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Rock In A Hard Place
by Greg Baker

originally published in Street Miami, January 5, 2001
Johnny Salton

Not a pretty picture, just images dredged from a drug-ravaged mind turned into a memory movie: the hot orange button burning, a Marlboro resting on a battered guitar amp, blue smoke streaming, the ember creeping closer to the amplifier then burning, cutting right into the amp, etching a scar into that fucked-up Fender that lasts -- well, it's been 20 years, thereabouts, and it still burns.

There's spirits flying all around in the air, man it's so whaled, it's not of this world, sky-born the way I remember it: lifting my chin off the gimpy table and maybe spilling a half empty -- no, half full -- bottle of beer and laughing 'cause the wailing guitar player who left that cigarette on his amp has another one lighted and poked into the head of his stunner, the fingers of his left hand dancing beneath that smoldering square like pixies on a lake of flames, bending three stings at a time until he's almost tied the axe into knots and the sounds that come -- but I'm laughing 'cause he has another square fired up, this one dangling out his mouth just the way a cig is supposed to hang from a rock star's lips.

It's that American kinda beauty the British could never muster, or at least master, because they didn't bleed as happily or get their fingers as greasy -- their ripped clothes were about fashion, not the clear decision to spend that Jackson on a few caps of dope instead of something useless like a new pair of jeans, and this was a bloody time, a real revolution, and it's a bitch-and-a-half watching it burn down like that forever Marlboro on that old amp in that forgotten club where I heard those sounds. Those sounds.

Welcome to nowhere. Shake hands with a god. Try to figure out if it's your lungs or your heart that holds your fate. Listen. Feel Johnny play guitar.

* * *

John Salton's mother raised him to be a rock star. Jill Kahn, the well-known photographer and Salton's closest friend, is telling me so one night a few weeks ago in her townhouse in North Miami where the newest version of Psycho Daisies is about to rehearse. It's a whole different configuration than the previous versions of Psycho Daisies, which date back to the mid-'80s: Salton, now 44, out front on vocals and guitar, Kahn adding bass, the mad drummer Bobby "Boom-Boom" Gold, just back from a decade in San Fran and Seattle, smashing the skins and desperately trying to keep the band in time, and, weirdly enough, a keyboardist, a masterful one, Bill Ritchie, coloring -- hell, let's be honest. There's no color here other than blood red and endless black.

Salton has this great song that's always wasted me, it's called "Religion or Pleasure." Everything's backward in this looking glass 20 years after Charlie Pickett and the Eggs reinvented rock and roll for me and a few dozen other South Floridians who had no need for that Sex Pistols bullshit or any of the other attempts to revise and reawaken a genre that never really existed in the first place. Rock and roll isn't a type of music. It's a spiritual experience that sustains a lifestyle. There's no pleasure here. Maybe some. It's tough to remember.

Spread across the round glass table in the dining room are the remnants of Salton's life. Brain cells I thought long dead are making my head itch.

A 1991 issue of Melody Maker, one of the hard-ass Brit rags we read back then, grants a bit of its rare praise: "Salton quite understandably steals the limelight. A criminally under-rated guitarist, it would be nice to think that one day he might achieve the acclaim he so obviously deserves." Also on the table is famed critic Byron Coley's review of 1989's Sonicly Speaking, which was recorded by a Psycho Daisies lineup that included singer Roger Deering (from the Drills). "Salton's guitar work has long been a cause of amazement but his playing here is so needle-sharp it'll leave you bleeding and dazed." Coley also included the album on his best 80 records of the '80s list.
Johnny Salton

The doctor came in and told him he looked too thin -- there's a lyric like that from the 1991 album for the Resonance label 30 Milligrams of Your Love, a dope-shooting title for the one record that could accurately be called a Salton solo project, even though it's attributed to the Psycho Daisies, even though Pickett sings one song, "Religion or Pleasure," even though the last track is a cover of Coltrane -- yeah, Coltrane. Marco Pettit, the pretty bass player and longtime Salton collaborator who later died of a drug overdose, plays on three tracks, and the great multi-instrumentalist Pete Moss, who later died of a drug overdose, put down the drums, but it's Salton's record and I didn't get it for shit that day in the early '90s, a too sunny day, early-early like noon, when Johnny and I sat in a car, no idea whose car, smoking God knows what, listening to the unmastered tape.

Now I play the CD and hear rock and roll as if for the first time. It leaves me bleeding and dazed.

It's late 2000, I'm at Jill's place to hear a Psycho Daisies rehearsal and look through all these old photographs and press clippings. A few days earlier Kahn had sent me a note about how Johnny had asked to be taken to the emergency room. Another about how he was still in the hospital, his lungs ravaged and nearly useless.

Finally Salton himself made contact, via e-mail: "Puttin' all my efforts into my music & at least getting the new songs down while I can. No time to waste."

At the rehearsal, after the fourth song, Johnny said he couldn't sing any more, couldn't practice any more. Couldn't breathe any more.

* * *

Everyone's gathered around the table now, clawing at the memories, and Jill's telling about how John got expelled from Beach High. "No," he corrects with a grin that's almost -- almost -- sheepish: "They took me out of there in handcuffs."

The thing is, they could never pin any of the B&E's and other stupid stuff on him, so they judged him to be "incorrigible" -- Salton laughs and repeats the word -- and they sent him to the middle of nowhere, like 60 miles west of Gainesville, to this experimental reform school -- there's a photo on the table of a teen Salton (with a fat tie, suit jacket and bushy hair) standing between then-Governor Ruben Askew and the head of the "youth development" center. John was a star at the school, a real success story, so he got to go over to the headmaster's house and eat dinner, and smoke pot and drink wine. "My reward for being their dupe," Salton says with a hoarse laugh.

More importantly, Salton met and hung out with the school's elderly black janitor. "This guy had played with Honeyboy Edwards, all the greats," Salton recalls. "I was into Duane Allman and he said I needed to hear the real thing. Every week he'd bring a new tablature for a blues song and I'd learn it."

I don't know, Salton also talks a lot about an uncle who was a big music company exec and used to give him records to listen to, important records. Salton seems able to suck it all in -- earlier in the evening he had joined Gold and Ritchie in a spirited exchange about the greatness of Kris Kristofferson.

Maybe that's why he thinks of Honeyboy Edwards as a "great." Beck, Clapton and that lot don't mean much to John. Lightweights. And of course his mom raised him to be a rock star.

But you learn stuff in schools, even if it's a school you've been sentenced to and even if your primary education comes from the janitor. Johnny's playing isn't about notes or riffs. It's much weightier than that.

Four months ago, after a long and acrimonious separation, Salton reunited with his longtime musical partner Charlie Pickett when the new Daisies backed Pickett for five songs on the stage at Churchill's before playing their own set.

Afterward, out on the sidewalk, I commended Pickett's abbreviated show, mentioned how happy it made me to see him and Johnny share a stage again, just like the countless times I saw them together over the past 20 years burning down every preconception and misconception ever made in the name of rock and roll.

Many times over the years Charlie lost patience with Salton, lost his temper because Johnny would be too wasted or show up late or go off into his own world of bent strings and hell-wailed feedback and supersonic distortion while the rest of the band was trying to play a song. On this night, though, Charlie was smiling: "That Johnny. No one in the world gets the tones he gets. I've never known anyone so into the sounds of a guitar."

Coming from the legendary Mr. Pickett -- screw it, never mind. It would be nice if Salton got the acclaim he so obviously deserves. Has deserved since 1979 when he joined the Reactions and entered the netherworld called the South Florida rock scene.

* * *

One of John Salton's favorite books is Go Tell the Mountain: The Stories and Lyrics of Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Pierce fronted the Gun Club, which formed in L.A. 20 years ago and created the West Coast version of a sloppy but compelling subgenre by mixing blues and punk.

Though musically astounding, Pierce and the Gun Club failed to receive the acclaim they deserved, partly because Pierce was way too wasted way too often, failed to show up at gigs, was generally incorrigible. The autobiographical half of the book is sad, the author pathetic; the lyrics, much like Salton's, pale on paper compared to their raw power on record or stage. Pierce (reportedly wounded by HIV, cirrhosis and hepatitis) eventually got clean and sober. A few years later, in 1996, he died of bleeding in the brain.

Johnny Salton
Miami generated as much fine music as anywhere during the punk/New Wave epoch, but that misses the point. During one of the Pistols' tours of England they invited Johnny Thunders to be an opening act, possibly the smartest and most worthwhile thing Rotten and company ever did. Thunders and his band, the New York Dolls, have more to do with Salton's sound than the Damned or the Dead Boys, the Pistols or the Clash.

The Dolls presaged punk, but weren't really a part of it. In 1985 the CMJ New Music Report noted that the Daisies "rock like no other set of junkies since Johnny Thunders." The essential record guide Trouser Press, reviewing the first two Pickett and the Eggs records, added, "Salton [is] a first-rate student of Thunders, Fogerty and Sky Saxon. ... It's hard to believe this band isn't as big a global legend as it deserves to be."

Nowhere was the melding of punk and raw roots- and blues-driven rock more clear and more musically powerful than in the performances and recordings of Charlie Pickett and the Eggs, featuring Salton on guitar, his childhood friend and future Psycho Daisies cohort Dave Froshnider on bass, and the immortally brilliant drummer and Daisies member Johnny "Sticks" Galway, a Carolina boy who also brought his awesome hitting to other great bands such as the Essentials, the Bobs and the Silos. (Galway died in February of 1995 after suffering AIDS.)

By the time the Daisies formed, Salton had made his mark on two EPs with the Reactions and, primarily, as Pickett's six-string co-conspirator on the 12-inchers Live at the Button (1982) and Cowboy Junkie Au-Go-Go (1984).

During another trip -- there were a lot of trips. Pickett released another great album, Route 33, in 1986 on Minneapolis's famed Twin/Tone label (also home at one time to the Replacements, the Feelies and the Mekons, among others). The band broke up during the sessions. When they re-formed, the moniker "the Eggs" was changed at Salton's behest to the MC3, a tribute both to the MC5 and to the Magic City.

After R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck offered in 1987 to produce an album that became The Wilderness, Pickett undertook a nationwide tour with what he calls "my dream unit: Johnny Salton, [Marco] Pettit and Johnny Galway. My favorite Johnny Salton night of all time occurred on that tour, in Richmond. He played on a coffin-bottom Marshall that someone in the opening band loaned him and he levitated himself, the band, the entire club with his guitar barrel-rolls, dead-stick and full-throttle dives, flame outs, dogfights, et cetera. Even Johnny Galway, who was never impressed by anyone's musical performance, rolled his eyes twice at me during that show about Salton's playing."

Concurrently, without Pickett, Salton and company had formed Psycho Daisies, recording in 1985 an album called Pushin' Up Daisies, which gave childhood buddies Froshnider and Salton an opportunity to share lead guitar duties -- Dave on "stun guitar" and Johnny on "destructo."

At the time, in the fall of '85, I worked for a local daily paper that let me write about area rock bands. I vaguely recall researching one article by spending a dope-fueled day in Galway's house on the edge of Overtown, just wasted and talking to these guys about music -- they seemed to know a lot about everything from arcane blues to the freshest punk and their own music was at once trashy and beautiful, from the warm ballad "Wrap Your Arms Around Me" to the Salton-sung manifesto "In Doubt" ("There are too many people walking in this world") to the junkie tale "Get Off on Your Porch."

I staggered back to the newsroom and began the article with insane images: "Jesus on Biscayne Boulevard with a needle in his arm" and "Plato with a gun to his head." Salton has always provoked me to hyperbole. But I've always only meant it to be acclaim.

* * *

The reason Salton couldn't breathe that night in mid-November when he asked to be taken to the emergency room was because he has advanced emphysema.

The news surprised me because in August I had gone to see this new version of the Psycho Daisies live. It'd been a while since I'd hooked up with John, a bad feeling 'cause the specter of an early death has always hung over the guitar god. We shook hands and I immediately asked him about his personal habits. He told me about how he'd gotten clean and sober a long time ago. It was a hot shot of hope.

Salton himself tells the sick joke: "All these cats I've played with died young and I'm still around. Everybody thought I'd be the first to go." No shit, John.

About a year ago he gathered $400 and went to a doctor, Salton recalls, to have his lungs examined. He was given a clean bill of health. After the recent hospital stay, he says, a doctor prescibed a bunch of primitive stuff that just made him worse, even though he's quit smoking -- everything. After the night at Jill's when he barely got through four songs, Salton saw yet another doctor, one who apparently straightened things out, put him on a nebulizer and different meds.

On Dec. 5 Salton sent me a message: "Feelin' a lot better this week. Able to eat & function. Full band practice at the [South Florida Rehearsal Studio]. Hope you can make it, last week was not up to par because I felt terrible."

At the studio Johnny is in great spirits, joking about this being Woodstock 2005 before delivering an enthusiastic spiel about some new MC5 mixes on the market. He all but prays at the altar of the studio's Randall amplifier -- "This thing is better than a tube amp!" He sips a Frosty root beer and explains, "We're a cross between Spinal Tap and Rodney Dangerfield. Our drummers keep dying and we get no respect."

I'm not paying attention, I'm thinking about this e-mail John had sent me a few weeks earlier: "Takin' it one day at a time. Also trying to set up a couple gigs. You know how much I love playing out live, even if it's only to three people."

Johnny Salton
I remember this one lyric Johnny wrote a long time ago, about how the revolution was just background noise. Something like that.

When the Daisies crank up, I'm paying attention only to the music. It's raining outside, but it's in here that the sky's opening up. It's like a movie with the best soundtrack ever. Those sounds turn into images and keep going from there.

Almost all the songs that pour out during this nonstop two-hour performance are new; Kahn co-wrote three of them, Bobby Gold and Bill Ritchie are powerful musicians, adept enough at their instruments to keep up with -- call it what you will.

The lyrics hold no special meaning for me, and I know that way down the tunes are based on a few chord changes, and Billboard isn't going to be publishing any of the titles.

Maybe that's why I find Salton's work so fascinating and affecting. It transcends everything, maybe even time.

Guess I should've taken some notes at that last rehearsal I went to, but I couldn't even move. I kept thinking: This isn't music you hear, it's not just pleasure, it's feel. The new band is great, the new songs are great, and it'd be a bitch and a half if everyone didn't get the chance to have this stuff presented to them so brilliantly.

Most of the new material will be recorded and released as a CD that John says he'll call Welcome to Nowhere. I want to be there.

An Epic Article About the South Florida Music Scene

An Obituary for Johnny "Sticks" Galway

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