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BC of the Month, February 2007: Tom Johnson

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The purpose of this monthly series is to highlight an outstanding contributor to the site as chosen by the editorial staff. This designation is meant to recognize and celebrate  those writers who not only shine by virtue of their talent, but whose ongoing participation gives all of us a reason to tune in each and every day. As new readers are continually discovering BC Magazine, we also hope to introduce these fine writers to a new audience.

If you're a frequent visitor to the music section here at BC, Tom Johnson's name will be familiar to you. A contributor for the past four years, Tom brings to his work a winning combination of passion, encyclopedic knowledge, and humor, all presented in his down-to-earth style. All of these qualities work in concert to make Tom a must-read for anyone who takes their music seriously (or just enjoys a good read).

His regular column, Overlooked Alternatives, is a great place to find those hidden gems that might otherwise escape your notice. BC publisher Eric Olsen offered this insight about Tom: "Tom Johnson has an intimate and passionate relationship with a wide, eclectic array of music that has generated some of the most important and enduring music writing on the site. We missed him terribly when he was away having babies and whatnot."

The folks who run the music section waxed eloquent when asked to describe Tom. According to music editor Connie Phillips, "Tom Johnson's articles add so much to the music section. Whether he's giving us a peek at something obscure in his Overlooked Alternatives feature, giving us a more in-depth look at a specific album in a music review, or telling us the latest tidbit in music news, he does so with a candid honesty and an enjoyable style." Assistant music editor DJRadiohead said, "Tom is unquestionably one of the best reads BC Magazine's music section has to offer. There are some music critics who seem as though they don't like music at all. Tom's style is refreshing in that he brings the knowledge of a student, sans the stuffiness, and the passion of a fan, but with some objectivity and insight. He writes like an everyman, but makes us seem a whole lot smarter (even if he does like John Mayer)."

Tom's fellow music writer Mark Saleski put it this way:

One of the things that drove me to write about music was passion. To me, music is not just another form of entertainment, it's food. That may seem like a crazy statement, but to some of us, music is just as important as food, drink, and love. Heck, sometimes it's all of those things.

Tom Johnson has always felt like a kindred spirit in this. His passion for music is evident in his writing. Whether it be "his band" (Rush), "shocking" pop music choices (John Mayer), or the crazed angularity of modern improvised music (Nels Cline), it obvious that this stuff is important to Tom. His writing never fails to put that sense of the wonder of discovery on full display — a sense that most people lose as they move into adulthood. The world needs more of these kinds of voices: free of cynicism and driven by the desire for new sounds.

Stick around to learn about what makes this writer tick, but first a bit of biographical background from Tom himself:

I have come to the conclusion that while a lot of people come to Phoenix to visit or to live here, or leave Phoenix for other cities, not a lot of people seem to be born here and just stay. That's me, however – I'm here to stay. I grew up here, I went to school here, I went to ASU where I studied both creative writing and then studio art. And ASU is where I met my future wife (funny enough, I actually had to “meet” her through a mailing list for Rush – but it was only because we both went to ASU that I met her, otherwise it would have never happened). We were married in March 1999 and have an amazing, beautiful 17-month-old daughter who entertains us all the time with very creative dances, sometimes to sounds that aren't even music.

I try and put my art skills to good use at work everyday – I still have a job, so I guess that's working out okay. As for the writing, I hopefully use my skills for good and not evil at my sites, known johnson and lookout for hope (the former for “regular stuff” and the latter for music/movies/TV – you know, anything less personal.) Come on by to both – if you only read one site, you're missing half the story!

Q&A: The Serious Stuff

You write about it like a man possessed, which is the way I think all good music writers do it. Where does the passion come from, and when did you decide to take up the pen (metaphorically speaking)? Are you a musician yourself?

I simply can't help myself. I love pointing people to new music, I love trying to get the word out, and love keeping people interested. There are few things more satisfying than turning someone on to some band or album that they've never heard before. I still get very excited about new releases, in a very geeky way – which is why I keep tabs on release dates and such and why Overlooked Alternatives exists, really. That's just me talking to myself about why something is exciting.

I began writing a blog back in 2001 when I had a bunch of free time – I had just gotten laid off from a job and filled the time and my site with what I knew: talking about music. But I've always written, apparently, evidenced by going through old papers that my parents have kept since my elementary school days. This is primarily how I communicate, I guess. I don't find myself a particularly good speaker, my brain stumbles over words and thoughts, but on paper and screen I can get things out in a more reasonable manner. Given the opportunity, I will write a lot. Just ask anyone I've ever emailed. They're never short, simple affairs.

My love of music is my dad's fault. I'm going to blame it on him, at least. It was he who told me, when I was very young and confronted him with the question of whether I should buy a model kit I wanted to build or some cassette of some band I can't recall now, that the model I'd simply build and put away or end up destroying some day (this is true) while the music was something that would last forever. He couldn't have been more right about the latter.

I've tried my hand at being a musician – I spent a few years on piano as a kid, then tried bass and guitar a few times when I was older, and even the unusual touchstyle instrument, the Chapman Stick (and its variant the Warr Guitar.) Nothing stuck. Truthfully, I was too impatient to really sit down and learn – too many ideas in my head simply wanted to leap out right onto the fretboard and found themselves hobbled by fingers that couldn't figure out what to do and I just gave up too soon. Something deep in my brain keeps whispering “try drums – that's what you really want to play” so maybe someday I'll get brave and give 'em a shot.

Overlooked Alternatives is a column in which you shine some light on music releases that are flying under the radar. How do you keep tabs on what's going on in the music world, and what's your take on how the whole music scene has changed with the collapse of radio (in any meaningful sense) and the rise of the Internet?

I get asked this a lot, actually. I've never really found it all that hard to find new music, so I find it surprising when I hear people say that they can't find new music. It feels to me like it's all out there, just waiting for you to simply stumble upon it, because that's what happens for me. I look up one band and see them compared to another, so I look up that one and wind up finding not only that band but several others that they're tied to. And yet I feel like I know so little – there's so much music I've missed out on.

A key point in Chuck Klosterman's Fargo Rock City was made when he mentioned how metal-heads in the '80s did what they could to ignore popular music and popular radio stations, and therefore missed out on a lot of music. I really identified with that – that was me. I lived metal in high school in that same time period and MTV was only good for Headbanger's Ball. Z-Rock was my station, if I listened to the radio at all – some weird little station out of Texas, I believe, that for some reason was carried in other states and they played all these weird little hair-rock and metal bands that few even remember today. I mean, who is talking about the band T-Ride today? Exactly. But that was my little world for a couple of years.

While I often find myself amused at the struggles of radio and radio artists today, thinking back in this respect, I find it a little disturbing that there won't be these little oddball stations like this, that everything will be just what XM and Sirius decides to include as channels. Stations like Z-Rock were all about variety and exposure, even if a bunch of what they played really did suck. At least we got to hear some really unusual stuff. I don't think that's so possible anymore.

At this very moment, I think small bands have it good – they still have some access to radio and TV, but in the future, what are we looking at? When the music industry collapses, because in some fashion it's going to wind up collapsing under its own weight, and bands are out on their own, how will they get exposure? It's fine for the Pearl Jams of the world to be on their own because they can still get distribution deals through the majors, but what about bands like my little King's X who are struggling to make it from album to album? Some people don't even know they still exist, and yet they continue to turn out great music and do so not knowing if they're even going to turn a profit.

If an established band like King's X is struggling now, how will some unknown band even get beyond local clubs? I don't foresee XM and Sirius being anything but “pay to play” venues for artists in the future, because it makes sense – I know few who seem to be tuning in right now to find new music. They're checking out satellite radio because it plays the old stuff they're used to and want to hear over and over again. But I do think there's a lot of freedom for artists in the future, away from the constraints of radio play and major labels, but I think there's going to be a lot of struggle for them to get some attention, too.

Man does not live by music (or Arrested Development) alone. What tidbits would you like to share with our readers that aren't apparent from your body of work here?

I fought hard for Arrested Development. That was tough to take, watching a great show like that slowly sink. It was, and still is, one of the greatest shows on TV, but luckily The Office (NBC's, I mean) has somehow managed to come along and divorce itself from the incredible original British show, so I'm now certain that it's more of a Fox-related issue that Arrested Development failed than the fact that it wasn't getting watched. If The Office can make it and be as mean and uncompromising as it is, then AD should have, too. Fox screwed that show – and many others that I also fell in love with. So, screw Fox.

It's probably not well known that I'm not a writer but actually a graphic artist by profession. I guess I just have to have some kind of highly creative output in my life. I've done one or the other my entire life. I actually started out in college as a creative writing major but changed gears all of a sudden and went for studio art, and now I work with educational multimedia.

This month will mark your four-year anniversary here at BC. What drew you here in the first place, and more importantly, what keeps you here? What's your perspective on the evolution of the site over the past four years? Do you have any visions about where your writing might take you in the future, or are you in it for the here-and-now enjoyment of it all?

Jeez, four years… I honestly don't remember the specifics of what brought me to Blogcritics' doorstep. I think I simply was looking for somewhere to stick my music writing that might get some exposure, stumbled upon BC, and Eric was kind enough to have me. And I've gotten to watch the site grow from the humble little thing that it was to the behemoth that it is today. It's really fascinating to have been a part of it from nearly the beginning.

I have always had visions of writing as a profession — someday — but for the moment I'm just enjoying what I can do when I have the free time to do it. For as much writing as I do on both of my sites, I have to admit to an amount of self-confidence that is lacking to commit to writing something personal and fictional. The “great American novel” is in my head somewhere. One of these days, I'm going to do it. That's a promise to myself.

Q&A: The Fun Stuff

What book/CD/DVD do you have more than one copy of, in case something happens to the original one?

You know, it's funny, I don't really think like that. I don't really keep backups of stuff. I have “extras” of things in odd ways, such as the fact that I have two copies each of Rush's Signals, Moving Pictures, and 2112. Not because they're all my favorites (although Signals actually is one of my personal faves) but because I have both the standard CD version that you can find in most stores as well as the high-falutin' Mobile Fidelity gold-CD versions that are long out of print now. And I have dual copies of the remasters of their four more recent albums on Atlantic simply because the original booklets are far superior printings (the remasters are very cheap looking scans of the originals.) But this is the only occasion where I've doubled up and kept them.

And this brings up kind of a funny story of having two copies of the same thing – Rush-related again. Back when Roll The Bones came out, I picked it up after whatever classes I was taking at ASU were over and headed to a friend's apartment to listen. Not more than three songs in, the power went out and stayed out until I had to leave, hoping that it would come back on and I could continue listening. It was not to be, and my brand new, unlistened-to Rush CD was bound to be stuck in the CD player hours. There was obviously only one option. I headed right back to the store and bought another copy to listen to until I got back to her place to pick it up a few days later!

I have boring things like a copy of 2001: A Space Odyssey (my favorite movie) on both VHS and DVD, but that's more because VHS is virtually worthless now so why not keep it?

If you had to pick one sense to do without, which of your five senses would it be?

Oh, this is far too easy. Smell. Half the time my nose is so plugged up I can't smell that much anyway, and the other half someone's likely burned something or it's just my daughter's diaper needing to be changed. I can live without that.

If you really want to make this painful to answer, change it to “would you rather give up sight or hearing?” Now that's a tough call.

What do you wish they'd do a series about on TV?

I think it would probably be impossible, but since it seems like makeover shows were all the rage, I've had this urge to see a music collection makeover show. You know, someone nominates supposed friends because they have horrid tastes in music and someone with “far superior” tastes in music comes along and helps the unwittingly lost soul find his or her way. But it can't be mean – they wouldn't just foist a bunch of hipster crap on them, the experts would actually have to listen to victim's music and understand their needs and expectations from music and then would have to use their own expertise to find the right music to suit them.

This is spawned from the tendency I have seen of people “growing up” and getting bored with the music they used to listen to – because it seems like most people I know pretty much abandoned new music as soon as they got out of college simply because the marketing machine stopped pointing at them. For most people, it seems that they stop experimenting and stop really listening, and music just becomes background noise to them. I find that really sad.

If you could, would you swap sexes for a week?

Sometimes I wonder if I already have – my wife and I seem to be on the opposite team. She's the one who watches the sports, I'm the one who cooks. Well, I should say “cooks” because it's really only the loosest use of the term. I really prefer to say “heat stuff up.” Regardless, there was once a time when every girl I knew in high school said, “You're going to be the best boyfriend/husband” simply because I didn't spend my free time on sports. Alas, I married that one rare woman who loves sports.

But, to answer the question, without a doubt. There are the obvious lewd connotations any guy can make from a sex-switch, and I'll just skip over those, so this is going to sound terribly PC, but I think it would be fascinating to see how life operates from a woman's perspective. I don't think anyone, no matter how compassionate and understanding, can understand the opposite sex, and I think it would be really good to know what things we men do that we think is perfectly normal and acceptable that really grate on women. I know that becoming a parent has really opened my eyes to things I never could have imagined before, so I imagine that seeing the world through the opposite sex would be equally enlightening.

What do you think you'd learn if you could swap to the opposite sex?

Well, for one, I hear that sometimes women's restrooms have couches and special rooms that you can just go rest in. That just fascinates me. You just can't have things like this in men's rooms. I won't go into details.

What sports team will you love until the day you die?

Sports. Very funny. Although if those bizarre strong-man competitions are on ESPN when I'm flipping channels, I am powerless to stop and watch for however long they are on.

What's one sign that you're a total nerd?

I'd guess pretty much all of the above, but I'm guessing if you asked my wife, she'd point out the fact that whenever I put a CD back in its case, I have to have it lined up so the label is straight. It just drives me nuts if it's crooked. That's just wrong, man!

What's the first book you recall reading?

I don't recall the very first one, but I know I had a long period where I was fascinated with the Tom Swift series, and I particularly remember the cover of what I now find is titled Terror On The Moons Of Jupiter. This is probably what fueled a long interest in sci-fi.

What magazines do you subscribe to?

I think we just subscribed to Parents magazine, but we haven't even begun getting our magazines yet, that's how new it is. It was $5 for a year because we bought for Christmas for our daughter a toy drum that they stick their name on. Why not? That's like 42 cents an issue, and if it has funny pictures that I can cut out and hang up in weird places, well that practically pays for itself right there. Other than that, however, no subscriptions other than the daily newspaper.

Who is your favorite writer?

That's pretty tough. I don't read as much as I should – I have a pile of books to read, but I'm very slow at getting to them.

I don't really have any “go to” writers anymore. Years ago, I'd easily have said Arthur C. Clarke because I just devoured his books for years and re-read many of them. And I do from time to time re-read a few of his, which is an extreme rarity for me. Once I'm done with a book, I'm done. But not ol' Art. I don't know how many times I've read 2001 and the Rama series, especially the first one. So, I guess in a way, it's Clarke, but I've branched out a lot since then – I rarely read sci-fi, period, and have found a lot to like in people like Nick Hornby, Chuck Palanhiuk, and Dave Eggers. Basically, I said, “Hmm, well I've done sci-fi, how about I just go the complete opposite direction and find people who just ramble on and on about nothing?”

Who is your least favorite writer?

I guess I'd say John Grisham, or any of those lawyer type books. I seriously can't handle that kind of thing, but especially his brand of it. And pretty much anyone writing self-helps books, because it seems like all those things do is just tell the reader right up front what to do and then reiterate the point for as many pages as possible in as many different ways as the writer can come up with. Especially anything that starts talking about the “nature of the spirit” or any other such crap. “Your soul is made of light.” Oh, really? How do you know that? Did you study that somewhere? You just “know” it. Mmm-hmm.

Oh, and maybe Frank Herbert, because I tried reading Dune about 18 times and couldn't make it more than 60 pages in. I've decided that anything I need a dictionary full of made-up words to decipher no longer qualifies as interesting reading material anymore.

Do you have a favorite Blogcritic?

That's easy – Mark Saleski. I feel like he's been a constant guide for years for to me and, in general, a source of great stories every week. I think I've learned a lot from him without really asking him anything, just by absorbing through osmosis as he spins his many stories in the Friday Morning Listen. Not only that, but he's got the biggest ears around – literally nothing is off-limits to him, and that's just an amazing thing. I've never seen anyone as open-minded as him.

What do you think is the best part of Blogcritics?

The community, without a doubt. What's made it the most fun for me is not just having a place to get some exposure but having some place where there were others like me who wanted to banter about stuff.

What song is stuck in your head right now?

Neil Finn's “Try Whistling This” mixed with “She Will Have Her Way,” plus bits of Andrew Bird's “Sovay.” I have no idea why, but they just keep weaving back and forth into each other. My own mental mash-up.

What do you have set as the home page in your browser?

I wish I could give you some really obscure, interesting answer, but it's Yahoo. I just like having the news headlines right there, plus right now the Geek Squad is offering to “match me up to the perfect Windows Vista PC!” (No thanks! I've heard enough about Vista to keep me away for a long time!)

Who was your idol as you were growing up?

I'm not copping out, honestly, but I don't really recall having an idol as such. I just didn't. I always got asked this in school, too, and I never really had a real answer but I had to offer something so I always wound up giving a really dorky sounding one, which is Robert Ballard, the man who found Titanic. Yeah – see?

What are three items you would need to have on a desert island?

Aw, jeez, not this… I'm notoriously bad at these kinds of questions. I suffer from option anxiety, plus I am simply unable to break from reality enough to get the point of questions like this. So I'm just going to toss these out there, and not simply choose the easy way out like “an airplane, a pilot, and some peanuts for the flight home”: a Leatherman, a wind-up flash-light, and an endless supply of pencils and paper. If I'm stuck on an island, I might as well make use of the time and writer and draw.

What's the best place to get a meal in your neck of the woods?

I'm not a foodie by any means. I'm picky, very, very picky, but I don't particularly love food. I'm as likely to go to Wendy's as anywhere else. So you probably don't want my recommendation – I eat everything plain anyway, so my recs are completely skewed. But if I'm feeling adventurous, I'll get the house chicken from Pick Up Stix, a chain of Chinese restaurants. And that, literally, is about as adventurous as I get. Wild, I know.

If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?

Let's all just appreciate things more.

Tom Picks Tom

We asked Tom to choose his favorites from among his posts. Do take the time to check these out, and don't forget to visit Tom's writer's page for links to his entire BC catalog.

  • My love for Iron Maiden, like many of their fans, goes back to my teenage years and those days stuck wandering around town trying to find something to do. What started out as merely a heads-up about their newest album wound up being a trip down memory lane for me as I went back to my first encounter with a band that became a part of my own personal soundtrack.
  • One little post meant to poke some fun at a much-overplayed Ford commercial featuring then-current it-boy, American Idol winner Taylor Hicks, erupts into one of the funniest displays of blind fan devotion outside of the hilarious responses to the post that Marty Dodge wrote about Insane Clown Posse.
  • In September 2004 I was an unwitting witness to part of the downfall of one of the greatest comedians of our time, Mitch Hedberg. This piece received a lot of traffic both on Blogcritics and my own site and, in turn, it garnered a lot of criticism from those not wanting to believe this very funny man could be so flawed.
  • I am never, ever going to let up on my insistence that Charles In Charge needs to be reinvigorated with a reunion movie. Ever.
  • Swallowing my pride, I had to admit that, for a little while at least, I let overwhelming public negativity affect my interest in Metallica. Ultimately, I let the music speak for itself and convince me that the public was wrong.
  • I wouldn't feel right if I didn't mention Bill Frisell, my favorite guitarist, and this review of the album that really got me started on jazz, the genre of music that really seems to keep me interested in music today.
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About Lisa McKay

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    Well deserved, Tom, well deserved. Congratulations and thanks for all you do to make the BC Music realm better. I don’t think you were the first BC writer I read, but you were one of them and it was about that time I thought there might be a place for me in these parts. So, thanks for that or… people can blame you. Read that as you will.

    Lisa, a great job once again.

  • http://www.lookoutforhope.com Tom Johnson

    Thanks, DJR (and Lisa for the fine job on the interview)!

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    Tom, I owe you another thank you as one of your answers in this interview provided just the right touch to the newest feature in our BC Mag music section, The Listening Room.

  • Dawn

    Congrats Tom, a well-deserved distinction!!

    TOM JOHNSON RULES!!

    (I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to let that out.)

  • Mark Saleski

    congrats tom! couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

    uh…but does this mean i’ve got to cut you into my will? ;-)

  • http://www.lookoutforhope.com Tom Johnson

    I believe so, Mark – just remember that I want first dibs on that monstrous CD collection.

  • http://draven99.blogspot.com Chris Beaumont

    Congrats Tom!

  • http://daslob.blogspot.com/ Pico

    Better late than never…

    Way to go, TJ! Well deserved. We’ll get you to appreciate Steely Dan yet ;&)