An anecdote: Recently I was in Portland, Oregon at some rock show.1 Out of the corner of my eye I saw a guy I kind of recognized. Tall, about twenty years older than the assorted 20something scenesters in the room, and —in my humble opinion — more nattily dressed than anyone in present, sheathed as they were in fluorescent, head-to-toe American Apparel outfits.2
My heart stopped.3
It was Calvin Johnson.
To me, Calvin appeared like a vision of an indie rock Jay-Z. On his arm was a lovely young lady. And she aroused all the same suspicions as Jay-Z does among tabloid journalists when he walks into a room with Beyonce. Are they lovers? Husband and wife? Is she his beard? Or is she just hanging out with him because hanging out with him means she was traveling in style?
I wasn’t sure and I didn’t want to find out.
All I knew was that Calvin had a lovely lady on his arm, and that he was king of this particular scene. A local promoter offered to introduce me. Another acquaintance of mine4 sighed dismissively: “Calvin just gets older but the girls stay the same age.”5
In any case, unnerved by the possibility of actually meeting Calvin, I rushed out of the club, into my rental car6, and far away from that place. It was just too much, too surreal, like the time a friend was at synagogue in Manhattan, and accidentally let his gaze drift away from his prayers and to his fellow congregants. Who did he see sitting there next to him but Bob Dylan, with a yarmulke on his head, reciting his high holy day prayers.
Uh-huh, total mind exploder!7
Now, here’s the thing: I don’t give much credence to celebrities, but I give even less to celebrity worship and celebrity stalking of the US Weekly variety. I don’t want to know if George Bush asks for paper or plastic at the grocery store check out line. I don’t want to know what brand of Band Aids and topical ointment the hospital used to heal Owen Wilson’s slashed wrists. And, finally, to bring this full circle, I don’t want to know who Bob Dylan prays to at night, who Calvin Johnson smooches, or what gender Jay-Z’s “hos” actually are, even though he and all those hip-hop guys talk about them a whole hell of a lot.
Simply put: I admire the Calvin Johnson I have in my head so much I fear that knowing anything about the real one might ruin everything.
Why is it that Calvin is one of the few characters without peer in this odd little quadrant of the universe occupied by indie rock? To explain requires a tiny bit of autobiography. (Don’t worry, just a paragraph.)
I grew up wonderfully and horribly just like everybody else. When I was a kid, many people that were close to me died in tragic, horrible, and unexpected ways, usually under mysterious circumstances. Less extraordinarily, I was frequently the victim of roving bands of my peers, who would hunt me down on the playground and try to beat me up. (Occasionally I beat back.) Most distressingly of all, though, financial chaos loomed over my childhood household like a Sword of Damocles8—a boogey man far worse than any that I faced on the schoolyard….
Blah blah blah. I know what you’re saying. “Tell it to Oprah or get a shrink. You should have gotten the hell over it by working out your fears and frustrations through drugs, hitting on cheerleaders, playing football and other socially acceptable contact sports.”
Well sure, I did some of that, but for various reasons I won’t go into, I didn’t find much solace in the common narcotics modern American culture recommends to its youth during their teenage years. In their place, I had a series of music and culture heroes to inspire me and keep me going—artist Marcel Duchamp, musician Ian MacKaye, illustrator Kevin Maguire (responsible for the faces in Justice League International comic book). I also admired the long-forgotten authors of bad, sword and sorcery novels.
Yup, it was an odd bunch, and I can’t say it adds up to anything coherent, but Calvin Johnson was one of these people and, actually, scratch that, he wasn’t just one of them, he was a prime mover. Now, I’m quite sure Calvin would hate to live under the kind of pressure that comes with such pronouncements. (Though I’m just as sure that he has culture heroes of his own.) But there you go…
What did I love about Calvin? O, let me count the ways:
1. I loved that his music and record label, K, served as a respite from the cartoonish hedonism of the hair metal on MTV at the time (and, while we’re at it, the cartoonish hedonism of drugs and sports).
2. I loved that the culture he helped produce also stood in opposition to the angry hardcore that dominated underground pop culture at the time.
3. I loved his floppy-wristed, fey sexuality—both the fact that he was sexual at all in a scene that seemed designed for Puritans (sorry Ian MacKaye I swear I still think you’re cool!), and that the fey nature of that sexuality provided self-conscious nerds like myself new ways to be sexy. I’m talking to all of you out there reading this who (a) wear chunky black glasses and too tight pants, and (b) act like it’s a good look, and (c) find paramours that buy into this. Calvin helped make your nerdy eroticism possible, people.
4. I loved Calvin’s voice—a baritone rumble so wrong and off-kilter that it was actually somehow perfect and right. In the mid-90s I briefly fronted a band that, I will readily admit, took Beat Happening and its ilk as its primary influence. (The less said about that band the better, but thank heavens MySpace, MP3s, and Google did not exist when I was a teenager.) In any event, Calvin’s voice gave me a lasting sense that it was okay to sound "weird" and — in that way –is responsible for one of the guiding principles which governs my musical tastes. Could I ever have fallen in love with the music of Antony, Will Oldham, Conor Oberst, Devendra Banhart, and Joanna Newsome if a voice like Calvin’s didn’t fertilize the soil for the harvest to follow?9
5.And—here’s why I brought up all that childhood autobiography stuff—I loved Calvin for his Peter Pan j’ne se qua10. He transported me to a childhood that was way better than the one I actually lived through. He provided a vicarious childhood through his songs and ideas. I think this is the same reason Nirvana’s singer Kurt Cobain had a tattoo of the K Records logo on his arm. Recently, I read that Cobain got the tattoo to remind him to “stay a child.” I guess that didn’t work out so well for ol’ Kurt, but the core truth of his sentiment remains both powerful and true…
Calvin is the epitome of the modern man-child – an idol for anyone living the rock’n’roll pipedream.
Nowadays, I mostly admire Calvin because he has maintained his “passionate revolt against the corporate ogre” for 25 years.11 I won’t pretend like I follow the comings and goings of K Records like I once did. It’s been years since I’ve paid their music close attention; I’ve largely moved on to obsess over lusher, more self-conscious sounds. And, when it comes down to it, I no longer think childhood is something to aspire to, or extend.
Frankly, I no longer have the same kind of belief in rock’n’roll, and K Records has barely followed me into the computer music age. But while writing this piece, I did find a single MP3 of Calvin’s music on my iMac. And ooh, what a doozy!
"Ode to St. Valentine" is a one and a half minute a capella duet with Mirah that appeared on the first album he released under his own name, What Was Me. Much of the record is solo performance. Large chunks of it, in fact, consist solely of his goofy and heartfelt voice unaccompanied by any other sounds.
I start swooning as soon as he opens his mouth:
I don’t wanna have to ask for a Valentine
That’s not love
That’s no fun
But please won’t you give me one.
Words only touch upon how this song makes me feel. But it’s obvious that Calvin wants love, freely given and unconditional. He’s practically begging for it. And that sort of sums up his appeal doesn’t it? Love is what we all want, and yet it’s the one thing we have such a hard time accepting from others, the one thing we have a hard time giving when it really counts.
Things get more complicated after that, as things tends to get in Calvin’s deceptively simple songs.12 A third lover is introduced, a triangle is drawn. Real love is usually complicated like that…
But the reason this song is successful is that it fills up my heart with something almost impossibly pure and easy to understand, certainly more so than any love affair I’ve ever had. You can tell that pure intentions are what drives Calvin forward, that purity is something he understands better than the rest of us.13
I only hope that I retain Calvin’s ability to fall for things into my later years. He’s an expert at this—the “falling” part of falling in love. He doesn’t just want to be loved he wants be in love—literally. It’s like he lives inside of it, like he inhabits it, like a bug in amber, like a child who only understands primary colored emotions, like a cowboy who thinks that villains wear black and good guys wear white.14
I guess the simplicity of Calvin’s message is why he was a balm to my own childhood; and, unfortunately, why I’ve such a hard time listening to him now that I’m all growed-up.
But enough about me. More than anything, I’m thankful to Calvin Johnson for having provided valentines that sustained me. And if he’s out there somewhere on this internet of ours, I certainly hope he takes this as a valentine in return.
1 Sorry for the cliché locale but – except for the Portland, Oregon part – rock shows are where most of my anecdotes begin.
2 Calvin’s style resembled that of the most chic grandparent on the shuffleboard court that, come to think of it, has more in common with American Apparel than any hipster would be willing to admit. But I digress…
3 Okay, I exaggerate but certainly it skipped a beat.
4 A young independent rock musician of some repute who lived in the Pacific NW for awhile
5 There was a hint of jealousy in the latter acquaintance’s voice.
6 A Saturn, natch.
7 Translation: Something about a pillar of salt, but then again, I’m behind in Bible study.
8 Translation for those who don’t want to use Wikipedia: “My households finances were like a camel’s back above which threatened many many many pieces of straw.”
9 To the wiseguy in the back, it took a long while for Jimmy Scott to gain hipster cred. For the discerning independent rock fan, Calvin was there first.
10 Translation: French people are cooler than us.
11 My own indie rock footnote label, Brassland, has been a going concern for only six years and geez, it’s really exhausting.
12 The Beat Happening song, “Playhouse,” from their album Black Candy, has got to be the most complex, troubling, and completely fantastic depiction of naive sexuality since Pee Wee Herman’s Playhouse first raised the question of what, exactly, goes on in playhouses.
13 I’m guessing he’s no better than the rest of us at dealing with the complications inherent to actually love affairs.
14 Another tip of the hat to Ian MacKaye.