I was shocked and saddened to learn of Dean Johnson’s death yesterday, as I know many of you were. As of this writing the details of his passing are sketchy, but that is less important to me than the details of his life:
I met Dean Johnson in 1984 at Save the Robots. Robots, for those of you under a hundred, was an afterhours club on Avenue B, which was a pretty hardcore ghetto avenue in the 80’s. When the club started it was little more than an empty white room on the ground floor and a dank room with a shitty bar and some disco lights in the basement. Everyone would head there after their club jobs or nights out and get even more fucked up and dance. It drew a very insular community of freaks and club types and meeting 6′ 6″, bald, funny, smart Dean was just part of the excitement of my life at that time.
My first real memory of quality time with Dean was one of those crazy Robots nights. We all took acid – Dean, my friend and roommate Shannon (who would take hours to paint a complicated tattoo on his/her face every night) and a few others that I can’t recall now. That night I wore an uncomfortably skintight dress and brutally painful high-heeled pumps. I was completely hobbled and by the time we hit Robots at 4:30 am after a night of drinking and swallowing bits of paper I was tripping my brains out and could barely walk.
To make matters worse, my pre-lasik, contact lens-wearing eyes had watered so much from the drugs that the copious eye makeup I always wear had clouded up the lens. I couldn’t see a thing. I was blind, in pain, high out of my mind, and hanging with fags who were having way too much fun to care about taking me home. Good times, people. Shannon propped me up against a wall, said, “Stay here!” (as if there were a choice) and wandered off for what seemed like hours. There was nothing I could do but watch the fuzzy lights and pray for an end. When Dean’s round dome finally came into blurry view, moving towards me above the throbbing crowd, I wanted to cry with relief.
Afterwards we sat at a diner and talked as we came down. Dean had been listening to Abba in his tape-playing walkman, and we talked about his love of Abba and my teenage obsession with Todd Rundgren. It was comforting.
A few months later everyone was bored and Dean decided to gather all of the clothes off of his bedroom floor and put on a fashion show at the Pyramid for his friends. It was hilarious and an absolutely brilliant piece of conceptual “art”. We cheered and shouted “Fabulous!” as he sashayed in old t-shirts. My mother still asks me, “How’s your friend that put on that funny fashion show?”
Throughout the years we would run into each other or work together in varied capacities. Dean started Rock and Roll Fag Bar (a sort of precursor to Squeezebox) at The World, where I bartended. The party was completely unique for the time and rocked hard. And then he had his bands, Dean and the Weenies and The Velvet Mafia, for whom he wrote hilarious and cutting songs, which he talked/sang while oozing charisma in heels and a dress. He was a marvel to behold and an absolute star.
In the 90’s he tried to bring Rock and Roll Fag Bar back to Coney Island High, where I managed, but it just didn’t fly. Times had changed, there were a lot less cool people available to fill a room and Coney had too many hardcore punk douchebags lurking around, just waiting to get some quality fagbashing in. I hated that scene for its lack of glamour and understanding and I tried hard to make the place as gay friendly as I could, but it was impossible. Dean was a neurotic mess, bugging me in the office every day for money for flyers and drink specials and the like, trying to get the party going. He drove me nuts. But it was like having a sibling around. You know, if your sibling was a super tall bald man in a gown.
Myspace allowed Dean and I to reconnect again in a much deeper way than before, through our mutual love of writing. He loved my blogs and constantly encouraged me to write. His topics were much different than mine but there were many levels that we connected on. We both wanted to be truthful about who we are and about the world around us. I think that Dean did that most admirably and I recommend going to his page and checking his blogs if you haven’t already done so. His page is HERE.
Dean was extremely generous of spirit and took the time to submit one of my blogs to Chi Chi’s Verbal Abuse. I have a piece coming out in the next issue and it’s completely due to his prodding. I was so touched that he would take the time to do that, but he genuinely wanted people around him to succeed. Dean brought some well-needed life to this town with his Reading for Filth series, in which he urged other writers to get involved and share their own stories. I heard from many people how great the readings were and thought I had time to make it to one. I was honestly surprised to hear of Dean’s death because I had it in my head that he was moving on to his next phase as a published author. Now the reading that I will finally be present for will be his memorial.
I still have a funny email from him in my myspace mailbox waiting for an answer. I thought I had time.
To me, Dean Johnson epitomizes the New York that I came here to join. He was a freak, a faggot, a star, a creator, a friend. He participated, he inspired, he made people laugh, he brought people together. He was unflinchingly honest about his life as an escort, his sometime loneliness and desire for someone to love, and his fears about aging in regards to his profession. He was bitchy and bitter and yet a genuinely nice person who remained hopeful for what could be created. In other words, not really bitter at all.
Dean was a truly unique and special person. I will miss him very much personally, and the city has lost something very special. I hope his head is one of the ones I see when I get to the other side, poking out above the crowd.