Eric Ernest Johnson’s head is bent down over his Technics turntable as he delicately drops a needle onto one of his all-time favorite albums, Listening to Richard Brautigan. It is late at night in his Craftsman home, a few blocks north of Koreatown.
“This is a prime example. This is exactly what I am talking about,” says Johnson, who is 38. A huge smile beams across his face. “I used to read Richard Brautigan poems really, really fast and then I heard this. It changed everything! Absolutely balls out.”
Johnson steps back as the sound of Brautigan fills the dimly lit wood room that serves as his home office and creative workshop. It is stuffed with Johnson’s beloved tokens and images: his ’60s paperback collection; his grandmother’s Olympia typewriter, which he still uses; a four-track recording device; a dream catcher made by an Ojibwe friend; a wicker animal head from Spain; an 8-by-10 of the late actor John Ritter; a 13-star American flag; a small poster from his friend Miranda July’s new play Things We Don’t Understand and Are Definitely Not Gonna Talk About.
The relaxed voice of Brautigan, one of Johnson’s favorite ’60s icons, crackles and pops through the speakers, his delivery methodical and slow, conjuring a beatnik Kermit the Frog. Soon Johnson, who is on his fourth glass of wine, puts down his Parliament and moves the needle to another selection on the 1970 recording: Brautigan preparing to take a bath in his Haight-Ashbury apartment. The sound of Brautigan’s pants hitting the wood floor is soon followed by the sound of running water.
“He is getting undressed to take a bath, on a record,”Johnson says, reaching for his wine and jutting his chin in the direction of the stereo, relishing each simple sound that has been captured on the lo-fi record.
Johnson, who grew up just 10 blocks from here, is a poet, a painter, a musician (he and his wife, music supervisor Margaret Yen, front the band Fleshpot) and a carpenter. He supplements his income by being a handyman to the stars. In fact, it was during the few months he spent building wheelchair ramps in 1991 for the now-deceased writer Andre Dubus (We Don’t Live Here Anymore) that Johnson picked up his smoking and wine-drinking habit, something he has excelled at since.
Tonight he built and stained a custom-designed cabinet for a client, then showered, played with his cat, ate dinner with his wife, and is now listening to this album, which came from his substantial vintage vinyl collection housed footsteps away. Each album is covered in plastic and carefully filed.
Recently Johnson began reading his own poetry in public after more than a decade away from public readings. In the past few months he has been reading at live music performances around town: Mike Andrews’ residency at Tangier, a weekend of dates at El Cid that Johnson put together with Devendra Banhart, a few nights at the Echo with the band Entrance and an impromptu reading before Jonathan Wilson and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, also at Tangier.
“I think it is extremely important to have the reader read [poems] in their own mind. But I really am interested in the opportunity to read them how I feel them. There is a total difference.”
Is poetry just about looking back at life and representing it?
“It is the best translation of the moment. If you can show where we’re at, at this moment, then you’ve got them.” With Brautigan’s record, for instance, Johnson says, “You are in that room. You are there. And, that is the ultimate. I get off on just hearing him walk around his apartment. Dropping his coins on the floor and hearing the penny roll down the hall, whatever. I am there. He got me.”
Johnson hopes to come out with a new book of poems this year called My Friend, My Refrigerator. He might just publish it himself, like the “rags” he published 15 years ago and sold at the former Big and Tall Books on Beverly Boulevard.
What constitutes a rag?
“A rag would be a visit to Kinko’s and basically spending a couple hours on your printer. Like the Beats used to do.”
Johnson pulls some rag samples off a shelf: early Gary Snyder paperbacks with black-and-white photography on the covers, a first-edition Brautigan he lifted from the library.
“This is bad,” he says, tapping the library book and curling up his mouth.
“It’s thievery, but I had to have it.”
Are these your favorite books?
“These are my favorite poets. Nanao Sakaki, Gary Snyder, Kerouac — I love his passion. I definitely like collecting these books. I like the way they feel. I like anything from this era ’cause their whole voice was on the page. People read this stuff. They would buy these little books . . . Kerouac was someone who didn’t have any agenda other than spilling it out. Certainly drug induced, but he did it! And for that moment he was so honest.”
It’s quiet for a moment, except for the sound of the stylus running over the gap between album cuts through Johnson’s vintage JBL speakers (they were once his parents’). But soon Brautigan’s voice is heard again: “Some short stories about California — this story is about contemporary life in California.”