In Memoriam: Johnny Strike

A Tribute to the Musician, Writer, and Burroughsian

by Bill Given

Johnny Strike, St. Francis Hotel, San Francisco, May 2010, by Gregory Ego
Johnny Strike, St. Francis Hotel, San Francisco, May 2010, photo by Gregory Ego

Johnny Strike has died. 

I came to know about Johnny through his book Ports of Hell and not through his band, where most folks will have known him. He, along with Hank Rank, led the band Crime. They were San Francisco’s only rock n’ roll band in the late 1970s. 

I first talked to Johnny through the website RealityStudio.org, which is a fansite devoted to the works of William S. Burroughs. I remember the moderator saying early on “Welcome to the sleepiest forum in existence….” It didn’t stay that way for long. A collection of weirdos exchanged opinions and links to odd articles until it got significant momentum: we had a lot of people talking, clashing, and even a little catfishing. Neat! I remember that I was so paranoid about the kind of trolling and identity-fakery type of behavior that it didn’t occur to me that Johnny Strike was Johnny Strike. Somehow there was the possibility that there were two Johnny Strikes in the world. 

He wasn’t just a nice older-person presence. He was, in fact, eager to get into online conflict. Chronologically, this is how I met him. One way or another he challenged something I had submitted and there I was, in a little battle with Johnny Strike. “Oh, you’re that Johnny Strike,” I wrote, realizing who I was talking to. 

He was a huge fan of William S. Burroughs. He had taken a class taught by the great writer and even procured a blurb from him for Ports of Hell. He knew all of Burroughs’ novels and had opinions about his evolution as an artist.

I was living in the Bahamas at the time when I first participated in the forum. My name was Scout and then I changed it to Juggular. William Burroughs for me was a heavy influence — “heavy” in a way I wanted to throw off. As I typed my attempts at stories I could see myself using words such as “certainly,” “advantage,” and “relegated.” They might have gone unnoticed to a normal reader but were like a seeping poison to me. I knew I had to bleed them out if ever I was going to be a writer. I had a lot of young thoughts like that at the time. A year later I moved to San Francisco. I was a mariner then and thought I could find work there. 

Having lived in the Bahamas for over two years, when I came to San Francisco I went book-wild. There were so many bookstores that I could find all the books I wanted to read and take them home with me. I had some money saved up. One of the books I found was Johnny’s Ports of Hell. What a strange book it was! Each page’s text was in two columns. I looked at the back cover. “A picaresque story that borrows from all the pulps, including crime, sci-fi, fantasy, adventure and horror.” I opened the book randomly. “Tweety coughed. ‘Well I gave it up see. If I drink I get like some other person, real soft and squishy and then I get sick. I quit the sauce ’cause I like to keep my edge’.” When you’re standing in a bookstore you’re aware of doing one of the most private things possible, reading a book, and you feel the expectation of the nice people behind the glass counter. Sooner or later you need to buy a book. There’s no feeling quite like browsing for hours in a bookstore and just leaving. I bought the book by Johnny Strike. I read it that night. It’s the kind of novel that you read in one go. The following day, I sent him a private message: Hi, my name is, I live in your town now, these are my interests, would you like to meet, etc. I remember he replied in very formal language. He used “cordially” as his sign-off. Immediately I felt young, and I hadn’t been young for several years. 

We met for lunch and talked about books. He was open and candid about himself and his interests. He was a generous person. He said he’d been addicted to heroin for a period of time and then been a counselor for recovering addicts. He gently judged the food I ordered where we had lunch, advising me to eat more vegetables. He later wrote a follow-up email about vegetables: “Be sure and eat vegetables. Cooked or raw.” 

But when I first sat down with him I was taken in by his face. He was tall, over 6 feet, and had a jawline that goes well beyond phrases like “he had a square jawline” or “his jaw was pronounced.” He had an unusual face. He also wore sunglasses indoors, and a heavy leather jacket which I found comical but didn’t say so. He was a rock star, after all. But I was there to meet him as a writer. 

We talked about what I had been doing in the Bahamas. I’d been working unofficially as a kind of paid eavesdropper. There is a lot of human trafficking in the Bahamas, and I had been paid to report on whatever I encountered. Johnny loved that. Anything to do with pulpy, seedy, underground matters enchanted him. I avoided asking him about Crime because they’d been the greatest band in the world. 

Crime was great because they said so. They actually played San Quentin Prison once. They did so dressed as police officers. The cojones to do that in the late 1970s cannot be conveyed today. Johnny said, “The prisoners didn’t really get it but they weren’t hostile either.” He also said, “We weren’t playing our best by then but we did find out shortly afterward that one of the nearest cells was occupied by Sirhan Sirhan. We got some satisfaction from knowing he’d been forced to endure us.”

As someone who listens to music with reluctance, and who, when he does (we’re going into third person now), listens to bad music, I consider Crime the greatest band of all time. I’ve spent many, many hours looking for Bobby Soxx, the Vomit Pigs, the Dicks Live At Raul’s double 7″ with the version of “Kill From The Heart.” And did you know that you can’t listen to The Avengers nowadays on Spotify? — Yes, you can, but very recently you could not. “They were the only ones we felt like were actually as good as we were,” Johnny told me. I was asking him about The Dils. He was telling me about the impact of Suicide. 

Have you listened to Crime? My favorite song is “Monkey On My Back.” They didn’t release it. They re-did it years later as “Gangster Funk” which is one of the most heavily cocaine-salted songs I can thing of. 

I got to visit his apartment once. He was proud to be paying the same monthly amount as when he’d first leased it. He had a knife from Morocco that he showed me before he shared the Crime flyers. 

He said in passing, “I like Bo Diddley, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry.” First-wave rock n’ roll was his gig. Wasn’t Crime first-wave? I remember I once joked with him that Crime should have put out an album with a hologrammatic flip-image of a hand waving. Get it? 

I couldn’t really enchant Johnny too much on the mysticism end. I actually invited him to a peyote meeting. He was wary. 

If you want to know Johnny Strike, you should read his books. He wrote two novels and a bunch of stories. He also wrote a memoir that I haven’t read yet. As soon as I finish writing this, I’m going to buy it. And you can bet I’m not going to buy it online. I’m going to insist on finding the store that has it, in person if you will, and be as loud as I can be in the check-out line. 

RealityStudio notes: Johnny Strike passed away earlier this month in San Francisco. In addition to many comments he contributed to RealityStudio, Johnny gave us a 1982 interview he did with Herbert Huncke. Marcus Niske also interviewed him for the site once. We exchanged emails and books with Johnny over the years and send our condolences to his loved ones.

Written by Bill Given and published by RealityStudio on 23 September 2018.

3 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Johnny Strike

  1. I didn’t know him well at all. The above is not a piece that is good at all, not even least because it doesn’t at all capture the man, even in brief moment. What did he look like? (gentle, a bit bent, someone who had actually [and said so] taken DE to heart and practiced it) He wore sunglasses and had a darker choice of dress, with leather trench coats but not in an overwhelming way; when you got up from having lunch with him and he suddenly put on his sunglasses, you were reminded you were with at least a legend, someone who’d seen or more likely starred in thousands of stories, so many and so wide-spanned that by odds at least three or four people on the planet right then were telling stories he had a role in. It only sounds like exaggeration, but….

    What did his voice sound like? I’m thinking about it now, and it was cool, unruffled, unhurried. —He would like that. —He was someone who sat down and was calm and not reserved but deliberate: I realize I’m using adjectives you’ve read a thousand times when describing certain people, —writers, — but he was careful and he listened, and you could hear behind his clear eyes little clicks almost audible in his head, cameric observance of your statements, I’m also realizing his thousand was startling and describing, you could hear his audible observance, he would sound like his voice. He was stories.

    What did he talk about? —I realize now I had, I mean the above recent bit, had little right to write a tribute to Johnny. I had lunch with him several times, visited his home once, and exchanged a few dozen emails over 5 or so years. —But Johnny, too, could walk into the room dressed like a person who carries themselves and is dressed like someone who makes people turn their heads, and yet people don’t turn their heads. He comes in with a trench coat that makes him seem 7’ tall, a long coat of leather with a high pale face and forehead and … he had rent control. He lived with his wife and they had a fantastic apartment on a beautiful street in San Francisco. —He was one of those people you knew had dreamt of themselves from an arm’s length, who thought about how to think, how to speak, how to go from place to place. He would sit down and then an hour later look at your plate and comment on its lack of vegetables. He also had an incredible face, with high cheekbones and a forehead with white, thin and black hairs, and he would sit in the booth table across from you in the vegetarian restaurant and say, So what have you been up to? unshouldering a dark jacket with a pearl buttoned dark purple & gray shirt and a silver bola tie. Here you are (I am) (I was) in a blue polo shirt and khakis looking like you’re IT. More like ITT. He did ask me for some help with converting files from one software to another. I was somewhat helpful, recommending a friend who was knowledgeable. I visited his house once, and sat in his (was it?) blue wallpapered living room with the Moroccan knives and the long hallway … into a back room where he showed me old Crime flyers. He was in a new band with Hank Rank from Crime now, and he two years later sent you a passcode to download it free. There are l two emails where he urged and outlined his request for me to troll Graham Rae on the WSB forum at this website, — they’d had a beef when this site had been one of the “ sleepiest in existence”…. You have to remember, though, that whilst this was years later it had been, early on, a lot of fun to argue with people with what seemed like, talking 1997, AOL Chat, mock-combat. So if in Johnny he had a bit of childishness regards to the Internet, well, we were all trolls then and later, even to often now; maybe to tweet is to Troll.
    I think now this about Johnny Strike: he had a light, gentle presence but carried an unmistakable well in his eyes that showed the mark.

    I read Ports Of Hell. I was on Reality Studio’s forum and he was irascible, — another typical adjective, but he was. He was looking for an argument. Years later he sent me “ A Loud Humming Frim Above”. — I’ve read most of the stories at different times in different places but I’m going to read them all again from the beginning, through. I remember a last letter, that I didn’t respond to, and it was talking about his Exploding Memoir, and his music, and I’d written a few letters where I’d asked How are you? and Tell me what’s happening/ here’s what’s happening, and he’s reply with a link to an article, or an emoji and a link to buy his book. I didn’t follow the clicks, and then I read he was dead.

    I can see a whole series of comments about Johnny. Look, he had a cousin vibe to Peter Weller, another individual with high cheeks and latticed foreheads, innaresting widow’s peaks and their admiration for a w i f e S h o o t e r.

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