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"I was a poet who saw how certain elements of the mass media were trying to characterize a significant social movement into Jerry Rubin's idea of what that was supposed to be," he says. "I once asked Allen [Ginsberg] his take on that, and he said 'I think we prolonged the war three years.' It became a flippant thing to me, which ended with us electing Ronald Reagan ten years later because there was such a backlash."
After graduating from FSU in 1972 with a degree in music education, Johnson began to wander. Using Kerouac's On the Road as his guidebook, he sought adventure in cities across the United States: New York, Chicago, Denver, and San Francisco, among others. "In the early days, I went out of my way to seek transformation and impermanence," he notes. "I wanted to be Jack Kerouac, to meet Neal Cassady, to go on the road with Ken Kesey, and then I did, which is cool. But there is a physical burnout which can happen, and I think there is a lot to be said for the Henry David Thoreau Walden style of just being in one place."
Johnson never did meet Cassady, but he's played poker with Kesey, and he played the trumpet while Kesey and Ginsberg read poetry on a Colorado stage. He also backed Ginsberg at a show in New York and at various venues around California.
It was in Boulder sometime during the late '70s that Johnson first met Ginsberg, who was reading with Burroughs at an event called the "Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics." Johnson had admired Ginsberg since college, when he saw him dragged from a Miami stage by police while trying to recite "Howl." At the low-turnout event in Colorado, Johnson found him quite accessible, and the two began a friendship that lasted until Ginsberg's death in 1997.
Johnson paid tribute to Ginsberg with a nine-page poem titled "Poets Can Get Away With Anything Except Death." It opens with the line, "History should forget the Beat Generation hype/& remember the time you loaned me twenty bucks." The poem also touches on some of Ginsberg's idiosyncrasies: "OK, so your conduct wasn't so perfect. No, I don't want a blowjob."
"Allen never wanted to be, but he was a father figure to me," says Johnson. "He never perceived himself that way; it bothered him for some reason." Despite his close ties to Ginsberg, Johnson avoided the poet's funeral in Manhattan. "I didn't go because I feared it would be a media circus, and it was. Lou Reed was there, and Bob Dylan. You don't go to a funeral to meet Lou Reed."
Johnson has had enough brushes with fame for one lifetime. "I used to go drinking with Billy Burroughs, William's son," recalls Johnson. "One time we're sitting there listening to music, Billy and me and our friend Steve, and the door comes blasting open. It was the old man with six big, blond, Aryan guys. Burroughs Sr. comes in and looks at the radio and says 'I hate music!' and he kicks the radio. Then he goes over to a drawer and gets his gun. He takes it out, looks at it, and puts it back. Me and Steve look at each other and say, 'Good luck, Billy, wish you the best.' And we were out of there."
Hollywood may or may not be Johnson's last stop, just as "No Busfare" may or may not be his final incarnation. "The personas I create are a Buddhist thing about impermanence," he explains. "Every time the Sharkmeat or Johnson thing comes up, it's a reminder to me of our own impermanence and our own death. It's so easy to get caught up in the whole ego thing, especially when you're hanging around Allen, and here comes Jerry Garcia and Bianca Jagger, and suddenly you realize you've totally lost contact with your art and what you really want to do."
Perhaps when Johnson tires of his current life, he'll shed it and move on. For the time being, however, he's made a name for himself among the Hollywood locals. At one point in the evening, the bartender at Sneakers approaches Johnson's table, places a quarter in front him, and walks away. Johnson explains the gesture simply: "Bus fare.