As much as I love writing about music, it’s always a tough chore when I have to do so about a musician or an artist who’s passed away.
Some of the toughest assignments I’ve been handed include writing homages to some of my musical heroes; guys whose records and words inspired me throughout my life. Tributes I penned after David Bowie and Lou Reed left this mortal coil left me gutted and empty. I thought those would, for sure, be the toughest journalistic undertakings I’d ever have to endure.
I was wrong.
Earlier this week, I was hit with a bit of news that almost knocked me off my feet. Losing a far-off musical idol is hard enough but losing someone who was a friend that shared my passion for music is almost unbearable and unfathomable.
Paul Johnston wasn’t merely a friend, he was a musical ally. He was the true embodiment of what makes rock and roll great and intoxicating. He carried the spirit, the knowledge, the wherewithal and the grit that was found only in those who’d made that choice to devote their lives to the indescribable concoction we know as rock and roll music.
What he never showed or displayed was attitude or unkindness. I was fortunate enough to spend my high school years in the mid-80s as a classmate of Johnston’s. What instantly endeared me to him was his unwavering reverence for the music we both loved. We initially sort of figuratively sniffed each other out like two junkyard dogs vying for territorial supremacy but that didn’t last long. We soon realized there was plenty of room for two guys whose lives were equally impacted by punk rock and still subscribed to the manifestation of its ideals.
Johnston wasn’t a guy who was attracted to the lifestyle from a fashionable point of view. Sure, he sported a mohawk haircut for the better part of our high school years but he didn’t do so for attention…he did it because it was proof positive that he was in this for life. And he meant it.
We maintained a mutual respect and we shared that sort of subtle brotherhood that stemmed from the understanding that we both clearly saw through the bullshit that surrounded us. But Johnston had that type of fellowship with others in our school too.
This week, after the news broke of his death amid fuzzy details, I’ve been fortunate enough to be contacted by some of our mutual classmates who shared recollections and remembrances that personified the type of person Paul Johnston was.
One of our fellow classmates remembered the role Johnston, who was also his neighbor, played in his life pretty vividly: “I would not know half the shit or explored as much music without him. I used to jump over the back fence into his yard to listen to The Jam, Dead Boys and Joe Jackson with him. He was one of the most important people I ever met.”
Another, who was a few grades behind us offered some high praise as well. “He was my punk rock idol in high school. He played me the first Jehovah’s Sicknesses (one of the early bands Johnston played with) demo at this house. I’ll never forget that day.”
This was no ordinary guy. This was someone who meant a lot to so many people. His gentle, understated demeanor only endeared us even more to him.
Former bandmates have also graciously shared their thoughts and their memories with me this week as well. Playing in a slew of vital local bands before his eventual move to Arizona in 2001, Johnston was an integral part of groups like The Fugitive Kind, Forgotten Apostles, Flat Stanley and Tampa Bay punk rock stalwarts, Pink Lincolns.
My Facebook feed has been filled with photos, tributes and homages from friends and former musical confidantes of Johnston’s like Greg Baker, Kevin Coss and Chris Barrows who were also kind enough to scour their archives in order to share photos with me of our mutual friend.
Ask anyone who played in bands with him, had a drink with him, talked music with him or just lived down the street from him: Paul Johnston was someone we were all lucky and fortunate to have known.
The word that continually surfaces throughout all the tearful social media recollections from friends and companions of Johnston’s is “genuine.”
Paul Johnston was as kind, friendly and admirable right up until his untimely passing as he was when we rubbed shoulders in our high school hallways.
He’d recently mentioned on Facebook that he’d, unfortunately, lost his longtime job in Tucson. Without missing a beat, his post was flooded with an outpouring of comments from friends, near and far, who instantly offered help, encouragement, and assistance in any way possible. Why? No doubt because of the countless kind and unselfish acts Johnston had probably imparted on them throughout his lifetime.
I’m not going to lie…this one hurts. A lot. The fact that Johnston and I were the exact same age and that we traveled in similar circles for a long time brings this loss eerily close to home. It makes one reflect on how unpredictable and mysterious life can be but, more importantly, it makes it clear that people like Paul Johnston come around once in a lifetime and that knowing him was a real gift. I think everyone who ever encountered him, shared a stage with him or was turned on to a cool band thanks to his immeasurable musical knowledge would agree.
A heartfelt and poignant message I received this week from Greg Baker, the local renowned chef and longtime bandmate and friend of Johnston’s, choked me up. Baker put it so eloquently and so poetically in the e-mail he sent me when describing Johnston:
He preferred to live a simple life, but never mistake that for being a simple man. He was one of the most caring, honest, and genuine people that I’ve ever met. You don’t get many friendships like that, and fewer that span 3 decades. I’m happy and proud that he was one of them.
To quote The Clash, one of our mutually favorite bands and one (of the many) reasons we bonded so strongly, I’ll close with the last line from the group’s 1978 paean to lifelong friendship:
“Go easy...step lightly...stay free.”
Goodbye, Paul. Each and every time I play one of my Hüsker Dü albums at maximum volume and revel in the pure elation the music brings me, I assure you, you’ll be on my mind.
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