Judging by his work with Tim Buckley, Manly P. Hall, Robert Altman, Lena Horne, this cool cat, sideman to legends, is to the best of my knowledge the original Silverlake hipster. Art Johnson started living there in the early 70’s. His monastic cell featured fabulous musical instruments and a lean but weighty collection of old esoteric tomes. He and his circle of mostly musician and poet friends were definitely up to something, and where else could you see an original edition of Blake, the set put together by Yeats? He was a moody bastard, some girl in France. When he’d see her music would pour out of him like a mockingbird in spring.
Where do you even start to tell stories about this guy? He has played an orchestra of instruments including Renaissance lute, and when I say play I mean really play the hell out of an instrument the way it’s meant to be played, with plenty of research and practice.
He toured with Lena Horne, Tim Buckley, Paul Horn, The Association, Pat Boone, Allan Holdsworth, Jobim, Engelbert Humperdinck while working on music for TV shows and in movies.
I’ve heard tales of the naked nymphs of Laurel Canyon with silver trays full of illegal treats at the house of Stills or some other mainstay of the hippie scene. Ever hear of Skip Battin, member of The Byrds, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, and the Flying Burrito Brothers? He played in a pioneer fusion band in Laurel Canyon with Art on guitar. But that’s just Laurel Canyon.
Art has played Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Sporting Club in Monte-Carlo and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, not to mention Shelly’s Mann Hole. But his gigs in the black clubs of downtown San Diego in the sixties, and in the last of the Los Angeles joints in Crenshaw, were just as thrilling.
Art is also a dedicated writer, a published poet and novelist with a decidedly metaphysical slant to his work. His most recent book The Devil’s Violin combines a mystery about the disappearance of Paganini’s violin with a symbolist’s deep resonances and arcane references.
In the picture above he holds the first guitar he built; it later became my very first serious guitar. I remember mutely longing after it, for its great sustain, meaty tone and gunmetal blue and black finish. Eventually he sold it to us cheap so we could have a good axe. That’s what it looked like before riot grrrl inspired me to plaster it with stickers. When it was new, on that balcony, that’s right, in Silverlake, in the 1990s.
I’ve been lucky to have great mentors like Art. From his exasperation when I tried to play power chords with dainty fingertips (to which he responded: “Dudette, they were sharecroppers with big scarred hands, just put your fingers over there and play the goddamn song.” To his wise advice: “When they stop telling you how good you are is when you’re really getting good,” but then to the sobering revelation “they call you a genius then they never call you.” Never ending punch lines interweaved with insights from Plato or Blavatsky, but then back to the punch lines. Not only could I ask him any question about music, he even appreciated my rejection of it as punk took over my life.
These days Art lives on the Mediterranean with that love of his life he waited so long for, a painter it turns out. He’s an inspiration to everyone who dares to take a less traveled path. I’m delighted to introduce you to a true friend of the arts.
Evil and twisted may both apply. He was an electronic genius and even in the early fifties we had televisions all over the house. The first color set was in 1959—where else? In our house.
What was it like growing up as a quirky musician in the America of the 1950s?
Actually I didn’t start playing the guitar until 1963. I was seventeen. When I worked with Alan Holdsworth opening up solo for his trio at his request a few times in California before I left for Europe I found out that he didn’t start until he was seventeen also! We were both told that we didn’t stand a chance of making anything of ourselves because we started too late. Great laughs.
However, I began to become aware of music in the 1950’s. You had a telephone in your house, black and white TV, radio, phonograph players and most homes had a piano. In our house there was no music played. I started on the accordion at the age of seven. By the time I was eleven, after four years with the accordion, I hated music. Later when I was maybe fourteen I heard for the first time on the radio, Andre Segovia, Barney Kessel, Elvis Presley and Little Richard. This was all before the Beatles became a band!
America was much different then. It is hard to explain to people the simplicity of life and the uniqueness of choosing a musical direction. There were not hordes of musicians in those days, particularly in the jazz field. It was a very select club and hard to enter. There were no cassettes, no instruction books, no videos, no cable, no computers. Christ, the Walkman cassette player didn’t come on the scene until 1979.
You had vinyl records and a turntable. You listened and tried to copy what you heard from the great players and then you went out at night to clubs to listen some more. You practiced and you listened. That was it. If you got lucky maybe a jam session would get you some attention. It was definitely not an easy path. The one advantage during the 50’s and 60’s was the amount of nightclubs and bars that had live music. That element does not exist today and it is too bad. In those days it was hard to get lessons because the musicians who were playing out a lot didn’t have time to teach or just didn’t want to.
One night a few years back I was working with a famous jazz pianist for a club gig with a quartet. On one of our breaks, I asked him if he ever taught. He turned to me and said, “fuck ‘em, let them learn it the hard way like we did.” A blunt response but I got it!
You studied guitar with the great Barney Kessel, tell us a little about him and what he meant to you.
There isn’t enough room on the net to answer this question fully. Briefly, I took a handful of lessons from Barney after arriving in LA in the late 60’s. He then moved to Europe and I didn’t see him again until he returned two years later. My real time with the maestro started in San Diego after we both ran into each other at the bank, neither knowing that we had moved to SD. I spent the last ten years of his life with him and he was like an advisor/father figure to me. He produced my “Solo Jazz Guitar” CD and to my knowledge I think I am the only guitar player he ever endorsed. He was one of the funniest mo-fos I ever knew and of course the godfather of all modern electric guitar playing. He took over from Charlie Christian and bumped it up a few notches. He was a real friend as well as a mentor.
Your first gigs involved some locales that most musicians of the time who shared your tender age and pigment would never have dared? Tell us about that one when the gun dropped out of somebody’s suit on the dance floor.
Actually I would say that I owe most of my true schooling to the black community of musicians and vocalists that I have worked with over the years. When I was nineteen I went to late-night all black jam sessions in downtown San Diego which at the time was a risky place to be. The first night I tried to sit in a man pulled a knife on me when I went into the head to wash my hands. I stood my ground and stared him down. He smiled while folding up the cutlery and said, “…you’re alright, my man, you can stay.”
My truly treasured years were spent at Memory Lane in the Crenshaw district on the south side of LA. Between 1970-81, I played there with Willie Bobo, Papa John Creech, O.C. Smith, Eddie ‘cleanhead”, Charles Brown, Big jay McNeely and many others. Generally, I was the only white guy within miles of 101st and Adams.
In 1980-81, I worked there with the two great singers O.C. Smith, and Spanky Wilson. We performed Friday and Saturday nights and a Sunday brunch.
The people of the black community were all class. They came dressed up like the evening meant something. One night there was a local who had tilted the bottle a few too many times. O.C. was singing a ballad, the lights were low and the crowd was really into it. You could hear a pin drop there was such a hush of concentration.
Then it happened. The MF started to walk across the dance floor in front of O.C., weaving like hell ready to fall over with each step. He got about halfway across when his silver-plated, pearl-handled .38 Colt oozed its way out his pants and smacked the parquet-wood with a loud thud. He was so stoned he didn’t realize what had just happened. He had a goal: get to the other side of the room.
O.C. was singing with his eyes closed. The sound pulled him out of his reverie. Without missing a beat he quickly assessed the situation and calmly said, “…dropped your piece bros.” and went right back into the song with nothing lost. We all froze. There was a dramatic pause in the room then O.C. suddenly realized what had just taken place and he began to laugh and the whole room joined him as a roar rang-out along the walls.
The owners Larry and George simply picked up the gun, stuffed it in the customer’s waistband and escorted him to the front door.
He was back the next night sober as hell: didn’t remember anything.
Shit happened then that you could not make up. Memory Lane was the last of the real nightclubs that were born before World War II or just after that. It had an atmosphere, which has since then disappeared for the most part.
You once told me that Laurel Canyon in the early 1960’s was unlike anywhere you ever were before or after. Tell us some highlights and lowlifes of the time?
It was like living in Shakespeare’s “Mid Summer’s Nights’ Dream”. Here you were in the middle of LA in a mountain/forest. The nights were magic – you could feel the fairy dust in the atmosphere. In those days it was the exclusive residence for all of the west coast crazies. Poets, authors, philosophers, folk musicians, jazz and rock players, beatniks, hippies, singer-songwriter’s, you name it. Add to that the newly emerging drug culture and you’ve got a hell of cocktail! Once again, I must remind folks that it was simple times, life etc.
As an example of the lifestyle, I rehearsed nearly every day in 1969 up Lookout Mountain in an experimental fusion trio with Skip Battin (later bass player with the Byrds) and Eddie Ho (drummer with Zappa). We had a rehearsal garage next door to “Papa” John Phillips. One afternoon when we came out for a break he was standing there smoking a joint and he said, “…what in hell is that shit supposed to be?” The three of us looked at each other stoned out of our minds and just start laughing. That was Laurel Canyon.
You were voted most promising jazz guitarist by Leonard Feather after your performance at the Monterey jazz festival in 1970. How did that impact you life and career?
It was really weird because just before I walked on stage I got the word that Hendrix had just died. That’s right I’m walking out to play Monterey a few hours after Hendrix passed, whose career was made on that stage three years earlier. I don’t remember a damn thing about the performance. I guess it was ok because LF gave me a nice review. Actually reviews can have very little impact on a career unless you are already famous! But the reviews I received when I first came on the scene in ’68 were very beneficial. The music business is like anything else. Right time/right place.
What was it like touring with Tim Buckley? Was that the first time you felt yourself levitate on stage?
I was recommended for that gig by James T. Fielder, the original bass player with Blood, Sweat and Tears. I arrived for the audition and Tim was already there playing his Fender electric 12 string like a mad devil. He was a great guitar player and I’m not sure the public really knew that. So I introduced myself and we began to jam just the two of us. He said, “I can tell you love Django Rheindhart…wanna jam on Sweet Georgia Brown? And off we went. Tim was a unique person. Our first gig was a concert in Detroit in 1974 at the State Theatre downtown. We were opening up for Chick Correa. We were all over it from the first tune. When my guitar solo came up Tim looked over at me and motioned with his head to come where he was into the spotlight. I will have to admit that in those days I was quite a guitarist with mega-chops and ideas to match. Tim egged me on “…kick their fucking ass Artie…” he yelled at me just as I arrived center stage…and guess what? I did! Honest to gosh truth I got so into it that I felt my feet lift off of the stage…serious. The crowd went nuts and for over a year we did this all over the globe. We were planning on recording when he overdosed. It’s funny, I remember teaching a four-year-old Jeff Buckley how to cross the street by looking at the walk/don’t walk signs. Lotta time slipped by since those days.
Bootleg recording of Tim Buckley and band including Art on guitar at Knebworth 1974.
Please tell us your favorite Miles Davis story.
Well actually I only have one. I was playing with Shelly Manne’s group on a Thursday night and Miles was due in to play that weekend at the Mann Hole, Shelly’s club. We were in the middle of the first set when I saw a black man in a white mink coat and hat walk in the club. Shit, it’s Miles I thought to myself. I tried to pretend that he wasn’t there. When we took a break Miles and Shelly were talking by the bar. Suddenly Miles broke away and came over where I was standing. He got right in my face, looked up at me and said, “You know what?” and I said “nope” and he said “…You don’t play too bad for a white boy.” Without thinking I responded “…Thank you God.” He smiled.
We were doing two shows a might at that venue in Toronto. Lena really only had one complete set. It was the second show of the last night. So when the crowd stayed over from the first show she got really nervous. She was afraid they would notice that she was doing the same set again. She started to yell at the band on stage because she was forgetting her lyrics she was so wigged out. She didn’t realize that she could have just been reciting the phone book from the greater Toronto area and they would have been happy. Anyway the vibe was really bad.
After the show her management said there would be a band meeting. I chose to forego the privilege and I went back to my room. The next day we were due to fly out back to the states. Her limo was in front of the hotel. I started to head for the band van when her manager told me that Lena wanted me to ride with her. I thought: “okay, time to look for a new job.” She and I were squeezed into the back seat. We drove for a few minutes she didn’t say a word. I waited. Finally she looked over at me and said “…all us canaries are a pain in the ass, right?” Without hesitation I looked at her and said, “You got that one right!” A few moments went by then she grabbed my hand and gave it a squeeze. Real class. She, in her silent way apologized.
More fun to tour with Lena Horne or Paul Horn?
Loads of fun with both – just different.
Is it true that Pat Boone’s shows attracted the nastiest groupies?
You worked on soundtracks for the classic Robert Altman films Nashville and Welcome to L.A. What was that experience like, and how did it differ from the work you did for television soundtracks?
Things were loose on Altman’s set. He was an improviser. They’d be setting up for a scene and he’d wander over to Harvey Keitel or Geraldine Chaplin or whoever and whisper something in their ear. They’d give him a funny look and then with that child-like look in his eyes he’d say,” …okay, let’s try one.” I never saw him with a script in his hand.
At 20th Century Fox, or Universal or Warner’s it was like a military drill. Play this music perfectly or you’ll be shot at sunrise. There was no improvisation on the lots in those days—all business.
How did you become friends with Manly P. Hall?
That’s a tough question to answer. I never had the feeling that Mr. Hall was compelled to have his time wasted by people whom he could not experience a certain mood or atmosphere with. His social circle included Hollywood stars, dignitaries, schoolteachers and janitors. He seldom engaged in intellectual conversation. If someone tried to drag him into a dissertation on a certain Neo-Platonist he would reply by asking the person what chance he or she thought the LA Dodgers had this season. I was around him several days a week for seven years. He guided me without formality, he encouraged me without obvious intent and he most of all laughed with me when I would roll out my 1961 Pontiac and give him a ride home. I never tried to engage him in intellectual exchange. I thought that he probably didn’t need my take on the twelve books of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.
I actually started working there recording his Sunday lectures from 1982-88. I loved going into his office to get him for his lecture and finding him bent over the comic strip section of the New York Times with that mischievous smile on his face.
Tell us your favorite story or two about your time at the PRS.
In the early eighties after I started working there part-time I became absorbed in reading and writing poetry. From the ancient Greeks to the 20th century I couldn’t get enough. I read bios, histories of the times the poets lived, their letters, their influences, books on the Hermetic Arts, etc, I never mentioned it to Mr. Hall. Why should I? He has better things to think about.
But one day I was driving him home at the end of the day and he didn’t utter a word. I took the cue and kept my mouth shut. When I pulled into his driveway and made the turn to let him out, he opened the door and turned to me and said, “You know that poetry is one of the best means of initiation into the mysteries.” Boom! Bomb dropped. He alighted from the car on his own, gave me one of his unique smiles where it seems his eyes become oriental and he wished me a good evening.
That should do it.
You’ve preformed Brazilian music with Jobim, blues violin, traditional jazz and fusion, you’ve played every instrument on rock and pop recordings, performed classical and you’ve performed Renaissance lute recitals, what inspires you to study so many different instruments and styles of music?
I think it is just the fact that I’ve spent a lifetime as a curious person. If something attracts me I have to investigate it. The guitar is one of the most unique instruments on the face of the planet. It is comfortable with all styles of world music including Classical, jazz, folk, rock, Country Western, Flamenco, African, and on and on.
My own desire has always been linked to the need to replicate the sound—to experience the creation of the sound. Of course, it also helps to be out of your fuckin’ mind! My time spent on the violin, the most difficult of all instruments to play, was merely intellectual revolution. You can’t push a button or program a sound-byte, you have to really be able to make the sound—the violin is the most satisfying to play when you have it under control. The problem is that doesn’t happen very often.
How many years have you been writing poetry? What is your goal as a poet?
Nearly 35 years. I don’t think poets can afford goals. It is the personal reflection of the universal as it applies to the subjective interpretation of experience. Poetry is the thinking of feelings. A goal? To not have someone throw it away after I’m dead.
One of the most amazing things about your career of great accomplishments is that you had to fight disabilities to do so. Where did you find the courage and dedication?
I was just too stupid to realize I was handicapped. It’s that simple. I never thought about how to cross the road—I just went over to other side. Period.
You live in Monaco now. What do you like better about Europe? How does America look from over there?
I’ve been here with my French/Monagasque wife for around 12 years. I haven’t been back to the States since 2009. It would be difficult to describe Europe as ‘better’ than the US, just different. For one thing, France will fit inside of Texas. And Monaco will fit inside Central Park. So there is this aspect that needs to be acknowledged. France is still basically an agricultural, economically driven country: lots of farms, vineyards, and produce stands along the side of the road, etc. There are many cheese commercials on TV! The pace of life is slower, especially in Italy where each day is valued.
In my book “The Devil’s Violin”, there is a description by FBI Agent Chris Clarke about a late afternoon in the plaza of Cremona. He comments on the Italian way of living. It is drawn from real life—something I experienced first-hand.
There are less computers per capita, more readers who want to hold a book and not stare at a screen to read. There is not the tragic tension of terrorist doom, which seems to be dominant in the States. When you go for a drive there are no highway patrol cars on your bumper feeding your license plate into a computer. Bottom line, it’s more relaxed. Also, Sunday is a real day off. Very few stores open.
America is still revered by Europeans for the most part. However, they really can’t understand this thing about constant gun violence, which is occurring more often in the USA. They love to visit the US and always come back with a gleam in their eyes telling everyone what a wonderful time they had and how friendly Americans are.
You recently had your first novel “The Devil’s Violin” published by Story Merchant Books, a blend of Hermetic metaphysics and a thriller with Paganini’s violin front and center. What inspired you to write the book, how is it doing and will you write more?
Actually the book wrote me. I was staying with relatives in a village not far from Parma Italy and before turning out the light one night the names of half a dozen characters came to me with brief descriptions of each. I turned out the light and lay down then flipped the lamp back on and wrote down some notes. I knew better than to think that I would still remember it all the next day.
So, that morning at breakfast, a dozen Italians were asking my wife why I wasn’t eating. She just told them, “…he’s writing a book, he’ll be with us shortly.” I wrote six rough chapters then returned to Nice and shelved it for six months. When I got back to it I just sat down and in a few months the first draft was complete. I re-wrote it several times and almost had a publisher in Ireland put it out but they ran out of funding from the government.
Along comes my long time friend Ronnie Pontiac and he introduces me to Ken Atchity at Story Merchant Books. Ken liked the story but insisted on a complete re-write. So, off we go again. Seven months later it is published as a kindle and paperback and for a first time fiction writer it has become, as Ken states: “…a minor sensation.” I have no figures on sales for it has only been in the market place on Amazon for four months.
The metaphysical aspects of the story are slight and just came to me as part of the progression of the story and nothing more. People are surprised when I tell them that I never use an outline. That habit is probably a hangover from writing poetry. I never expected the Hermetic side of the novel to even make a dent in the consciousness of the reader but several reviewers have explored that aspect of the story.
I haven’t any idea what I’m going to write when I sit down at my desk. It just starts itself and the characters talk to me and offer direction.
I am now writing a spin-off of the Devil’s Violin which has some of the characters involved. I would not call it a sequel but it’s close to it.
I think that it is important for people to realize that the creative process on almost any level is magical. When you write a song, or a poem or compose instrumental music, paint or sculpt, you are making visible, or audible, the invisible. The foundation of transcendental magic is merely the permutation of the elements. An idea is drawn from a universal consciousness and we should never take full credit for our art. There is always something unknown that contributes to our creative process.
That’s the fun of it.
When you’re at home, having played so many kinds of guitar styles, what do you gravitate towards when you practice?
That’s a good question. Honestly, I have two Flamenco guitars from Spain and as I live on the Mediterranean Sea, it’s just across the street from my apartment, and the boats are docked within my view, I generally play MY version of Spanish Guitar. Flamenco mixed with Brazilian and a pinch of jazz thrown in for good measure. I love acoustic guitar over electric although most of my career has been spent dealing with lugging amps around.
What are your current musical projects?
I am not at this time doing any concerts or club dates. Last year I signed a lifetime contract with ITI Records Incorporated/Warrant music. They are affiliated with Sony’s digital arm, The Orchard. I have several projects available online from ITI records through iTunes or Amazon including straight-ahead jazz, fusion and World beat. My newest project is online now and is a World Jazz CD entitled “One Man”. I’ve composed all of the music and I am playing all of the instruments: Guitars, violin, mandolin, keyboards, bass and programmed drums and percussion. It has been out in digi-format for a few months and over 35 countries have streamed it with the US and India at the top of the list. ITI is releasing it as a CD in august. Your readers can hear a sample at Youtube/ ITIrecords -There is a video along with the track.
I am also their executive consultant which I am donating my time pro-bono. All of my profits from sales I turn back over to the company because they are using the money to develop new talent and get some fresh faces in on the scene. I feel that this is very important for the future of live music as well as recorded works. You reach a point in your life where it is time to give back some of what you got. Simple.
Article Written by Tamra Spivey
Newtopia staff writer TAMRA SPIVEY is a founding member and primary singer of Lucid Nation, executive producer of the documentaries Rap is War and Exile Nation, and associate producer of The Gits documentary. She was art editor and west coast editor of Newtopia Magazine in its former incarnation, collaborating on in depth interviews with whistle blower Michael Ruppert, ACLU and record business honcho Danny Goldberg, and grassroots political strategist Larry Tramutola. Follow her on twitter @MongrelPatriot.