"Am I gonna have to hide that from you?" wife Becky asked as I once more picked up my copy of The Rick Johnson Reader: "Tin Cans, Squeems & Thudpies" (Mayfly Productions) in the middle of a combined round of Scrabble 'n' March Madness teevee reruns (N.C.I.S., I think). "Just a couple more quick reviews," I replied, chortling at the opener to Reek's takedown of Styx's The Grand Illusion. ("Styx ain't half-bad, but they almost are.") All those full and half-page stabs o' primo rock crit snarkiness: they're like Ranch-flavored Fritos. Even if they do leave an odd taste in your mouth, you can't stop going back to the bag.
Rick Johnson, who died suddenly and much too soon last year, was a rock crit of the R. Meltzer/Lester Bangs "No More Heroes" school of rock ritin'. A regular contributor to Creem magazine during its glory years — where he once nearly sparked a readers uprising with a rudely dismissive review of the Runaways — Johnson was also a prolific screeder for a tiny music rag called both SunRise and The Prairie Sun. There, he cranked his trademark blend of Midwestern snark and surreal trash culture references into a glorious succession of elpee reviews. That most of these gems of wit and conciseness were only read by whoever happened to pick up a freebie paper in a Central Illinois record store back in the 1970s/'80s has long been crime of pop crit history that's now happily rectified by Johnson's former editor at the PSun, Bill Knight.
(Pause for a full disclosure: I used to write and cartoon for the same paper back in the day – even met Johnson at a "writer's retreat" sponsored by the paper, though I remember being too wrecked at the time to exchange more than two sentences with him. I'm also one of the 20-plus former colleagues of his who transcribed Johnson's writings from yellowy ol' copies of the PSun, though the only editorial input I had into this collection was from whatever uncaught typos I may've sloppily inserted into my word processing.)
Collecting a slew of Johnson's music reviews (sans the infamous Runaways put-down) – along with a few shorter sections on television, sports, books and videogames – "Tin Cans, Squeems & Thudpies" catches both an era when rock 'n' roll fans were so starved for good music that they actually paid attention to the likes of Jefferson Starship or Uriah Heep, and reflects the more fecund late seventies/early eighties when the world was so fulla good/slash/promising pop/rock music-makers that only a rock critic could keep track of 'em all.
In both settings, Johnson's trademark skepticism came in handy: he could be just as incisively nasty about the Next Big Thing as he could the fossilized remains of the Rolling Stones. (Writing about an utterly disposable Roger Daltry solo elpee, he notes that "No member of the Who has ever put out a listenable solo album, and they never will because they're too old and smart to be anything but boring.") But what elevates Johnson's writing above so many once-&-future snarkmeisters is the way that he always holds onto his down-&-dirty Ilini roots. Check out this pithy measure of an infectiously catchy slice of wimp rock: "It's a great tune to hum while squeezing the day-old Twinkies at the Sunbeam thrift shop." It's funny because it's apt.
Johnson's teevee tomes and the like are also a joy to read (particularly his Creem pubbed riff on junk food), but to my tastes the man was at his best pricking at the "bloato pomposity" of yer average rock ar-teeste. (Quoth Rick: "Imagination is about as relevant to rock as baton twirlers are to football.”) It's tempting to pad this review with even more of his great lines — this is a guy who packed a Budgie review with nuthin' but parakeet jokes — but why spoil the yuks? Let's just say that if you really wanna know when and how rock music lost a large chunk of its cultural relevance, check out Rick Johnson. He was there, leaping and whistling with his fingers in his mouth, trying to get us hype-addled mopes to pay attention to what was really going down. That we didn't is our own dumb-ass fault.
In fact, listening to a recent release by the Apples in Stereo, I couldn't help wondering what Ranger Rick might've written about this overstuffed collection of spiffy powerpop interspersed with snippets of unfathomable psychedelic rinky-tink. Tried to come up with a suitable Johnson-esque metaphor to describe the disc's sound, but I'm afraid my more mundane mind came up lamentably short. Pretty sure it would've somehow involved rubber doggy chew toys, though…