Over the weekend, news came via sketchy emails that New York downtown legend Dean Johnson had died in, of all places, Washington DC, possibly with a companion. (Know more? Please comment.) It’s very sad news; he wasn’t just an important, exciting figure on the ’80s club scene, he was a dear friend, and we miss him madly. He was six-and-a-half-feet tall and weighed only slightly more than the boom box that accompanied his early performances before he formed the bands Dean and the Weenies and, later, the Velvet Mafia. He was a poet, a porn star (his johnson was as big as Wisconsin), a songwriter, a singer, Rock ‘n’ Roll Fag Bar creator, and a keen observer, champion, and critic of the scene he was vibrantly a part of. The son of a minister, Johnson had lived in Boston until he was eight, then grew up in the suburbs where for 10 years he watched television, skipped classes, and took drugs. At 18, he moved to New York and attended NYU film school. He wanted to be a screenwriter. And an actor. “The songwriting thing is just something I started doing out of boredom,” he told us in 1985, “and when it went over so successfully I decided to pursue it because I had nothing else to do. It seemed worth the effort to make a name for myself as a performer.” It was after friends coerced him to appear in Haoui Montaug’s cabaret on the roof of Danceteria in June of 1984, that he made his name, literally overnight. And fronting his bands with his bald head, tube skirt, and drop earrings he was quite a sight to see and it was clear he would be a fixture. He wrote songs that, like “Fuck You” (above) and “Fierce Ruling Diva,” became anthems on the club circuit. He wrote overtly gay lyrics so compelling that even dyed-in-the-wool straights appreciated his biting satire in songs like “Bourgoise Boys” that cleverly took the piss out of the gays he often found so appalling. Still, his was not exactly the Cinderfella story it appeared to be. By 1985, Johnson had already twice tried suicide. (After the jump, two letters from Johnson to The WOW Report in 2004)
Sorry I haven’t written. For a while, I couldn’t, as a pinched nerve in the cervical spine was causing such excruciating pain in my left side I spent the summer eating pain killers and watching my hand curl up into a claw as the nerve damage progressed. Eventually I ended up in St. Vincent’s for a month where they operated on the spine and put a metal plate in my neck relieving the pressure on the nerve. I’m home now but my cats weren’t getting the attention they needed while I was gone and my poor old cat Luther died this morning. I put him in a DKNY (deadkittynewyork) bag and sent him off for cremation. And my mom isn’t responding well to her chemo so it’s been stressful. I’m a terrible pen pal. I’ll be on the cover of HX nov 26th. I talked about the old days for the first time and it was kinda fun. I believe your name may have come up. big kiss.
I’m sorry I didn’t come to Patrick McMullan’s so8os party at the Limelight in November but it was kicking up a lot of unpleasant memories for me. I have a happy life now thanks to the miracles of Paxil and BuSpar but I didn’t know about seratonin imbalance in the 80s. I was so depressed and I associate that time of my life with sadness and fear; my memories are colorful but not particularly warm. You may recall you wrote famously about my first suicide attempt in your [Details] column, and there were two more after that. Right as my career was peaking with Mondo New York I found out I was HIV+ and thought I would be dead in two years. My experience with Island Records was traumatic as I learned the “entertainment industry” demanded compromises I would never be able to make. And all of this precipitated my heroin addiction, which was not my proudest moment. The good news is I’m in the best years of my life RIGHT NOW!!! I’m so happy, Stephen, I have a balanced, healthy lifestyle, I get paid well for my work, and I’m making the best music I’ve ever made. I took some of the filthy lucre from my TRIPLE XXX and MAGNUM parties (I’m sure you’ve heard all about them) and hired a real producer, Wharton Tiers (Helmet, Sonic Youth), and made a real rock and roll record. It’s called CHEAP! (But Not Free). I wasted a couple of years farting around with various independents before Darrell Martin (he just produced RuPaul) convinced me to do what Ru is doing and put it out myself. Apparently, the record business is dying a deservedly agonizing death. So I’m setting up some big release events here in NYC for September, and then I want to come to Los Angeles for Halloween. I had the time of my life when I was there six years ago and I haven’t been back since. And this time I can afford to bring [my band] The Velvet Mafia with me. Oh, that reminds me, some kids over at SBNY in Chelsea have started a party called “Rock and Roll Fag Bar.” I’m retro. Ouch. But I’m really happy. It’s great to be not dead.