Compiling Ranger Rick: Interview with Bill Knight

rick johnson book

Bill Knight is the editor of Rick Johnson Reader: Tin Cans, Squeems and Thudpies, a hearty (250 page) collection of critical musings by the late, beloved Boy Wonder of Creem’s new-wave-and-beyond phase–the star writer from what was arguably the greatest era of the greatest music ‘zine ever. Having served as Johnson’s editor for many years at the Prairie SUN and SunRise (two Illinois alternative publications), Knight set out to put Johnson’s work between covers in 2006, after the writer’s untimely death in April of that year.

Most of the reviews in Tin Cans are pulled directly from those Illinois rags, and will thus be unfamiliar to most readers who know Johnson primarily through his work in Creem (though the voice itself, of course, will be very familiar; who else would refer to ELO as the “Ethiopian Lapdog Orchestra” or compare the sound of Focus–of “Hocus Pocus” fame–to “snails menstruating”?). And though the bulk of the book is taken up by “Reek”’s characteristically unhinged album reviews–bizarro and revelatory in approximately equal measure–there are separate sections devoted to Johnson’s writing on sports, video games, and TV.

I recently e-mailed Knight a bunch of questions about working with Johnson and about the how-to’s of putting out such a book.

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Scott: Can you discuss some of the highlights and/or more notable moments in your own career as a journalist, author and editor? Please bring us up to the present day.

Bill: I started writing for newspapers in high school, and resumed after a few years with an “underground paper” in college in the ‘70s, which evolved into SunRise magazine in ‘72, a (sometimes) monthly mix of music and counter-culture coverage. That publication is where Rick and I started working together.

SunRise folded (except for one Life magazine format ‘Reek’ and I did as a “duet” effort in 1976, featuring a memorable Lester Bangs feature on Linda Lovelace), and I worked for a chain of community weeklies for a year, then launched the Prairie SUN, a similar but more music-oriented and more stable weekly (backed by a big Midwest record retail chain) and immediately asked Rick to write and recruit a few reviewers.

That published until Illinois’ drinking age was raised back to 21 (hurting music clubs) and record companies severely cut back advertising; it folded in 1983. I went to the Peoria Journal Star daily paper as a fill-in, then went to Washington, D.C., as arts editor for the new Washington (D.C.) Weekly, returned to Peoria’s daily as a sub-editor and features writer until 1990, when I took a leave to work for the Newspaper Guild in San Diego. Third time being the charm (or, “Strike three!”), I then returned to the Journal Star as the environmental reporter until I accepted an offer to teach journalism at Western Illinois University, where Rick and I were undergrads. I’ve been at WIU for more than 15 years.

Besides Illinois newspapers and magazines, I’ve done some radio feature writing and still do weekly commentaries on Macomb’s NPR affiliate, and wrote several books. Three volumes of R.F.D. collected some of my radio pieces and daily newspaper features; Fair Comment collected some of my radio commentaries and other columns, Video Almanac was a week-by-week breakdown of movie/video themes (baseball movies, rock ‘n’ roll films, insect movies, Christmas films, flicks about trains, the Irish, etc., etc.)

I also coordinated and wrote a chapter for Naked Came the Farmer, a “round-robin” murder mystery with contributions from 7 journalists and 6 novelists, including Hugo Award-winning sci-fi giant Philip Jose Farmer, and edited a couple of other titles before I got a bunch of writers to help key in Ranger Rick’s stuff so it could be published as Tin Cans, Squeems and Thudpies.

Scott: You were Rick Johnson’s editor at SunRise and the Prairie SUN–can you tell me a little bit about those publications and your involvement there?

Bill: In addition, it should be mentioned that SunRise was launched by me and two other guys, anarchist George Taft (who I lost touch with) and my White Panther/Yippie running partner Mike Mooney (who’s been a terrific reporter at the Modesto Bee for years). After a few issues, SunRise became part of the media output of a collective of 6-8 people, who helped put out WIU’s student newspaper, put on concerts, ran a record store and generally had a great time. Its circulation topped out at about 4,000, I think.

The Prairie SUN was more… sober, you could say, but even though its circulation was more than 25,000, there was a lot of fun there, too, especially with our annual “Sunbird” music awards, a couple of compilation LPs of Midwest artists we produced, and almost anything which involved record store owner Bill Love–who passed away a few months ago at age 60 or so.

Scott: How did you and Rick first connect? How long did he write for you?

Bill: Johnson always claimed he first saw me the day his dad dropped him off at WIU. (I was a couple of years older). He said his dad pointed to me and said, “You better never grow your hair long like that idiot.” That was when I had long hair (that was back when I had hair, period), and Rick immediately started growing his hair, of course, and eventually had an outstanding ponytail.

My first memory of him was bailing him out of the local jail when he got popped for having one joint. As I said, I was a White Panther/Yippie, and we had a few bucks from selling our underground paper (Truckin’ On!), so bailing out a stranger seemed perfectly logical at the time.

Johnson and I also worked together in a campus tutoring lab, circa 1971–jobs that made both of us desperate to do something else.

Scott: I’m intrigued by the line in your bio (in Tin Cans) that reads, “Despite editing Rick for decades, they got along.” Expand on that point–what was it like editing Rick’s prose? Was there a lot of editing involved? His writing tended to be pretty far out-there; was the copy he turned in close to what usually ended up in print? How did he respond to editing?

Bill: Editing Rick was easy. My approach was to get out of his way so the readers could enjoy it. Editing him was less about literally understanding his writing than appreciating the effort–sort of immersing yourself in his word play and thought processes. I always saw Johnson as a one-man version of the writers for “The Alan Brady Show” on Dick Van Dyke: part Rob, part Buddy, and even part Sally–studious but witty, lazy, and occasionally inspired, and an idea machine who typed like a tornado.
I did a bit of line editing for our modified Associated Press style, but he was always OK with suggested changes–which were rare.

Scott: You started working with Rick in the early-mid-’70s. At that point, rock criticism was still a fairly new ballgame. From an editor’s perspective was there a sense then that you could make things up as you went along–I mean because the genre of “rock criticism” was still so new? Did it feel like you were taking a risk publishing someone like Rick Johnson?

Bill: There was more of a sense that we could do anything, like those old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland musicals. (“Hey! Let’s get the gang together and put out a newspaper!”) And it wasn’t a matter of risk. The outrageous and irreverent were encouraged, but the only things made up generally were the approaches. Facts are facts and opinions are opinions, and Rick was Rick–not a risk for publications but a reward for readers. Very rarely did record store managers complain or object (after all, even scathing reviews sold records, arguably). The aforementioned Bill Love owned the record chain and was the Prairie SUN’s publisher, but he never censored Johnson–even when he didn’t get the humor.

Scott: When did Rick stop writing for you? Did this coincide with his stopping to write for Creem as well? Did he ever, at the time, offer any reasons as to why he essentially gave up writing?

Bill: He stopped writing for me when I stopped being an editor who could buy his stuff. By the time the Prairie SUN folded, Rick had moved to Birmingham, Mich., to work at Creem full-time, and understandably wrote a lot less for me back in Illinois. He freelanced some stuff to me when I was at the Washington Weekly.

I think he enjoyed knowing he could write laps around most working reviewers if he’d wanted to, but he didn’t want to start over with other magazines and other editors. It was a pain in the neck.

That said, Rick was a cheerful cynic, too, and I believe he was disappointed by both the publishing business and the record industry. He wasn’t bitter, just sort of sad and resigned, maybe feeling he’d rather sell magazines and cigars, gossip and talk music and baseball, and quietly reflect on his years writing wearing a Mona Lisa kind of smile, rather than deal with fools.

Scott: Did you keep in touch with Rick much after you two worked together?

Bill: We kept in some contact in the late ‘80s. Again, he wrote a little for me when I was in Washington, and from time to time he’d mail me “Rick’s Rejects” and various profound/moronic/silly postcards and sheets of newspaper clippings that looked like something Buddy Sorrell (again, from Dick Van Dyke) would compile if he were a kidnapper. When I moved back to Illinois and started working for the daily newspaper in Peoria about 80 miles from Macomb, I’d visit him once in a while and gab about the Cubs and how much music had started to bite the big one. We swapped old vinyl and obscure magazines and he got me to switch from cheap cigars to brands he sold.

After I returned to Western, we saw each other more often. When I took the job, he knew I was a bit apprehensive moving from newsrooms to classrooms–and returning to where we’d gone to college (and where I’d been involved in taking over the ROTC building after the Kent State Massacre). So Rick helped put it in perspective with a funny prank Reality Check. My first day, I walk in to the Journalism lab and Johnson (I found out later) has snuck in and written “REMEMBER KENT STATE!” on the blackboard.

Scott: Had you ever discussed with Rick the idea of publishing a book of his work? I’m guessing that he wouldn’t have been ambitious enough to consider doing this on his own–in his interview, he came across as somewhat humbled and even a bit bemused to discover that there were younger people interested in his work.

Bill: I had suggested to Johnson that he put together his stuff into an anthology when I published a collection of some of my features from the Peoria paper, but he passed. I think it was less laziness or a lack of interest on his part than a genuine modesty. He was surprised people liked his writing, much less remembered him.

Scott: Talk about putting the book together. You mention in the introduction that 24 former associates from SunRise and the Prairie SUN banded together to help out–how did that process work?

Bill: I’d stayed in touch with some of the SunRise and Prairie SUN folks through the years, so that was a starting point. A few others got in contact after Rick’s unexpected death, and I found the rest through Googling and asking friends of friends. Only three declined to participate, mostly because they’d really had little or no contact with Johnson and were swamped with their own writing. By the time a few others responded, we were done–folks such as Peoria critic Roger Alan Burt, now in Chicago, SunRise’s one-time Kansas City correspondent Mike Drips, and the Prairie SUN’s Des Moines correspondent Michael Walker, now in Los Angeles (where he wrote the outstanding history of L.A. rock, Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood).

The process was relatively simple and a pleasant pain in the neck for everyone. I delved into cardboard boxes filled with every issue of SunRise and the Prairie SUN and looked for Johnson’s byline. I marked them, photocopied them and mailed 5-15 each to all the volunteer typists. They keyed in the material and e-mailed back Word files, which I edited and dumped into Quark Express.

One weird outcome was that afterward, a mutual friend of mine and Rick’s who’s now an archivist at WIU’s library asked whether I’d donate the Prairie SUN and SunRise collections, so I did. So among the University Archives in Macomb are the papers of musician and actor Burl Ives, former progressive Congressman Lane Evans, and the Prairie SUN and SunRise. (A blues musician friend from the Iowa City area, recording artist Patrick Hazell, joked, “When did our past become history?”)

johnson book

Scott: Was the actual selection process difficult? Were there reviews you wanted to include in the book but couldn’t?

Bill: Selection was a snap. I used almost everything he wrote for me. I also touched base with a few others, such as Richard Riegel, a Johnson pal and fellow Creem critic, and Robert Matheu from Creem, who was encouraging–and who granted permission to reprint a handful of Creem pieces. I contacted Rick’s old editor, Susan Whitall, now with the Detroit News, and the Chicago Sun-Times’ rock critic, Jim DeRogatis, who’d met Rick while he was researching his biography of Lester Bangs, and they also were helpful and wrote introductory material.

The only ‘Reek’ things that weren’t included were a few pieces that were so localized about Macomb that not even Johnson would’ve appreciated them any longer, like a couple of “Best Bar” guides from the ‘70s.

Scott: Was it difficult to find a publisher for the book? Have you worked with Mayfly previously? Did you start to compile the book before you shopped it around, or did you find a publisher based on a pitch?

Bill: It wasn’t difficult to find a publisher since I published the book. (I was an easy sell.) Mayfly Productions is my nonprofit media company, which has mostly published my books and a couple by a colleague in Pennsylvania, journalist Walter Brasch–who actually referred me to printers he’s worked with, such as BookSurge, an subsidiary.

I encourage writers to publish themselves. There’s little money in it, but there’s hope–and outfits like BookSurge make it easy to make titles available online in a print-on-demand capacity, so you don’t have cartons of your unsold books smiling snidely from corners of your garage.

Scott: What are some of the things that impress you most about Rick’s writing?

Bill: Johnson’s writing bridged things: timely and timeless, edgy and plain-spoken, using simple declarative sentences with metaphors that seemed to come from some parallel universe.

I always was impressed with Rick’s take-no-prisoners reaction (positive or negative) to rock ‘n’ roll, his wildly bent humor that was incendiary and insightful, and his methodical approach to writing. He had scraps of paper everywhere–standalone similes, weird phrases, isolated observations–and he’d jot down impressions of an album, then shuffle through these old notes like some stoned Strat-o-Matic player in order to assemble a cohesive review. He was much more organized and deliberate than his writing might seem.

Scott: Can you single out any pieces in the book you like best?

Bill: I’m kinda partial to a Creem feature, “I call on Hoot & Annie,” that was set in Macomb, and a hilarious record review of a Budgie LP that spends more time on parrots than pop. However, I love his baseball season forecasts and his ruthless summaries of new TV seasons, too.

But it’s hard to narrow it down. In fact, when five of us who helped put the book together took part in a reading from Johnson’s book, there must have been a dozen times when we had to just stop because the audiences was laughing so loudly and we were laughing so hard there were tears in our eyes.


7 thoughts on “Compiling Ranger Rick: Interview with Bill Knight

  1. Scott —

    Thanks for sharing your interview with Bill Knight and giving us more intriguing details of Rick Johnson’s writing background.

    I’d never heard the story about Rick’s dad’s comment when he dropped him off at WIU — really got a laff out of that one. Rick had told me his father was an accountant, I believe, anyway his dad held some office job from which he brought home old ledgers or notebooks, which young Rick then proceeded to fill up with words — he said that was how he got started writing. As Rick’s parents were Swedish in ancestry, I always imagined his mom as looking and sounding like Mrs. Olsen on the coffee commercials, but I think his parents were likely more generations removed from the old country than Mrs. O. was. Rick also told me that his family had lived on the South Side of Chicago when he was really young, then moved on out to the suburb of Dolton. I hadn’t heard of that community previously, and could hardly believe that Rick had grown up in a town whose name 1.) was the same as the Ventures’ record label and 2.) contained the pejorative “dolt” among its letters — the town almost seemed like one of Rick’s surreal note-card coinages, well before their time.

    As for Rick largely dropping out of writing after Creem’s 1988 bankruptcy, that was something all of us who’d written for Creem struggled with — there just wasn’t anything else like Creem out there. I was lucky enough to get further rockwriting opportunities (all via editors I’d met through my Creem connections) at Launch, the Village Voice, and Harp, and while I enjoyed doing those writing slots, they didn’t give me the intense endorphin rush that seeing my words and byline in Creem always had. I think that Rick knew in advance that there would be no Creem-like second act in American rockwriting, and I couldn’t get him interested in trying to break into these other publications.

    Also, Rick was a sweet guy when you got to know him, but very shy about approaching people. That was the reason Rick almost never consented to do interviews with rockstars (cf. his nervewracking encounter with Loverboy for Creem, in the Knight anthology.) And when it came to money, Rick was a real cash-on-the-barrelhead type –payment had to be guaranteed before he’d lift his ballpoint for anybody. When Creem would fall behind in paying the writers (as it often did in the ’80s), Rick would stop writing and submitting material immediately, and not resume until the checks started flowing again. I would go on sending my stuff in, ever hopeful that good times were just around the corner (plus I had a regular job at the welfare dept. anyway), but Rick would just sit tight. I think that his Show-me-the-money! attitude probably made him wary of getting involved with post-Creem projects, too.

    Rick never stopped recording his inimitable metaphors on those note cards, right up until the month he died, and since he had almost no pro-writing outlets left, they went into letters to me and to his other pals instead. We fortunate correspondents might be sitting on veritable gold mines of classic Reekisms — now there’s a self-publishing thought.

    Thanks again for doing this interview.

    Richard R.

  2. Sounds interesting.

    I was a huge fan of Creem in the early ’80s.

    It’s a damn shame that Johnson never started a blog or Web site in his later years. I, for one, would have logged on every day.

    Anyway, looking forward to reading the book.

  3. If it wasn’t for Rick Johnson, Richard Riegel, Robot A. Hull, Susan Whitall, J. Kordosh, and the rest of the Creem staff who split open my skull in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I don’t know how I would have learned about anything important. Can’t wait to buy and read this book. Peace.

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