Today I learned that Dean Johnson recently passed away. Johnson was a musician and legendary fixture of the 80’s NYC club scene, who occasionally gleamed up into the mainstream radar, while always staying rooted in underground NYC gay culture. He first gained lurid prominence with his popular downtown band Dean and the Weenies, and their bizarre 1987 club hit “Fuck You” - which got regular play in many clubs throughout the rest of the U.S. and the world, primarily due to it being featured in the trendy 1988 film Mondo New York (the odd footage of which was often shown as a video). After Dean and the Weenies fell apart, he later formed The Velvet Mafia. Their first CD, We Know Where You Live, was released in 1998. The band’s second album - the quite good Cheap But Not Free - was produced by Wharton Tiers, and released in 2002. The confounding details of Johnson’s dealings with record companies throughout his weird career can be found in his hysterical, must-read 1979-2004 diaries, found on The Velvet Mafia’s website. Speaking of his earliest days, Johnson told Next Magazine in 1998:
“I did this song called ‘Fuck You’ in the film Mondo New York. From that I was able to get a recording contract with Island Records. When they realized I was a gay activist and a drag queen, they freaked out and found an excuse to dump me. They released my record in an unmarked brown paper wrapper and said they were dumping me because the album wouldn’t sell. They printed out thousands of CDs of ‘Fuck You’ and then dumped them into a dumpster behind the Island offices. Homeless people pulled them out of the garbage and sold them for a dollar on St. Mark’s and it became a huge phenomenon. That’s how I really established myself as a performer back in 1987.”
Personally, Dean was someone I looked up to long before I ever moved to NYC in 1991. This was particularly because of his song, “Fuck You,” which was a cult hit in some of the wackier nightclubs in Dallas in the late 80’s. Texan DJs played it a lot, and club-goers would always run to the dance floor when it came on because they knew all of it’s bonkers lyrics by heart. Who can forget a room full of 300 Texas hipsters shouting in unison “Fuck…Mary Tyler Moooooore!”? I sure can’t. The song had an absurdly slow tempo for a dance club hit, but the seduction was that it made everyone think of New York - which was where we all secretly wanted to live. Of course, without the visual it might not have reached that status. Video footage of him performing this song, from the film Mondo New York, was often shown on Dallas clubs’ video monitors - whenever the DJ wanted to get the crowd riled up. A gigantic bald man in a jumpsuit-mini, drop earrings, Jackie O sunglasses and lipstick, deadpanning ‘Fuck… Union Carbide!’ while a band lazily played jazzy rock behind him? The whole package was perfectly nuts. It was like something out of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, even if it it wasn’t. For New York in ‘88, it was (ahead?) of it’s time. For Dallas in ‘88, it was like a lost transmission from Dimension Please Maybe. While still living in Texas, I would often see Dean referred to, photographed (or even parodied) in magazines like Spy, Interview, Egg and the early Details. He subconsciously encapsulated a kind of warped ideal to me.
I finally moved to NYC, and got swallowed up by the whole club scene myself. In the early days, he became one of those people my eyes automatically deflected to in a crowded room as my mind raced; “There he is…don’t stare…don’t stare…” When we did meet, I remember being surprised at how gargantuan he was. He towered over you, but was built like a praying mantis, and had a deep voice. He was like a cross between Andre the Giant and Karen Carpenter, and probably could have killed anyone with his bare hands if he’d wanted. He was incredibly friendly, never a trace of of phoniness. He was always in a sarcastic mood, smiling and deadpanning one-liners no matter how high or low the situation. He was obviously very, very wild, which meant his vulnerability sometimes peeked out. We were never close friends, just acquaintances - and shared a lot of conversations. It’s only now that I realize I can’t recall a single unpleasant memory of him. I remember speaking to him once outside of Webster Hall (around ‘92?) when he was working an out-of-control door scene at a Susanne Bartsch Halloween party (or was he just hanging out?), dressed in some bizarre outfit. He was complaining about what a bad gig it was and how he wished he hadn’t agreed to do it, yet while he was telling me this he was laughing. When I left the mobbed club about an hour later, the cops had arrived to try and control the now riot-y crowd. As I walked out, Dean turned and said to me, grinning with bugged eyes through smeared make-up, “Happy fucking Halloween” as Herb Ritts stood two feet behind him angrily screaming at a policeman.
I worked for Dean a few times as a go-go dancer. He had this club called Pubic Hair Club For Men at one point, on the West Side, where the go-go dancers were supposed to get nude and perform for the crowd. I agreed to the gig before knowing this fact. I danced all over town, but never nude! I remember Izora Armstead was performing a solo show at the club, before the dancers were supposed to go on (she’s the non-Martha Wash half of The Weather Girls/Two Tons ‘o Fun - and this was right at the peak of Martha Wash’s early 90’s solo career success). Izora gave a fantastic show for a small crowd, but the little stage she was on was way too tiny and, overdressed in a beaded gown, she was sweating a lot while drunk gays stood around her, half-slurring cheers. She was on the same stage I was supposed to dance on afterwards and, as I nervously watched her exhaustedly wheeze out a version of “It’s Raining Men” as an encore, I was thinking; “Oh God that’s gonna be me in a few minutes, and everyone’s going to expect me to get naked!” After she thanked the crowd I jumped on the stage - terrified - as everyone swarmed around, expecting me to whip it out. I started flailing around really quickly, hoping no one could see what I wasn’t doing and also hoping that Dean wasn’t watching (he was downstairs, actually). After spazzing out for about twenty minutes with every eyeball in the place glued to my still-clothed crotch, I ran off the stage like Lina Lamont at the end of Singing in the Rain, almost in tears. Someone yelled “Boooo!” and I think threw a Corona bottle. I was expecting not to get paid because I’d renegged on the deal. I just knew Dean was going to be like “Get back up there!,” which I knew I wouldn’t. But I really needed the $75 - to go towards rent for my regrettable, dilapidated apartment on 11th Street and Avenue C! When I snuck downstairs, Dean just patted me on the stomach and said “Were you a good boy?” and handed me the cash. He didn’t care. I confessed, and told him it didn’t matter because in a few months a porno magazine was going to come out with me in it. Dean laughed and drolled “Your boner, for the world to see!,” which made me crack up really hard. Then we started talking about homeless people’s hygiene. Dean said that the adorable squatter kids who begged for change on Avenue A would make more money if they just took all of their clothes off. I told him that then they’d have to beg for bail money. He said something like “Hey, it takes a tough chicken to make a tender fowl!”
Years passed, he was always friendly. I’d see him out at the clubs for years, greeting me with “Hi Mark” in that Herman Munster voice of his. Occasionally we’d see each other walking around late in the East Village, which just kept changing, getting less scary and less fun. I caught The Velvet Mafia performing a handful of times. I continued to read about Dean’s exploits in the magazines - but now I knew him. I eventually moved away from the city. The East Village? It was finally zapped off the face of the earth altogether (and some people barely escaped). Thanks Dean, and bye.
An ongoing dialoge about Dean’s passing can be found on the Motherboards Forums, as well as at Dean’s personal MySpace page here. His last band, The Velvet Mafia, has a website here (which includes this must-read).
UPDATE: (10/2/07) As the details begin to come in, Dean Johnson’s death appears to be taking a turn towards the scandalous/mysterious. See today’s New York Post and also Wonkette, and today’s Washington D.C. NBC local news.