Only the Song is Blue
By John Price
The Leader Telegram, Chippewa Falls WI
August 8, 1981
Conditions at the Northern Wisconsin State Fair grandstand Sunday afternoon were hardly ideal for live entertainment. First there was the weather—like an outdoor steam bath, or, as Michael Johnson imaginatively described it, "hot as the inside of a cow."
The previous day's down downpour had turned the expanse of ground between the stands and the stage into mud. More than 50 yards of it and a metal fence separated Johnson from the audience as he played the first of two shows.
Worst of all, most of the people apparently were there to see Head East, the hard rock group for which Johnson was the opening act. "This is Head East's crowd," Johnson said afterward, talking to reporters in the grassy infield area behind the state. The audience, which had politely applauded Johnson's ridiculously short set, was now standing and clapping in time with the rock band.
"They (the fair management) just wanted me to play 30 minutes," Johnson explained. "It was in my contract."
Later, fans would approach Johnson and say they wished he had played longer, and he, being a friendly and unpretentious man, would smile and sign autographs. His performance, although brief, had been good; his voice was in fine form and the full sound he pulled from his guitar suggested that he was playing a 12=string instrument, rather than a 6-string. Those who had come to hear "Bluer than Blue" and "THis NIght Won't Last Forever" were rewarded with sincere, almost ardent renditions of Johnson's two most commercially successful songs.
"Bluer Than Blue" of course, was the first tune to click for the Minneapolis-based singer with the common-sounding name, turning him into a national act in 1978. "It's a different side—that's for sure," he says of commercial success. "I'd always been a guitar player who sang before 'Bluer thanBlue.'"
Johnson consideres himself a better guitarist than singer and describes his style as "a combination of elements—jprimarily ballads, a little bit of jazz, a touch of r&b, from a classical approach, guitar-wise."
He's not originally from Minnesota, but grew up in Denver, Colo. "I've been playing in bars since I was 13," he said, sipping from a bottle of club sode. "I did the acoustic music circuit and the folk circuit."
He entered a talent contest at Colorado State University and won a contract to record a single with Epic Records. "I thought, 'That's it.' I left college and recorded this record. It sold 23 copies and I got a royalty check for 23 cents."
He was a member of the Mitchell Trio, which also included John Denver, for about a year in the late 60s. He tired of that and acted for ayear in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago in a version of "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris."
In 1966 Johnson went to Barcelona, Spain, to study classical guitar. "It was just to kind of clean up my sound a bit," he said. "It helped my left hand. My right hand is still my own." After about a year he returned to the states.
"I came back to the bars again and it was a real letdown," he said. "I thought that I was going to be a classical guitarist."
But he settled for popular music, signed with Atlantic Records in 1970 and released his first album, "There is a Breeze." Four years later he and his manager formed their own label, Sanskrit, and released two more albums, "For All You Mad Musicisans" and "Ain't Dis Da Life," which received considerable acclaim in the Twin Cities.
Then cam "Big Blue," as Johnson refers to his breakthrough. "I wsa really a purist before that," he reflected. "I wasn't at all interested in commercial music. I just didn't have ears for it."
Johnson first heard "Bluer than Blue" in Nashville. "I thought that it was a really good song. I still think it's a good song. It had some maturity going for it." He emptied his bank account and spent the money recording it and another song, "Almost Like Being in Love." The EMI record label gave him a contract based on the two songs and he released "The Michael Johnson Album." ("A very humble album," he cracked about the record's title.)
"It was then, when I went into the studio to make that album, that I found out that the musicians who are really good are making commercial music," Johnson said. "I was stunned by that."
He was glad to discover that the commercial music scene is not all dog-eat-dog. "Hard rock would be a real tough world, I'm sure, to be in," Johnson said. Nodding his head in the direction of the grandstand, where Head East was still playing, he added, "I've been talking to some of these guys. It's hard work."
"Ballads are just a little cleaner, I'm sure. I'm a balladeer at heard."
The Michael Johnson Album" was followed by "Dialogue" and "You Can Call Me Blue."
"That was the end of my blue period," Johnson quipped. He says it's unintentional, but blue does seem to be his favorite color; during his fair performance he wore a blue T-shirt and blue jeans. "That's something my wife points out every now and then," he said, smiling.
Twelve years ago, during a low point in this career, Johnson moved to Minnesota at the suggestion of his manager. "He said, 'Since you have nothing to lose, why don't you move to Minneapolis?' I was expecting the worst. And it turned to be a very warm, mature, intelligent city."
Like Leo Kottke, another musician who has gained a national following, Johnson has chosen to remain in the Twin Cities. "Leo and I are good buddies," he said. "He's played on my records and I've played on his."
He and his wife, Sally, and their 16-month-old-son, Stanley, live in Minnetonka, a western suburb of Minneapolis. "Whenever we can drive a gig the three of us go," he said.
His wife, whom he met in Switzerland, is "an amazing lady," Johnson said. "She does sound and lights for me." She also photographed osme of his album covers and helped produce two of his albums.
"I make records about four months out of the year and I tour maybe another four, so I'm away from home about two-thirds of the time," he said. "Summers I'm usually home."
For entertainment he enjoys going to the theater. "I also like being unscheduled enough to watch my son grow up," he said. "I"m sort of a househusband half the time. I get up every other day at 5:30 and I spend the whole day with him."
A new album, "Home Free," will be released Monday. The title track was written by Johnson and Doobie Brother Michael McDonald over the telephone. "I've never met him," Johnson said. "I cut one of his songs on 'You Can Call Me Blue' and liked it so much I sent it to him."
McDonald called Johnson and then sent him a tape with the music for "Home Free." "I wrote some verses and got it back to him," Johnson said. The song was finished after about three phone calls.
"I write 10 percent (of the songs Johnson records)," he said. "I spend a lot of time looking for songs...After 'Bluer than Blue' I got hundreds of songs with the word 'blue' in the title—'Floating in Blue,' 'Bluer than Blue than Blue'..."
A single, "You're Not Easy to Forget," has just been released from the new album. "I think it's the best record that I've ever done," Johnson said, "because I've got that kind of sick feeling in my stomach that I got before 'Bluer tha Blue'—'Oh boy, here we go agai on that mery-go-round' stardom. I get kind of apprehensive whenever I feel good about it."