Ross Johnson, Shit Rocker
Keeping it sleazy with Ross Johnson
By Audra Schroeder,
5:12PM, Thu. Feb. 15, 2007
"Every day I look at myself in the mirror and think, 'Man or manatee?'"
Ross Johnson is one self-deprecating bastard. He's just gotten off the phone with "one of his exes," he's got three kids, and he's anticipating a trip to Austin because, "for a middle-aged man, it's a busman's holiday."
Local maniacs the Golden Boys invited Johnson and Jeffrey Evans, both longtime Memphis players, to play this weekend, Friday at the Scoot Inn and Saturday at Beerland, after a show in Memphis last year.
"After the show, I said, 'All your songs sound like Roky Erickson's "Starry Eyes,"'" he laughs. "And they didn't say no, they just kind of looked at me like, 'So what?' But I just thought they were great; they didn't fit into any sort of garage ghetto. They just have this look in their eye like, 'I'm gonna hurt myself.' … I've been not drunk for a few months, and those boys do live the lifestyle that I've lived. I can't do it anymore so they do it for me."
Once upon a time, however, the Arkansas-born Johnson was living the life. It may be hard to believe that he's been stomping around the Memphis scene for 30 years, playing with Big Star's Alex Chilton on his first solo EP in 1980, drumming in the original Tav Falco's Panther Burns (also with Chilton), collaborating with Evans in '68 Comeback, and running around with famed black-and-white photographer William Eggelston, Charlie Feathers, and Jessie Mae Hemphill. He also wrote for Creem under the tutelage of none of than Lester Bangs, using the pseudonym Chester the Conger Eel, his first piece being a concert review of "some horrible Fleetwood Mac thing." The word "icon" is one that pops up now and again.
"In the early Panther Burns, we would clear rooms, but it's 30 years later and music that used to make people want to hit us with bottles, people are liking it," the fiftysomething Johnson relates. "Back then it was a lot of drink, a lot of drugs. It was very sleazy, very isolated, and I had no idea any of it would be remembered. We were all footnotes to [Big Star producer] Jim Dickinson and Alex Chilton. I have ridden those careers like a parasite."
In the spirit of sleazy parasites, Johnson describes the music he plays and has played as "shit rock," and there's no arguing with that. In a good way. He and his cohorts, specifically enigmatic current Parisian resident Tav Falco, with whom he played a Panther Burns reunion in Memphis last year, have poured pitchers of fuzzy, bombastic punk rock, tango, blues, and rockabilly that defy any easy categorization. Memphis' Goner Records have carried on the spirit, with both Johnson and Evans playing the annual drunken Gonerfest last year.
"Jeff is a real musician; he does carry the act. I'm just a shit rocker. I really would never have gotten on a stage unless standards had been lowered. People like me were just not allowed near drums or a guitar or a microphone. So I'm eternally grateful for the lowering of standards."
Amen to that.