Looking at the Martin guitar that El Dorado native Richard Leo Johnson used to record his 2014 album “Celeste” is a bit like looking at one of those magazine puzzles where something is amiss and it’s the viewer’s job to figure out what that something is. Spoiler alert: The neck’s on the wrong side and there’s a theremin in there, inside the guitar. Sculptor Michael Brolly, after having caught the attention of Martin’s CEO, was commissioned to make a one-in-a-million guitar after the company had fashioned its millionth guitar, and the resulting green-glazed “alien” was loaned to Johnson for eight weeks, during which time he recorded a collection of 12 ... transmissions? Sound poems? “Celeste” is ethereal in the true sense of the word; it sounds like neither a guitar nor a theremin, and unlike the “new age” music that probably gets unfortunately filed in the same section of the record store as Johnson’s album, “Celeste” is very much a product of Johnson’s hands and his preternaturally complex sense of rhythm. Even when he’s playing a more conventional guitar (which is to say, any other guitar in the world), Johnson thumps on the instrument’s body, rolls his fingernails across the glazed finish and strikes the strings above the frets to take advantage of the panoply of sounds the guitar can make if the person behind it is imaginative enough to see it as more than something to be strummed. What’s more, Johnson is self-taught. He sorted out strange tunings for himself after, as his website says, “briefly taking lessons from a hard-drinking oilfield worker before deciding he’d learn more on his own.” His guitar work emerged from those “found” tunings, “junk percussion” collaborations with the Mahavishnu Project’s Gregg Bendian and the exploration of an alter ego, “Vernon McAlister,” extrapolated from the name etched on a 1930s National Duolian steel-bodied guitar Johnson procured.
Then, there’s Johnson’s career in photography: His architectural photography has appeared in publications like “Savannah Homes” and “Coastal Living,” and before that, he created a prolific body of black-and-white photographs depicting life in Southern Arkansas and rural Louisiana and contributed to the late C.D. Wright and Frank Stanford’s Lost Roads Press. Tragically, in 1995, nearly his entire body of work was lost in a fire in Eureka Springs, where Johnson had stored his art in a shed on a friend’s property. Then, 20 years later, Johnson got a call from his former assistant, Russell Powell, saying — after he asked Johnson whether he was “sitting down” — that a cardboard gin box full of Johnson’s negatives had been unearthed in Powell’s parent’s basement. Those photos formed an exhibition called “Once Was Lost,” and inspired Wright (whom Johnson refers to in this interview as Caroline) to pen “What Do You Think’s in the Shed?” — a poem to accompany the show that was delivered to Johnson only a couple of weeks before she died.
For the first time in Arkansas, the “Once Was Lost” photographs will be on display at the Butler Center Galleries through March 18; Johnson will attend the opening just before he plays this concert as part of the Arkansas Sounds series. I spoke with Johnson the day after the exhibit opened at Jack White’s Third Man Books. He was standing in a friend’s backyard, preparing to move the collection from its spot in the “Blue Room” there to the Butler Center in downtown Little Rock.
I had two reactions when I heard your music: The first was a feeling of disbelief that I hadn’t found it sooner, and that I’d never forgive my Arkansas music-savvy friends for not having turned me on to it already. The second was a feeling of resentment at the sneaking suspicion that your albums get filed under the same category as the music you listen to during a massage, or during the savasana portion of a yoga class.
Exactly! That happened even in the very beginning, with the more aggressive records I made for Blue Note. That’s just the problem with categorization and stuff. It’s not jazz, it’s not new age, nobody really knew what it was. I made ["The Legend of Vernon McAlister"] in an attic in Savannah with a $100 microphone – one microphone – and that got more press than anything else I’ve ever done. It’s slower, and it’s more accessible in a way, and more cinematic. You just never know; you may get a bunch of money thrown into production and marketing and stuff, but it doesn’t always translate into people wanting to listen to it more than once or twice.
Right. I wonder if a part of that is that the “The Legend of Vernon McAlister” really sounds like the room itself; you can hear how the guitar sound’s behaving in the room. You might not have gotten that with a more expensive mic that was built to tune all of that out.
No, you wouldn’t. The guy that helped me mix and engineer that record has helped me mix…..one, two, three, four records now, and he’s just really good with acoustic instruments. You know, so ‘you’re only as good as the next thing you do,’ and I love recording at home, and I can get away with it now. I’m a solo guitarist, so I can get away with a lot more than a band can in terms of the way they record. Jack White’s place here has a facility – it’s one of a handful of places in the world – where you can record directly to acetate. It’s a one-take thing. If you screw up, it’s done. I’d love to try to do that while I’m here. He’s really an interesting guy, in terms of his interest in the intangible nature of music and recording.
C.D. Wright’s poem “What Do You Think’s in the Shed?” was written for this collection, only a short time before she died. What was your relationship with her like?
Well, my relationship with her goes all the way back to the 70s when I was in undergrad school in Fayetteville. She was in the graduate school, in the writing department, which was a very robust and vibrant program. They had some incredible writers and teachers, and Miller Williams, Lucinda Williams’ dad, was head of the writing program there. [Wright] got connected with Frank Stanford, who was not part of the academic scene, but was a land surveyor and an amazing poet and artist. Anyway, Frank had this printing press in his garage, and this old friend of mine Jess Henderson used to run the printing press. I was working at Collier Drug Store in the photo department and I used to bring film there to get processed, so that’s kind of how I got to know Frank. Next thing I know, they want me to bring a guitar to a party, and so forth, and his wife Ginny and I shared a dark room space, so we got to know each other there, and over time, things just got pretty dramatic. Ginny was his wife, and Caroline was his girlfriend, and it was a well-kept secret on his part. They discovered one another and confronted each other, and that became his demise. Ginny asked me to take photos of his funeral, which I did, and all those photos were, truly, lost in the fire.
So Caroline and I had communicated off and on, but the main deal was when these pictures came out of discovery, I thought, 'I need to get somebody to write about this.' And I thought about her. We hadn’t talked to each other in twenty years. So she wrote that poem, and sent it to me, and the Oxford American ran the whole thing. So that’s kind of how it all unfolded, just kind of mind-boggling, and sad. And weird. Last night, the guy that runs Third Man Books – his name is Chet Weise – he read her entire poem for the audience.
Were you surprised that she worked in not only the images from your photography, but bits of your story, too?
Yeah. I think she and Forrest and Frank – they were all…..well, when you play the guitar in sort of an unusual way, they were maybe taken by that. She followed my music career, and I think was kind of proud of the fact that I made something of myself, against a lot of odds. She was supportive of me and of what I was doing musically and photographically. It was a sense of pride, you know? That we’re both from Arkansas. When things like that happen, you sort of bond with people who have ventured out and taken a chance, especially if they find creative success with it. It’s kind of a kinship, in a way.
I presume we won’t get to see the sort of thing you did with the “alien” Martin guitar for your album “Celeste,” because the instrument was on loan to you, right?
No, that belongs to the great-great-grandson of the Martin founder. It was built for him on commission and, lo and behold, I sent Martin some of my stuff, and they said, 'If anybody can figure this thing out, you might be able to, because you’re just crazy enough.' So they loaned me the guitar to make the record.
What do you do, physically, when you play it?
Well, here’s the deal. In a live setting, what I would typically do is have a loop station of some kind. So, I would make a loop sound with the theremin, and I would play acoustic guitar on top of it, and then I would literally reach down inside the guitar and manipulate the theremin inside the guitar - it’s an open theremin, so you can touch the electronic board itself. There are little knobs for the sensitivity and things like that, so I would reach in and turn those knobs. We did several live shows with it in Savannah, where everybody was like, 'What the f-'…..Excuse me. And when I got the thing done and sent it to them, they thought it was a hoot. I also got permission from this guy who’s an astrophysicist at the University of Iowa to use all these amazing recordings of deep space he had. Sometimes it’s quite apparent, and sometimes it’s very subtle.
I want to ask you about “Celeste” herself. You have an idea of her as the daughter of Vernon McAlister and an alien.
Yeah, so Vernon McAlister was abducted by an alien spacecraft when he was camping out in rural Mississippi, and so he was forced into a ritual sex act with a female alien, and he ended up getting back to the campsite, and years later, she would appear – and this is me just making crap up – she ended up as an itinerant musician herself, and the theremin was supposed to be her voice.
You use so many parts of the guitar, and not just the typical parts of it that are used percussively. Do you think that’s because you were self-taught?
There was a fellow named Michael Hedges who did a lot of that kind of thing, too, but the tradition of using the guitar as a percussion instrument goes way back to flamenco music. But being self-taught, I didn’t have the boundaries of saying, ‘This isn’t the proper series of progressions to lead to X,' I was just following my ear. That was it.
These days, my performances have become more rootsy, and more patient. I wanted to become a little more dynamic than just ‘the guy who does the really wild guitar.' It occurred to me that I didn’t have to be the flashy guitar player anymore, that I could be a little more poetic. I guess it comes with age, too. The performances that I am doing now are a little less…..wacky.
Sometimes the notion that you need to trot all your technique out there can be a little condescending. The audience can tell, and there’s a great feeling when you’re hearing someone who’s got a technical command of their instrument, but they’re making the choice to do something technically difficult only when it’s called for.
Yeah! You know that Frank Zappa song, “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama?”
That was what I was doing. People were amazed. I was like the two-headed cow at the fair. I realized that I was just appealing to other people who wanted to do that. But like last night, when that poem was read and then I played, I felt like I was merging with the patience of poetry, and the delivery, and people seemed to really embrace that. You don’t have to beat people up with technique.
...I’ve started doing more concerts. Doing music with the photo exhibit is sort of a way to sneak back into doing some performances, but it has to do with photography, Caroline’s poem, and it’s a wonderful sort of amalgam of these different disciplines. In other words, I don’t even really remember taking most of these photographs. It’s not even about photographs that I took, it’s just about these photographs. Caroline’s poem just reflected on the images, and my playing is based on these fictional characters that I’ve created. It’s almost like I’m not even really a part of this, I’m just watching from the outside.
Right. There’s a poeticism in that title, “What Do You Think’s In The Shed?” This story is specific to you, but those photos of all these strangers’ lives, they could be any strangers’ lives documented in storage sheds anywhere across America, put away in boxes.
That’s the big metaphor in the whole thing, I think, and why Caroline’s work was so incredible.
Richard Leo Johnson gives a concert at the Ron Robinson Theater as part of the Arkansas Sounds Music Series Friday, Dec. 9, 8 p.m., preceded by a reception at the Butler Center celebrating the opening of Johnson’s photography exhibit, “Once Was Lost.”