By Ashley Zimmerman
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By John Hood
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By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
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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.
"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.