It's a snowy December evening – reminiscent of a Robert Frost poem and the kind of night you like to play a Michael Johnson record. But KQ isn't playing much of anything good, so I tune out the radio. I'm slowly guiding the car through the step-by-step instructions given to me over the phone by Michael Johnson.
In less time than I expect, the Daily photographer and I arrive at the tiny cottage nestled in the suburban woods. We park, gather our gear together and head for the barnlike structure, sure of our destination as we were forewarned about "the green van" that we now spy parked in front. We notice a stable in back that appears to contain snorting horses, then step up to the door and give it a quick rap.
I half expect Bilbo Baggins to answer the door but no, an attractive, soft-spoken woman greets us with a smile. Her name is Sally Shattuck. She and Michael have made a home out of this two-story, rented house, tastefully cluttering and decorating it in late Whole Earth Catalog. At first glance, it appears to be the cozy abode of a man of simple pleasures – and one who intends to stay a while.
Sally says Michael is waiting for us upstairs. Followed by O.B. Glad "the rental dog," we climb the stairs and join Johnson in a room scattered with guitars and records (mostly jazz and classical). A small adjacent room functions as an in-home studio.
As we settle into relaxed conversation, a warm feeling comes over me that I later placed as the safety and calm the child feels on those special, wintery occasions when he travels those backroads to visit Granny. Instantly, we feel at home. It's a gift of hospitality that Michael and Sally share, and I believe genuine friendliness forms the core of Michael Johnson's appeal as a performing artist.
"I've always figured that to be a friend is much easier. It's not so much a Samaritan approach or a Christian ideal as it is a pretty reasonable way to maintain your status as a social person. You can make friends and start out first of all, by remembering the guy's name – do that, don't forget his name." He was right – he got both of ours the first time around.
Chapter Two: Paul and Michael Johnson
I'm curious how much his family background and personal history contributed to the construction of this one Michael Johnson, singer/arranger/guitarist extraordinaire and, along with Kottke, Harrington and Henley, a permanent fixture on the '70s music scene in Minneapolis.
"I grew up in Denver. I went to two high schools, North High School and a Catholic high school."
"You're a Catholic?"
"I was—I as going to be a lifer. I actually went to the seminary for a while, thought I'd try that out."
"Did you come from a strong Catholic background?"
"No, no… but I'd say it's a relatively guilted Catholic background."
"Well, that's a given!" (laughter)
"Yeah—the whole family, we all kind of drifted away at the same time."
He speaks of his home and family with a great deal of price accompanied with a tinge of Weltschmerz that betrays a man very cognizant that life offers the Goodbye in addition to the Hello.
"Having only lived here for six years—thought I've got some good associates and friends here—I obviously haven't known anybody for longer than six years. For a college student that sounds like a long time, for somebody who's 33—you realize that you don't have many best friends, good friends in your life. So every now and then I just split for Denver.
"So you still consider Denver home?"
"Well, it's where my parents live and it's where my longtime freindships are and they need replenishing. But it's never the same when you go back."
"How big was your family?"
Four boys and a girl. Typical Catholic, North Denver, neighborhood family."
"Do you still stay in touch with your brothers and sister?"
"Not really. You have to understand that I thought our family was normal… you don't really have anything to compare it with."
"Yes, one does spin the world out of his own head," I muse.
"You really do, you create your own image."
"Have you changed your mind about your family?"
"Oh yes, yes. I think we had an exceptional family—extraordinary in many different ways. (Michael becomes quiet and strangely matter-of-fact.) My oldest brother left home when he was 17 and hasn't come back. He's 38. He and Dad just never got along. They were the two most musical people in the family. (Mutters:) It wasn't music they didn't get along about. I don't remember what it was. (Raises voices back to normal level.) The next oldest in line was quite an athlete, and pretty cunning in his ways. Dad and he had a lot of camaraderie. Paul (the oldest who left home), who was tall and clumsy and musical—and more latent than manifest at that point in his life—lost out, just decided to give up quit and left home. The bitterness has just become a silent principle in our house, it's not really a fact or bone of contention, it's just there—beyond sadness. That was the weird part.
"My sister Jan just had her fifth boy. She's now the only remaining Catholic. She's the only one who stayed in town. Paul, the kid who left, recently built himself a house in Arkansas with no windows in it. He's a modern gypsy. They travel around in a '46 Dodge pickup to Renaissance art fairs and sell ---these things.
Michael jumps up and goes into the studio room.
"You're not going to sell me anything, are you?" I quip.
From the other room, mockingly, in the stereotypical salesman voice: "Well, I'll tell you what, just for you…"
He returns, tooting shrill notes that pierce the solemnity that shrouded the previous few minutes.
"What is it, a bird call?"
"It's a whistle…they are really musical but I can't play it, can you?"
"Hmmm… (I turn the tiny plastic whistle over and over) I think I'd need smaller hands."
Years ago at Augsburg College I had seen Michael Johnson perform. It was one of those local concert dates that eventually made him a regional star. He had just released There Is a Breeze (1972), which contained a song he sang that night called "See You Soon," written by Paul Johnson. When For All You Mad Musicians (Sanskrit Records) appeared two yeas later, it included "Take My Body Home," also written by Paul Johnson:
Well you can see here in my eyes
I'm movin' on my own
So take my hand and close my eyes
And take my body home
You are so much more together
Than you are alone
I will not try
To make you cry
But take my body home
"His wife Amy is a songwriter too. During their constant travels, she's written a lot of the songs that I do ("In your Eyes" from There Is a Breeze. None of us have really heard from them for a couple years now. For many years I was the only link to them."
"Was that your function in the family, to be the communicator?"
"I'm the best communicator. I'm the most loquacious. It wasn't that way then. With an aggressive older brother, next in line, being such a real threat, I found that it was a kind of victimized overload. I learned through a lot of the fighting that was going on just to be quiet and passive and accepting, letting it all go."
"That seems to be the kind of mood that you evoke on stage and sitting here. Is that you, or is there a wild side?"
"Oh yeah sure, but there are good points and bad points about the way you adjust to whatever your role is. I let a lot of things go by, when I could let people know how I feel and don't."
Chapter Three: Julian Piper and Michael Johnson
Quiet but determined. A young Michael Johnson "got the hots for performing" while in high school, actually playing in a rock 'n' roll band called the Blue Jays. But soon he too was to leave home, embarking on a globe-trotting trek that eventually ended in Minnesota.
While in Greeley, Colorado in 1964, attending what was then Colorado State Teachers College, he formed a folk trio. This encouraged him to enter the college talent contest, which he won, allowing him to compete in the national contest.
"I did one of Judy Collins' songs ("Golden Apples of the Sun"—a W.B. Yeats poem she had set to music) and she was one of the judges and I didn't know it. I almost lost because of that."
Soon, he drifted away from college to play the coffeehouse circuit and to study classical guitar in Spain. He returned to the States and picked up with Randy Sparks in Los Angeles, creator of The Back Porch Majority and The New Christy Minstrels.
"It was a very socialistic approach to music, 50 musicians sitting around and Randy Sparks putting them together in groups: quartets, riverboat groups and whatnot…It wasn't a bad idea except that I wound up rehearsing for other groups. I did a tour of the Orient with them (1967). We were terrible and we knew it, so two of us changed our names—assuming that someday, if anything did happen, we didn't want to be associated with what we had done. My name was Julian Piper (laughter)—we couldn't choose our own names. They called me 'Jools.'"
Michael Johnson once again returned to the States, broke his contract with Randy Sparks (1968) and took John Denver's offer to join the Mitchell Trio. At the end of the decade, Michael instigated the trio's break-up, going solo for a year before catching on with Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. That revue took him to New York, the West Coast and, finally, to Chicago.
"The show ended, my girlfriend and I broke up, and I was just a little bummed out with Chicago—I had no reason to be there. I was all set to go out and do the next thing."
The "next thing" turned out to be Minneapolis. Through a mutual friend he was introduced to Keith Christensen, who convinced Johnson to move to the Twin Cities. Immediately, Christensen booked regional club dates, and slowly, Michael Johnson built up a following in Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas, Illinois and Nebraska. Now he's even well-known in Tennessee, the Carolinas and the Virginias. But Minneapolis and Michael Johnson have had a low-key love affair for years now, and nowhere is he appreciated like he is here.
"I really couldn't pull off a city-wide concert in any other town at this point."
Are you happy living in Minneapolis?"
"Your image seems to say that you've been here all the time and that you're a resident from way back."
"I don't know why people assume that—maybe it's the name Johnson. I'm flattered by that though, I admire people who have roots." (smiles)
Chapter Four: Michael Johnson
Michael Johnson heads into his seventh year in Minneapolis, perhaps his most important. At the moment he is negotiating a contract with a major record label. But he remains calm and cautious, very ready to handle whatever happens—be it the national recognition he richly deserves and someday may achieve, or continued regional success.
Johnson could be described as a reluctant star. He tells me that if the right tune comes along, he would not be afraid to promote it as a single—but in no way does he plan on becoming a flash-in-the-pan. He's seasoned enough to conduct a smart career and if the Big Success ever comes, he hopes to cope well.
How does he think his life would change?
"I don't know. If there was any true wealth involved…(pauses) I don't know. You can talk about that all you like but you don't know if you're going to be a draft-dodger until you get drafted, you don't know if you're going to have an abortion until you get pregnant."
It seems Michael Johnson and his lifestyle represent the best of what the '60s had to offer. I'm glad some of it survived. As we conclude the two-hour conversation, he invites us downstairs for a drink. We join Sally and continue to talk for another hour. On our way out, the photographer and I each receive a brownie and a copy of his latest albums Ain't Dis Da Life.
An hour later, safely home, I listen to the new record and realize that you don't so much put Michael on your turntable as invite him into your room for a few heartfelt tunes.