Johnny Strike was a San Francisco punk pioneer and leader of the band Crime. A fixture at Mabuhay Gardens who once performed at San Quentin prison dressed in a cop uniform, he was also a prolific author whose work was praised by William S. Burroughs
By Zack Kopp
Johnny Strike, formerly of Crime—once described as “San Francisco’s only rock and roll band”—and later a member of Naked Beast—which had much the same lineup—recently passed away at age 70 after a protracted bout of cancer. From some of the things he said to me in his emails, I got the feeling that Strike craved greater recognition as a writer than as a punk rocker.
More on that later. First, the music, though. Crime described themselves as “the crime wave band with the deadliest sound in town”, providing a West Coast counterpoint to East Coast bands like the Stooges and the Ramones, both of whom are, of course, better known today. Call it crime wave, rock and roll, or punk, their music was probably the first San Francisco-based iteration of the raw, real sound taking hold in the middle 1970s.
“San Francisco’s Doomed” – Crime, recorded 1978:
Johnny Strike once said he wanted his music to “stick pins in people” rather than make them feel comfortable. Presumably, he had a similar ambition when it came to his writing. I never got around to writing the article I promised him about his book when he was alive. Which makes this it.
As a freelance writer with a fondness for punk, I interviewed Johnny for the first time several years ago. Last year, he offered to help promote a book I’d written satirizing political polarization in the wake of the 2016 election.
“Do you bash Trump?” he asked, and I tried to describe how, instead, my book was “about a guy who tries to do the opposite of opposing or agreeing with anyone else, and what his life looks like that way, once he’s doing his own thing instead, with everyone else’s opposition or agreement, as the case may be, in the background.”
Johnny seemed to understand, but now that he’s gone, I wish I’d explained it more clearly. I’m glad I let him know I thought Crime had made the ultimate punk gesture by playing San Quentin State Prison dressed as police officers, like a William Burroughs novel come alive onstage, offending everyone who cared to take offense.
This radical extension of the street theatre prevalent in San Francisco was common drag for the band when they performed at Mabuhay Gardens, but wearing it in prison took steel legs. Johnny described it as, “Fun,” (with a capital F), “amazing and unnerving, especially when they informed us of the ‘no hostage’ rule. That meant no negotiations would be permitted if we were nabbed by the inmates. But we pulled it off.”
Crime’s San Quentin performance of “Piss on Your Dog”:
Besides expanding the bounds of possibility in rock ‘n’ roll as co-founder and front man/vocalist of Crime, Johnny did the same thing with later musical outfits, among them Naked Beast, which reportedly began as a literary vehicle and included fellow former Crime members Hank Rank on drums and percussion and Joey D’Kaye on guitars, synthesizer and theremin providing a backdrop for his own nasal vocal incision on songs like “Doctor D is Dead” and narrations like “Crazy Carl’s Thing”.
Born Gary John Bassett, Johnny Strike was as prolific a writer as he was performer. Fans of good writing will want to read his last book, The Exploding Memoir, published just before he died. It recounts the adventures of a proto-punk mod-turning-glam in post-hippie San Francisco with an underground band called WolfSnake, the first to wear all black in that multicolored scene.
Strike’s book is presumably based, in some part, on its author’s own adventures as a young man in the same wild land between eras. Not entirely, though, since it also has an over-arching motif of intrigue centered around a part-Tibetan mystic named Dr. Kublar, and the main guy’s name is Eddie, not Gary or Johnny. That might be what he means by the word “exploding”. His other books are just as gripping and inventively written, including Ports of Hell, Murder in the Medina, A Loud Humming Sound Came from Above, and Name of the Stranger.
The attention paid to grammar and presentation in Murder in the Medina is impeccable. The book is typo-free, and never less than impressive in word choice. Readers will never doubt they are reading the work of a true master. The Exploding Memoir, while its delivery is less high-tone, is a different type of narrative, and as such, perfectly suited to its subject.
Strike was never shy about citing a strong connection to, and conscious furthering of, multiple previous influences. His interview of hobo and Times Square hustler Herbert Huncke, who, along with Neal Cassady, inspired On the Road author Jack Kerouac’s adoption of spontaneous prose, is documented in The Huncke Connection. He spent a brief stretch as an expatriate in Tangier, where fellow American Paul Bowles, whom he met and interviewed while he was there, relocated permanently in 1947. Strike also met with and interviewed Moroccan author Mohammed Choukri during his relatively brief stay in that country.
Strike took issue when I overstated the duration of his stay in Morocco when I printed our first interview on my blog some years later, saying, “You say I was there for several years. It was only seven months. I have a thing about sloppy work.”
He volunteered a blurb for my last book, requesting a synopsis and all the other blurbs I’d received so far, to weigh his own against, before backing out unexpectedly, due to medical issues, saying, “Sorry man but you couldn’t ask at a worse time. I’m finding it difficult keeping my own publisher and editor happy. If that’s not enough I’m involved with a music deal and some unexpected medical issues. Really no time in the day for anything else and I don’t see it easing up anytime soon. I do hope to read your book at some point and I wish you nothing but success.”
Strike reacted with elation to his receipt of a free copy of Market Man when it came out, saying, “GOT THE BOOK! MANY THANKS! It looks terrific. It now goes on the stack of books friends wrote, and that I must read, but looking it over I think it will go on top.”
I knew he was sick, but I didn’t expect him to die when he did. I hope he got a chance to read it.
Having heard that departed spirits were likeliest available to the living in the first few days after death, on the day Gregory Ego sent me the news Johnny had died, I tried checking in briefly. “I don’t know if you’d bother to check on me, Johnny, seeing as we never met in the flesh, but I’m doing all right, if you’re listening,” I said into the air, taking stock of myself, “By the laws of orthogenesis.”
That’s a school of thought holding that all things are evolving in a definite direction, also known as teleology. How the hippies evolved from the Beats. And the punks evolved from the hippies. How Johnny Strike interviewed Huncke before that man died, and I interviewed Johnny Strike before he did. How Johnny and I were both probably just as surprised when the guy they interviewed died. Which means whatever’s coming next will be here soon, whatever form it takes, if it isn’t already begun to emerge. And it probably has, if we know it yet or not.
I haven’t read Ports of Hell yet, but it’s on my stack of books friends wrote. It tells the story of an expatriate in Tangier who becomes associated with someone named Elias who claims to be from the fabled lost continent predating Atlantis known as Lemuria. This was the first of his books to receive good press from William S. Burroughs, who was possessed of the necessary discernment to rate Strike’s descriptions of otherworldly or supernatural phenomena as those of a man who’d witnessed what he described: “This is what marks the artist, he has been there and brought it back.” A Loud Humming Sound Came From Above, Strike’s collaboration with illustrator Richard Sala, is a collection of twelve short stories including one set in a profiteering methadone clinic, one in a hotel “where the suicidal find terrible reasons to live,” plus ten more similarly canted, each with an accompanying illustration by Sala, author of Black Cat Crossing and Hypnotic Tales.
Strike’s Name of the Stranger, set in Tangier and San Francisco, has been described by one reviewer as “[taking] the reader on a shrink’s quick descent into his client’s maddening hell where he finds there is no exit.” Another commentator on the Amazon site described it as “a suspenseful read bringing to mind such greats as Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford, [having] moments of high comedy and witty dialogue, qualities that easily give [it] a place among the classics.”