From the Skies: Eric Johnson's Lifelong Quest"
by Raoul Hernandez
[Reprinted with permission from the Austin Chronicle]
"Voodoo Chile" has just crashed and burned.
"Well, I'm standing next to the mountain, chop it down
with the edge of my hand." Jimi Hendrix
It's been chopped all right, the songnot the mountain.
One wah-wah intro, two verses and three minutes after the Jimi
Hendrix classic roars to life, it nosedives into discordance and
unintended chaos and crashes headlong into silence. Looking up
from his Stratocaster with a puzzled expression on his boyish
face, Eric Johnson grins sheepishly at the crowd of eightwho
are nevertheless clapping madlyand then turns back to bandmates
drummer Tommy Taylor and bassist Kyle Brock to share a laugh.
The scene has the look and feel of a pre-show soundcheck, but
it is not. It's Sunday night in Austin, and the guitarist has
shown up unannounced for an impromptu set at the cavernous stone
fortress known as Steamboat.
"Live For Today," another Hendrix cover, fares much
better in Johnson's long flat hands, as does a version of the
Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love" and Dylan's "Knocking
on Heaven's Door." And 35 minutes after the guitarist walks
through the 'Boats tall, church-like doors carrying a sole amp,
he carries it back out again and is gone. Save for the small handful
of surprised patrons, who are now smiling over the $3 bargain
they accidently stumbled on, no one is any wiser about what has
taken place inside the Sixth Street guitar temple. Word of Johnson's
appearance did not spread quickly on the street, nor did an excited
congregation crowd through the doors to worship the quickest draw
in Slinger City. For had they known, had they gotten the faintest
whiff of the news, had Johnson's name been hinted at in even the
tiniest lettering on the club's weekly Chronicle ad, they'd have
been there in droves. For it's not every day that Johnson makes
an appearanceannounced or unannouncedat a local club,
nor is it every day that he stumbles during a song, let alone
cuts it short. Eric Johnson rarely makes mistakes; some would
say the guitarist never, ever makes mistakes. Either way, this
version of "Voodoo Chile" could well be the rarest Johnson
performance of all.
"I totally blew that song," laughs Johnson a few weeks
later, over a pre-studio session coffee out on Lake Austin. "As
soon as I went into it, I said, 'I don't remember this.' I used
to play it four, five years ago, but I totally forgot it."
Pretty nonchalant for a musician known as a total and absolute
perfectionist. Could this be the same guitarist who recorded the
now-nearly platinum Ah Via Musicom three times over before he
felt he had it right and is currently well into year two and the
second from-scratch go-round for its long-awaited follow-up? The
same fair-haired ax hero who consistently appears on the covers
of those glossy guitar-porn magazines, fueling every six-string
hopeful's fantasy of stardom? The same Strat-slinger who for years
has been compared to Hendrix for his ability to create a sonic
soundscape that is both classic and contemporary? The same master
of the fretboard who, despite his influences, remains wholly unique
and even counts among his many admirers such legendary forefathers
as Chet Atkins, B.B. King, and Les Paul? Yes, one and the same:
Perhaps no other Austin musician is as inscrutable or as elusive
as Eric Johnson, one of the few local legends who was actually
born in Austin and has lived his entire life within the city limits.
He's also forged his sound here on stages past and present, recorded
most if not all of his four albums here, and generally used Austin
as a career launching pad. His bandmates Taylor and Brock live
in Austin, as does Richard Mullen (the co-producer/engineer of
his new album, Longpath Meadow), along with Johnson's road manager
Joe Priesnitz. In fact, Joe Priesnitz Artist Management is run
out of the Priesnitz household, which is just a few doors down
from its principal client's home. Even the guitarist's major label
liaison, Patrick Clifford, Capitol's vice president of A&R,
wants to live in Austin. That Johnson is Austin through-and-through
there is no doubt, so it's that much more puzzling that few people
or fans in Austina town where most everyone is likely to
know the color of your toothbrush minutes after you buy itknow
anything about this world-class guitarist and musician.
By Johnson's own admission, the hazy mystique surrounding him
started getting thick in 1977 when he signed on with Bill Ham
and Lone Wolf Productions. "At that time," recalls Johnson,
"we were playing the Armadillo [World Headquarters] and things
were really building up. When I got signed, one of the first things
they did was to pull me out of playing live to build the mystique,
so to speak, which is a good idea in a way if you're going to
follow it up with some plan. But if you're not there to follow
it up, all of a sudden you're not playing for six months. We lost
steam. We actually lost steam." For the next six years, as
it turns out. And at that point in the guitarist's fast-blooming
career, there was a lot of steam to lose.
Native Son, Natural Talent
Eric Johnson was born on August 17, 1954 at the old St. David's
Hospital on 17th Street. The youngest of five childrenthree
sisters and a brotherhe was three years old when he first
became aware of music through his father's ardent love for the
classics and jazz. "He was always playing records,"
says Johnson of his father, a retired anesthesiologist now living
in Houston. "And he liked all types of music too. Even when
Elvis was getting big [around 1957], he liked Elvis and bough
me an Elvis record. He had a positive embracing of that sort of
thing. Both my parents loved music, so they tried to get us to
take piano lessons and that kind of stuff." Piano lessons
are the worst tragedy that can happen to many a rambunctious child,
but not for Johnson, who started taking ivory instruction when
he was five. He had wanted to start taking lessons two years earlier,
but says he couldn't focus his concentration enough. Between piano
lessons and a steady procession of family outings to see musicals
such as South Pacific, Oklahoma, and The Sound of Music, Johnson
says his musical foundation was being laid. By the age of eight,
he had already begun writing his own songs.
"My piano teacher really stressed developing the ear,"
says Johnson, "You'd be sitting there where you couldn't
see the piano [keys] and she'd hit a note and say, 'What note
was that?' I always thought it was a fun little game, but I realize
now that she was trying to have us develop perfect pitch and an
ear so we could recognize the noteswhich makes you more
of an intuitive player. That's the sonic alphabet by which you
can think about your own music instead of not being able to play
anything until somebody puts a sheet of music in front of you."
When Johnson started playing his own "silly little"
melodies, he got nothing but encouragement (his teacher, Orville
Wyss is thanked in the credits of Ah Via Musicom). That backfired
somewhat when he started ad-libbing the pieces he was supposed
to have memorized.
Today, though thankful for the ability to play by ear, he regrets
not having learned to read sheet music better, because there's
a wealth of classical music he's now struggling with. Instead
of being able to sit down and study a Mozart piano concerto, Johnson
has to peck it out one note at a time or buy the CD. Then again,
he has little trouble picking out the chords in the bright Mozart
sonata being played over out cafe's PA. "Like right there
was a G-major chord, and that was a B-flat, and a G-7," he
says humming along. "Certain notes have certain colors and
you get to where you can hear them, and then you start trying
to hear inversions until you can follow the inner melodies and
hear the whole structure and architecture. But you have to work
at it. I have to work at it."
But at age ten, working at classical sonatas was getting a bit
dull, while jamming was getting, conversely, more exciting. Then
one day, he came home to find his brother had formed a band and
they too were jammingonly they were using guitars. It was
1964, and on these shores no one was hotter than the Beach Boys
or the Ventures. When the younger Johnson heard his brother's
band imitating that twangy, tremolo-laden surf sound of the Ventures,
"I think I knew the moment I heard the sound of the electric
guitar," says Johnson of that daythe day he decided
he wanted to play guitar. "Nokie Edwards and the Ventures
did it for me originally, because this was a little bit prior
to the Yardbirds and Clapton, so what you were dealing with was
either Beatles or Rolling Stones. I love the Beatles and [The
Stones'] Brian Jones, but that was more just strumming, and I
had a thirst for electric guitar, you know."
The following year, Johnson got his first guitar, and as the
story goes with most guitarists, it wasn't long before everything
else fell by the wayside. He quit the Boy Scouts, stopped taking
piano lessons, and homework took a distant second to practicing
guitar non-stop. By 13, he joined his first band, The Id ("I
didn't even know what that word meant"), but was fired soon
after when his family vacationed in Alaska and Johnson returned
home to find that the rhythm guitarist had switched to lead in
his absence. He was crushed, but quickly discovers that his talents
were in demand as he cruised through a series of bands.
"I was getting decent at it," says Johnson, accessing
his talent during that period. "I was valuable [to the bands
I played with] in some ways, though I was hanging out with these
older kids and they were likeand quite rightly so'Why
do we have to play with this punk kid who's only 13?' I remember
being 13, 14, and falling asleep at gigs because it was 12:301am.
I was so dedicated to doing the music thing that it kept me apart
from the school thing and other stuff."
Looking back, Johnson says he substituted his instrument for
many of the normal trappings of childhood. But then again, 1967
wasn't the year to choose playgrounds and school dances over musicespecially
if you had any interest at all in the electric guitar. 1967 was
the year Jimi Hendrix released his debut album, Are You Experienced.
Like Stevie Ray Vaughan (also born in 1954), Joe Satriani, and
Steve Vai, Johnson instantly became part-and-parcel of a generation
of guitarists who were just learning six-string speak when Hendrix
came along, and, in the course of three years, completely redefined
the language of the instrument. "When I first heard him,
I couldn't grasp it," says Johnson, the awe of a 13-year-old
still in his voice. "I thought, this is completely strange.
I could tell he was good, but it was too over-my-head. I couldn't
relate to itit was too psychedelic. And then, as the months
went on, I started going man, this is something!"
At first, Johnson didn't even attempt to play these new sounds.
He just listened. And what intrigued his wasn't so much the notes
or chords Hendrix was playing, but rather the way he played them.
"It was the consciousness of how he played," stresses
Johnson. "I could pick out the notes of 'Purple Haze,' but
I could never sound that way."
When I suggest that Johnson and Vaughan are flip sides to the
Hendrix coinJohnson the more dreamy "Little Wing"
to Vaughan's ferocious "Voodoo Chile" sidehe doesn't
necessarily disagree. "I always loved Stevie's rhythm and
blues playing," says Johnson of Vaughan, with whom he played
a handful of times and ran into often in the Seventies ("My
girlfriend and his were best friends around that time.")
"He always had that power that Hendrix had. And then there
was that other side that Hendrix had, that poetic thing, the lyrical
guitar runs...That's what was neat about Hendrix, his palette
included all those things." He stops just short of saying
that "that poetic thing" is what he strives for with
every lick, though Johnson does admit that many of the hues in
his own colorful palette come from Hendrix's musical masterpiecesas
does a certain amount of the "personality" in his playing.
Still the real challenge was finding his own voice and not mimicking
During the later half of the Sixties and into the early part
of the next decade, Johnson was not only spending a lot of time
in his room in front of his record player listening to the blues,
he was also spending a lot of time in the clubs watching notables
such as Freddie King and Johnny Winter. He rattles off a list
of long-gone hallmarks of the Austin club scene such as the Jade
Room, Vulcan Gas Company, New Orleans Club, and the Armadillo
as his favorites. And it wasn't just the road shows that caught
his attention. Local guitarists like Johnny Richardson of Georgetown
Medical Band, Tim Mings of New Atlantis, and John Staehaley of
Chain Gang, Pumpkin, and Shepard's Bush had the young up-and-comer
in complete awe.
For his part, Johnson was starting to experiment more and more
with instrumental-based music, thanks in large part to his discovery
of Jeff Beck, and his own musical alliance with Vince Mariani,
a local who would soon become Johnson's most important early mentor
and a musician he's worked with throughout his career: Mariani
introduced Johnson to the public at large in the liner notes of
Tones, as well as inspiring the album's title; he co-wrote "Desert
Rose" from Ah Via Musicom and contributes a track to the
It was in the midst of his musical education that his ultimate
influence died. "A lot of the hope in the musical world left
when Jimi [Hendrix] died," Johnson recalls sadly. "And
there came a period when guitar became very unpopular and you
had more bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake, & Palmer where
the guitar was no longer at the forefront. At that point, I didn't
know what the future [of the guitar] would be." Not only
was Hendrix gone, Cream had disbanded the year before, Derek &
the Dominoes would soon come and go like Halley's Comet, and by
1973, even Led Zeppelin had begun their long fossilizing process.
Fortunately for Johnson, however, 1973 was also the year Chick
Corea & Return to Forever released Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy,
which turned him on to the laser-sharp ax style forged by Corea's
fellow Miles Davis band alumnus John McLaughlin. This was searing,
take-no-prisoners jazz-rock, and it joined Beck's fusion tendencies
with some of the more traditional jazz values Johnson had been
absorbing through his father's musical tastes since childhood.
"That record was a radical departure for the time,"
asserts Johnson. "Country rock was becoming the thing, and
I was like, 'Oh no, I don't want to do that.' I love Willie Nelson
and everything, but [that material] wasn't challenging to me as
a guitarist. So what do you do in the Seventies but this fusion
thing, because that was featuring guitar. It was like going to
school for me, too, because it got me back to listening to jazz
recordsstudying them." The following year, Johnson
was teaching courses in fusion via his own band, the Electromagnets,
and, despite the fact that the Austin of 1974 was the cosmic cowboy
mecca, the group was well-received locally. The road, on the other
hand, wasn't quite as welcoming.
"People would almost run us out of town," recalls Johnson.
"If you were from Texas at that time, they pretty much expected
that you were doing the country thing. We went through a time
when we wore cowboy boots just to rouse people. We'd walk out
on stage wearing cowboy hats and start playing this Weather Report
tune and just get the most severe notes passed up to the stagelife-threatening
notes like, 'Change you set quick, or else.'" Eventually
though, the Electromagnets found pockets of fans on both coasts
and even released their own independent album, which was last
seen fetching $50 at MusicMania. But despite a growing following,
Johnson found the group's material becoming too complex and too
"cerebral," and he compares their live performances
to sticking one's finger in an AC outlet.
By 1976, a year before the Electromagnets broke up, Johnson had
become convinced it was time to give vocals a try and went into
the studio to cut some solo material. He was pleased enough with
the results"vocal pop stuff kind of reminiscent of
what I do now"to relegate the Electromagnets to the
history books. After a six-month hiatus that saw Johnson teaching
guitar to, among others, a pre Go-Go's Kathy Valentine ("That's
my claim to fame. I taught Kathy Valentine how to play 'Purple
Haze'"), he found himself, once again, with the Electromagnets
rhythm section: drummer Bill Maddox and bassist Roscoe Beck. This
time, however, they were doing it his way, with his material,
and it wasn't fusion. Enter Bill Ham and Lone Wolf Productions.
Stepping Up to the Plate
When Johnson signed an exclusive six-year contract with Ham in
1977, not only was the guitarist joining a team that had brought
the world that "little ol' band from Texas," ZZ Top,
he was also joining a stable of several other hot local guitar
studs: Stevie Ray Vaughan and Van Wilks. With demos in hand, a
growing reputation as the new boy in Dodge, and Bill Ham at his
back, Johnson seemed poised to take the next major step in career.
Soon after, a debut album, Seven Worlds, was recorded, and it
was time to sit back and field the offers. While the Joe Nick
Patoski/Bill Crawford book Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught in the Crossfire
states that Ham was unable to get a label interested in the album,
Johnson says there were offers on the table.
"Maybe it would have been better if they asked me about
it," says a slightly annoyed Johnson of the book's assertions.
"We had people offering smaller deals, but basically the
people at Lone Wolf didn't want to do anything except a major
label deal and the majors didn't want to do anything with it because
they didn't think it would sell. So rather than saying that it
couldn't be sold, it was a matter that it couldn't be sold in
a mega-dealwhich is a big difference." Lone Wolf Management
Vice President J. W. Williams confirms this. "Eric was certainly
entitled to the biggest deal that ever happened," he says.
"We saw him as a man for all mediums, and we didn't think
the album could miss so we went for the biggest deal possible.
And remember in the Seventies there weren't a lot of smaller labels,
but even in that case we didn't want him to get lost in the shuffle.
We gave it our best shot. We simply weren't able to secure the
deal we thought Eric was worth."
Johnson says we pushed for one of the smaller deals, liking the
idea of starting from square one, but management didn't see it
his way and in the endlegallyit wasn't his decision
to make. The album sat on the shelf, and because Ham had pulled
Johnson out of clubs to "build a mystique," so did the
frustrated guitaristfor six years, as it turns out, since
Johnson couldn't afford to buy out his contract with Ham. In that
time, all the guitarist could do is look for someone to buy him
out of his contract with Ham and play the occasional solo acoustic
gig as opposed to his previous crowds of 1,000-plus people
at the Armadillo.
Asked whether he buys into the Vaughan book's theory that Ham
wasn't able to let any of his other thoroughbreds outrun his number
one moneymaker, ZZ Top, therefore purposely keeping himself and
Vaughan down, Johnson says he's heard that theory before, but
doesn't know what to make of it. Surely there's some bitterness
about those six lost years? "It took me years to get over
it," says Johnson without any perceptible signs of anger.
"And finally I went, 'Man, it doesn't matter. Forget it'
I don't want to carry that burden around. A healthy place for
me is to detach, release it, and blow it off." Typical Johnson:
as soft-spoken, polite, and free from "negativity" as
the day is long. Not released, however, is Seven Worlds, which
the hypercritical guitarist describes in halves: one "pretty
good" and the other "pretty corny." Neither is
likely to ever see the light of day.
Coming into the Light
It wasn't until 1984 that Johnson finally saw the light of day:
the contract with Ham expired. Not about to sit around any longer,
Johnson almost immediately landed a slot on Austin City Limits.
Performing "Soulful Terrain" (which would later appears
on Tones) as well as an acoustic tribute to Jimmy Reed and an
early version of "Cliffs of Dover"the beautifully
simple but impossible-to-forget melody that's become his signature
tune ("That's fine. I know it's kind of a little la-la-la-la
song," says Johnson, "but what the heck
years of pent-up frustration are evident on the taped segment,
especially on the last song. One person impressed by Johnson's
razor-sharp riffing was, of all people, Prince.
As the story goes, Prince saw the Austin City Limits show, which
was actually aired in 1985, and immediately called his label Warner
Bros. and told them they should sign the bolo-tied Texan. Within
months, Johnson was signed to the Warner Bros. subsidiary Repriseonce
Jimi Hendrix's label. "After that, Prince and I hung out
constantly," laughs Johnson. "Just kidding. I've never
verified that story. That's what I've heard. I think somebody
at Warner told me that. Maybe David Tickle, the producer of Tones,
told me that. He used to be Prince's live sound man." Whether
the story is true or not, it's interesting to note that Prince
protégés Wendy and Lisa, supply some uncredited
backing vocals on Tones.
With a major label deal in hand, a new management company at
his backthis time in the personage of Joe PriesnitzJohnson
was on his way. Well, not quite yet. Now he wanted to produce
his record as well, but the label kept balking on the idea. "They
were scared to death," recounts Johnson. "I kept going,
'Why don't you let me do it?' And they kept telling me, 'You've
got to find a producer.' They refused to let me do it myself,
so there was a long waiting perioda year or so."
Part of Johnson's problem with bringing in an outside producer
was that all the candidates he interviewed wanted to pour him
into the mold of other guitarists that had come before. Even Warner
Bros. wanted to make him sound like someone else. He describes
dozens of meetings where label executives would play Johnson an
upcoming release and ask him what they thought of it. This translated
to: Can you sound like that? "I would say, 'That's great,
but it's not me,'" he recounts. "I didn't want to copy
anyone else. Everything I've ever had a little bit of success
with has been the stuff you don't do, like lots of instrumentals,
longer songs, and making an album of all different types of music."
Finally, however, both parties agreed on David Tickle, whose work
on Split Enz's Wiatata had particularly impressed Johnson. Once
that was decided, it took Tickle and Johnsonlegendary for
his snail's pace in the studioonly two months to record
and mix Tones in its entirety.
First Album Blues
"Nowadays, it's likewhat happened, what takes so long?"
jokes Johnson, referring to his studio reputation. "I remember
doing the record and always saying, 'Oh David, excuse me, can
I re-do this part? Can I re-do that? And I think I could've done
[the album] better, but David realized that we were working in
a studio that was terribly expensive so we needed to be done.
So, at some point you just have to go, 'Well, that's gonna have
Famous last words. In any event (and despite some last minute
editing on their part), Warner Bros. liked the recordnot
enough to promote it mind you, but enough to release it. Now it
was up to Johnson to sell it city by city on the road. The only
problem was that the record didn't hit the road with Johnson.
Though out and supposedly in stores, Johnson himself could never
find it. On tours with Blue Oyster Cult and Steve Morse (a longtime
Johnson booster), Johnson was continually approached by fans enthused
by his performances who could find neither hide nor hair of the
The guitarist heard this complaint everywhere he went. My own
experience looking for the record matches Johnson's complaints.
Attending college in Los Angeles when the record was released,
my girlfriend at the time gushed over this great instrumental
she was hearing on a local station, KNAC. On the basis of "Zap,"
the album's first single, which was nominated for a Grammy that
year, we scoured the L.A. basin and Northern California looking
for the album. I found it three years later on the eve of Ah Via
Musicom's release. Promotion does not seem to have been Tones'
Despite rave reviews and guitar magazines falling all over themselves
to praise Johnson, the album only sold some 50,000 unitsrespectable
triple A numbers, but not good enough to stay in the majors. Warner
Bros. promptly let his contract run out and didn't pick up his
Finally Free to Fly
By this time Johnson was in his early thirties and had been plugging
away nearly 20 years with only one album to his name. To say he
was frustrated with the situation is an understatement. But if
his time with Ham had taught him one thing, it was that it's better
to be free than bound and gagged by a bad contractual agreement.
So he went shopping again, and decided to stay at the indie level
when Cinema Records gave him carte blanche on record number two.
This was the chance Johnson had been waiting for his whole career.
Once can almost imagine the sweet-natured guitarist with a dangerous
gleam in his eye, washing his hands in the air, giggling, 'Oh
boy, oh boy.' "'They said we like what you do, just do whatever
you want,' says Johnson," and I went 'God, this is great.
Here's my ticket to get to do whatever I want.'"
Halfway through the sessions though, Cinema lost its distribution
deal with Capitol Records. Fortunately for Johnson, he had enough
down on tape so that Capitol, which had an option on his contract,
decided to pick up the record. They, too, left the guitarist alone,
which at first may not have been such a good idea. "I was
committed to doing the best job possible on the guitar parts and
not leaving them until I got them right," explains Johnson.
"So I literally did them over and over and over until they
Three times over, by most accounts. "I agree that catching
stuff on the first and second take [captures] that spontaneity,"
he says. "I agree with a lot of people that that's really
better. But I haven't reached the point where I'm good enough
at what I do where I can just play that way. That's why I did
it over and over and over." Instead of the two or three months
it took to complete Tones, Johnsonleft to his own devicestook
nearly 15 months of 14 hour days in the studio to finish Ah Via
Musicom. Whereas he usually gets the basic tracks on the first
or second take, not to mention the occasional solo, Johnson has
been known to take days just miking his amp, which is to say he
spends most of his time in the studio looking for the right sound,
the perfect tone, and not just stacking more overdubs on a song
than IHOP stacks pancakesthough certainly he does that as
Then again, if it ain't broke, don't fix it and Ah Via Musicom,
which was released the first part of 1990, certainly did breakcommercially,
that is. Again, the rave reviews poured in, only this time so
did the promotional support from Capitol. As a result, "Cliffs
of Dover," "Righteous," "Trademark,"
and "High Landrons" all got considerable airplay and
the album went gold (current sales hover around 800,000). Along
the way, Tones was also rediscovered by fans of the second album,
and today its sales near 400,000.
Finally, finally, finally Johnson was getting his due. No longer
was he only worshipped by hometown fans, who had voted the guitarist
into the Chronicle's Hall of Fame in 1982 and made him one of
the most lauded multiple-category winners (alongside Joe Ely and
Stevie Ray Vaughan) in the Austin Music Awards year after year.
Nationwide, fans acknowledged the guitarist as a master of his
instrument, and, along with Steve Vai, named Johnson the "Best
Overall Guitarist" in the 1990 Guitar Player readers' pollan
honor the Austin dweller would handily win the next three years
in a row. Musician magazine voted Johnson one of the 100 Greatest
Guitarists of the 20th Century.
No more false starts. Johnson had finally found the arena where
his music was being heard, appreciated, and compared to the output
of his own heroes. He was also filling those arenas with fans,
who were going crazy over the charismatic blond Texan. One tour
with Joe Satriani, who opened the instrumental door for Johnson
and others by proving the genre's commercial viability, also revealed
that Johnson was better able to reproduce his recordings live.
A Northern California date I caught found Johnson blowing Satriani
off the stagein the latter's hometown no less. In a subsequent
interview, Satriani revealed to me that he found Johnson's playing
remarkable: He'd watch Johnson's opening set from the wings each
night, using the performance as a meditative preparation for his
Another performance, this time at San Francisco's plush Warfield
Theater, uncovered the fact that the more frustrated Johnson gets
with his onstage sound, the more furious his music comes outas
witnessed by a harrowing version of Cream's "Politician,"
which saw the mild-mannered guitarist pushing away a non-functioning
mike stand in disgust and tearing through the song in a musical
A chat with his road manager, Ethridge Hill backstage at San
Antonio's Sunken Gardens confirmed this dynamic. "He's rarely
happy with his shows, and usually takes it out on the encore,"
notes Hill, shaking his head and motioning to Johnson's searing
take on Hendrix's "Spanish Castle Magic."
But if Johnson is often displeased with his live shows, clearly
his fans are not, as proved by rapturous receptions all along
B.B. King's Blues Music Festival Tour last year. Except for the
legendary bluesman himself, no one on the bill, which included
Buddy Guy and Junior Walker, received the applause Johnson did,
and there was no bigger Johnson fan than King himself, who brought
Johnson out nightly to share an encore. Standing there in front
of the young Texan with his hands on his hips, King regularly
urged the audience to give it up for the guitarist and the guitarist
to give it up musically for the audience. Reflecting on the experience,
Johnson notes, "It feels good when you're able to hang out
with one of your heroes and have him say, 'Hey, I enjoy what you
do, be true to yourself and keep doing what you're doing.'"
And perhaps the ultimate accolade awarded to Johnsonthough
it's become fashionable in recent years to belittle its significancewas
the Grammy he won for "Cliffs of Dover" in the Best
Instrumental category in 1992 (Ah Via Musicom had lost out to
the Vaughan Brothers' Family Style the year before in the Best
Rock Instrumental slot). "I was totally surprised,"
says Johnson of his victory, for which he was not present. "I'd
gone a couple times before, and you sit there for hours and hours
looking at someone's $1,600 tux suit, while you look like Jethro
Bodine. It's like, 'I gotta get outta here.' You can't compete
with those people. You go to the rest rooms and these people bring
in their bags with blow-dryers, mascarathey look like they're
fresh off a movie set."
The Next Giant Step
Yet after the awards, the album sales certifications, and the
successful tours, there comes, inevitably, the day when the artist
has to follow up one successful album with another. This is what
Johnson has been working on for the past year and a half. Titled
Longpath Meadow (from a poem in Ah Via Musicom's liner notes),
the new album will be comprised of two volumes, one to be released
sometime next year and the second half sometime after that.
A recent sampling of some of the album's tunes for Johnson's
A&R liaison at Capitol, Patrick Cliffordwhose past signings
include Austin's Wagoneersfound older tunes such as "Manhattan"
and "Pavilion," slated for the album. Both songs, along
with "SRV," an instrumental tribute to his departed
friend that is sure to enchant anyone who liked "Cliffs of
Dover," have been part of Johnson's live repertoire for some
time. New tunes, such as "Camel's Night Out," penned
by bassist Kyle Brock, and "Lonely In the Night" co-written
by Vince Mariani are also in the works for the new album, which
Johnson says is, unsurprisingly, over budget and behind schedule.
"The thing that gets me more than the money is the time
factor," says Johnson, confronting criticism that he takes
too long in the studio. "I realize I take too long...Well,
I won't say, 'I take too long,' because that's like saying 'would'
and 'should.' As far as my own agenda, I know I need to work on
"But take people like Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel. They
take two to four years to make a record. You also have to enter
the factor that there's other stuff to do in life besides records.
There's been a lot going on in my life besides making records,
which is true of anybody. But I think it weighs on me, just because
I know it would be healthier to get to a point where it isn't
so much that way."
It's this time in the studio that also keeps the guitarist out
of local clubs, he says. He'd like nothing better than to put
together a part-time blues band with a female vocalist and just
jamlike the night he slid onstage at Antone's and played
Slim Harpo's "Hip Shake" with Jimmie Vaughan and Lou
Ann Barton. He'd also like to do a one-off country record, but
there simply aren't enough hours in the dayespecially with
the problems he's encountered recording the new album.
The largest and most obvious stumbling block in the recording
of Longpath Meadowor Super Longpath Meadow as Johnson likes
to jokeis that he recorded the entire album in L.A. soon
after the two-year Ah Via Musicom tour ended, only to come home
and find that it was all "rubbish."
"I literally all but threw it into the trash," he says.
"And it was a vast amount of money to just throw away, but
I had to be honest with myself: Is this something that I'd be
proud of? Is this something that people who buy my records would
want to hear? No, they wouldn't. This does not have integrity,
so I just kinda swallowed my pride, threw it in the trash, and
A subtler problem, however, has been in the sound Johnson has
been striving for on the new record. Like most smart musicians
he realizes he can't simply reproduce the last album and be done
with it. He wants to take his sound to the next level. "To
me, Ah Via Musicom is a little stiff as far as the feel of everything,"
he reveals, "and that's where we were at the time. [On Longpath
Meadow] I'd like to have a little more relaxed, inviting feel
in the groove. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that my signature
feel is a little tighta little up on the beat. And I thought,
okay, I just want more of a pocket backbeat thing. I didn't realize
I'm having to re-learn rhythm. And I just can't do it. It's been
Onward and Upward
But the demos for the new album do indeed reveal a more relaxed
groove, a sound that is even more ethereal than that of his first
two albums. Johnson attributes this to the fact that in recent
years he's spent more time listening to classical pianists than
to the rising hotshot guitarists. "Because I can't find on
guitar where I'd like to be tomorrow as a musician, my best bet
is listening to other instruments," he explains. "I
like some sax stuff and lots of piano stuff. The piano has just
a great wealth for me to listen toviolins too, and especially
violas. Violas are kinda hip, because they're more in the scale
of what could typically be transferred to guitar. I can close
my eyes sometimes and pretend a violist is a guitarist: 'God,
that's the best tone I've ever heard.' Then I come back to reality."
And that reality is that Johnson still can't recreate the sounds
he hears in his head.
"The playing I did on the last record is the best that I
can do," he says with a measure of frustration. "I beat
myself to death to get that. And somebody will say, 'Oh, that's
pretty good.' I'll be honest with the public and myself: I killed
myself to play that good, and the reality is that I'm not necessarily
that great. I have to work really hard to get that good. I'm not
Itzhak Perlman. I've seen him in concert and bam, jeez, that's
a whole 'nother genre of musician. I've got to work so hard to
get my guitar sound on tape to sound like what I hear in my head.
It doesn't just happen. I wish I could say I just walk into the
studio, plug in, and that's me. But it's not. I'm a mile away
from that. I've got to struggle up the side of a cliff to get
that sound and playing."
And if he's really miles away from what he hears in his head,
then the sky is the limit for Eric Johnson, whose music, even
now, is on a spiritual plane far above that of most musicians.
To watch the slight guitarist on stage, hunched intently over
his Strat, his boots tap-dancing on the large effects board at
his feet as his hands pick and slide over the taut steel strings,
is to know Johnson is in another dimension when he's playing.
To hear his high, piercing notes and soaring melodies stretch
for the heavens and fill the air around you with a rainbow palette
of tones is to be transported to that other dimensiona higher
planeyourself: A plane that is not necessarily dictated
by virtuosity or fame; rather, a plane, where music comes, to
quote Jimi Hendrix, up from the skies.