By Liz Tracy
By David Rolland
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By County Grind
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Jack "No Busfare" Johnson is the beatnik who many people, in the deep, dark recesses of their psyches, always wanted to be. He's traveled from town to town, making music and poetry, expounding his theories on life, and chasing his muse. He has lived with Allen Ginsberg and run from the gun of William Burroughs. While many only dream of restarting their lives in a different city with a new name, Johnson goes where his mood takes him.
At the moment he's living in Hollywood, where he plays guitar with singer-songwriter pal Michael Judge at Sneakers Sports Grill every Sunday night. Even though he knows his birth date -- December 21, 1949 -- he can't quite remember his age. He thinks he's 45, but, after somebody else does the math, he's told that he's 48. Whatever. Linear time is an outmoded concept anyway. Thoughts like these, Johnson realizes, lead people to think he isn't exactly stable.
"People think stability means lack of transformation and being safe," he says while seated in Sneakers, a cold Rolling Rock in hand. "In fact it seems like the cosmos in its nature is impermanent and transformative. And it seems that our struggle to fight that causes 90 percent of the problems that we have, the illnesses and the stress-related things. I'm not saying you have to constantly be on the bus, I'm not saying you have to do it physically. That can wear you out. But I think that mentally, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, you need to allow yourself to evolve. If we don't do that, we're dead."
The latest step in Johnson's evolution is his debut CD, Welcome to the 21st Century, on which he sings and plays guitar, keyboard, harmonica, and trumpet. Musically the songs are a mix of R&B, folk, country, and even doo-wop, but the lyrics -- delivered in a clear, unwavering voice -- offer a poet's sensibility.
Dense with imagery Johnson's lines are often romantic and occasionally sentimental. In "Queen of St. Augustine," a country ballad written for his long-time partner and traveling companion, Rose Virgo, he sings, "when she stands by the sea, the waves stand there amazed." He can also be whimsical and self-effacing, as on "Poetry's Hot Rod," in which he sing-speaks of drinking with one-eyed filmmakers and being roused by New York City garbage trucks "before even the coffee has time to breathe."
In conversation Johnson doesn't take himself too seriously. He peppers his remarks with high-pitched snickers and often ends his philosophical monologues with the qualifier, "Of course, that could be total bullshit."
"Jack's got a strange energy," admits Michael Judge, Johnson's musical collaborator. The two met on a basketball court, "shooting baskets and talking philosophy," Judge recalls. "I first heard him giving a poetry performance and was astounded by it. He comes from the poetic side of songwriting, and I enjoy playing his songs because I can sit back and soak in the imagery."
Johnson creates personas as well as images. His real name is Glenn Edward Seaman, and he's been Johnson only for the past six months, since he returned to Hollywood to care for his ailing mother. His previous incarnation was Sharkmeat Blue, a nom de plume that appeared on his book King Death and Other Poems, published in 1994 by Selva Editions, a small imprint based in Boulder, Colorado.
His new name was inspired by Jack Johnson, the boxer mentioned in the Leadbelly song "The Titanic," and it also serves as an homage to Jack Kerouac. "No Busfare" refers to Johnson's life on the highway. "I was looking through racks of blues records," he recalls, "and these guys have great names like Bullmoose Jackson and Blind Lemon Jefferson. 'No Busfare' just occurred to me because I thought of all these bus rides I've been on, days of reading Kerouac on a bus from San Antonio to New Orleans, and I never had a dime."
In a bus fare-less world, Johnson has come up with creative ways to get by. "If you have nothing, then survival depends on where you are and how you use your wits," he explains. "If you have absolutely nothing in an urban area, you can easily survive on art openings." He laughs and mimics the sycophantic atmosphere: "'Pass the hors d'oeuvres, thank you. Care for some páte?' It's the best."
He adds, "If you're out in the middle of nowhere, it can get a little bit hairy. But for me it's like the Christ thing: Do I have faith or not? I have to confront that on some very deep level, and I've found that magic occurs. I have no idea how I live sometimes."
Johnson was born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and moved with his family to the Miami area when he was five. His father was a jazz trumpet player who backed Sarah Vaughan, among others, and his mother worked for Dade County. He attended North Miami High School and then FSU. His college years coincided with the height of the hippie movement, when political activists like Jerry Rubin were becoming cultural icons. Johnson, however, was skeptical.