Logrolling Johnny Swardson

So my buddy Jeff just sent me a link to an article that Jim Walsh wrote about our friend Johnny Rock.

It’s a story about “Highway Songs,” a song on Johnny’s new album, Silver Dust. Walsh writes how Johnny was inspired to write “Highway Songs” after making eye contact with a stranger driving north on Highway 8 just before her apparent suicide. It’s an incredible story–one of the best behind-the-song stories I’ve ever read (probably number one, actually, because the Phil Collins “Something in the Air Tonight” backstory has been discredited). But it was strange for me to read–it’s one of those you wish you would’ve written yourself, you know? And not just because I’ve known Johnny for years, and now a story that he told me over Camel lights in the Green Mill parking lot is being told by other writers, on other websites.

It’s strange writing about art in this town, because it’s small enough that you wind up being friends with a lot of artists, sometimes before the piece comes out, sometimes after. And let’s settle down with the “these people are going to try to be your friends” Lester Bangs in Almost Famous shit. An article in City Pages or Mpls.St.Paul is not going to make or break anybody’s career, but there’s a good chance it will cause an awkward conversation at the Triple Rock.

Most of the time with these things, there’s a chicken-or-the-egg scenario…was I this dude’s friend first? Or his fan? Later, followed by, (even if only on an unconscious level, but usually pretty goddam consciously), do I like this dude, but have major problems with his new [record, movie, play, book]? Then there’s the matter of what’s actually out there on the public record and how much private stuff do you know simply because you’re a friend. If you go to the dude’s wedding, and a year later, have to write a story on him, how many intimate details can you include? What does your friend the artist consider to be intimate? Even after you’ve successfully negotiated what’s in and what’s out, after you’ve agreed to a version of the “official story” you both can live with, it’s not uncommon that I’ll get a call two days after the interview…”uh, dude, would it be cool if you didn’t mention [blank]?” And all of it is complicated by this objectivity paradigm that you’re supposed to adhere to as a journalist. So are you violating some H.L. Mencken blood oath if you critique your friend’s shit positively? Are you violating the friendship if you critique his shit negatively? Do you have divulge where you rank on the BFF scale in your lede? Bottom line, with all this angst, you run the risk of pussing out or overcompensating and turning in a corny or worse, phony, piece.

My point is (let’s just get it out of the way), go see Johnny’s new band tonight at Barfly. They’re called John Swardson and the Get Gone, and they go on at 9:30.

Quickly, before all this gets swept under the friendship rug: I met Johnny in ’98 when we were both waiting tables at Sidney’s on Grand Avenue. Back then, he played rhythm guitar in this R&B band, Blue Dot Trance. They were a good time–used to catch them at the old Loring or The Red Sea. Their frontman was this six-foot-four black dude with dreads down to his ass that would hug a bongo drum between his knees and sing like Lenny Kravitz. BDT did a killer cover of the Atlanta Rhythm Section’s hit “So Into You.”

Johnny had a weird dye job back then, and he had these ridiculous sideburns that ran from his ears to the corner of his lips–he looked like a stag beetle with frosted highlights. So I guess he fit in with the funk soul brothers in the band, most of whom he went to high school with, or knew from the St. Paul neighborhood they grew up in. But he had one song that he would perform in the middle of the set, “Chasing the Rabbit.” It was germane to the whole funk-on-acid vibe, but it told a darker, more sophisticated story than some of Blue Dot’s other songs. And when you got to know Johnny, he was obviously more into artists like Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder than the Atlanta Rhythm Section. (Uh, thank Christ?)

Blue Dot broke up five years ago (maybe more), and in the meanwhile, Johnny’s been doing the troubadour thing–playing his songs solo with an acoustic guitar at different rooms around the city. In 2006, he put out a record, Ablaze, of songs that he’d been been playing solo for awhile. The record sounded dramatically different though. He recorded it in his friend’s home studio, and he got a bunch of musicians from around town to guest star on different parts–Dave Boquist played slide on one song, and Mark Mallman did keys on another. But Johnny never got a band together in real life. Never played a “CD release party” that City Pages could hype in the A-List. I don’t know if he just wasn’t confident enough in the record, or if he didn’t want to be responsible for getting his own band together. Who knows. It was kind of frustrating, because Johnny had these great stories to tell, but they were great rock songs, not great coffeehouse songs. Honestly, they were songs that I wanted to write about, but it seemed like Johnny was consciously avoiding putting himself out there. Maybe he didn’t want to be written about, didn’t want to be evaluated by anyone publicly.

And then he puts a band together and records a new album that he’s so proud of he hands the “Highway Song” scoop to Jim Walsh. I mean, Jesus! That’s what friends are for, I guess. As Dan Barreiro says, “We’re happy for ya.” So sure, go to his gig tonight. Go crowd the stage. I’ll be the guy in the back with his arms crossed.

The guy into the earlier material.

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4 Responses

  1. Steve long time listener first time blogger. my guess is yes they want to be your friend because you will write about them. i should know, i m your friend and you didnt write about me so im blogging.

  2. He might not have written about you Ross, but you have left an indelible mark on Stephen’s life. Go Huskers. And I liked Johnny’s earlier avatar: John Solo.

  3. It’s “Ablaze”, BTW, not “Blaze”. Other than that nit, good stuff, Steve.

  4. fwiw, pretty sure John and Walsh have been friends for quite some time as well. maybe not as “old school” as yourself, but there ya go.

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