Russ Stedman on Scott Johnson (aka Love, Calvin)

2015-01-22
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Russ Stedman on Scott Johnson (aka Love, Calvin)

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THE BACK STORY

I grew up in Mitchell, South Dakota. Home of the World’s Only Corn Palace. A depressing little sealed tuna sandwich inhabited by 14,000 annoying people and a few occasional gems. One of these gems was Evan Peta, who lived literally around the block from me (I lived on the 200 block of 11th, he on the 300 block of 12th). Despite the fact that we lived so close, we never hung out until we were in our late teens after discovering we both played guitar. Not too long after, we began a regular Friday night tradition of jamming together for a couple of hours. When I felt comfortable enough, I started playing Evan the tapes of original music I was making at time.

It was Spring 1986. Evan was going to tech school at the time, and his favorite classmate was Jeff Ashby, the first “Official Punk Rocker” that either of us had ever known. Jeff was from Huron, about 50 miles North of Mitchell. Evan told me that Jeff had some other friends back home that were into weird music. One Friday after jamming, we got in my primer-grey AMC Gremlin and drove up to Huron to search out Ashby and his weirdo friends.

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We managed to find Jeff, and for the first time also met a couple of other Huronites : Ken Nelson, a very friendly, immediately likable guy, and the man with the largest record collection in South Dakota; and Ken’s initially shy and reserved buddy Scott Johnson...the man that would become Love, Calvin.

That night, all five of us piled into Ashby’s car with the loud stereo and, as would become tradition, drove the deserted gravel roads of South Dakota with music blasting. That night was one of the most formative nights in my musical life. I distinctly remember being awe-struck at hearing the Butthole Surfers “The Shah Sleeps In Lee Harvey’s Grave” for the first time. I never quite looked at music the same after that night. I was 17 years old and had grown up on metal and radio music. It made me realize that there was a whole world of music out there that I was missing. With the help of Ken’s whale-sized record collection, it wasn’t long before I got a new education.

FORMING A NEW FRIENDSHIP

That initial night was followed by countless trips back up to Huron over the next 8 years until my eventual move away from Mitchell in 1994. Scott’s house (actually his brother Dave’s house where Scott lived with wife Susan, daughters Rachael and Sarah, and Dave) became “freak central”. Anyone with unusual tastes in music, art, or anything else seemed to gravitate to the regular parties held there, which always featured great music and nutty behavior by some of Huron’s and Mitchell’s finest misfits.

It wasn’t too much longer before those tapes I had been making and had already played for Evan were presented to the Huron scene and everyone seemed quite amazed. It was 1986. There was no internet, no Pro Tools, no Garage Band, no MP3’s or iPods. A four-track recorder cost over $500, which seemed quite out of reach to our 1986 dollars. The idea that some 17-year-old kid was recording albums in his bedroom in Nowhere, South Dakota must have seemed like some kind of retarded revolution.

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EARLY LOVE, CALVIN

Scott had been writing poetry for some time. Despite the fact that we lived 50 miles from each other and saw each other frequently, we got in the habit of writing weekly letters to each other. Mostly the letters were a lot of nonsense, scribbled art, and poetry. It seemed only natural that Scott would eventually start setting some of that poetry to music.

With some initial direction from myself on the process of ping-pong recording between two tape decks, the Love, Calvin recordings began. Scott acquired a keyboard and guitar and went at it. Some early favorites (available on ‘EARLY RECORDINGS 1986-1987”) like “Tree Farm”, “Great Big Disco Kiss”, “Jeff’s Legs” (dedicated to Jeff Ashby), and “Black Sabbath In Ken’s Car” featured straight-forward humor that Scott eventually grew away from in favor of more serious, heart-wrenching stuff like “Love Lies Bleeding”, “One Of Them”, “All I Remember Is...”, and “Time To Die”. I was amazed at how quickly Scott took to writing music. He seemed to just pick up a guitar or keyboard and immediately know what he wanted to do, and it all sounded great. I recently asked Scott’s mother Joann if he had taken piano lessons as a child, because he seemed pretty talented on keyboards. “Yes he did!” she replied “and he was very good on that as well as the drums and anything else he ever tried. He loved music like his Momma.”

4-TRACK SCOTT

Eventually we all (Evan, Scott, and myself) bought Tascam Porta-One 4-track recorders. The first official Love, Calvin release came out soon after...and they kept coming at a steady rate for the next 6 years. What follows are some of my impressions and memories of the Love, Calvin discography (all of which can be heard and downloaded at www.lovecalvin.com):

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LOVE,CALVIN (1987)

Well first off, the name. The origin of the name Love,Calvin is this: Ken Nelson had written a letter to Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening. Calvin replied, and signed his letter “Love, Calvin”. Scott found this so touching and honest that he adopted the phrase as his “band name”.

Some of the songs on this tape that I consider to be “Classic Scott”, lyric-wise would be “Getaway”, “A Reason”, “After The Storm”, “So Pretty Dead”...well hell, I could just list them all. Like I mentioned, Scott wrote a lot of poetry before ever entertaining the idea of songwriting, and he had a lyrical style that, when he was being serious, could just cut right through your heart and just leave you feeling exactly what he was feeling. He had an amazing way of expressing his life experience.

Jeff Ashby plays guitar on “Breakdown”, and can be heard during the initial “studio chatter” uttering what would eventually become a much-repeated catch phrase : “WHAT DID I JUST SAY?! FUCK!”. “Peace, Love and Nuclear Fusion” was a song title that originated from something Evan babbled once. Scott decided we should all record a song with that title, like each record our own individual versions. Scott’s version is on this tape. Mine ended up on my “History Of A Year & Other Assorted Songs” tape (also 1987). Evan’s remains unreleased.

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NOW WHAT (1987)

Contains one of my top ten favorite Scott songs, “I’ve Had A Happy Life” - which flirts with what would become a running thread through the rest of Scott’s tapes : songs about or that mention Jesus.

They played ‘La Bamba’ at your funeral

I kissed your pretty lips

as you lay dead in the coffin

I said goodbye

The funeral parlor was decorated

In shades of red and gold

with pictures of Jesus on the wall

with pictures of Jesus on the wall

Jesus on the wall

I’ve had a happy life

I’ve had a happy, happy life...

This tape also contains another song for Ashby (“Dear Jeff”), and is most significant for the first appearance of Evan Peta on lead guitar (“Summer Park”), who would from here on out become Mick Ronson to Scott’s Bowie; playing lead guitar on many future Love, Calvin songs.

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PRETTY WORLD OF UGLY PEOPLE (1988)

On the cover, Scott’s wife Susan in a Butthole Surfers t-shirt sits mockingly on a gravestone in the Huron cemetery, a frequent stop in the night-time drinking/driving/music tours of the next few years.

Stand-out songs include “Paint By Numbers”, “A Rose-Colored House”, “Misty Curtains”, and the Devo-ish title track. Evan Peta returns on lead guitar (“How Do You Feel”). Scott honored me with a cover of my song “I Miss The Shit Out Of You”. Collaborators from the Huron/Mitchell freak scene began to trickle in. Brad Bennett recites on “Kiss Goodnight”, and even Ken Nelson gets in on the action, drunkenly babbling on “Paulette’s Favorite Song”.

“Think Right”

If you don’t look right

If you don’t talk right

If you don’t think right

Nobody will care about you

 

If you don’t live right

If you don’t pray at night

If you don’t think right

Nobody will care about you

 

Better grow up, get married, have a family, find God

Better grow up, get married, have a family, find God

 

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PORTRAIT OF FLESH (1989)

This stands out for me as the climax that the first few tapes were building up to. It has great tortured pop songs, more collaborators from the scene, and is more of a well-sequenced ‘album’, whereas the first three tapes, while chocked full of greatness, could get long at well over an hour each. The cover features a shirtless Jeff Ashby, displaying the severe burn scars he obtained in a power-line accident (Jeff would later demand that he be written a song called “Burn Victims Suck”. Scott and I both took him up on it; Scott’s version showed up on “Mr. Joy”, mine on my “Hi Honey...Drop Dead” tape (1989). Ashby also provides lyrics here on “Seasonal Death Rape”.

Evan returns on the sloppy stream-of-consciousness blues “Sex With Your Lipstick”. “Portrait OF Flesh” features a fantasy scenario involving local painter Jim Bryant (Who’s work would grace the next two Love,Calvin cassette covers; “Diseased Birds” and “Mr. Joy”), The inseparable trio (they seemed to show up as a set quite often) of Carrie, Karin and Channing provide some lyrics and vocals, my favorite of which begins the tape as one of the girls states “even ruthless dictators need love’; leading into “I Kissed Hitler”.

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DISEASED BIRDS (1989)

Shortly after releasing this tape and handing out only a few copies, Scott decided against it for reasons unknown. At the time I was unaware of this decision, but later remember him telling me that he did not consider it a part of his ‘discography’. Contrary to that, it contains some songs that he must have been proud of. When I transferred the Love, Calvin albums to CD in 2007, Scott told me to make sure to include the song “Diseased Birds”. He told me it was one of his favorite songs he had ever written. Oddly, it did not originally appear on the 1989 cassette release despite being the title track :

“don’t forget the diseased

 don’t forget the dead

 don’t forget the postage when you write

 don’t forget your friends

 don’t forget the diseased birds

 in your life...’

 

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MR.JOY (1990)

This is the tape that regular Gajoob readers may remember, as it received highest praises in the issue after it’s release. The sarcastic title was a sign of the times for Scott. Rough times were ahead. His 10+ year marriage was ending, and his eventual crippling depression and substance abuse problems were just beginning.

“The Truth (Some Assembly Required)”

“Don’t get up anymore

When there’s nothing to live for

Stay in bed and rot

Useless, pathetic, choose your favorite adjective

Wallow in your addictions

Die for your obsessions...”

This tape is most memorable to me for my two lyrical contributions that Scott turned into the two best songs we ever wrote together, “Death Is A Reality” and “I Was”; the later being a song that was written about my marriage proposal to my wife, ironically just as Scott’s marriage was ending.

This tape (as well as “Diseased Birds”) features snippets of conversation from “Hellraiser”, the Clive Barker film. Scott was a huge Clive Barker fan. 

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LOVE SONGS (1990)

This is the “Divorce Album”. It rocks loud. Distorted guitars and almost no keyboards, and the lyrics bite hard. Almost every song is like the kind of thing that would slip out in a heated argument and ultimately be regretted the next morning, except there’s no sign of that regret here. This is a pure venting.

“Hurt You”

“My waters run deep, my walls are so high

I wanted to hurt you, I don’t know why

 

My head was empty, my soul was laid bare

I wanted to hurt you, and I didn’t care...”

Evan Peta makes his preeminent appearance in the Love,Calvin catalog, playing lead on half the songs, with a distorted urgency that fits the situations perfectly.

The somber angry mood does occasionally lift, as in “Gay Bar” (major foreshadowing) and “Letter To Raymond” (a song for daughter Rachael, who lived with Scott after the divorce). In between song snippets are of comedian Brother Theodore, a regular on David Letterman’s NBC show, and another favorite of Scott’s.

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LOOK IN-2 MY EYES (1992)

At eight songs and 30 minutes, this seems almost like an EP along side everything that came before it. There are some interesting features that make this one stand out, 12-string guitar and acoustic drumming add an organic touch that is a complete 180 from LOVE SONGS. Still though, some left-over rage in “Wheelchair Nation” and the primal scream therapy of “Floppy Kitty”(inspired in part by a cat Scott had at the time that had some sort of ailment that made it fall over sideways while walking).

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KGOD (1993)

Scott made up for the short timing of “Look In-2 My Eyes” by returning the next year with a 90-minute tape crammed with a lot of the best songs he had ever written. This tape is filled with incredible songs and stories. Over the past 6 years, Scott had become an amazing singer/songwriter. If he would have come along ten years earlier and in a more populous area, I have no doubt in my mind that he would have been revered as another Lou Reed or David Bowie. My favorites from this tape would fill most of my top ten of greatest Love,Calvin songs : “Fallen Saint”, “Secrets”, “Model Of Tolerance”, “Blue-Eyed Nun” and “The Damned” are all incredible, personal bests. At the end of this tape, Scott did two very significant things. He came out of the closet (“Wake Up In Manville”, “(Standing In A) Prison Shower”);then he quit recording for ten years.

AFTER THE STORM

I have very vague memories of what exactly happened next. I know that Scott had run into some financial difficulties, which ultimately resulted in the selling of recording equipment. In the spring of 1994, I moved to Sioux Falls, which meant I now lived two hours away from Scott as opposed to the 45 minutes between Mitchell and Huron. Scott’s problems with depression, drugs, and alcohol continued through the 90’s. In 2000, Scott went on disability and eventually left Huron for Madison, which was a little closer to me. I visited occasionally, but not as much as I would have liked. Before I knew it...ten years gone.

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SHORT TRIP TO OBLIVION (2003)

By 2003, We were back in contact more regularly thanks to e-mail, and one day Scott informed me that he had just bought a new digital 8-track, keyboard, drum machine, acoustic guitar, bass guitar, and microphone and was ready to get back in the recording game. He was having some trouble getting used to the new digital recording method, and asked me over to see if I could make heads or tails of it. That first day we ended up recording his first new song together, “Relapse” (which I played bass on). Every so often I would get an e-mail from Scott with an MP3 of his latest song attached. All total he ended up sending me probably around 20 songs over the course of the year. He continued to experiment with the digital 8-track, but soon confided in me that it just wasn’t the same as the trusty old Tascam Portaone 4-track we had both started on. I’m not sure exactly why he stopped recording again later that year, but I do know that he just wasn’t having as much fun recording digitally and dealing with the inevitable decline of the cassette. Most of the new equipment was gone again by the next year and that was that.

On Saturday, May 3rd, 2008, Scott was removed from life support. Days earlier he had been air-lifted to Sioux Falls and remained in a coma after a particularly damaging bout of indulgence. The funeral was held the next weekend at the Welter Funeral Home in Huron, just a couple of blocks down the street from his brother Dave’s house, where we had all spent so much time together in the 80’s.

About a year or so after Scott passed away, I started thinking about this folder of his songs I had sitting around, and decided to put them together as a final Love,Calvin album, mostly because I was pretty sure that I was the only person that had ever even heard most of them, much less still had copies of all of them. I thought it would be cool if Scott’s friends, and even more so his two daughters, had a chance to hear the songs. That’s how “Short Trip To Oblivion” came together. Songs like “James”, “Dream Of The One-Armed Psychopath”, and “Short Trip To Oblivion” made it clear that Scott still had that spark, waiting to come out.

There’s no way I can really tie this story up with a neat little bow, except to say ; I miss you Scott. Thanks for leaving us so many great memories behind.

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“Short Trip To Oblivion”

“...so please don’t cry as I sing this song

    laugh out loud and let’s get high

    there are no boundaries with angel’s wings

 

    there’s no sky, there’s no sky...”

 

KISS MY DEAD LIPS - A TRIBUTE TO LOVE,CALVIN (1997)

The music of Love,Calvin performed by: Bryan Baker - Bill Erickson - Mike Myers - Evan Peta - Aric Pringle - Jim Shelley - Solvei Stedman - Russ Stedman

THE MUTTS - Love Mélange (1994)

Written and recorded in one evening in 1994.

 

Scott Johnson - Guitar & Vocals

Evan Peta - Guitar

 

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