If I Had My Way
Evan Johns ain't done yet
The old man in a hat walked up to Dale Watson during a set break at the Continental Club and introduced himself.
Watson laughed, "You're not Evan Johns."
It couldn't be. Not the wild, mind-bending guitarist, who was to Austin's Eighties what Junior Brown became to its Nineties and Redd Volkaert is to the present. The man hunched over a cane in front of Watson looked 80 years old.
"I took out my passport and showed him," says Johns, 56, who sat in with the country singer that night to a huge response. "I still got it, man."
Shredding that garage rockabilly with an ear-to-ear grin, Johns once made his living touring, playing Europe and every city in the U.S. and Canada. Now he spends his days at a local non-profit for the disabled that used to be a Ramada Inn off of Ben White. He pays his rent ($390) out of his Social Security check ($695), and his beloved cat Maybelline is a state-certified service animal for the companionship she provides him.
Johns' room sits near the lobby on the first floor, which is convenient because he has to use a walker or a cane when he gets up to sign in visitors.
"I need to have both hips replaced, but the doctors said I wouldn't live through the surgery," he says. "I'm too weak."
He was supposed to be dead at 42, when he fell into a coma due to alcoholic hepatitis in Vancouver. He'd gone to Canada to live with his girlfriend Sue, who would later be his wife and then his ex-wife. After doctors told her in 1998 that Johns had only a few days to live, she sent out an ominous email that put friends and fans in mourning mode. Then he woke up, simply and miraculously.
The doctors hadn't heard about the indestructible, crowd-eating monster that was Evan Johns. "Well, my baby she left me 'cause I wouldn't put my guitar down," he'd sing with his eyes on fire. Johns didn't want to impress you.
He wanted to knock you on your ass.
Twang, Thunder, Honk
Evan Johns moved from D.C. to Austin in 1984 to replace guitarist Don Leady in the LeRoi Brothers. Just about every local axe grinder of note showed up that first month to check him out. After playing on the band's 1985 LP Lucky Lucky Me, Johns quit and called for his D.C. group, the H-Bombs, to join him in Austin, restoring him to front and center where he belonged.
That same year, in one of the more notorious guitar duels of local lore, Dave Alvin crossed Sixth Street from the club where he'd performed with X and popped in on Johns at the original Black Cat Lounge. The one with the tip jar on a rope and pulley above the crowd. Johns' goal was to obliterate the California hotshot, and during the initial exchanges, he was wiping the floor with Alvin.
As the jam went on, however, the audience began wearying of the onslaught. Alvin capped his night with a terrifically melodic solo that built to a climax, while Johns was spent at the finish line.
"I just wanna honk!," he told me days later. No wonder his musical hero is Jerry Lee Lewis, whom Johns opened for five times in the late Seventies and early Eighties. ("He showed up only twice.")
"We knew he was a wild man onstage," says LeRoi's singer Joe Doerr about the group hiring Johns on the eve of a tour for its major label debut, Forget About the Danger Think of the Fun. "But we didn't know he was so out of control offstage.
"We were a little shocked by his drinking."
The LeRois were a band of partiers, but Doerr says Johns "would start the day with a bowl and a beer and keep going until he went to bed." One day the band went to get Johns at his hotel room and found a three-foot pile of beer cans. Even then, booze didn't seem to affect the guitarist's playing.
If you were lucky enough to see Evan Johns in the Eighties, you experienced fire and chops – Link Wray meets Scotty Moore. He was a snarling performer, whose salty drawl matched his nasty instrumental twang. He was functioning at peak level and then, a decade later, barely at all.
The high point came in 1986, when Johns and the H-Bombs, which included guitarist Mark Korpi, bassist Ivan Brown, and drummer Jim Starboard, released a pair of critically acclaimed albums, Rollin' Through the Night on Jello Biafra's San Francisco indie Alternative Tentacles, and Evan Johns & the H-Bombs on Austin's Jungle Records. Johns also landed a Grammy nomination for his show-stealing role in Big Guitars From Texas' Trash, Twang and Thunder.
Biafra, for his part, discovered the trashabilly kamikaze in 1981 when he rescued "Giddy Up Girl" from the trash bin at Trouser Press and played the 45 over and over. "Whatever you need," the Dead Kennedys singer told Johns, who had just recorded an album with the H-Bombs that nobody else wanted to release.
Another early champion of the roots rock Popeye was Garry Tallent of the E Street Band. A fan since Johns' mid-Seventies days in Richmond, Va.'s Good Humor Band, Tallent produced three tracks on the Jungle record before being summoned by "The Boss" for the two-year Born in the USA tour. When he got back, Tallent helmed Bombs Away, Johns' 1989 effort for Boston label Rykodisc that seemed to finally set the band on its way.
Reviewers tried to outdo each other in summating Johns' Dixified reposition of raw American music: Cajun, rockabilly, punk, surf, blues, country – even spaghetti Western soundtrack music. Johns & the H-Bombs played it all.
Johns says he's been drinking every day since he was 13, first as a way to cope with his parents' endless bickering, and after that because he liked the way it made him feel. Not until his second wife, a pretty brunette from New Orleans, left him did alcohol take him over completely, he reckons.
"I was so busy, I really didn't have time to sort any of this stuff out," he says of the painful divorce. "There was no peace in my life. It was like, 'Here's your itinerary for the next few months.'" At his worst, Johns drank a 12-pack of beer a day. Then a case at night.
I was a witness to the self-destruction in 1990 when Evan & the H-Bombs came to Lounge Ax in Chicago. While a Hüsker Dü-influen- ced new band named Uncle Tupelo opened, Johns was passed out drunk in the back of the van. The club management was alarmed at seeing their headliner's condition, but the H-Bombs merely shrugged and said, "He'll be fine." Evidently, this happened every night.
As midnight passed, Johns was standing, though a little unsteady on his feet with a guitar around his neck. The set wasn't bad, but Johns and the H-Bombs played like they simply wanted to get through it. When Johns' guitar hero and mentor Danny Gatton committed suicide in 1994, it set him into another tailspin.
"My phone started ringing off the hook," he says. "Reporters looking for some juicy details. It made me sick to my stomach."
Gatton's been called the greatest un- known guitarist, but in death he became a hot subject.
"When Danny Gatton put me in his band, that was a huge vote of confidence," says Johns, who wrote three songs, including the title track, for Gatton's classic 1978 album, Redneck Jazz. Johns says he tried his best not to be influenced by his dazzling boss – "I didn't want to sound like nobody else" – but, "Danny eventually had an osmosis effect on me. At his best, he was inhuman."
The biggest thing he learned from Gatton is that, "The song isn't just a showcase for the musicians. You serve the song. Or you're just playing bullshit." Johns says he'll never understand why his friend/idol shot himself in the head.
A pro-life Johns tried checking himself into rehab soon after moving back to Austin in 2009.
"I was in the lobby and I was telling them, 'I'm not feeling too well,' and then I passed out, fell, and broke my hip."
Johns' long stay in the hospital started him on a two-year run of sobriety, during which time his liver regenerated, but he's been drinking beer again.
"I'm a sipper," he offers, down to about a six-pack a day. Something to do when there's nothing to do.
Two years clean coincided with an uptick in Johns' career, even though he almost never plays live. A bartender fan from the Gatton days, now a university professor in Los Angeles, played golf one day with a couple of music supervisors for Friday Night Lights and told them all about Johns. The network drama ended up using seven Johns songs in seasons three and four, including about a minute of "If I Had My Way" and "Bar-B-Cutie" in a crucial game scene. Royalty checks ranged from a few hundred dollars to several thousand.
Some of that money paid for his latest album – the currently homeless Panoramic Life. An optimistic Johns keeps sending copies to labels, which respectfully pass, but nobody's going to put out a roots rock album by a guy that's not well enough to tour.
I Wish I Was Old
Evan Johns remains an adventurous guitarist, but instead of settling into a reflective old age like one of his heroes, Johnny Cash, he tries duplicating his old self. There's absolutely no quit in him, but he doesn't quite possess the wild-eyed energy to pull it off.
He was always the kid. The kid who rode his bike to Smithsonian Folk Life Festivals in D.C. to listen to and meet vintage bluesmen Mississippi John Hurt, Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Roosevelt Sykes. The kid who ran the filling station in his hometown of McLean, Va. The kid who hitchhiked across the country 11 times before he turned 18. The kid who sang with Danny Gatton. Until he joined the LeRoi Brothers at 27, Johns was the youngest member of whatever band he was in.
We're used to watching musicians grow old onstage, but when you've been out of the game for as long as Johns, whose last regular gig was backing Wayne "the Train" Hancock in 1998, the time-lapse of aging can be jarring. Especially since Johns was such a ferocious, wildcat formation of roots rock music in his prime, which actually wasn't so long ago.
"Those ol' bluesmen from the Folklife festivals used to get a big kick out of me," he recalls, thinking back to when he fell in love with the life of a musician. "They'd call me 'little white boy' and I'd bring them Lucky Strikes.
"I loved being around those guys and soaked it up. They'd lived these interesting lives and had so much wisdom and experience. I remember thinking 'I wish I was old.' Then I'd have so much to talk about."
Evan Johns can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.