A close friend and cohort in chaos, Anthony Petkovich remembers Crime founding member Johnny Strike (Gary John Bassett). He describes his first Mabuhay Gardens Crime gig, his later working alongside Strike at a San Francisco methadone clinic and some of their classic pranks, including one involving the latter-day, godawful Jefferson Starship that is for the ages.
The adrenaline rush was immediate after Johnny Strike and I started the fire in Chinatown.
With his disposable lighter, John lit the newspaper, which I held and threw into the dark pit. That was the deal: He (the 40-year-old former guitarist/vocalist/co-founder of the classic SF punk group Crime) would light the paper and I (his 28-year-old friend from work at a Tenderloin methadone clinic) would chuck it in, thus making us both complicit in the crime. After the pit became an inferno—the “pit” was only a friggin’ debris box, but it was raging like hell soon enough!—John and I were half a block away, melding into the darkness of the San Francisco side-street, just as people from apartment buildings overlooking the garbage bin began nervously shouting, “Fire!…Fire!” “Hey! There’s a fire down there!”
John and I turned the corner, at which point I suggested that we keep the rush going by returning to the fire. Laughing, John was absolutely game. In the 10pm October night, we briskly walked to my car (parked half a mile away), drove back, arriving as the fire engines were flashing and the firefighters blasting water into the scalded/smoking oversized garbage can. We even spoke to a fireman, expressing how appalled we were that such an act of arson could happen. If he could read our minds… mama! My little Karman Ghia barely squeaked by the fire engines, which blocked most of the narrow street, both of us laughing as I drove John to his home near Chinatown.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Actually, I’m too far back in time, since that prank took place in 1989.
Moving forward some 30 years…
“R.I.P. Johnny Strike.”
That was all the grim email said on my iPhone.
It was the morning of September 11, 2018 (yes, that infamous American ‘anniversary’), and my friend Gregory Ego had just shocked me with this somber cyber news.
‘This a joke or somethin’?’ I thought. ‘Johnny Strike dead?!’
I went online and, sure enough, found a number of obits on Strike, all stating (somewhere in their stories) that he’d finally succumbed on the preceding day (Sept. 10) “after a long bout with cancer.”
News articles called Strike one of the originators of punk on the West Coast; a guitarist/vocalist/songwriter who—along with band co-members Frankie Fix (guitar/vocals and band co-founder), Ron the Ripper (bass), Ricky Tractor/Brittley Black/Hank Rank (on drums, respectively)—was in the notorious punk band Crime (1976-1981). A few pieces also discussed some of the writings John published in the latter part of his life, which ended at age 70.
Then, after reading several such notices—but more importantly, amidst the fog in my shocked brain from learning of John’s sudden death (we hadn’t spoken for well over a decade, and I had no idea of his illness)—I thought, ‘Wait a minute. I, actually, knew this guy for 16 friggin’ years [from 1988 to 2004]!’
I’d become somewhat sentimental about John the year before he died, trying to reconnect via an old-fashioned letter. But it didn’t turn out well.
As a 17-year-old, I saw John play at Crime’s peak in the summer of 1978 (when Hank Rank was on drums) at the legendary Mabuhay Gardens—the San Francisco counterpart to New York’s CBGB and Max’s Kansas City—on the edge of the stripper district of Broadway; but 10 years later I also worked with him at a methadone clinic near San Francisco’s Tenderloin District; and, after becoming good friends, we collaborated on numerous writing projects, pulled many hoaxes on people/places, all of which filled our friendship with good humor, frequently sharing notes—over dinner, booze, movies, walks (we must have covered thousands of miles by foot up and down the San Francisco streets)—on sundry topics including writing, music, sex, etc. As a result, I learned a lot about John, numerous things about myself, and, more than anything, we had a fantastic time—until Lou Reed helped dissolve our friendship; but more about that later…
Now, going back to the summer of ‘78…
A Lowdown CRIME (circa 1978)
My best friend Derek Johnston saw an article about Crime in Psyclone Magazine when we were teenagers; the two guitarists/vocalists in the band being (to us) creepy-looking older guys, Johnny Strike and Frankie Fix—even though they were only about 30 (an ancient age to teenagers like Derek, 18, and me, 17)—Johnny playing a black Gibson Les Paul, Frankie a Flying V, with the entire band dressed in cop uniforms (including bassist Ron Ripper and drummer Hank Rank), making them all the more sinister.
Consequently, one hot Friday night in August, Derek and I spontaneously decided, based on that article, to see Crime. We drove from San Rafael to San Francisco (20 miles away) in my crappy Capri.
As Johnny Strike told us about that particular Crime gig 10 years later, “That was probably the best show we ever played!”
Now, as a group, Crime, in Derek’s opinion, were provocative for three distinct reasons: 1) their presentation as a band, 2) the volume of their shows, and 3) their audience. Presentation-wise, the band was older than most punk bands, and, again, bizarrely dressed as cops. In terms of their volume, they were beyond LOUD; the unearthly din being strangely exhilarating. And their weird, wired, violent audience was, on average, in their mid-twenties, many of whom, according to Derek, went to The S.F. Art Institute. Students or otherwise, they were an insane lot. John even told us that, when playing and looking out into that audience, he’d frequently think, “Whoo! Glad I’m up here!”
That particular night, the age was 21-and-over to get into The Mab, but the live comedy show preceding the three scheduled bands (Crime, of course, headlining) was free. Additionally, the people who ran the club, according to Derek, were “always on Quaaludes, always fucked up” (Derek should know; in the ‘80s he played The Mab numerous times with his punk band Ludovico Technique), so they didn’t even notice us ‘youngsters’.
Sitting at one of the tables near the stage (it was only 7 pm and the joint had a mere 20 souls in it), Derek and I enjoyed the comic act, consisting of a sexy young female blonde holding a Pillsbury Dough Boy doll—a guy backstage with a microphone doing the voice of the puppet—and torturing the Dough Boy, the blonde finally getting out a lighter and roasting the doll’s balls. “AIIIIIIYYYYYYY!” you’d hear him screaming. Obviously a rip-off from Saturday Night Live’s Mister Bill skits. But a hoot, nonetheless.
John even told us that, when playing and looking out into that audience, he’d frequently think, “Whoo! Glad I’m up here!”
After the comedy act, all tables in front of the stage were removed, with the management telling everyone to go outside, stand in line, and pay to see Crime. Were they serious? Even as teenagers we thought it was absurd. Besides, the price was a fortune for us back then: something like five bucks. We both ordered a beer apiece and just laid low, and we wound up seeing Crime for free.
While waiting for the first band, we looked up at the stage and saw a mountain of amps and heads, across which was a long, yellow strip of police tape; obviously Crime’s equipment. That night, instead of using 100 watts apiece, Crime was using four times the normal amount. We’re talking four cabinets and four heads per musician. Overkill, sure. But it’d ultimately prove a phenomenal visual/auditory experience! According to John years later: “A German friend of ours named ‘Vader’—whose favorite musical groups were Cream… and Crime—spent the whole week scurrying all over San Francisco getting/borrowing amps for that show.”
Both Cream and Crime were known for their volume.
“If you look at the cover of Live Cream, Volume 2,” Derek said, “those amps on stage were being used by John, Frankie, and Ripper—each.” Holy busted-out eardrums!
Derek and I later figured (correctly) that Frankie Fix might have been the “face” of Crime, but the brains behind the operation was John. We knew that John (we never called him “Johnny”; his real name being Gary John Bassett) loved the crime-fiction genre (Chandler, Hammett, Goodis, Thompson), so he surely devised the name, as well as the cop/gangster personas, and, loving to stir up controversy, the whole concept of calling Crime “San Francisco’s First and Only Rock and Roll Band.” C’mon. There were obviously many great rock bands in the Bay Area. John, however, aimed to get a rise out of people. Shock ‘em. Piss ‘em off.
Crime also had terrific posters to promote their gigs, about which John later expressed resentment to me. “James Stark,” he bitterly stated one day in his home as he let me go through stacks of the Crime fliers and take whichever ones I wanted. “He didn’t come up with all of those ideas on the fliers—I did. But Stark got all the credit.”
Eye-opening images indeed!—like Jimmy Cagney fiendishly yet proudly grinning at the group through a car window as he held a Tommy Gun; an Expressionistic fist made to look like a face; makeup artist Jack Pierce giving Boris Karloff (in full Frankenstein monster makeup) a haircut; and even a close-up of Adolf Hitler.
The band which preceded Crime that evening were called Contraband, their guitarist having a fit before starting their set.
“Goddamn assholes!” he snarled, referring to Crime. “This is bullshit having to play in front of all of their equipment!” We laughed. But he had a point. His band had no room to move around. Crime had everything set up and ready to go; consequently, every group preceding them had to set up their equipment in front of all of Crime’s gear, giving these cramped musicians about two feet between the tips of their toes and the edge of the stage.
Not that it mattered; most patrons skipped the bands ahead of Crime.
“They came just to see Crime,” Derek said, “People were outside socializing, gabbing, getting shitfaced for Crime, the big draw.”
Before Crime came out on the stage—the center area jam-packed by now with people (intimidating-looking bikers hired to create a human wall by locking hands behind the concert goers, thus preventing the mass of jumping, circulating bodies from falling/crashing backwards onto the Filipino-food-eating patrons in the club/restaurant’s rear section)—a police siren erupted. John apparently had the ‘privilege’ of turning on the siren before each show.All four band members (John, Frankie, Ripper, Hank) came on stage, with John and Frankie each slamming a power chord. BLANNNGGG!… BLANNNGGG! They looked at each other—and stormed off the stage, acting as if something was not right, and they just would NOT put up with it! It looked faked to Derek and me but was still amusing. They were just fucking with the audience, trying to get ‘em riled up. Succeeded, too.
“We paid and Crime didn’t!” some of the crowd started to angrily chant after several minutes passed with no sign of John and Frankie.
Ripper was tuning his bass, while Hank tightened up a snare drum.
“Fuck YOOOOOOOOU!” one guy maniacally screamed at Ripper over and over again as he stuck both middle fingers inches away from the bassist’s face. Ron just smiled and kept noodling away.
John and Frankie eventually returned; John with his black Les Paul, Frankie, a Flying V; interestingly, the two of them looked like brothers. One of the roadies later told Derek that “neither Frank nor John could take a shit without the other one following along to go with him.” That’s how close they were. In fact, they were high school buddies from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. According to John, Frankie’s folks took him into their home after John’s folks kicked him out of their house as a teenager.
“At that point,” John later told Derek referring to the night we saw Crime, “Frankie and I were using dope,” which would explain their gaunt, ghoulish faces, intensely augmenting their scary, dangerous image.
The humming from the amps (that mountain of cabinets!) was otherworldly. You could only hear the drums amidst the monolithic wall of humming and buzzing. John and Frankie’s lips moving, but the vocals were largely inaudible. “It was the same thing when I saw Motorhead,” Derek later told me. “It was as if your eardrums were flexing in and out; going pop!…pop!…pop!…pop! INNNNNGGGGGNNNGGGNGNG!”
I don’t remember ANY of the songs because I didn’t know Crime’s catalogue at the time, but Derek remembered a few.
“During the 35-minute set, the songs I recall were ‘Emergency Music Ward’, ‘Hot Wire My Heart’, ‘Fly Eater’… I don’t remember what the last song was. They also played ‘Murder by Guitar’ in the middle rather than, per usual, the end of their set, and everyone went crazy for that one.”
John, we agreed, was a better singer and Frankie a better guitarist. Whoever sang lead vocals would play rhythm guitar, while the other guitarist did fills and maybe a short solo. John and Frankie would also occasionally exchange raunchy guitar licks.
Drummer Hank Rank, resembling a young Roy Scheider, was cranking but appeared as if he might pass out at any moment. He hung in there, though; his pained face seeming to plead, “C,mon, guys. Have mercy. Guyyyyyyyyyys!…”
Some shirtless, spiky-haired idiot, around 25, kept trying to paw at Frankie who, unlike John, was extremely volatile—proving it that night. Finally fed up with the jerk, Fix grabbed his Flying-V like a bayonet and plunged it into the guy’s chest; the bastard groaning painfully as he fell backwards, literally swallowed by the crowd, many of whom probably trampled him. I quickly observed that once you were ‘down’ in a Crime concert, you were D-O-W-N. A Crime casualty.
A guy in his early 20’s with short black hair and black-plastic-framed glasses was pogo-ing next to me (yes, I was also pogo-ing), and somehow I accidentally slapped his glasses, which—BOING!—flew off his face like a freshly popped zit, landing somewhere on the floor amidst an army of stomping shoes. “Sorry!” I shouted (as if he could hear amidst that freakishly loud noise). With a look of hopelessness, he fell onto his knees trying to recover his specs. Never saw him again that night.
After Crime’s amazing show, Derek and I each had another beer at the bar and chilled before heading outside. It was 2 a.m. and Hank Rank was in front of The Mab handing out fliers for Crime’s upcoming Halloween gig. Our ears buzzed for two days straight! Well worth it! After driving back to my parents’ house, I slept soundly.
Methadonians, Dr. Phibes…and Absolutely NO Harmonica!
Ten years later, in 1988, I didn’t recognize Johnny Strike at the methadone clinic. He looked more like an accountant than a rock star.
The clinic was called BAART Geary, a dive on Geary Street, situated on the cusp of the seedy Tenderloin District, which Derek and I liked to visit as teenagers. Derek, who worked at the clinic, put in a good word for me with management, helping me secure a job there, as well.
“Hey,” Derek told me before my first day at BAART (Bay Area Addiction Research and Treatment), “one of the guitarists from Crime works here.” Derek didn’t recognize Johnny Strike either, until John, nonchalantly, mentioned one day that he was previously in a “kinda famous local punk band.”
When I did meet him the next day, John was not at all like his Crime stage image. He was still tall, but now slightly portly and completely bald. Additionally, with his conservative clothing—white buttoned-up shirt, formal slacks, plain sweater, hard-tip shoes—he looked more like a bureaucrat in a Kafka story, not a former punker. Only his penetrating eyes and thick, fish-like lips were the same. “It’s the methadone,” John later told me regarding his extra 20 pounds. “When you get put on that program, methadone increases your appetite.”
Yes, John was a recovered heroin addict, having been a client at BAART Geary. As he explains in “The Methadone Clinic” (in his short-fiction collection A Loud Humming Sound Came from Above):
There were two types of counseling (at BAART): detox and maintenance. Detox consisted of a 21-day tapering off program and was repeated by most users to the point where they became regulars. Undergoing maintenance, one could find a holding dose, which could continue for as long as a person showed up—sometimes a lifetime… A “dirty” urine specimen would cause the dose to be raised; nonpayment for services would cause the dose to be lowered; and, finally, the “approved clinic taper” (was) allowed once a client had given three months of clean UAs and had paid up their fees.
John, Derek, and I were called “health workers.” Aside from administrative duties for the ten drug counselors, a health worker would mainly sit at the ‘front’ desk (we’d all take turns) and when “clients” came up to you, they’d state their name, after which you’d find their dosing card in a box of alphabetized (or not!) cards containing their name and photo. Then, confirming visual identity, you’d hand them the card, which they’d take to an adjacent room and stand in line to dose; eventually handing a nurse (behind bullet-proof glass) their card, after which she’d give them a carefully/individually measured vial of methadone/“medicine”/“juice”. Once the client (John secretly called them “methadonians”) drank their dose in front of the nurse, she’d ask a basic question (for example, “So, how’ve you been?”) to get a response and make sure the client had, in fact, swallowed their juice, as some addicts would retain the gunk in their mouth, walk outside, spit it in a bottle and sell it on the street. Clever.
You quickly realized that becoming an addict wasn’t a black-and-white situation. Strippers, lawyers, construction workers, musicians, hookers, doctors, clerks, teachers, restaurateurs, you name it, all walks of life were strung out. Former local talent, too. John’s previous partner in Crime, Frankie Fix, briefly went to BAART, as did a few members of The Nuns, including lead (now late) singer Jeffrey Olener. Even the Dead’s Jerry Garcia was a client. Apparently, upon quitting the clinic for good, John discreetly ‘appropriated’ the dosing card of “Jerome Garcia”. Now that lil’ item would go for a pretty penny on eBay…
And if a client missed his/her dosing period—the door being locked at 3 pm sharp!—you’d see the methadonians (be they a doctors, hookers, rock stars) break down in tears as they desperately pounded on the glass door to be let in. A sad sight, indeed. No one, for obvious reasons, wanted to spend a night with withdrawal symptoms, consisting of, as John writes, “low energy, hot flashes, diarrhea, headaches, sniffles, runny nose, what felt like aching bones, and an impossible, inner emptiness.”
Also, new people who got on the program didn’t initially take well to the juice, so you’d see a young woman, an old coot, whomever saunter out to the lobby after dosing, sit dizzily in a chair, start turning green, then lean over and—BLLLL-LATTTTT!—puke all over the already-yellowed linoleum. Far from the darkly glamorous images of heroin addiction conjured up by Lou Reed, Keith Richards, and William Burroughs.
Some methadonians would also freak out if you held their dosing cards because a counselor wanted to see them (for a bad urine sample, non-payment, whatever). Most clients were reasonable, but some would lamely blame you the messenger (namely, us health workers), turning on you in a screaming fit of rage, wild-eyed and fuming because their daily dose was postponed.
The job was an eye-opener, radically erasing any desire I had to try dope.
During and after our employment at BAART, Derek and I frequently hung out with John, who now only associated with non-users (like us). And when Derek and I were with him separately, John seemed to talk more expansively about his personal history. We’d usually have gin martinis (to which John introduced me) and dinner at Mayes Oyster House on Polk Street (just round the corner from the clinic), or take a cab to Original Joe’s Italian Restaurant on Taylor Street (deep in the anus of The Tenderloin).
And if a client missed his/her dosing period—the door being locked at 3 pm sharp!—you’d see the methadonians (be they a doctors, hookers, rock stars) break down in tears as they desperately pounded on the glass door to be let in.
Regarding his family back in Harrisburg, John told me, “Well, there was this one time in our basement when I was about 14, and I swung a 2-by-4 at my dad, barely missing his skull. After that, they kicked me out, and I lived with Frankie (Fix/D’Agostino) and his family.” John apparently did graduate from high school, after which he, Frankie, and John’s high school sweetheart (to whom John remained married until his death)—came out to San Francisco in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s.
Regarding juvenile delinquent activity, John told me with sardonic grin, “There were a few instances—before I moved in with Frankie’s family—where I got into trouble with the police for lighting lots on fire.” Well, that certainly explained the aforementioned arson prank he instigated in Chinatown.
John, by the way, never shot up dope, but instead smoked it, preferring to inhale the fumes as opposed to sticking himself full of needles/holes. “It doesn’t matter who you are, Anthony,” he told me. “You think, ‘Hey, I’m just gettin’ high for kicks. I’ll never get hooked.’ Then one day you wake up and you’re sick and think, ‘Ohhhh, boy. So this is what they’re talking about.’”
I quit the clinic after about a year, joining the high-paying (ha!) world of temp jobs; Derek also quit, working for a furniture company delivering pieces of over-prized European crap with Mike (Phantom Surfers) Lucas; while John stayed on at the clinic and became a detox counselor. Being a recovered addict who’d ‘been there’ as opposed to a counselor who’d only formally studied addiction, John was perfect for the job. One battle-ax bureaucrat at BAART, an older black woman named Margaret, was particularly proud of John’s promotion. “Anthony,” he humorously told me, “these days when clients come in and ask why I’m not sitting at the front desk, Margaret tells ‘em, ‘Oh, John? He be a counseluh now!’”
Derek and I also were curious as to why John cut off his friendship with Frankie Fix. “You know,” he told us, “Frankie was just unrealistic. He wouldn’t grow up.” He was obviously referring to Fix continuing to do dope, while John was focused on staying clean, no longer socializing with junkies.
John and I would also turn each other on to cheesy horror/sci-fi/crime films. I suggested the Fred Williamson 1986 post-Blaxploitation flick The Messenger, where “The Hammer” outrageously annihilates ghetto and Mafia coke-pushing scum left and right. John loved it (“Now HOW can this be a great movie?!” a snooty counselor asked a chortling Bassett, who truly hated snobbishness, when John praised the movie and showed the guy the tacky VHS box cover)! John also dug the marvelously over-the-top 1973 Lee Van Cleef/Tony Lo Bianco spaghetti gangster epic, Mean Frank & Crazy Tony (he excitedly told me the following day, “Man, it was so good, I stopped the movie to light up a joint and get stoned to it!”). There was also the 1967 Mario Bava super-spy/Bond spoof Danger: Diabolik starring John Philip Law (I was interviewing cult film stars/directors for Psychotronic Magazine at the time, and John said, “Now, Anthony, if you ever interview John Philip Law, you should only talk about Danger: Diabolik. That’s it. No matter what he talks about, always veer the conversation back to Danger: Diabolik”). John himself introduced me to the 1971 stylishly grisly, British body-count dark comedy The Abominable Dr. Phibes (“Anthony, you call yourself an aficionado of horror movies and you’ve never seen Dr. Phibes?” he asked, baffled. He was right. After viewing the priceless Vincent Price masterpiece, I was inspired to track down its director, Robert Fuest, in Southhampton, England, and do a Psychotronic phone interview with him).
Oh… let’s not forget John’s ‘trick’ leg. That is, you’d be walking next to John and suddenly—bang!—his bad right leg (he had a messed up joint or something) went out, John simultaneously grunting, abruptly collapsing, then (to stay vertical) desperately clutching at you, causing both of you to nearly fall down a steep San Francisco street. One time, as a result of his fucked-up leg, John did fall, breaking his left arm. In fact, you can see John wearing the cast in a photo I took of him in the section, “Who Reads Psychotronic Video Magazine?”
Speaking of magazines… John was impressed that I was getting regularly published in a number of porn magazines (Spectator, Genesis, and Hustler Erotic Video Guide, in which I’d typically interview porn starlets) and underground publications, including the aforementioned Psychotronic and a U.K. thing called Headpress (The Journal of Sex, Religion, Death); so, after encouraging him to help me edit a magazine of horror/sci-fi/crime short stories called Liquidator in 1991, I suggested to John that he take a crack at a Headpress article. I’m glad he did, too, as Squire Strike proved a terrific non-fiction writer; his first piece for Headpress, “Led Zeppelin versus Iron Butterfly”, being a doozie, while revealing a lot about John’s view of music at the time (1997).
Aside from liking certain singers/bands/composers—such as Yma Sumac, Martin Denny, Les Baxter, Blue Cheer, early Stones (with Brian Jones), Zigue Zigue Sputnik, Lou Reed (especially Metal Machine Music and The Blue Mask), Bee Gees—John positively hated over-bloated (literally and figuratively) bands like Led Zeppelin.
Punk, if anything, he wrote in his “Led Zeppelin vs. Iron Butterfly” article, was a reaction against groups like Zep, and any of the trendy ‘alternative’ bands that have pointed to them as an influence should be re-evaluated immediately… Now, if I ruled the world, bands would actually only be allowed to do one album, one tour, and no reunions… ever!* True, we would miss out on a couple of great albums (The Stones’ SATANIC MAJESTIES REQUEST and The Bee Gee’s SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER come to mind) but think of all the boring repetitive one’s we’d never be subjected to!
*(John, of course, would be in a Crime reunion in 2005, without Frankie, who died in 1996, but with Hank Rank—Frankie having done his own Crime reunion in ’89, without John).
And speaking of trendy bands, I remember one time a female counselor at the clinic innocently asked, “John, do you like Pink Floyd?” to which John flatly replied, “Carmen, no one likes Pink Floyd.”
In his Headpress essay itself (appearing in issue #18), John compared and, largely, contrasted the albums Led Zeppelin 1 and Iron Butterfly’s In A Gadda Da Vida, noting the following about the Zep’s premiere platter:
“Good Times Bad Times” is pretty good, in spite of everything, but by the same token any band does at least one good song. And just when I’m liking the tune—man, oh, man—in comes that high, annoying voice once again sabotaging everything else. Plant sings normal at the beginning. Check it out. I don’t know, maybe it’s not even him singing. Maybe it’s Marlon Brando. Whatever. The rest of ZEP 1/side two is sorry, poseur blues rock crappola. Just listen to “Shake Me”, Plant’s voice and Page’s guitar are a flat-out abomination. And it continues, the mirroring between the guitar and voice reaching new levels of tediousness.
I mentioned to John that, since Jimmy Page was into Aleister Crowley, perhaps Plant’s heinous voice was the result of some occult experiment gone awry. John loved it, including the reference in his story.
Likewise, he gave me fodder for some of my Headpress pieces. For instance, John and I both loved Marlon Brando’s off-the-wall eponymous performance in director John Frankenheimer’s remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), where Brando (quite obese at age 72) dons buckteeth, an English accent, and a midget sidekick dressed exactly like him, from head to toe. “It’s too bad Brando didn’t do more horror movies,” I told John, to which he replied, “Weren’t they all horror movies?” After cracking up for nearly a minute, I told him I had to include his comment in my upcoming Brando article for Headpress.
So we creatively sparked off one another.
And as far as the hypnotic-like/“trance” music John liked at the time, he particularly dug Iron Butterfly’s “In A Gadda Da Vida”, despite its having been mocked by critics and comedians for decades:
A cool organ starts it off with a dreamy riff, quickly leading into the ultimate trance number (to this day, some listeners are still trapped in those trances). It reminds me of the GET SMART episode where KAOS was trying to hypnotize youth with a psychedelic rock group. Later in “Gadda” (the song is 17 minutes long) the singer—(who) hardly had a great voice, but it’s tolerable, sort of like a lesser-known Tom Jones—stops completely and everyone takes turns tripping out, conjuring up an acid-laced sex orgy… Near the end, the sound gets spooky like a haunted house. This group sounded like it had fun… No posing… and no harmonica! (Butterfly) was a weird cross between acid head and lounge act. Perhaps they were a lounge act that had discovered LSD?
As a result of John’s impressive Headpress stories, the magazine’s publisher, David Kerekes, was convinced enough of John’s talent to print his first novel, the very Burroughs-esque Ports of Hell.
Pranks for the Memories
Now, while John wasn’t in a punk band when I knew him, he was still anarchic at heart, loving to pull hoaxes/pranks/jokes—and finding a perfect foil in me.
We pulled one such hoax on The Jefferson Starship. Yes, those guys.
One afternoon, John and I walked into Mayes Oyster House and, as we sidled up to the bar, noticed that none other than The Starship were at a booth at the end of the bar. We’re talking 1989, so it was no longer the ‘classic’ lineup. Marty Balin, Grace Slick, even Paul Kantner had all quit. Now they were just called “The Starship”. Sitting there getting shitfaced and (perhaps?) planning their next goddawful LP were Pete Sears (bass/keyboards), Craig Chaquico (lead guitar), Mickey Thomas (lead vocals), along with two ‘newer’ Shipmates, i.e., some geeky-looking mop-headed hippy and a homunculus-like blonde-haired kid. A sad sight, since the true singer/songwriters in the group (again, Kantner/Balin/Slick) had bailed. These guys represented a shell of the band’s former commercial ‘glory’.
John and I ordered libations and, being in a mischievous mood, I told him, “Stay here. I’ll be back. Keep your eyes on those guys,” I said nodding over to the lads.
I walked down Polk Street, found a pay phone (these were pre-cell-phone times) and called Mayes Oyster House, asking to speak with “The Starship”.
John later told me that one of the waiters brought a phone to their table and plugged it into the wall.
“Hello?” Chaquico asked. (John also told me that Chaquico did all of the talking.)
“Hi!” I said in a retarded voice (always coming naturally to me). “I was walking by Mayes Oyster House and saw you guys in there. I’m just a… huge fan o’ your music. But I didn’t wanna disturb you. I just wanna say how much I… love your stuff!”
“Well, thank you!” Chaquico warmly responded.
“I really liked Surrealistic Pillow and Volunteers. Such great albums! They’re the… best!”
“No,” Chaquico said. “See… those were done by The Jefferson Airplane. We’re The Starship, bro’.”
“Oh! Oh! That’s what I mean! Yeah! Starship… So, hey, would you mind if I spoke to Jorma Kaukonen? He’s one of my favorite guitarists!”
“He was in the Airplane, man. Now he’s with Hot Tuna. Hey, are you sure you know us?”
“Oh, yeah. You guys always bang hot groupies in restrooms before your gigs, right? Bang ‘em out! Girls with big ol’ hangin’ titties, right? The Starship!”
“Hey,” Chaquico told the other members at the booth, “this guy says we bang girls with big tits!” to which the other guys all started to whoop and laugh. Then, back to me: “Yeah, yeah! That’s right! That’s us!”
“Hey, thanks. Great talking to ya. Gotta go. Say hi to Jorma for me, will ya? Wait until I tell my stripper girlfriend that I spoke with The Jefferson Airplane. She likes you guys even more than I do! Bye now!”
And I hung up.
I went back to Mayes and took my seat next to John, who was discretely laughing. I looked over and the three relatively veteran Shipmates—Sears, Thomas, Chaquico—were broadly smiling, but the two younger fellers, the bassist and drummer, were wearing pusses.
“Why did he keep talking about The Airplane, man?” the drummer gloomily stated.
“Nyahh, fuck ‘im,” a smiling Mickey Thomas said.
They never even sensed that John and I had pulled one on ‘em. John and I took our drinks and found a booth on the other side of the joint. I wonder if those young Starship guns ever got over it.
Then there was the “PG&E-racist prank”.
As mentioned earlier, after the clinic, I worked temp jobs, soon assigned to Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) in one of their high-rise monstrosities in the Financial District. This particular job involved sitting in a room and scouring tons of documents, highlighting paragraphs containing certain key words, for some kinda lawsuit. By the end of the day, you were dragging your eyeballs across the floor.
Anyhow, I was put in some crummy room with this middle-aged black guy, we’ll call him Kevin. He was also a temp but apparently had ‘seniority’, of which he’d frequently remind me, constantly giving me oodles more paperwork, taking long-ass breaks, while also talking racist shit.
As an example, one day he ranted, “I wish I could open up a window (note: you couldn’t open up any of the windows in that building) and throw black paint all over those white and Asian people down below. Haaaaaaa!”
I just ignored him. I was young and a tad dumb when it came to office politics, but I also didn’t want to make waves, just having started with this temp agency. Besides, the job would conclude in a few weeks. ‘Screw him,’ I thought.
Several days later, though, when I bitched to John over dinner about Kevin from Heaven, he asked, “You wanna get back at him?”
“Sure—if it won’t cost me my job.”
“Okay. Gimme his name and phone number at your office and I’ll offer him a job—but I’ll tell him not to tell anyone. Not PG&E. Not even his agency. Just don’t let on that you know anything.”
Sure enough, for the next three days, John, acting like a PG&E big shot, called Kevin and told the near-drooling guy things like, “We’ve observed your work and love what we see!”; “I hope you don’t mind making $20 per hour with us” (he wasn’t even making 10 bucks an hour!); “We’re writing up the contract now. You’ll do the in-person interview later this week. Just keep everything on the QT, okay Kevin? It’s all set for you to join our team.”
El Pricko Kevin got so excited, he was walking on air. And, yes, I kept it to myself, acting as if I somehow knew he was being offered a job and was jealous (as opposed to beaming on the inside).
Four days later, on the morning of “the interview”, after John constantly built up Kevin’s hopes, when perky Kev was all dressed up in snazzy black suit and smelling like he poured an entire bottle of cologne on his balls, John called him up and said, “You all ready for the interview, Kevin?”
“Oh absolutely, sir! I’m ready. Just tell me what floor you’re on and I’ll be right there.”
Then John started laughing (he told me later). “Well… there’s no interview.”
Kevin was silent for a few seconds, his face going slack before incredulously asking, “No… interview?”
“No. It was all a joke. You must have known. C’mon, Kevin. You knew it was a joke, right?”
“But I… I…”
The guy was shattered.
Then John, still laughing, hung up.
I’m glad the windows didn’t open, otherwise Kevin would’ve thrown his sorry ass 20 floors down, his red blood spraying all over those Asian and white folks below.
Totally devastated, Kevin was bitterly muttering things under his breath all day like, “Sheee-it!” “Joke!… un-be-leeev-able!”…”
I bought John all the Bombay Sapphire martinis he wanted that night and one huge-ass Italiano nosh.
For the record, creep-Kev quit the following week—the job itself lasting another full month, with me getting to work in the office all by myself. Peachy.
There was also the “bolting” incident at Hamburger Mary’s.
John hated bad service in restaurants. Loathed it. And one night we were at this overrated, yuppie-filled burger joint on Folsom Street called Hamburger Mary’s receiving the worst service. This white-bread, snooty waiter in his early twenties took our orders 20 minutes after being seated and, when we finally got the food 45 minutes later (we’re talking hamburgers here, okay, not chocolate soufflé), it was the wrong order. We complained. But our smarmy waiter wasn’t impressed. Twenty minutes later, the correct order finally appeared, stone cold. Damnit! But we were famished, so we ate. The food itself sucked, by the way!
After we finished, John said to me in a low voice, “You wanna bolt?”
“Bolt?” I was totally unfamiliar with the term.
“You know, skip without paying.”
“Sure. Serves ‘em right.”
“Okay, follow my lead.”
So, after we got the bill, we stood in line near the cashier. I thought John was gonna casually walk out and I’d follow. Instead, he suddenly shouted, “Okay—GO!” and ran out the door, turning left down Folsom. I quickly followed. Just as we were about to turn left at the corner, we heard some male voices shout, “There they are!” At that point, we really hauled ass ‘round the corner.
“Across the street!” I told John “That bar!” We jammed across the street and ducked into some bar/restaurant which was, thankfully, bustling, immediately allowing us to blend in. Hyperventilating, we reduced our pace, casually strolling to a booth in the back. The door was open and, settling into our booth, we saw a group of three guys race by (three guys?!… it wasn’t like we held up the place!), none of whom even bothered looking inside the restaurant.
John and I ordered cocktails and relaxed.
Thank heavens, John’s trick leg didn’t go out on him as we ‘bolted’. I’m sure I wouldn’t have left him behind, though.
Hey, Johnny?!—FUCK Lou!
Then, about 10 years later, John and I had our falling out.
He’d, actually, broken off his friendship with Derek first.
Derek and John had written about 12 songs in 1989, which they recorded live in Hank Rank’s garage, with Hank on drums, Michael Lucas on bass, John on vocals/rhythm guitar, and Derek on lead/rhythm guitar. I even contributed a song called “Led by Lead” (pronounced Led by Led), describing various gangsters and their individual methods of liquidation, including icepick, Tommy Gun, garrote, and lead pipe. John dug it and pretty much read the words over Derek’s music. Hank, totally inspired by the songs, wanted the band—christened The Blue Demons—to perform live, as did everyone in the group. Except John. He flat out refused. Derek figured it was probably because the former Johnny Strike was self-conscious about his bald/fat appearance.
I remember one time a female counselor at the clinic innocently asked, “John, do you like Pink Floyd?” to which John flatly replied, “Carmen, no one likes Pink Floyd.”
Several years later in 1994, John and Derek fortuitously hooked up with a terrific guy named Dave Anderson who was willing to produce the songs for free in his home-basement studio out in The Avenues; again John on guitar/vocals, Derek on lead/rhythm guitar, while Dave—a tech wizard—handled engineering and electronic bass/drums/keyboards. When BAM (Bay Area Music) Magazine reviewed The Blue Demons demo Dave sent them, the writer labeled the music “surf-a-billy from outer space” and “a one-way ticket to The Twilight Zone.” The guys were thrilled! Then one morning, according to Derek, John went tapioca. He showed up outside Dave’s house screaming for the master tapes of the recordings. Just to shut John up, Dave ran outside and handed him the tapes. Amazing music—lost forever I’m afraid.
So, mysteriously, concluded Derek’s friendship with John.
John and I, however, remained friends for another decade.
Until I moved to LA.
In 2003, I was offered an impossible-to-turn-down gig as the editor-in-chief of an adult magazine called Adam Film World Guide (AFWG), for which I was hired to put out 12 AFWG issues a year; a Barely Legal knock-off called Teenz; and, the size of a book, a massive yearly AFWG Directory. It was high-pressured but unique, entertaining work—and it paid “beaucoup dolores.”
Then one day in 2004, John called my office on Melrose Avenue and just seemed… bitter.
“What the hell are you doing down there in that job, anyway?” he crankily asked at one point.
I wasn’t in the best of moods, either, and, as I’d explained my editorial position to John several times already, I was fed up with his unfounded arrogance.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” I snarled. “You think the world begins and ends in San Francisco?”
“Okay,” he said, fully steamed, “you still have my Lou Reed Take No Prisoners CD—and I want it back!”
“Oh-ho. Well, you have my Lou Reed Mistrial CD, buddy.”
“I’ll send it back. But you send back Take No Prisoners first.”
“Forget it—ya big baby!”
That’s when the line went dead.
And we didn’t talk again.
Thirteen long years later, in the summer of 2017, I was becoming a bit nostalgic about my fab times with John. Still living/working in LA, I was traveling up to the Bay Area in a few weeks to attend my sister’s wedding anniversary, so I sent John a letter inviting him to lunch and cocktails. In the envelope were the Take No Prisoners discs, while I also included copies of Shock Cinema Magazine, a publication for which I conducted cult-movie-star/-director interviews.
‘To hell with the guy!’ I thought.
But after learning of John’s lengthy battle with Big C, my ego tells me that he remained silent because of his illness and being in such poor physical condition.
YET… it could’ve simply been that John didn’t want to meet with my sorry ass.
I do believe, however, that, had there not been such literal distance between us (he in San Francisco, me in LA), we would’ve eventually bumped into one other in the city and broken bread—or, more realistically, gotten bombed on Bombay Gin.
Having such a terminal argument with John—over Lou Reed!—was silly, seeing as our brilliant times FAR outweighed any crappy ones. I can’t help but smile, sometimes laugh out loud when I think of our adventures. And I will always be reminded of John’s good nature, inspiring/crazed sense of humor, and (when he was on your side) deep sense of loyalty when I walk certain sections of Market Street, Chinatown, The Tenderloin, Broadway… when I eat in old-fashioned Italian family restaurants in North Beach… when I sip a parched martini at Original Joe’s… Gary John Bassett will forever (in the very best sense of the word) haunt me in those spots—and will always be happily burnt into certain segments of my poorly-lit brain.
So, is there a message here? I dunno… Got a beef with a friend?—patch things up sooner than later?…
John. Yep—I do, indeed, miss the bastard.
God, did we laugh…
Thanks to Derek Johnston, Alan Bisbort,
Gregory Ego, and Barbara Vetter.