A Tribute to the Musician, Writer, and Burroughsian
by Bill Given
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.