Johnson quietly left the music writing scene after CREEM folded. One burned out, the other faded away. In 2007, a compilation of Johnson’s writing, primarily of record reviews, for various Illinois alternative papers was published as the Rick Johnson Reader: Tin Cans, Squeems and Thudpies. While the Johnson Reader currently hasn’t sold as many copies as the Holy Bible, you, dedicated fan of the Rock NYC website, have the power to change this unfortunate course of history and commerce.
The cover of the Reader is a shot of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts trying to shear Johnson’s long Swedish ponytail. Joan was not a big fan of Johnson’s review of the 1977 “Queens of Noise” album by the Runaways, which started with the sentence, “These bitches suck,” and then got a little mean spirited after that. Joan even shot off a letter to the magazine to complain about the review. Rick’s response, “Go sit on a sno-cone.”
However, Johnson’s writing wasn’t primarily spiteful as much as it was comical and creative. Reading Reek was like entering a parallel music criticism universe. He didn’t tiptoe around political correctness, he spewed pop tarts all over it. He was the first and only rock journalist to note that Brian Johnson’s fingerprints were found on Bon Scott’s neck. A Blondie album was labeled, “the biggest bomb by a major act since Christianity.” He pegged exercise guru Richard Simmons as a “curlytop puppetwipe” and accused Freddie Mercury of suffering from “genotype cointoss.” Jim DeRogatis later revealed that Johnson would fill up 3 x 5 index cards with colorful phrases (Editor's Note: Rick once wrote I resembled someone you had met at your least memorable Lua -IL) , then sort through them to determine what fit into his record review/feature/movie review/video game piece.
In the early 1980s, Johnson moved from his adopted home of Macomb, Illinois and worked for a few years on the editorial staff of the magazine. He would, at different times, become heavily involved in the magazines offshoot products aimed a video games (Vidiot) and metal (CREEM Metal). Rick was much more open minded about traditional hard rock than many of his contemporaries and the Johnson Reader is filled with album reviews by ‘70s guitar bands including Thin Lizzy, Angel, KISS, and Cheap Trick.
But, you really don’t need the Johnson Reader for thirty-five year old album reviews, although Rick did have a sharp understanding of music, somewhat obscured by his wit. Johnson’s great gift was ability to make you laugh and squirm simultaneously. He once described his ambition, “to make people laugh wickedly at things they are too decent to even think of.” Unfortunately, the Johnson Reader doesn’t include a significant amount of Rick’s CREEM contributions, but it does include a story he did on Loverboy, which may be the funniest piece of rock writing that I’ve ever encountered.
Johnson, who passed away in 2006, went back to Macomb and never wrote regularly for any publications after CREEM folded. One of my friends is a musician that knew Rick as a manager of a local news stand in Macomb, yet had no idea of Rick’s prominence as one of the most widely read rock critics in what truly must have seemed like a previous life. Rick Johnson was a brilliant and underappreciated writer that deserves to be remembered. Unlike Jim Croce, he was not “so dormant in life that his death was redundant.”