Behind the Curtain: Cataloging Vinyl vs. Catching a Young Eric Johnson at the Whisky a Go Go

Steve RosenCategories:Behind the Curtain

Rock Cellar Magazine

I remember it was a Wednesday night sometime in early 1980 when the phone rang. My friend, Craig, wanted to see a guitarist named Eric Johnson in Hollywood.

I had probably been mindlessly watching some serial rerun of a ‘70s television show like Adam-12 [a cop show], Green Acres [a hilarious comedy about a hotshot lawyer who moves from New York to become a farmer in a small town called Hooterville] or Kung Fu [a program about a Shaolin priest-martial artist who uses his skills to right wrongs and beat up every bad guy in the Old West]. Or maybe just putzing around in my little guesthouse up in the Hollywood Hills, laboriously sorting through albums, alphabetizing them and then re-alphabetizing them again.

[Side note: I say laboriously because I spent an inordinate amount of time making sure every record was in its proper place. I had a system whereby I cataloged my albums — by then I had a pretty sweet collection of approximately 4,000 vinyl discs thanks to the largess of record companies who graciously sent me records to review and also by going out and buying used albums at local stores — by the last names of the artists. So, Jethro Tull would go under T,  King Crimson under C and the Beatles under B. Duh. No problemo. But where would you insert the Jimi Hendrix Experience? Under H for Hendrix or E for Experience? Would Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow be slotted under Blackmore or Rainbow? Oi, the pain and agony. It was an enigmatic puzzle wrapped inside a conundrum so impossible to figure out that it took years of refinements and an infinite number of iterations to get it right, and still I was never happy.

I had ongoing battles with writer buddies — the vinyl wars — who dismissed my twisted views on alphabetizing as insanity and I’m not saying they were wrong. “It’s simple,” they insisted, looking at me like I was some sort of deranged dude to be avoided. “You just sort the album by the first letter of the first name.” Madness,” I cried. “Lunacy. So you’re telling me Steve Miller, Steve Winwood, Steve Marriott, Steve Hackett and Steve Howe should all go under S? Not to mention Stevie Wonder and Stephen Stills. AC/DC gets filed under A? You should all be damned to hell for your blaspheming and totally bogus notions.”

I didn’t really make that last comment, but I should have. Looking back on it now, I think maybe they were right, but don’t tell them I said so. I sold my collection years ago — by then I had about 10,000 records — and I regret doing that every single day. But at least I no longer had to confront the daily terror of trying to figure out how to catalog artists whose names ended with the same last word such as the Allman Brothers Band, Little River Band, Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and the Steve Miller Band, which was doubly complicated because there were also albums recorded by Steve Miller and what the hell what I do there? Oh, the humanity.

This didn’t even begin to touch on the higher math required to figure out whether solo albums by artists should be filed separately or right alongside their respective bands. I mean should John Lennon’s and Paul McCartney’s solo records be filed under L and M respectively or should they be inserted along with the Beatles albums? And then would you alphabetize each album by the actual title of the record and do they get listed by the first letter of the first name or the first letter of the last name?  It was a quagmire so deep I never touched bottom.

Back to the ringing of the phone: I picked up the receiver and was surprised to hear the voice of my friend Craig Ott, an old high school buddy and a great drummer I’d played with years earlier. He was trying to tell me about some guitar player who was going to be at the Whisky that evening, but I wasn’t really listening. Whether I was zoning out on TV or desperately trying to win the battle of the vinyl wars, I was settled in for the night and had no intentions of going out.

By 1980, I had interviewed the greatest guitar players in the world including Jeff Beck, Ritchie Blackmore, Paul Kossoff, Jimmy Page, Billy Gibbons, Edward Van Halen, Rory Gallagher and a ton of others. They were the most remarkable players on the planet, and I’d been lucky enough to meet them. I mention this by way of saying I had high standards, man. I mean while I treated every guitar player I met with respect, courtesy and professionalism, I couldn’t help but measure them by the extraordinarily high bars set by the masters I just mentioned. It was human nature and try as I might, it was freaking hard not to weigh a guitar player’s finger vibrato against Kossoff’s or somebody’s vibrato bar work against Beck’s.

So, as I was talking to Craig and listening to him go on and on about this guitar player from Texas who was playing the Whisky that night, I could only think, “How could I possibly be impressed by this cat when I had already been dazzled by the best?” I figured this guitarist would probably just trot out some more tired Southern-fried blues licks — and how could he even come close to the sweet Southern sizzle of Billy Gibbons? — and leave me desperately wanting to go back home after the first song. Besides it was a Wednesday night and how good could he be if he was playing in the middle of the week and not on a Friday or weekend night?

No, I didn’t want to go and I told Craig as much. I just didn’t see the point. This Eric Johnson was probably a mediocre guitarist at best and I’d probably want to leave after one song. Craig was persistent and I relented. I agreed to go and it was as much about hanging with an old friend as it was in seeing some nameless guitar player bore me to tears. Besides, the Whisky was one of my favorite clubs and I had seen some of the best shows of my life there: the Beach Boys, the Allman Brothers, and Humble Pie [I saw Pie play at the Sunset Strip landmark in 1971 and though it had nothing to do with guitar playing — or maybe it had everything to do with guitar playing — when I saw Steve Marriott spit onstage, I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. Steve was the original punk and what he’d done was so unspeakably cool that it would remain forever etched in my brain].

I met up with Craig at the club and asked him again what this guitar player’s name was. “Eric Johnson,” he said. “You won’t believe it when you see him play.” I said, “Eric who? I’ve never even heard of him” and all over again I was thinking, “What a waste of time.” I didn’t say that but I did ask my friend how he even knew about this guitar player. Craig had been playing drums in a cover band doing the Texas club circuit for a couple years between ’73 and ’75. The bass player in his band was a friend of Bill Maddox, a drummer who had played in Johnson’s fusion ensemble band called the Electromagnets. Every time Eric was playing locally, Craig and his bassist would go and check him out. Craig told me he was just blown away by his playing and that Johnson was quickly becoming a local legend in and around his hometown of Austin.

Even as the backstory unfolded, all I could think about were the stacks of albums lying in disorganized piles on my bedroom floor and episodes of my favorite oldie television shows going unwatched. We filed into the Whisky and found a spot on the floor in the back of the club. Craig, sensing my skepticism, told me,  “We all used to read Guitar Player back when I was touring in Texas. I let everybody know that Steven Rosen was my good buddy back in California. With all the heavy-hitter guitar superstars you interviewed, you were a celebrity amongst me and my Texas band mates. I was calling you because Eric was getting a lot of local recognition in Texas so his management booked this showcase at the Whisky. My bass player mentioned your name to Eric’s bass player Bill Maddox and told him you were the guy who interviewed Jeff Beck in Guitar Player. He said to Bill, ‘You should see if Steve will come to your showcase.’”

I must admit that I was pretty elated and blown away that my reputation — whatever that was — as someone who dug and appreciated great guitar playing proceeded me. I never had an ego about what I did, and in fact I didn’t know who was reading — if anybody was — my stories in Guitar Player Magazine. I honestly felt that way. I thought I was always just one interview away from my life as a rock writer ending.

I still assumed Eric wouldn’t be that good, but I was hoping he would be as amazing as my friend described him. I wanted to be amazed. I did.

Eric finally took the stage, a skinny cat with brown hair and a warm smile. He was holding a Stratocaster and plugged into an array of amps and pedals. He launched into his first song and I immediately thought, “Oh, no. This guy sucks. I’d rather be watching Kung Fu.”

I’m kidding! That was a joke. I just wanted to make sure you were listening. From the very first notes that poured from his fingers, Johnson mesmerized me with his phrasing, articulation, tone, note choices, rhythmic technique, and melodic sensibility. He was so profoundly astonishing that not since seeing Edward Van Halen play on that same stage just a couple years earlier had I been so captivated.

He was transformative. His playing was light years beyond what anybody else had been doing. Eric moved effortlessly between fusion, jazz, rock, blues and country. I knew in that moment, I had witnessed a touchstone performance and moving forward every other guitar player would be measured and judged by what Johnson wrought. I was right.

I was stunned speechless. When it was over and the lights came up, I looked over at Craig with a light in my eyes and a smile and I didn’t say a word. He knew. He could have said, “I told you so” or something like that but he wasn’t that type of friends. He just grinned back and we both stood there in the aftermath.

I had to meet Eric after his set so Craig and I walked up the famous Whiskey staircase to go upstairs to the dressing room.  There, I introduced myself and told Eric I wrote for Guitar Player. I expressed how much I loved his playing. He was utterly without ego and so completely honest and charming that I felt a friendship form the moment we met. I told him I was interviewing drummer Carmine Appice the next day and would he like to come along. He was busy and graciously declined.

I didn’t tell him what I’d initially confessed to Craig (“Eric who?”), and I was embarrassed I’d even had that thought.

We said our goodbyes but that wasn’t enough. I followed him stalker-style to a café a few doors up from the Whiskey. I stood at the door of the restaurant and watched him be seated at a table. Summoning courage, I sauntered over. Hovering over him, I told him I hoped to interview him someday. We exchanged addresses. I wrote to him and he and to my astonishment, he answered my letter a short time later with a handwritten note [anybody remember them?]. In part it said, “Any questions or ideas you would like to communicate via mail about guitar, I would be happy to respond to.”

It hadn’t really surprised me that he had written back. I knew from that very first time meeting him that Eric Johnson was a genuinely open and honest human being. Those elements were conveyed through his playing.

You knew when you  heard Johnson play a lick, it was coming directly from his heart. It wasn’t being rewired along the way to sound like something somebody wanted to hear.

Eric was an original and originality wasn’t always rewarded. That showcase I saw was also an audition for Warner Bros. Records. They passed. They passed? Inexplicably those WB morons passed on Eric Johnson, though he’d ultimately be signed to Reprise [an offshoot of Warner Bros.) years later. Obviously they realized what an incredibly stupid thing they’d done and tried to remedy their mistake by signing him in 1984 and releasing his debut album, Tones, in 1986.

Two years later with the release of Tones, I’d interview him for a story in Guitar World called The Warm Tone of a Texas Twister. If it was possible, he was even more self-effacing, courteous, and friendly than the first time we met. He remembered our first encounter and shook my hand with all the firmness and warmth he would have extended to an old friend.

This wasn’t the first story to ever be published about the guitarist, but it was one of the first major pieces to appear on him. I was proud and honored to be writing about Eric and in some small way, I was probably also trying to assuage my own guilty conscience for ever thinking he was little more than just another pedestrian guitar player peddling worn out blues runs.

I would see Eric play many times subsequently. I saw him at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2004 where he was one of the few performers to come back to the press tent and talk to the assembled media. Again, upon seeing me he embraced me and greeted me enthusiastically. I watched him play a few years later at the Key Club on Sunset Boulevard. Like he had done so many years earlier, Johnson tore my head off with some of the most mesmerizing and inventive playing I’d ever heard. The notes seemed to get sucked out of his Marshall cabinets like ancient dinosaurs struggling to free themselves from the tar pits. Finally unleashed, those six-string animals would fly and stomp around the room like soaring and stampeding creatures. Well, maybe that’s a little too poetic. Suffice it to say, he played his ass off.

Eric played flawlessly the entire night, but made one mistake. On a simple Chuck Berry-like rock and roll lick, some basic double-stop riff he’d played correctly a thousand times before, he hit a clunker. A bad note. Nobody in the audience heard it but I did, and so did Eric. The look on his face was priceless. It conveyed a sense of, “I suck. How could I have done that?” He was so upset with himself that for a second I thought he might actually stop the performance and walk off stage. That didn’t happen. Eric finished his set and then left.

It was a priceless rock and roll moment. That look told you everything you needed to know about Eric Johnson. That he loved the guitar and what it could do. That he had worked tirelessly to become a player capable of expressing himself in a unique way. And that he couldn’t stand the idea of one note being misplayed even if every other note around it had been articulated to perfection.

For Eric Johnson, being a guitar player was a precious thing. “I’d always play even if I never had the opportunity to make a record,” he told me during our Guitar World interview. “To be perfectly honest, I’d always go, ‘God, if I could only get a record cut and play theater halls instead of clubs,’ but I still would have been content with my life if that never happened. I’ve got my guitars and amps and I can play and write and practice. So that in itself is enough. If that’s what your reward is in playing in the first place and I really think it has to be.”

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