Monday, April 7, 2008

Little Johnny Jewel

Yesterday, I took the kids to Borders. I wanted to get the Boy a couple of new books and give my wife some time to do some things. We wandered the aisles and snagged a copy of The Juggling Pug that the Boy liked. When we checked out, the clerk, in full Borders fashion, was sporting a mohawk. He was punk. It struck me, as it always does when I see a kid in such anachronistic garb, as a little sad. He may very well be living the concepts that originally accompanied the ensemble, but for the most part it ain't nothing but retro fashion.

I knew many punks way back when, all with the appropriate wardrobe, hair, and taste in music. They lived on the fringes and had attitude. Most of them probably sell insurance now. I even considered myself punk though I imagined myself too superior to go all in. In reality, like many things in my life, I merely dipped my toe in the pool as opposed to plunging for fear of committing to anything. In that respect I wasn't much different than any of the rest of them: it was just a matter of degrees. There was, however, one person I knew who was a real punk - the real deal - and his name was Johnny.

Johnny lived the concept, though it seemed to come to him naturally without artifice or effort. Johnny was my brother's best friend. When I first met him he was 14, had hair below his shoulders, and listened to a lot of Dead. He was rail thin, no more than 120 pounds soaking wet, and had a quiet, easy-going demeanor. When he discovered punk the long hair got cut and the Grateful Dead got the boot. He quit school - he had never really fit in anyway - moved out of his house and got a cheap flat in downtown Denver. His skateboard was his only mode of transport. He never owned a car and I never saw him drive one. If he couldn't get somewhere on his board, he took the bus or decided it wasn't worth going. He helped promote shows and if you were with him you got in for free. He was a minor celeb in the scene, but you wouldn't know it by spending time with him. His non-chalance bordered on shyness. He spoke so quietly you often had to ask him to repeat himself. It was as if in his transition to punk he had carried over a remnant of the hippy he left behind. Long after his hair was gone he would, while speaking in his soft voice, absent-mindedly push the missing locks behind his ears. Always though, there was a twinkle in his eye that promised mischief.

When my brother moved out of the house his senior year he moved in with Johnny and they shared a flat. For one of my brother's birthdays, Johnny gave him a Barbie Doll with a swastika on its chest, a syringe in its arm, encased in Jello. My brother swore (until I gave him a blowgun years later) it was the best gift he had ever received. Their apartment was decorated with found or made art; late nights and illicit substances the catalysts for more than a few projects. I once found a Wookie toy with a Betty Boop button floating in a raft in their toilet. It had been there for days and was covered in urine. How it managed to not go down during a flush is beyond me, but they found it quite amusing.

Johnny was an anarchist, but for him it wasn't a political cause, only a way of life. He lived it because he could not live any other way. He ran through a random series of meaningless jobs and made do. His needs beyond rent were simple and that gave him a degree of freedom that he craved. He cared for little more than music and friends and could be generous to a fault. My gratitude to him is boundless for the day he put Marquee Moon on the turntable and told me to shut up and listen. When I fell in love with it he gave me the LP. "I can steal another," he said.

I never saw him eat and asked my brother about it once. "Oh, he eats," my brother said, "Every now and then."

At a Halloween party in those early years, where everyone else in the scene showed up in their finest costume, Johnny walked in wearing a wifebeater, a feather boa and far too much makeup. Whenever anyone asked him what he was dressed as he would sincerely apologize and admit he hadn't known it was a costume party.

me, johnny

Despite his size and his quiet manner, Johnny would brook no shit. While downtown one day, waiting for a break in traffic in order skate across the street, an asshole sidled up to him and tried to grab his board from him, saying, "Thanks for my new board, bitch." Johnny wrenched it free and creamed the guy in the head with it. In Johnny's words, "He went down like spaghetti." It was on the news that night: Man Assaulted By Punk, Suspect Sought.

I can't remember a time when Johnny didn't have a girlfriend; women loved him and he returned the favor. Once, after my brother and Johnny had moved into their own abodes, I was with my brother at our local watering hole. Johnny came in and we invited him to join us. I hadn't seen him in a while so we had a beer, caught up and shared a laugh. After he finished his beer he abruptly got up saying he had to go. I asked what was the rush. He looked at my brother and said, "She's in the closet." My brother responded, "Are you still seeing her?" "Yeah," answered Johnny, "But it's getting old. Later." And he left. I was utterly confused and asked my brother what the hell was going on. Johnny was currently seeing somebody, he told me, who liked to be tied up and left in the closet before sex. So Johnny, who couldn't care less about bondage, would indulge her. However, instead of just waiting around, he would run errands or go get a beer. "Hey," Johnny would later tell me, "Sometimes you gotta do for others."

In my life I have never met anyone so comfortable with their own sexuality. Johnny would, when short of cash, hustle at a park known for cruisers. He would get picked up by some older gay male who liked to give head to boys. Johnny would take their money, oblige his client, and then usually steal their wallet. When I expressed shock - not at the act, but at the theft - Johnny answered, "That's what they get picking up rough trade."

Johnny once shared a flat with a British ex-pat, Tim, whose green card had expired. Tim was unable to get a job because of his illegal status and so Johnny supported the two of them while Tim took over the cooking and cleaning. It was a perfect domestic relationship. They both had girlfriends at the time who spent many nights in their apartment but on the nights when their respective dates were absent they shared a bed. Johnny told me Tim and he would spoon and cuddle. It wasn't sexual; just comforting. When Tim finally returned to England Johnny fell into a funk that he said felt worse than any break-up he had endured.

At one point Johnny and some friends squatted in an old abandoned warehouse downtown. They stole power from a neighboring building and made it their home. Johnny's bedroom was a former freight elevator. There were parties galore, the most infamous involved several bands and a wall made of discarded televisions stacked one atop the other seven or eight feet high and twenty feet across. All of them were on, though their pictures were awful and most were black and white. They were the only illumination for the enormous room and it made for an awesome spectacle. Towards the end of the party the wall suddenly and dangerously collapsed, narrowly missing several people, shattered glass skittering everywhere. It was only later that I found out Johnny had pushed it over. He was bored with the party.

It was about that time he developed his crank habit. He was wired everytime I saw him - grinding his teeth, eyes like pinpoints. His thin frame receded even further. The addiction was taking its toll and he knew it. He decided to get out of town and made his way to the East coast. My brother would get a card or note from him every now and then, but he seemed aimless. Then suddenly we heard he had joined the Merchant Marine and gone to sea. We were a little surprised, but that was Johnny. I heard little about him after that.

When my brother died I went through his address book calling his friends to let them know when the service was taking place. I came across a postcard from New York with a number on it for Johnny and tried it. He answered. He was living in Manhattan. I told him about Lee's death. He took it badly, but said he couldn't make it out in time. I asked if he would do me a favor and come out to help me clean my brother's apartment the following week, that we would pay for airfare. He agreed.

When I picked him up at the airport he looked the same. He told me he was working at a video store in Greenwich Village. While in the Merchant Marine he had injured his back in rough seas when a container had come loose and pinned him against the rail. That had ended his maritime career. He was also sobering up, attending AA meetings several times a week. He said DeeDee Ramone was in his AA group. When I pointed out that AA was supposed to be anonymous he laughed and said, "Come on, who doesn't know DeeDee has a problem?"

He spent the week helping me clean, selling my brother's albums, and going through his stuff. He asked to keep a few things as mementos, nothing substantial, just things that meant something to him. I told him, "Of course." He found a local AA meeting and made his way to it a couple of times that week. He talked a lot about being sober the way converts do when they first find religion. I didn't mind - it was important to him.

When I saw him off at the airport at the end of the week, he cried. It was the only time he had all week. He wiped his nose on the leather jacket he was wearing and told me to keep in touch. It was the last time I saw him. We called one another off and on for the next year but eventually we both moved on.

The clerk at Borders may be like Johnny, may be the real deal, but I doubt it. The real deal came and went. That time passed.

me, johnny at an early show, X, i think

I have googled him over the last couple of years, trying to find him, but with no luck. His name is common and I have no idea where to start. For all I know he's selling insurance, but I hope not. I hope he's sober and happy and healthy. But most of all I hope the drum he marched to, the only one that ever seemed real, is still beating out its rhythm. Somewhere, there's one honest man who remains true to his soul and the rest of us toedippers be damned.

Oh Little Johnny Jewel,

He's so cool,

But if you see him looking lost

You ain't gotta come on so boss!

And you know that he's paid,

You know that he's paid the price,

All you gotta do for that guy

Is wink your eye.


Baywatch said...


Steve said...

>>In reality, like many things in my life, I merely dipped my toe in the pool as opposed to plunging for fear of committing to anything.<<

This whole post deserves real printing on real paper with real binding.