City Paper is not for tourists
Evan Johns is singing his guts outwhat’s left of ’em, anyway. He’s shouting one of his originals, an ode to heartbreak, longing, and the unbearable pain of separation:
Sweet young thing with four hairy legs
When I pack my bags, she whines and begs:
‘Please don’t go, DaddyPlease don’t go
Please don’t goYou always go.’
It’s about his dog, Jelly Roll Etta. Back in ’91 when he wrote the song, Johns was living down in Texas but spent most of his time on the road with his band, the H-Bombs. Every time he left to go on tour, his half-black Lab/half-malamut would howl the blues, just as Johns is doing now in his notoriously ragged voice, closer to a dying hound’s lament than any human utterance.
Johns’ pale, gaunt face is all twisted up, and his eyes are clenched shut. “You Always Go” isn’t some novelty tune performed with an ironic wink; it’s pathos, pure and simple. The sad song is made sadder because Jelly Roll Etta is a thousand miles awayJohns had to leave her behind with friends down in Austin after he decided to come back home to Washington. Even worse, a bout with cancer last year cost her a leg, so there isn’t a creatureand certainly no personalive that needs Johns as badly as Jelly Roll Etta. Who knows if he’ll ever see his 14-year-old dog again, the faithful friend who kept him warm on winter nights and guided him through his blindness, the boon companion he holds far more dear than either of his ex-wives?
Johns crams his sadness about abandoned love into a guitar solo that lets you feel what he feels. Then he ends the tune with a hoarse mea culpa to his beloved mutt that could serve as the motto for his rambling life:
I don’t mean no harm
But I always gotta go.
The crowd of two dozen packing the Sunset Grille in Annandale hollers its approval. But as the applause dies down, a dissenter at the bar makes her presence known. She doesn’t give a damn about Evan Johns or his dog, and she lets everybody know it. She’s a regular at the Northern Virginia beer joint; its soused, lowlife ambience, with enthusiastic bathroom graffiti like “BE A SMOOTER, EAT SOME COOTER!” brings to mind an Elizabethan tavern disguised as a redneck sports bar. It’s chock-full of grillbillies, as they’re known. They rule this place as if it were their own living room, which it no doubt resembles with its beer-ad decor, indoor lawn furniture, and back den dedicated to darts and mating.
The loudest grillbilly is fuming because things aren’t going her way tonight. She came to the Grille to hear Bill Kirchen, the local guitar wizard (of Commander Cody fame) who plays a gig here every Thursday night. But Kirchen, who just signed yet another record deal, had to go on the road, so Johns filled in at the last moment. Now he’s probably wishing he hadn’t.
Swaying on her bar stool, the grillbilly shakes a wilted rose and hurls insults, mostly her pet putdown: “You goddamn motherfucker!” With her frizzy bottle-blond hair teased a thousand ways, she’s a blow-dried Medusa who’s drunk as a goat. But Johns has endured worse, many times over: George Thorogood goons have pelted him with arena trash; he’s been spit on by punks in Finland. The years barnstorming with his bandalong with a steady diet of domestic beermake him look 41 going on 60, not so much grizzled as permanently pickled. Even the forgiving bar light can’t hide the miles and mistakes etched on his pasty face. He looks like hell but he can still play, whether the grillbilly wants to admit it or not.
Unlike Kirchen’s good-time, boy-howdy roots rock, Johns’ music is a brutal, often ugly racket that reflects his ever-changing moods, and tonight he’s cranky. The band’s amps are turned up way too loud for a place this small, and the disgruntled grillbilly takes the deafening clamor as a personal insult. She won’t let up, but she has met her match in Johns, probably the only person here drunker than she. From the stage, he baits her in his carny’s rasp, pulling a few of his funny faces and tipping his baseball cap to the crowd.
“Don’t forget about that tip jug,” he drawls, pointing to the empty beer pitcher at the edge of the stage. “We got to feed the puppies and the kittens, and there might be some babies on the way.”
“Don’t forget to play some goddamn music!” bellows a male grillbilly. He is stoked by the woman’s ranting and irritated by the shameless call for money.
Taken aback at first, Johns recovers and flashes the wise-ass grin that has rescued him from tight spots all his life. “AwwwwwOkaaaaayyyyyy,” he says. “I think we need a Christmas song.”
Ever the entertainer, he eases into an old, obscure R&B number, “Please Mr. Santa Claus,” the title track from his acclaimed Christmas album, but it does nothing to cheer up the woman. She’s had enough of this foolishnessholiday tunes in August?and she starts pressing the issue. “Play the Beatles’ ‘You-Gonna-Lose-Dat-Gurl,’” she slurs, “or you can kiss my ass.”
To Johns’ way of thinking, her request isn’t just silly, it’s rank blasphemy. All his career, he has refused to perform cover songs by British (or any other overseas) groups. He snubs all “foreign music.”
For the most part, he plays strictly Evan Johns musicnothing else will dobut that’s not what the woman wants to hear. Their ongoing feud further sours an evening that began poorly, after the grillbillies told Evan to turn down the volume during the first set. He ignored them and kept on playing.
Now, between songs Johns starts arguing with his brother Mike, the bass player for tonight’s gig. Their smoldering anger short-circuits the faltering show. Like true Southern gentleman, the brothers move their discussion out to the parking lot, where Mike flicks a Salem Light from Evan’s mouth and knocks off his brand-new “Monticello” cap, a souvenir from a recent pilgrimage to Jefferson’s bachelor pad down in Charlottesville.
For nearly an hour afterward Johns is nowhere to be found, and the grillbillies demand some entertainment as if they’re paying customers, even though there’s no cover charge and the tip jug is empty. Mike Johns and the remaining band members finally take the stage, and kick in on a Beatles song. The boys play a few more desultory numberswithout Evan’s bullshit and brilliance, the trio is just another mediocre bar bandbefore packing it in early for the night.
Johns’ desertion is the talk of the Grille, and he’s got his share of sympathizers. That’s the thing about Evan Johns: He can annoy the hell out of you, and you swear you never want to see the obnoxious bastard ever again, but the minute he’s gone, you already miss him.
Even on the night he stiffs, Johns can do no wrong for some. One fan shakes his head in awe and says, “Evan’s one of the best ever.”
Pounding the bar with the now-tattered rose, the grillbilly delivers her own judgment: “He’s a common, candy-ass son of a bitch.” Then she calls for another beer. “I don’t ever want to see him again.”
But she probably will. Whether she likes it or not, Evan Johns is back in town.
Earlier this summer, Johns rolled into Washington on a Greyhound bus, a long-belated homecoming that could be the last pit stop in a crash-and-burn career.
Upon his ignoble arrival, he had a long, gray, scraggly beard and a soiled Texas Longhorn cap that he ditched because it stank so bad after the three-day trip from Austin. He resembled a veteran coming back from a war, but more like a ghost than a conquering hero. “When I first showed up, I looked like Stonewall Jackson,” says Johns, cackling. “Everybody said, ‘Man, you look 100 years old,’ and I said, ‘Well, you ain’t seen me in 15 years.’”
Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Johns was one of the hottest guitarists around D.C.or anywhere else, for that matter. As a teen he played with Washington guitar legend Danny Gatton, who was more of a father/older brother figure than a musical influence. He toured Europe with Billy Hancock and rockabilly singer Tex Rubinowitz. After stints in several now-hallowed groups, including backing the mellow Starland Vocal Band (incredible as that sounds) and fronting the Good Humor Band, he started the H-Bombs with bass player Michael Maye. The band’s first record, a self-produced EP of Johns originals, is a classic of raw rockabilly; it now fetches hundreds of dollars at record shows.
From the start, Johns stood out from the horde of Telecaster-slingers on Washington’s fertile music scene, which had spawned greats like Link Wray and Roy Buchanan. He was a singular guitarist known for dirty, distorted licks and a stubborn disdain for clichés, but he was also an organist, a crazed singer, and an accomplished songwriterand, most of all, an authentic rock ‘n’ roll wild man with personality to burn. “We were huge fans,” says country singer Kelly Willis, then an Annandale high-schooler smitten by the H-Bombs. “We’d go see him wherever he was playing, and he played everywhere. It was like watching a god up therejust his facial expressions alone were worth the price of admission. We were crazy about them all. That’s what we wanted to be, and they made it look so easy.”
All the on- and offstage histrionics wouldn’t have amounted to squat if Johns hadn’t been a bona fide guitar hero. He is casually eloquent, squeezing noise out of his Tele in ways that have nothing to do with roadhouse picking and grinning. He solos against himself, setting up riffs that he backfills with musical quotes, jokes, and hiccups that build until you find yourself laughing in spite of yourself. Over a beer, Johns is a witty guy. On a guitar, he is smarter and even funnier, Lenny Bruce and Henny Youngman and a hundred other inspired notions wrapped up in one big noisy sound.
By ’84, Johns’ reputation had spread beyond the D.C. area, and he got a call from the LeRoi Brothers, a Texas band that boasted a major-label contract but needed a lead guitarist. He moved to Austin and after barely two years with the LeRoi Brothers launched a new version of the H-Bombs, bringing down boyhood buddy Ivan Brown on bass and Mark Korpi from Manassas on guitar; it was the beginning of a migration of Washington-area musicians to the thriving Austin scene. In ’87, Willis came to town to boost her own fledgling career. “Evan was a real big help to us,” says Willis, who still lives in Austin.
“We got our first gig in town because of himhe
let us open up for him. Plus, he was giving all the guys in the band lessons on guitar, so he really helped us so much.”
In those days, Johns was riding high, and Austin embraced him as the crazy adopted son from the Old Dominion, the supreme eccentric in a town full of weirdoes, as famous for his heroic beer-guzzling as for his guitar playing. He was one of the featured guest stars on a Grammy-nominated compilation, Trash, Twang and Thunder: Big Guitars From Texas. The H-Bombs released a well-received album and toured North America and Europe year-round. They didn’t sell many records, but the hyperbolic critical praise heaped on Johns bordered on the absurd, gushing from such disparate sources as Time and Newsweek and underground outlaws like Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys.
A rabid fan of the H-Bombs’ first EP, Biafra caught the band at a D.C. show on the eve of the infamous Rock Against Reagan concert on the Mall in ’83. “I’d never heard anything like that in my life,” says Biafra, who once described Johns’ music in liner notes that bear repeating: “Those four songs on the 10 inch [EP] were just cat tails at the edge of the swamp; there was rock-a-billy alright and Link Wray sweet darkness, too. A little Tex-Mex here, garage power there, all whipped into a witch’s brew of spitfire guitar and Evan’s trademark vocal growl. This is the real stuff.”
The king of hardcore and the maniac rocker may seem an odd match, but they were soon pen pals, with Biafra sending Dead Kennedys singles and Butthole Surfer records, and an appreciative Johns mailing back batches of goodies. “So, in this package came his rehab bracelet, a check from BMI for something like 16 cents, ‘Take the whole thing!’ written on it, and some other stuff,” laughs Biafra in his familiar snicker. “It was at that point when we began to know each other as people and see ourselves as kindred spirits rather than fans of each other from afar.”
The two unrepentant misfits have championed each other ever since, and Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label still carries Rollin’ Through the Night, which many consider Johns’ finest moment on record. Biafra notes that his friend’s loyalty is beyond reproach; during the Frankenchrist controversy, when Biafra went on trial for obscenity charges, Johns stood by him. “Evan was one of the most supportive people from any part of the music community,” says Biafra.
“Some people who should have known better, who were in more-political-than-thou hardcore punk bands, said, ‘Oh yeah, you’re just after publicity,’ but I didn’t have to explain to Evan whose publicity stunt it really was. He’d grown up around enough fundamentalist Christians and he was deeply angered by the whole thing….That’s one of the reasons he’s one of my dearest friends, ’cause there’s no one else like him. Evan’s a national treasure.” (As for Johns, he says simply, “Jello’s a straight-shooter, and I guess he knows I’ve got a screw loose. I trust him emphatically.”)
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the H-Bombs enjoyed a decent run, including a multirecord deal with Rykodisc. They recorded three albums for Ryko, including one produced by former E Street Band bass player Garry Tallent; all featured Johns’ original songs and revealed him as a multi-instrumentalist: He played steel guitar, organ, mandolin, saxophone, clavinet, and autoharp, among others. The discs didn’t sell diddly, of course, but they continued to garner a resounding chorus of critical praise. If positive reviews were worth money, Johns could buy his own brewery.
The band slogged it out on the road nearly nonstop across North America and Europe, where Johns is hailed as an authentic American original. The H-Bombs paused for the occasional Texas backyard blowout, like one shindig at a Dallas country club that netted the band $5,000 and a request to play a Fats Domino song from a jitterbugging party guest named H. Ross Perot. (“He’s a great dancer,” recalls Evan. “All the girls were taller than him, but he was still in the lead.”)
But the drinking and constant touringalmost exclusively in vans and cheap motelswore everybody out, Johns most of all. He continued to check into, and out of, rehab clinics after the grueling tours, and H-Bombs came and went with alarming frequency. There have been as many as 50 band members, by Evan’s own guess. Former H-Bombs say their leader’s round-the-clock craziness was corrosive in the tight confines of a traveling rock band.
Mojo Nixon went on a package tour with Johns of the great northwest in the late ’80s; he recalls that two members of the entourage jumped ship before they even hit Canada: “The one boy, the second guitarist, had just joined AA, and he goes on tour with Evan like it’s some kind of test, like Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days. The other kid, the road manager, he just walked out of the club one night crying, just walking toward the bus station.”
It became obvious that Johns’ stage antics were no act; he was living it 24 hours a day. “Even [the late] Country Dick Montana [of the Beat Farmers] would go home and take a couple days off,” says Nixon. “But Evan don’t ever stopa case of Busch a day done paved the way.”
One night, at a club called the Town Pump in Vancouver, Nixon saw Johns perform a feat he’d never witnessed before: “Me and Evan were talking shit, and he’s going on about some one-legged girl in Houston that came up to him, and then blaaaaahhhhhh. He wasn’t like, ‘I puked, excuse me,’ or anything; the shit just shot into the corner and laid there, and Evan just kept on talking like nothing happened.”
His digestive system wasn’t the only thing going to hell; Johns was steadily losing his eyesight to cataracts. “My pupils were all white,” he recalls. “I looked like a monster and I was blind as a bat.” On a tour of Scandinavia, where his popularity has never waned, his vision was so impaired that he had to ask the H-Bombs to describe what the groupies sitting on his lap looked like. He stumbled on an Amsterdam street and was hit by a bicyclist, injuring his shoulder and hip. Even after his recovery, he was relegated to playing shows from a chair, like some blind and crippled old bluesman (which his ravaged voice increasingly resembles). Rumors filtered back from Austin that Johns was near deathnot the first time for that sort of speculation.
In ’93, he had surgery repairing his cataracts, but his career was in the toilet. He had two busted marriages to show for his troubles, and now there was only his dog, Jelly Roll Etta. Then last year, she got sick. He finally decided that his time in Austin was over. “I’m a bird,” he says. “I couldn’t be down there squaloring in a drought. I had to move where the water is. Everybody in Austin thinks I’m Joe Guitar, and nobody ever listened to the fucking songs. I’m a singer-songwriter, but I couldn’t get an audience in that regard. Down there, singer-songwriters don’t play lead guitar and crank it up.”
Johns blames bad management, among other things, for his professional misfortunes. All the usual suspects, shady lawyers and corrupt record execs, get a turn during his tirade about what went wrong. “The worst fucking lawyer had the last name of Dickman,” he brays ominously. “What does that tell you?”
It’s no surprise to come across folks who will tell you that Johns shares much of the blame for his ignominy. Joe Lee, owner of Joe’s Record Paradise in Wheaton, managed him early in his career, before his move to Texas; Lee recalls an exasperating experience that he wants no part of again. “Evan’s fine as long as you don’t have to depend upon him for anything and you don’t lend him any money,” says Lee, who also managed Washington wild-man rockers Butch Willis and the late Root Boy Slim, who were not exactly choir boys.
“At one point, he did have a futurehe was really a talent both in the writing and playing,” says Lee, who admits he hasn’t seen Johns in years but has heard all the horror stories. “As for the singing, I tend to think he’s the Ethel Merman of rockabillyit works on some shit, and on other shit it doesn’t.”
Biafra says his friend’s destructive drinking has helped sabotage his career, yet he can’t resist adding mischievously, “Evan’s led a helluva lot more straight and narrow life than Leadbelly.”
“He had all the chops to be the next John Fogerty and possibly more,” says Biafra, a staunch fan of Creedence Clearwater Revival since he was a kid. “Of course, Fogerty was never that good of a guitar player, not an Evan-level master stylist.”
According to Biafra, Johns often falls prey to a “Danny Gattonesque bitterness about his lack of success,” referring to the D.C. guitarist who shot himself two years ago. More than anything, it is this morbid predilection for self-pity that keeps holding him back. “He’s got to keep in mind that no rehab center in the world’s gonna stop him from feeling sorry for himself,” says Biafra. “He has to do that himself, and the strength to do that is in his songs and his guitar. He needs to focus on the positive, which he still has a lot of.”
It’s past 1 a.m. and, as usual, Evan Johns has another story to tell and a new song to sing. He sits on a couch in an Arlington brick duplex, cradling an acoustic guitar and a can of Budweiser, the latest in an endless succession of what he affectionately calls “barley pops.” But he has to keep quiet so as not to disturb his housemate Melannie Kassoff, a childhood friend who’s been hosting him since his arrival in Washington. She’s a nurse and has to go to work in a few hours.
Johns has just returned from a vacation up in northwest Canada, where he learned about a mythical sea monster known as Ogopogo that haunts a lake in British Columbia. The story intrigued him, and he got to concocting a scenario. Ogopogo is swimming around and happens to peep into a yacht passing by and sees something that catches his fancy on the cabin TV: a documentary about the Loch Ness Monster. Naturally, he realizes Nessie is his sweetheart. It’s the nugget of Johns’ latest song, one of hundreds he has written over the years.
Strumming the guitar and softly croaking out the nascent tune, Johns sounds like a backwoods folksinger you’d hear on some scratchy old 78. When the song stops midway, he explains, “I’ll only guarantee you thisit’ll be no longer than three minutes. That’s what I do, tell the story and get out. It’s like a comic strip.”
Offstage and even without his guitar, Johns remains a born entertainer and a mesmerizing storyteller. He can be funny as hell, as when he recalls some interviews he did while touring abroad during the Cold War: the head H-Bomb grilled as a political figure. “They’d ask questions like, ‘Eeev-ahn Johns, how do you feel about nuclear disarmament?’” he intones in a dead-on imitation of an earnest Swedish journalist. “So I said, ‘I believe in H-bombs. There’s three: bass, drums, and gee-tar.” He claims that the band’s name has prevented him from appearing in Japan and Australia. “In certain quarters of the world, the name ruffles some feathers, and I don’t blame ’em. War’s a terrible thing,” he says. (In fact, Johns took the moniker from an obscure postwar blues singer, H-Bomb Ferguson, who was known for performing in a spangled jumpsuit and waist-length fright-wig.)
Johns can go on for hours about his road adventures, about how the H-Bombs would roll into town in a ’63 Plymouth Valiant, all the tires painted white and “Rocket Fuel Only” spray-painted on the side. About how he and the H-Bombs loved to “trunk surf” when the car was going 70 mph.
A great deal of Johns’ charm lies in his voice, an aberration of nature that differs from his singing only in volume. Through the years, critics have groped to describe the sound, conjuring Howlin’ Wolf, W.C. Fields, Johnny Cash, Edward G. Robinson, and Popeye, among a cast of other rogues. Joe Sasfy probably got closest to the truth in his liner notes for the H-Bombs’ first record back in ’80: “A redneck frog with too-tight jeans and laryngitis.”
But Johns is more than simply an old-school vulgarian hooked on playing the clown. Beyond the banter and antics, he is a thoughtful, even sensitive, person with a lot on his mind: “He’s one of the most talented human beings I’ve met in music,” says Keith John (no relation), the original H-Bomb drummer, who has accompanied Johns several times this summer at the Sunset Grille. “He’s truly an original, thought-provoking person. He can say something that’ll just make you laugh for years.”
Tonight, Johns is describing the joy he feels at returning to his native state. “This is my dirt,” he says. “I don’t know how many people I’ve told in the last 14 years that I’m not a Texan.” It was a spring visit that clinched his resolve to relocate to Virginia for good. “I sort of came here to test the water, and the laurels were blooming and the rhododendrons and the azaleas and everything was just apeshitit just hit me how much I missed all that, ’cause I’m really into flowers and Texas didn’t have any of that stuff.”
He rhapsodizes about the squirrels and birds and other local “critters” as well. He admits that Washington has changed dramatically in his absence, “[but] there’s still the same three problems everybody was complaining about when I left in ’84: the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, Lorton Reformatory, and Mayor Marion Barry.”
Downing his nearly full Budweiser in one gulp, he lopes to the back door in the kitchen, open to the drone of crickets. He crushes the can and tosses it into a barrel brimming with empties in the darkness outside. The fact that Evan Johns recycles ranks as one of the most important victories for the environmental movement thus far.
Popping another Bud, he lets out a damn near operatic belch, followed by a no less musical sort of echo-burp, an even lower, remarkably sustained utterance emanating from some bottomless well inside him. “So that’s what was troubling me,” he cracks. He never messes with wine or liquor, save for the occasional shot of whiskey at a show. “It ain’t my palate,” he says. (“If you’re gonna drink during all your waking hours,” he later elaborates, “I strongly recommend beer alone.”) Indeed, Johns gives new meaning to the term “beer man.” As Mojo Nixon puts it, “I believe that beer ain’t really drinkingbut in Evan’s case, it is.”
Notwithstanding the azaleas and the dirtand a wrecked careersome long-standing ties to some friends and family helped pull Johns back to Virginia. His former bandmate, Michael Maye, who spurred Johns to start the H-Bombs, is stricken with cancer. And Johns’ parents are both elderly and ailing as well. His father, who suffered a stroke a few years ago, lives in northwest Washington; his mother resides in Shepherdstown in her native West Virginia.
Yet Johns has by no means enjoyed some sort of Waltons homecoming. Even though two siblings are in Northern Virginia, he is staying with a friend he hasn’t seen for years. Johns and Kassoff met in elementary school in McLean (“We were always sweet on each other,” he says), and she attended his first concert, a disastrous fifth-grade performance in which he forgot to plug in his electric guitar. A music fanatic in her own right, Kassoff was the one who dragged the underage Johns to a Georgetown bar to see Gatton play for the first time.
When Johns returned to Washington in June, he called Kassoff out of the blue; the last time they had met was more than a decade ago, when he was drying out in an Arlington hospital. As it turns out, hers was one of the few phone numbers in his black book without an answering machine on the end of the line. They chatted and she realized that, despite his good-natured ribbing about riding “the couch circuit” once again, he desperately needed a place to stay for a while. “It had been so long since I’d heard any news from him, I thought he was dead,” admits Kassoff, a striking woman with a massive mane of coal-black hair. “I always liked Evan and I still do,” she says. “He’s been great to have around, because I was going through a lonely time. I’ve gotten as much from him as he’s gotten from me.”
This summer, the two have rekindled the friendship they had as kids. Johns took her to one of his favorite Virginia shrines, Monticello (“That’s a nice crib,” he says), because Kassoff had never been before. Former H-Bombs report that while on the road Johns was obsessed with two nonmusical activities: shooting bottle rockets from the band’s speeding van (expertly aiming the fireworks to come down and explode on the windshield) and visiting seemingly every historical site in the country, from the Baseball Hall of Fame to Bonnie and Clyde’s grave to the cave where abolitionist John Brown sheltered runaway slaves.
Growing up near Dead Run Creek, Johns often stumbled onto Civil War relics, and he caught not only the history bug but wanderlust, too. At 13, he ran away from a messed-up home to hitchhike across the country, which he traversed a dozen times during his teen years in the early ’70s. He has preserved some of his road adventures in a manuscript called 20,000 Words, co-written with an Austin author. He hopes to publish it along with an accompanying CD, 20 Songs. It’s one of many projects he’s cooking up; another is a song-cycle of children’s tunes featuring a character called Toby the Turtle.
In the meantime, Johns is a musician without a record contract and barely a dime to his name. Though he has appeared on nearly 100 records (from obscure groups like Gay Sportscasters and Billy Bacon & the Forbidden Pigs to chart-toppers like Timbuk 3), he has made relatively few on his own, so he can’t much depend on royalty checks rolling in. There is a little good news, though: Freedom Records in Austin has just reissued an H-Bombs release from ’86 that has long been out of print; there are also tapes of the Good Humor Band finally seeing the light of day after all these years.
But Johns wants to focus on his new songs, a batch of more than two dozen he’s written since relocating here. He says he doesn’t want to play his old songs anymore; he’s still gunning for the hit he never had. “I’m in the middle-aged void. I’m not gonna jump into Spandex, and I’m not one of these old guys, either. I’m not out here rehashing anything; this is all new. You can’t go on the oldies circuit if you never had a hitthat’s the only thing I’ve never done. The medium today is filmif I could get one of my songs in a movie: That’s how you do it.”
On the subject of other people’s music, Johns is a man of strong opinions and stubbornly old-fashioned. He doesn’t listen to current music at all, and he deems Brian Wilson the greatest composer of the 20th century. Judy Garland remains his favorite singer: “No one has ever done better than ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’” (Kassoff says Johns identifies with Garland’s pained heart.) He declares a holy triumvirate of the “nicest people in the business”: Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and B.B. King.
For someone just this side of down and out, Johns remains a remarkably cheerful person, counting his blessings, thanking “Mel,” and praising his homeland: “If it hadn’t been for that godawful war, Vu-ginia would still be the biggest state in the Union.”
Since returning to the area, Johns has faced down some unpleasant specters of the past, embodied in the violent, premature deaths of Gatton and Buchanan. It’s a tired old cliché by nowthe doomed D.C. guitar legends, unheralded while alive and damned to posthumous notoriety. But some fret that Johns’ turn is coming. “I’ve even had people come up and say, ‘Are you next? Are you gonna do like them?’” he says. He shrugs off worry, claiming he has cheated death so often he’s an old pro by now. “I’ve almost died many times,” he says. “I was in a coma for 48 hours in Martinsburg, W.Va., drying out. They didn’t think I was going to make it….They wouldn’t let me out to go to Danny’s funeral.”
His near-death experiences don’t seem to weigh heavy on his mindhe’s concerned about more pressing matters, such as the plight of Jelly Roll Etta. “That’s the only real failure in my life,” he says of his decision to leave her behind in Texas. “I promised her she wouldn’t have to live like I’ve had to.”
He has vowed to bring her to D.C. someday. In the meantime, he is focusing on jump-starting his career again, no easy task in an industry awash with techno and alternative pap; it was hard enough to survive in the ’80s, when “roots music” (a term he shuns but has always been saddled with) was at least commercially viable. Now, though, he doesn’t even have the basics. He needs a manager; he needs a new record out. More than anything, he needs to get a new version of the H-Bombs to recapture his former glory and take Washington by storm again.
A few days after the sibling-rivalry fiasco, Evan Johns is back at the Sunset Grille, ready to give it another shot. He’s made amends with older brother Mike, who says all is forgiven: “You gotta understand, Evan has never done anything but music; from the age of 16, he’s never had another job.” A lithographer by trade, Mike is thrilled to perform with his brother onstage. At 44, he’s finally getting a chanceeven if it’s only temporaryto be an H-Bomb.
Evan knows he’s got to get back in the groove, and it isn’t going to happen as long he sits home all day downing beer and watching the History Channel. “He’s like a boxer who’s been out of training here in town for a while,” says Dave Chappelle, a veteran local guitarist who helped line up Tuesday-night gigs for Evan at the Grille. This summer, the group has also performed at other local places, including Jaxx, the Springfield venue for dinosaur rock acts, and Twist & Shout in Bethesda, where roots rock still rules.
The dilemma for Johns is fairly obvious. Though he remains a cult star in far-flung parts of the world, from Austin to Amsterdam, he’s mostly an unknown quantity in his own hometown. Those local fans who do remember him from his heyday here are as old as he is now; most are raising families and have little time to go out and “Do the Dootz” until last call.
For the unconverted, though, Johns may very well seem as strange and archaic as Uncle Dave Macon and his medicine show. Times have changed, and he’s still playing the same music he’s always played. Typically, the bands that can afford to do that are strictly on reunion duty. Johns made the mistake of never quitting.
Even so, the orneriness of his music, the very quality that keeps Johns exiled from the mainstream, may prove attractive to fans of Wilco, Son Volt, and the other acts known as No Depression and alternative country. “There’s a chunk of young people being turned on by the type of music Evan plays,” says Mark Gretzchel, who runs the Twist & Shout. “He’s as much part of the No Depression thing as anyone. That hard-edged, roots-oriented approach that they’re trying to doEvan’s already there. They have to catch up to him.”
If they want to catch him, they’ll have to reach back pretty far. Lounging before the first set at one of the Grille’s plastic lawn tables, Johns smiles and points to his most prized possession, a small gray box perched on the stage. It looks like a relic from a bygone era, but it works just fine. It’s a vintage 1964 Fender Twin Reverb Deluxe 22-watt amplifier; he snagged it for $140 nearly two decades ago. He claims all his magic comes from that unlikely source. “I can make any guitar sound good through Mr. Wrong,” he says, calling it by its pet name. He doesn’t fool with any modern gimmicks, because “God’s own amp” has never let him down.
From the first song, it’s clear that Johns is on tonight, even though there’s just a handful of grillbillies in the bar. For a guitar hero, he’s remarkably restrained in his playing; he never takes a gratuitous solo and he makes every note count, even when he’s scraping the mike stand across the neck. One moment he’s caressing his Telecaster like a pet cat; the next, he’s choking the poor thing to death. The whole thing’s as loud as a train wreck, but this time no one says a word about turning anything down.
Watching him detonate on the tiny stage, you’re reminded of Mojo Nixon’s pronouncement: “Records are really just turd polish: Real rock ‘n’ roll happens live, and Evan is the real hillbilly psychotic rock ‘n’ roll screaming madman.” It is one of those performances that rattle you, that make you believe that the Sunset Grille is the only place you’d want to be that night.
By the second set, the place is filling up, and Johns is enjoying himself, even harmonizing with Mike on choruses. He unveils a brand-new tune, “Hale-Bopp Boogie,” which is a scorching rockabilly number, a sort of “Wreck of the Old ’97” disaster-song take on the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide. But in this version, the story has a new ending: Before the comet disappears from the night sky, some whales off the California coast get beamed up to the comet’s glowing tail and travel to the next astral plane. His goofball sound effects on guitar mimic the whales’ banter, and he tells the whole story in three minutes flat.
After the middle set, several people bolt for the door, but not before filling the tip jar at John’s feet. Out in the parking lot, a bald, gray-bearded man explains that he has to work early in the morning. He doesn’t look like your average grillbilly, that’s for sure. He was a fan of the H-Bombs back in the early ’80s, when he first moved to D.C. Earlier that day, he’d found out that Johns was playing in Virginia, so he drove all the way from Capitol Hill to catch the early part of the show. He says he’s going on the Internet to post the good news: Evan Johns is back.
For the final hour, Johns is joined onstage by former H-Bomb Jon Coombs on bass, and it’s a marvel to see and hear the fireworks on display. Except for his menthol-frayed vocals, Johns plays as he did in the days of yore, with every gesture coming as second nature but still inspired. As he screams into the mike and attacks his guitar, he conjures the same guardian Spirit of the Undead that keeps Jerry Lee Lewis and Keith Richards from passing over to the other side. Even as he wins that battle, though, by now he’s playing for about eight customers, including the bartender.
“I’ve had bigger bands than this,” he rasps, surveying the measly crowd with a smile. It doesn’t come off as bitter, just his gruff way of thanking the few who stayed.
“Evan’s the most naturally talented musician I’ve ever played with,” says Coombs after the show. “I’ve seen him dog it, but when he really wants to turn it on, you ain’t never seen nothin’ like it.” Like many former H-Bombs, Coombs is making a decent living in the music biz. “I’m just playing society stuff with a big band, and I’ve also got a side group that does New Orleans. We stink it up a bit, but I make a helluva lot more money doing this. I’m 38, so there’s gotta be some dough in it.” His days in the H-Bombs are in the past: “We had a good time, but that’s a tough life.”
Later, as the bar empties out, Johns heads to his table, where Kassoff gives him a warm smile. He settles in a heap in his seat.
“I’m going to get some hungry young punks, and we’re going to get it done,” he announces, counting out the crumpled bills in the tip jug. “I need to get me a regular combo.”
The bartender flicks on the overhead lights, and in the harsh glare Johns seems old and tiredand fragile. Under his cap, his face is drawn and haggard, and his legs appear spindly beneath his beer gut. The night onstage has really tuckered him out, and even his bright red Chuck Taylor high-tops can’t hide the harsh truth: Time isn’t on his side anymore.
“Hey Jonny, remember that show down in Roanoke?” asks Johns.
Coombs laughs and tells him to refresh his memory.
Then Johns flashes that demented, radiant grin of his, and sheds a decade or so right before your eyes, and gets busy on another story.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.