Rick Johnson – Journalist
As an illustrious contemporary and cohort at the fabled CREEM magazine of rock journalists Dave Marsh and the infamous Lester Bangs, Rick Johnson is a considered a legend, albeit almost completely unknown today to the general public. His fans were numerous, including Bangs himself and Dave Barry, the syndicated columnist and New York Times best-selling author who sites Johnson as an influence on his own irreverent sense of humor.
Rick Johnson graduated with a degree in journalism from Western Illinois University in Macomb, IL which he called his home until his untimely death in the Spring of 2006. Johnson was Lester Bangs’ planned successor at Creem and wrote for the storied mag from 1975 to 1988, with his profile peaking and slice-and-dice sharpest in the late ’70s and early ’80s. His handle at Creem was “Ranger Rick” or “Reek,” and he lapped Bangs 100 times over when it came to the mastery of humor, irreverence and critical punch. Prior and concurrent to his byline appearing in what was at one time the only music pub worth a @#*!, Johnson wrote for the regional periodicals SunRise, the Prairie SUN plus Fusion magazine. Following his death at 56 in 2006, Johnson’s non-Creem work was compiled in the 2007 book, The Rick Johnson Reader: ‘Tin Cans, Squeems & Thudpies’, which remains available on Amazon. Then there is a hardback, coffee-table Creem illustrated history that appeared a few years back that gives Johnson some real estate, and the 2020 documentary Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine.
Jim DeRogatis rock critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and co-host of Sound Opinions says “Rick Johnson was a rock writer whose work should be much better known, and few who read him [in] the years in which he succeeded Lester Bangs as the funniest and most incisive wisecracking bad boy at Creem magazine, will ever forget him.”
But maybe the best way to get a sense of Rick Johnson is through his own incomparable writing. The following quotes are some amazing examples of Johnson’s idistictive style, expertly plucked by the folks at MAGNET Magazine:
“They’re so damn pedestrian I’m surprised they don’t wear WALK/DON’T WALK signs around their necks. Catch ’em live sometime and you too can experience the emotions of a white line on pavement.”
“A rhythm section as heavy as a narcoleptic five-year-old tapping on a tenement banister with a chicken bone.”
“Have lately speeded up their un-partitioned mung heaps in a senseless effort to ‘get with it.’ Forget it, chumps, you were always at least 40 m.p.h. BEHIND IT and that’s why you were great. Since their material is the very epitome of a Grave Disservice, I’d go along with the guy on Flash Gordon who complained to the king of the Clay People, ‘I’m sick and tired of gettin’ pushed around by a bunch of mudpies.’”
“I think Paul Rodgers’ old band Free played the leading role in dead-ending the HM approach, with their slowed-down hay rotters that dribbled along like blood exiting the nose of an O.D.ing downer freak. BadCo seems intent on carrying on that tradition with all the imagination of a slipcover. Their latest LP, “Desolation Angels”, does show signs of life, but then so does my dead underwear pile.”
That one was obviously about Bad Company, and the following is clearly about Uriah Heep.
“Once a thundering pie plate full of swan-dive bass throbs and back-projected keyboards so cheesy that the Heep were named The Dairy Farmers’ Friend, this group has since been reduced to Ken Hensley’s plaything. I wish somebody’d get him some Colorforms or something before he breaks Rod Stewart’s record for most consecutive indistinguishable LPs.”
“Is this now, or was it ever, an actual group? Ronnie M. has his hot dog in so many campfires you never know what to expect … I wish Mr. Montrose would either pick the crud out of his teeth or stop blocking the mirror.”
“They make Slade look like Jeopardy champs.”
“Plagued by personnel shake-ups, untimely illnesses and a disturbing trend toward allowing saxophone players near their studio.”
“Makes Black Sabbath sound like nerf heavy metal. Great stuff, comparable to cleaning out a septic tank with a toothbrush.”
“Used up all their material on two fine early LPs and have been dragging Riff River ever since for new bodies.”
“Though originally labeled as the Canadian Led Zep (heaven forbid), Rush cranked out a couple goodies before they turned to mini-series about futuristic Alex Trebek types.”
On Van Halen:
“One of the very few promising new practitioners of slash and burn agriculture … The Netherlands-bred Van Halen brothers somehow managed to avoid the Dutch national character (twerpy-ness) and singer David Roth howls like he left something stuck in a dike as well.”
“Sometimes referred to as the poor man’s Blue Oyster Cult, these limeheads gun their acid tractors faster and louder, but with all the imagination of Naval Jelly. Casper the Friendly Ghost in leatherette.”
“Both their albums sound like they were recorded in a fire hydrant.”
“Their vocals recapitulate the history of minor mouth pain.”
“Some of their earlier stuff briefly filled the Led Zep gap, but their last couple of albums packed all the wallop of a wet tea bag. Excellent background music for looking over wallpaper samples.”
Though a nationally prominent rock critic, Rick Johnson spent more than 15 years in semi-retirement managing a newsstand and cigar shop in Macomb.
A colleague and friend, fellow critic Richard Riegel, said, “I regard Rick Johnson as Lester Bangs’ and Richard Meltzer‘s equal as a rock writer, even though his style was very different, especially in the way he constantly satirized the ever-encroaching corporate culture by sampling TV-commercial catchphrases into his rock writing and showing how media-saturated we were all becoming.”