Ross Johnson is weak and afraid. At least that's what he says repeatedly in his sardonic new lyrics for the classic elevator jam "Theme from 'A Summer Place'": "Boys and girls laughed at me because I was weak and afraid," he chants. "It's a lifestyle that's working for me."
Johnson, the mild-mannered University of Memphis librarian and elder statesman of Memphis punk, lets his listeners know that he's okay with being a useless screw-up so they can be okay with it too.
"There's trouble in this here world," Johnson further confesses in a recording called "Naked Party," "but the payoff," he adds, explaining justice as he understands it, "is that you get to go to a nekkid party once in a while."
In the liner notes for Make It Stop: The Most of Ross Johnson, Goner Records' hysterical, perfectly paced 24-track retrospective of Johnson's often bizarre but always entertaining output, former Memphis Flyer music editor John Floyd describes the dark, confessional content as being uncomfortably personal, even for people who don't know the artist and have no idea that his rantings are, to a large extent, painful autobiography. As accurate as Floyd's assessment sounds, Johnson's on-again off-again bandmate Tav Falco, leader of Memphis' art-damaged psycho-roots band Panther Burns, has the definitive take.
"Not since Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley have I knelt before the shrine of crossed funny bones, wicked innuendo, and hep diatribe like I kneel before the altar of Ross," Falco says. "[Johnson's lyrics] bristle with salty perceptions, uncanny epiphanies, and hysterical distortions over which a dark and unutterable muse presides."
Not one to be easily categorized, Johnson sets the record straight. "It's just a bunch of yelling," he says after a few fumbling attempts to say something smart. "That's what it is. It's a bunch of yelling."
But, as yelling goes, it can be glorious, like Jerry Clower, the loudmouthed hayseed comedian, reading boozy short fiction by Denis Johnson and Raymond Carver. Kent Benjamin, a former Memphis scenester and writer for the Austin-based music magazine Pop Culture Press once acknowledged in print that the best parts of any Panther Burns show were when "Tav was out in the parking lot," leaving Johnson and Alex Chilton on stage as a duo." Chilton would riff away while Johnson would rant wildly to delight the handful of stalwarts who actually made it all the way through an early Panther Burns show.
Whether he'll cop to it or not, Johnson is one of the founding fathers of Memphis' rootsy Midtown punk scene.
"I am a source of gossip and a parasite," Johnson corrects. "And I have been very lucky over the years to attach myself like a barnacle to a ship's hull to some very talented people like Chilton and Jim Dickinson."
For all of the self-deprecation, Johnson's bona fides are in order. In the 1970s, he wrote reviews for Creem editor Lester Bangs. By the end of that decade, he was drumming for Panther Burns. He's also the man responsible for the unhinged rant "Baron of Love Pt. II," which may be the only truly brilliant part of Chilton's interestingly uneven but generally over-praised novelty album Like Flies on Sherbet. He's drummed for North Mississippi blues singer Jesse Mae Hemphill and pounded the tubs for a ragged, revisionist honky-tonk band called the Gibson Brothers, which featured both Jeff Evans and Jon Spencer. He was also an early imbiber and frequent performer at the Well, a blue-collar bar at the corner of Madison and Avalon that became the Antenna club, where Memphis' punk-rock scene was born.
"I remember [Panther Burns] was playing the Western Steak House, and Charlie Feathers was there," Johnson says, recalling the days when Elvis' favorite restaurant was still open and serving up rock-and-roll and meat. "Tav said we were going to do the Charlie Feathers song 'Tongue-Tied Jill.' Well, Charlie just put his head down and said, 'No, no, no, no, no.' That's when I learned that while applause is a real thrill, I also enjoyed negative attention."
If negative attention is what Johnson craves, he'll probably get plenty for Make It Stop, which, if taken at face value, might come off as the misogynistic ramblings of the most annoying alcoholic at the club.
"There were certainly moments I wished the barroom floor would just open up and swallow me when my love for the booing got too painful," Johnson admits, allowing that the three predominant themes in his music are "the misuse of ethanol," conflicts with women, and all the guilt and shame he feels about the aforementioned two things.
But Make It Stop isn't all bad blood, bad livers, and bad intentions. The wonderfully offbeat collection features tracks as disparate as "Rockabilly Monkey Faced Girl," which finds Johnson wildly shouting inspired gibberish in the spirit of honky-tonk savant Hasil Atkins, and a beautifully wrecked guitar-driven cover of Floyd Cramer's classic "Last Date," with R.E.M.'s Peter Buck in the driver's seat. "Hash House Pallor" references loungy, horn-driven TV themes of the 1970s, while Johnson's winking cover of the Gentrys' "Keep on Dancing" quickly turns into a comic meditation on paranoia and "ass whoopings."
"My parents are dead, but my sister is alive and she would be ashamed to hear the word 'blackout' used to describe the condition I was in when I recorded some of this," Johnson gleefully laments, sounding like a Catskills insult comic falling on his own rapier wit. "Sometimes it's hard to listen to."
And it is. But all wincing aside, it's extremely satisfying, and for the adventurous listener, it's well worth the extra effort.