Meet Johnny Angel, a veteran of the Boston Punk Scene, he is something of a punk rock renaissance man. Johnny Angel, in addition to fronting the Thrills with Barbara Kitson (later known as City Thrills), The Swinging Erudites, and the Blackjacks, is a radio host and a published author of two fiction novels Looking For Lady Dee and the upcoming In This Darkness, I Disappear.
MM: So, the “real” band, was that Blackjacks?
JAW: Yes. I returned to Boston in summer 1983 a defeated, beaten man, destroyed by New York. And the local groups then, with few exceptions, were no fun at all. Synth pop bands emulating Culture Club or Duran Duran. Or the roots bands Swillin’ Bud and singing Hank Williams songs. I thought that both of those were a dreadful put on. What the bands didn’t have was any swagger or attitude. So, I created one that did. We were leaner, more minimal, some psych, some blues. But mostly vitriolic and tough.
MM: Right I was listening to Last Angry Man earlier and there’s some shredding on that one
JAW: Like somewhere between the Heartbreakers and Gun Club. Lots of garage rock too–we were big Roky fans. Loved Husker Du. But we got sucked into this vortex of trying to get signed and glammed it up too much.
MM: Yes I picked up on the Roky influence on If I’d A Been Your Daddy (Some Johnny Thunders, too.)
JAW: Or That’s Why I Always Dress In Black which is a lot like You’re Gonna Miss Me. And (tee hee) Paint It Black
JAW: The “I see the girls go by dressed in their summer clothes” part–same chords
E-D-G-D. I did a lotta poaching. One song was basically a tribute to Friday On My Mind. Another had the Everly Brothers lick in it from Birddog. Chorus from The Modern World, JR’s (Jonathan Richman) song.
MM: Ooh, which one?
JAW: Generic NYC Woman. Like a melange of ideas. One song, Demon Lover was a surf-y take on It’s Too Late, the Dolls song. I was eclectic in my own twisted way. We just couldn’t get over the indie rock hump. Mostly, I couldn’t write a pop hit And our groove was off.
MM: Right, like moodier power pop in some places and metal…
MM: Ooh, and do I detect a little bit of a Byrds vibe?
JAW: Love them always have. A bone of contention in so many bands.
MM: Eh, I think it’s hard not to be drawn to The Byrds when you’re a guitarist.
JAW: Well, a rhythm loving one like I am.
MM: Can you tell me a little more about Generic New York City Woman? Who or what was the inspiration behind the song?
JAW: There were a few of them. One was this woman who was friendly with a neighbor of mine, she went to Columbia. Worked in a gallery. Another was a friend of a woman I dated. They were seemingly above it all types which made me think, “OK, I’ll undermine you in song”. The end result of this was that a writer in the Village Voice (who dated a woman like that described in the song) gave us a negative 4 for the record, the worst possible ranking. We were pleased. To me, NY had gone from being this cool, Warholian put on to a bunch of silly snobs. That’s what the song lampooned.
MM: Did you come out to L.A. with the Blackjacks?
JAW: Never. I moved alone. We never played out here.
MM: Gotcha, I could’ve seen you guys doing well on the West Coast.
JAW: We’d heard that but were too fucked up to get here. Just not together–band business wasn’t really my forte. When I stopped drinking in ’85, I started to become hyper critical of everything, I could hear our glaring shortcomings and I wasn’t coming up with decent new material. Then the woman left and my cockiness left with her. I was no longer this arrogant, puffed up poser. More like a beat down guy whose heart had been stomped into a waffle.
MM: So, no more booze and no more muse.
JAW: Yeah but the muse had been fading anyway. I was tired of having to write songs to fit a motif, an image. We hired a manager who’d managed the group Boston. Thought we’d get a deal. Nothing. But he convinced me to hire these three bar band pros to replace the other Blackjacks. Terrible move. The zeitgest of the band was gone. We lost our spirit. Band was done. Then “Walk” happened and that was so lucrative. After the E’s were done, I recruited a new band, more raunchy, but our time was over. The new bands were so much edgier and weirder. We were just an old, punkish boogie band.
MM: How did that go over with the fans?
JAW: Better but we were over. I’m not a typical Boston guy, I do not flog a dead horse.
JAW: Oh, they’ll play in the same bands forever.
MM: Like punching a clock for 30 years at the same job?
JAW: Not really–more like, it’s safe and sure and comforting.
MM: That makes more sense.
JAW: Folks know you’ll play their favorites. I have no interest in that.
MM: No room to grow artistically.
MM: That’s gotta be frustrating.
JAW: I think they like it that way, some of ’em.
MM: Sticking with what works
JAW: It’s cool for them. I just feel like I always wanna keep pushing forward. Different.
MM: So, we left with you leaving Boston for L.A. What did you do when first got out there?
JAW: Slept! I drove like 28 straight hours from east of Denver to here, I was beat! I started writing for the LA Weekly. Did extra work on films. What everyone does when they start here–at the bottom. Found out that my former roadie with the Blackjacks had a band here. Went to see them and we did a show at the Central (now the Viper Room), six tunes, just to see how it would be–we floored people. That was 1989–the idea of just playing simple and direct tunes was dormant. By our third gig we had some interest. We were sort of a cross between the Blackjacks and the Swinging E’s–namely, we didn’t take ourselves seriously. Johnny Angel and the Housewives on Prozac. Or “Army Of Bozos”. Changed our name for every gig. We would play my songs, new ones and some old Blackjacks songs and then whatever we heard on the radio on the way to the gig.
JAW: Some of which were lunacy. Kickstart My Heart, Fly High, Michelle, Cult Of Personality –Massacred em! One gig….the soundguy was Fear’s old bass player, Derf. Derf comes up to me while we were playing and tells me that some girl was gonna go home with him if he sang with us. I’m a charitable person, sure. So, he gets up to do I Don’t Care About You with us–that we knew he knows no words, I sang it. Then I Love Livin’ In The City Same deal. I don’t know if he got laid or not. The attitude was the opposite of Boston’s. You could reinvent yourself every week if you wanted to. No one up in your grill about anything.
MM: So I read somewhere that you sang with Chaka Khan.
JAW: I did! There was a Sunday night jam at the Shamrock in Los Feliz/East Hollywood. I went to all of those when I got here. Just to play. I walked in and played a few tunes with some people in came the great star! She turned us into her singers. We did Signed, Sealed, Delivered and Respect.
MM: That’s amazing!
JAW: She knew a few of the guys. Had amazing hair extensions!
MM: I bet!
JAW: Very business-like.
MM: Was this around the time of the Housewives on Prozac, too?
JAW: Before it. Chaka was maybe 3 or 4 weeks in?
MM: So, how long were you with the Housewives?
JAW: Maybe into 92. We turned in a terrible demo for Atlantic, they passed. It fizzled after that Oddly enough, I became more of a typical musician after thatA bunch of us writers got together an RnB band. Started playing everywhere. Lemmy sang with us.
MM: Excellent! How did that come about?
JAW: Lem’s manager was a friend, Phil Carson. Phil got us a great gig once. Anson Ford Theater opening for Paul Rodgers. We got the gig if he could sit in for a tune and he did!!
MM: Wow! Very Cool!
JAW: Shake Your Money Maker. He was rippin’! Fun gig–met Steve Perry from Journey, the Allman Brothers guys–like being 17 again
MM: Right on.
JAW: Not exactly peers. Very nice gent. We did a jam one night at Molly Malone’s. Drummer was the Pretenders drummer. He was playing the wrong beat for a song and I stopped and corrected him. Whole audience was stunned, how dare I? How could I sing over this thing, I asked him. Counted it out, he played it properly. We were cool–he told me that Chrissie Hynde did the same thing all the time. Was me, him, Chico (Santana’s bass), Frank Infante.
MM: Cool, Molly Malone’s is a great spot, too.
JAW: Yeah, dying though. Area overpriced.
MM: Totally, it was kinda dying out when I was still out there.
JAW: It’s twice the size now. Big side room.
MM: Sounds like the scene was so much more exciting and different back then vs the way it’s been in recent years. Is that fair to say?
JAW: Yes and no. Rock and roll was 25 years younger. But the record companies were like a miasma over everything, they had the ultimate power over everything, even the indies. Now, that’s gone People can and do play what they like. It’s one reason why EDM is so popular. If there’s no money in song creation, ditch songs. It’s also why there are now more venues for acoustic or eclectic stuff. People in LA now go out to entertain themselves not be where it’s at to be seen. So yeah–there’s no real cohesive music scene but there are alternatives to it. You do what you do and hope for the best.
MM: So, it’s a scene, but a different scene altogether?
JAW: May be–but as I am not a kid that socializes much, wrong dude to ask. I like playing gigs with kids though–they’re amazed! I’m three times as old or twice as old and so much weirder than they are! My songs are about unusual things. To them, not to me.
MM: How would you say your more recent songwriting has evolved in terms of what you write about?
JAW: Hmm. Whatever is around me gets observed and absorbed. If you name a song, I can tell you I know that “Mama Needz Luv 2” was off a single conversation with a friend. “Runner Up Valentine”, same.
MM: Yes, Mama Needs Luv 2. I’ve got that on, right now.
MM: Love the reggae influences on this.
JAW: Thanks, but it was from a single mom friend of mine. Lamenting her love life. So, I had a song. It’s really the best way to do things. Not grind out love songs or “fuck Trump” songs.
MM: Right on, real life.
JAW: Yeah, or mystical stuff or vague plaints. Sensitive Little Flower is about people like that. You know, get to the point! I may not be the greatest writer ever but I demand to be understood.
MM: There’s definitely an ease and an openness that comes through in your recent stuff, it’s great!
JAW: And all the goofing on sex and sexuality
MM: Yes indeed
JAW: It can’t be taken seriously. Although, without Trump I’d never have finished the Size song, that idea had been in my head for years. The nonsense obsession people have with dick size and breasts. But until that idiot made it a fucking campaign issue……
MM: Ha, he’s been a catalyst of sorts
JAW: OH sure! Also, people like the double-entendre-laden things –amuses them always. Rousing and anthemic stuff too, but yeah–can never go wrong with a cock joke or ten! Really warms the crowd
MM: Alright, what prompted you to write Looking For Lady Dee?
JAW: Have been asked many times why not write a book. People like my writing and storytelling and my unusual way of looking at subjects that may have been deemed “pored over to death” like punk rock’s birth. But I never thought memoirs of mine would be worth anything. I’m not famous. Who’d care? Walking through the house one day, it hit me. Suppose the story of Thrills’ existence and that of the missing woman (Day, i.e. Lady Dee) paralleled? Then I had it. Wrote the first pass at it in three weeks. Rewrote it a half dozen times. But it wasn’t “cathartic in advance”
I didn’t have any deep seated/seeded need to get that off a chest. Just told some of the band’s tales and my imagined version of Day’s life as she had in fact disappeared.
MM: Wow, so Day really had disappeared!
JAW: She had. The “Viv” character is a real person too. She inspired it She was Day’s friend. (“Viv”) Wanted to know what I knew. The story evolved and became what it was.
MM: Wow, so had you known her very long before her disappearance?
JAW: Briefly. Maybe 2 years? And she and her friend were in the New York scene? Or did I miss something? Day was a student in Boston and then a nursing student. Moved to NYC in ’78, late
MM: Ok, that makes sense, now. I was remembering back to Hurrah’s.
JAW: Yeah, Hurrah’s gig was ‘79. Glad I wrote it and glad I wrote a second one, too
MM: Gotcha. So, the book follows the story of the band and your time knowing Lady Dee. That’s cool! How’s the response to the book been? Is the 2nd book a follow-up?
JAW: Response generally excellent–yeah, the editing was bad and formatting awful but the feeling is there. 2nd book completely different– a real mystery
MM: What’s the new book called and what’s it about?
JAW: “In This Darkness, I Disappear” About a bizarre murder and its incredible (and very tenuous) connection to me.
MM: That’s heavy. How long ago was this?
JAW: Theoretically two years ago…..It’s complicated
MM: I bet! So, is it a bit of a true crime story, or is it a more fictionalized account?
JAW: The latter
MM: In This Darkness, I Disappear” Is it at all music related?
JAW: That line comes from a Springsteen song that was going through my head when I moved here. Essentially, it has the parallel tales of an inexplicable killing and the 1980’s for me, music wise and their link up is shocking.
MM: That’s sounds really intriguing! So the events mirror a musical timeline of the period?
JAW: Yeah–’83-’89. I was twenty-three years old at the beginning of the 1980’s and as I didn’t keel over and die during that decade (miraculously), thirty-three when they ended. New Years Day 1980 was in my pigsty of a punk rock crash pad in Boston that I generally shared with Lisa, girlfriend, New Years Day 1990, Hollywood and likely alone. As that decade was the prime of my career as a musician as well as the beginning of my second life as an “artist”, writing for newspapers, you’d assume I look back warmly and fondly on that era but because I am as Apollonian as I am Dionysian (that is, as much head as heart, really), I analyze as much as I feel and I give equal gravity to both. I had a great time until I didn’t. And then I had a different kind of a great time that when it soured and went belly-up, it led me to where I am now, a dozen miles or so from the bosom of Mother Pacific.
The decade itself was horrid on its face. That optimism and joy of the 1960’s had been denigrated as a degenerate bacchanalia that had turned civilization into Sodom. Then the hapless and clueless 1970’s were derided as amoral and off course. So in America, that atavistic yearning for a king that’s always underpinned our consciousness here led us to self-righteous strongmen and a patina of sterile, pervasive patriotism that hung over us like the June gloom of the Los Angeles’ basin’s marine layer. Fighting back against this wave of chest-thumping nationalism was futile and nearly everything one touched had been putrified by the vile, crone like fingers of the scourge of capitalism, marketing.
Under this surface of jingoism, there was a lot of festering fury and I liked being there a lot more than right in the middle of the ultra-cooperative suckfest that was the state of the above ground arts then. Irreverence–the keystone of the hippie and punk movements and yes, even disco–was seen as passe and acquiescence was to be the norm. That made me crazy.
One afternoon, the Blackjacks (my modestly successful Eighties rock band) were going to play this lunch show at a bar in Boston’s Kenmore Square at a club called Celebration. We were to set up in front of a banner proudly proclaiming a Coors sponsorship. Much to the consternation and fury of my band-mates and the radio station promoting the event, I flatly refused. My grandfather was a labor organizer and Coors was a notoriously scabbish shop, not to mention overtly hostile to gay and lesbian rights. Either the banner came down or I went home. They folded. A great victory for the movement and solidarity forever, right? We never played there again. I thought it was because of my obstinance after all, we were an enormous draw there, selling the place out when it was ten below in January. That wasn’t the reason. The bar manager had eyes for my girlfriend, who waitressed there. She rebuffed him. We got the gate. That to me epitomized the decade. Sound and fury signifying, well, probably something besides whatever the tumult was supposed to be about. In other words, “The Era of Bullshit”.
–That’s in the Prologue
MM: So is the bar manager the killer or am I on the wrong track?
JAW: LOL! No, that’s the explanation of the era. Seems people DO make glorious shrines to their youth BUT The 80’s were absolute crap.
MM: Sorry, just wondering. I imagine being an adult in the 80s was a very different experience. I really like what you’ve shared with me, so far!
JAW: Well, compared to now? I mean, I was 23. My bands did well in that decade
I had a pair of small hits but generally, doing your own thing, being spontaneous–that was frowned upon. That Michael J Fox character epitomized it “Alex Keaton”
For the first time in 20 some years, it was totes cool to be an asshole.
MM: Right, I was sorta observing how your experience of the 80s would differ from the way me and my peers have a dewy-eyed nostalgia for it. Us 80s kids.
MM: Right on, are you gonna get any video of it?
JAW: They’re both wonderful songs. Maybe Leslie can film it. Yes, The Replacements! And REM. I mean, my heart says Bob Dylan and old 50’s tunes–that’s the music of my youth but someone who was 21 in 1984, those songs are really in their sweet spot.
MM: I could totally appreciate that! One of our bloggers (Altrockchick) actually reviewed that Replacements album. Great band!
JAW: We did a few gigs with them and Tommy and I had a band together in ‘93 and ‘94.
MM: Tell me about that but tell me about the gig too.
JAW: Blackjacks opened for Replacements at Rat twice. First time, we were third, nothing. Second time, right before them. This was during Let It Be tour
The Replacements at The Rat (Photo: Wayne Valdez)
They were a now a big deal but I knew, or sensed, that they were the kind of band to sabotage themselves. So, I told my band mates that we were gonna go out and absolutely kill the audience. And we lit into ‘em. One of our best sets–2 encores One was Ace Of Spades, one Rock and Roll (Led Zeppelin) In dressing room, Paul was furious.
That was THEIR schtick! They shambled out and did their thing but because being “lovable fuckups” was their trip, half the audience tuned them out. 8 years later, Tommy moved out here (L.A.) to be with this woman, Kelly, my friend. He and I hit it off right away. Two idiots in a pod.
JAW: So, we started a punk rock cover band “Strap On Baster” The highpoint of our brief career was challenging Guns N Roses to a battle of the punk rock cover bands. They had released a record of punk rock covers. I knew the afternoon DJ on KROQ
She issued the challenge over the air. They heard! They called the Palace (where we were playing) to ask about this. Booking lady laughed and said it was a gag! She was fired the next day! They were gonna show up and FIGHT! Six years later, who’s now in Guns N Roses? (From 1998-2016)
MM: Go figure. Right with Buckethead.
JAW: Tommy loves Axl. Says he’s a wonderful bandleader. (Read more about Tommy Stinson’s thoughts about Axl Rose, here!)
JAW: Doesn’t surprise me–I met Axl once, very nice, courteous guy.
MM: Wouldn’t have guessed.
…To Be Continued…
Johnny Angel’s Smut and Politics is available on Bandcamp!