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The Ghastly World of Johnny Legend

Singer–actor–wrestling promoter horror archivist–porn producer Johnny Legend exists in a bizarre cultural vortex whose undertows perpetually whirl him into an episodic cycle of shenanigans that just get curiouser and curiouser. The wild-eyed, weird-bearded, longhaired dynamo, internationally known as the Rockabilly Rasputin, is a manic force, one you can find at just about every unsavory corner of the Hollywood underground. Always vibrating with eerie vigor and scheming up his latest hustle, Legend is possessed with an unrivaled fascination for the offbeat, thrust upon him from earliest childhood: He grew up in San Fernando, where he befriended neighbor Tor Johnson, the hulking, chrome-domed grappler of Plan 9 From Outer Space infamy, but the relationship suffered somewhat, Legend says, “after he let me play with his coffin and I accidentally left it out in the rain.” Monster culture was a natural for Legend: “I was at Forry Ackerman’s house and got to meet Ed Wood. I had my copy of the first Famous Monsters, and had Wood autograph it. He wrote this strange message: ‘Whenever better monsters are made, I’ll try. Ed Wood Jr.’”

Legend formed his first band, the Seeds of Time, in 1966. Conducting their own personal riot on the Sunset Strip, they played every joint in town, the same circuit worked by the Seeds, Love and the Doors. “We were kind of a progressive folk-rock band. I got shows at UCLA fraternities, and we started auditioning at places like the Sea Hag, all the Sunset Strip clubs, London Fog, Pandora’s Box. I had an Outer Limits monster costume that I got at an auction, the Giant Garbage Eater from the Henry Silva episode. We’d put somebody in that, hit the Strip and hand out fliers. This was pre-drug, it was really more a Mod thing, then the Seeds had a couple of hits and [Seeds singer] Sky Saxon started coming up and saying, ‘Hey, I love you like a brother, but I’m probably gonna haveta sue your ass,’ so we changed the name to Shadow Legend in ’67. That was a harder-edged band, doing more a Yardbirds hard rock, all original songs, playing the Hullabaloo, the Galaxy next to the Whisky. You’d do three sets a night for a week — one night the entire audience was Martha Raye and Neil Young.”

In the early ’70s, Legend “snuck into the film business,” working PR campaigns and writing trailers for American International, and composing soundtracks for semi-hard-core stuff like Sexual Sensory Perception: Sex of the Future — he also appeared in the Z-grade exploitation flick Pot, Parents and Police (“a family film done on a skin-flick budget, which I co-starred in as a crazed hippie who gets stoned on mescaline and falls down the stairs”) — and running with the lowlifes who pioneered pre–Deep Throat XXX.

 

Circa ’73, Legend emerged at the forefront of Los Angeles’ rockabilly revival with a new group, Blue Midnight: “What we did wasn’t Ruben & the Jets or Flash Cadillac or Sha Na Na — I formed the band for Gene Vincent, and then he died, so I figured what the hell? We didn’t do fashion crap or mimic the songs, we just did them in our own versions.”

Legend then quickly formed an outfit with volatile German rockabilly fanatic Ronnie Weiser and veteran singer Ray “Caterpillar” Campi. Momentum built slowly; without a major record deal, club dates were almost impossible to nail down at the time. Billy Zoom, later of X, joined up on guitar, and, as the Rollin’ Rock Rebels, they embarked on a bizarre endeavor that, Legend says, “only about 10 people were interested in.”

The notorious promoter-DJ Art Laboe brought them to the stage at Chino State prison (“Humble Harve was an inmate at the time,” Legend says, referring to the KRLA boss jock and spouse killer), and with the assistance of sax honker Chuck Higgins, Blue Midnight began to mix with some of the Johnny Otis R&B stable. But bookings remained a problem; once Higgins had the group substitute for him at a Bell Gardens dive: “This was the scariest place I’d ever seen — a bunch of ex-cons, and within 10 minutes someone had smashed a guy’s head through the jukebox; he was bleeding on the turntable.” Zoom quietly packed up and left; Legend managed to keep his skull intact with an improvised honky-tonk set.

In the early ’80s, Legend, along with several other Rollin’ Rock Records players, became K-Tel International recording artists, touring Europe with supercharged 1950s renegades Jackie Lee “Jack the Cat” Waukeen Cochran and Tony “Wild Man” Conn. These were wild, drunken blitzkriegs, with Wild Man and the Cat still raging over career implosions suffered two decades earlier; Legend acted as chaperon and devil’s advocate. Legend usually appeared in full Confederate-general uniform, caterwauling “The South Will Rise Again” (from Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Two Thousand Maniacs) along with such demented originals as “Soakin’ the Bone” and “Mexican Love,” the latter a favorite of the late Dennis Wilson, one of a small army of celebrity affiliations Legend seems to magnetically attract. From Russ Meyer ultravixen Kitten Natividad to the late film noir bruiser Lawrence Tierney, Legend has commingled with just about everyone. The melding of horror movies, rock & roll and lucha libre is hardly novel at this late date, but for Legend, it all converged with a frightening inevitability. He was responsible for the recording of Classy Freddie Blassie’s immortal “Pencil Neck Geek” and later the movie My Breakfast With Blassie, and enjoyed associations with such wrestling aficionados as Andy Kaufman and the Aztec Mummy; Legend the horror actor has suffered gruesome ends in movies such as Bride of Re-Animator and Children of the Corn III.

Legend’s frantic pace is constant; curating an endless series of underworld sideshows, he pinballs on a hit-and-run, shock-and-thrill spree of film festivals, club dates, horror conventions, wrestling shows, acting jobs. He’s always there, lurking in the shadows, rattling off staccato accounts of his bizarre feats, usually climaxing with a statement along the lines of “They finally pulled the plug and everyone went berserk and we had to beat a hasty escape.” Legend never exaggerates — he doesn’t need to.

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