A few days before he died, the big man with the goatee and a guitar strummed a bluesy lick and then paused.
Silence hung like dark cotton inside Room 601 of The Delaney, a low-income apartment building in downtown Spokane. Sprawled like a walrus in his favorite padded armchair, Joe Johansen spoke.
“I’ll never play anywhere in public again,” he said flatly.
His raspy words shocked me.
Johansen was an architect of the old Northwest rock ‘n’ roll sound. His playing influenced a young Jimi Hendrix.
He had just come back to Spokane after a triumphant four-concert return in mid-May to the Seattle blues scene.
After years of self-imposed suspension while recovering from an addiction to heroin and alcohol, Johansen wasn’t the musician he once was. But gradually, practicing away in his cramped room, the old jazzy brilliance was beginning to emerge again.
“Why would you say that?” I finally asked. Normally a cantankerous bear who would snap at anything resembling a stupid question, Johansen turned uncharacteristically tender.
“That last night was a high point,” he softly explained. “I’ve never cried on stage, but I was blubbering like a damn baby.”
Those who heard Johansen’s final concert at The Swiss in Tacoma say it was magic. All his old music buddies were there to share the moment as he played from his soulful heart.
“It was heaven,” said Johansen. “I don’t think anything could match that experience. So why try?”
A couple of hours later, the guitar lesson he had consented to give me was over. I last saw Johansen smoking one of his favorite Benson & Hedges cigarettes outside The Delaney.
On June 4, the truth of his words came back.
Johansen’s body was found by his apartment manager. He had died in bed of an apparent heart attack. He was 55.
Though a virtual unknown in Spokane, Johansen is being mourned on the far side of the state.
“He played differently than anybody,” says Seattle blues legend Bill Englehardt, Johansen’s longtime friend who founded Little Bill and the Bluenotes in 1957. “His playing was real sparse and simple. But what he played counted.”
Marlee Walker, publisher of Blues To-Do’s magazine, gave a tribute to Johansen on her Sunday KCMU radio blues show.
“I played ‘Fast Life Blues’ from a Charlie Musselwhite CD,” she says. “I’m too young to have seen him, but I’ve gotten calls for years about Joe Johansen. Just about every older musician knows of his tremendous playing.”
Johansen was a kid when he signed up for lessons from an itinerant music teacher. He was a natural who gravitated to bands such as the Adventurers, the Frantics and the Dave Lewis Trio, which scored a hit with the song “Little Green Thing.”
In the late 1960s, he joined The Floating Bridge with guitarist Rich Dangel of the Wailers. It was a driving, psychedelic power band that reflected the hippy-dippy times and the drug-laced counterculture.
Johansen, like so many musicians of his day, was stoned most of the time. “All my musical heroes were junkies, so I became one,” he once told me of his heroin addiction. “I blew some of the best years of my playing career. I’ll never know how good I could have been because I was always loaded.”
When he finally cleaned up, he realized he couldn’t be around the music scene without drinking or drugging.
Johansen sold his guitar and moved to Spokane where he became a drug and alcohol counselor. “Something I know a little about,” he said with a laugh.
He was befriended here by Robert Browning, a Northwest rock historian who recognized Johansen on the street one day. It was Browning who bought Johansen a new guitar and encouraged him to play again.
Thanks to Browning, an old player went out on a high note.
“Joe was a national treasure and good friend,” says Browning. “I truly believe there’s a God, which means there’s a hell of a jam session going on in heaven.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
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