Eric Johnson is a Texas guitar slinger whose biggest credit before the early ’90s may have been the session work he did on the multi-platinum debut by Christopher Cross. Through his association with Cross, Johnson landed a record deal with Warner Brothers and released the 1986 album, Tones. The record would receive acclaim from critics and musicians, but it didn’t sell and he was let go by the label. As Johnson proceeded to write new music and hone his craft in clubs throughout Texas, Tones was consigned to the bargain bins and relative obscurity.
I first heard the music of Eric Johnson in the summer of ’88 while strolling through the aisles of My Generation, one of the local independent record stores in Northeast Ohio. I was at the height of my guitar players phase (Clapton, Page, Stevie Ray, etc.), and I found myself absentmindedly flipping through albums wondering “Who is this guitarist playing over the store’s sound system?” It was Tones, and on that day I began my brief love affair with the music of Eric Johnson.
With a stack of cassettes (including some classic Atlantic soul and the Smithereens’ Green Thoughts), I left My Generation having purchased the store’s only copy of Tones. Throughout the that summer I listened to the album incessantly until I wore out the cassette and moved off to college, where I submerged myself in the college music of the late ’80s. A couple years would pass before I even thought of Eric Johnson again.
One afternoon, in mid 1990, I was browsing the Record Exchange, one of the other indie stores, when I saw a cutout copy of a new Eric Johnson CD, Ah Via Musicom. I was shocked and excited, as I thought that Johnson must have fallen off the planet since his first record. He never toured through any of the Ohio clubs I checked up on, and he was so obscure that he never received any press from the music magazine I read on a regular basis. Turns out that in the time between Tones and Ah Via Musicom, Johnson signed to Cinema Records, a small label with a distribution deal through Capitol. This partnership proved to be a lucrative one for all parties involved. Based solely on my feelings for Tones, I immediately bought the only copy of the album and rekindled my romance with Johnson’s music.
When I sat down in my parents’ basement to listen to Ah Via Musicom for the first time, I had no idea what to expect; obviously, there weren’t any radio stations playing Johnson. Flush with anticipation of exploring uncharted territory, I placed the CD in the player, hopped in the grungy yellow rocker where I did most of my music listening and listened. The music lured me in gently, seduced me, and I sat still for the duration of the entire record before jumping up and listening to it again and again… and again.
The album opens with the title track, a Hendrix inspired instrumental of synths, backwards guitar licks and ‘60s residue. This two minute composition leads right into “Cliffs of Dover,” a balls out guitar instrumental that would become a surprise radio hit, propelling Ah Via Musicom up the record charts and eventually win Johnson a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental. “Cliffs of Dover” would receive massive airplay on mainstream rock radio. As great as that song is, there is a wealth of other fine music on Ah Via Musicom, half of it not instrumental.
This may surprise many of you, but Johnson actually sings on his albums. What’s more, he has a good voice, akin to the raspy voice of Bryan Adams. Combined with his intricate guitar playing and the sturdy foundation of his rhythm section, it has always puzzled me that none of Johnson’s material with vocals received radio airplay. Take “Desert Rose,” a romantic song that follows “Cliffs of Dover.” Okay, maybe the words “Acrolith reflection” reek of pretension, but as you can hear, Johnson’s earnest singing is certainly radio friendly. Furthermore, the interplay between what he’s singing and the guitar part he’s written for the song is superb.
And the song “High Landrons,” which is as powerful a guitar statement as “Cliffs of Dover,” could have easily fit between the hits of Queensryche and Mr. Big back in 1991. Alas, the record label thought differently and only released Johnson’s instrumentals. “Righteous” received some steady airplay and soon thereafter, the melodic and wonderful “Trademark.”
Of all the tracks on Ah Via Musicom, “Trademark” is the album’s high point and remains one of my favorite songs of all time. So many fine memories accompany this song: Vacationing with my family in Hawaii and driving winding roads in a convertible with my siblings; my college life in the Bowling Green blue house apartment, where a basement bedroom became my new fortress of solitude; crashing on the futon in Budd and Karyn’s Hollywood apartment the summer of my internship, scared shitless about the future, yet so eager to start the next phase in my life. Throughout college and into my marriage to Julie, “Trademark” has always inspired me. The final chorus of notes Johnson plays at the end of the song continue to move me and, above all, fill me with hope.
What continues to make Ah Via Musicom stand out is its eclecticism. Johnson’s musicianship spans a wide range of genres, from the hard rock of his hits, to country music (“Steve’s Boogie”), acoustic blues (“Song for George”), adult contemporary (“Forty Mile Town”), and the smooth jazz of “East Wes,” which closes out the album. The production isn’t slick or overcooked; instead, the drums by Tommy Taylor have a live feel, as if recorded on a stage instead of inside a studio, and bassist Roscoe Beck lays down a solid foundation with his fretwork. Finally, the non-obtrusive keyboards of Stephen Barber create textures that compliment the guitar playing of Johnson, allowing him to be the star at all times.
So much music from my formative years has gone bad like an old Twinkie — once sweet but now stale and past its expiration date. Ah Via Musicom has a timeless quality that feels fresh with each spin. Sure, I don’t bring the album out as often as I used to; but when I do the music continues to thrill me. I wind up listening to it for days on end until my feelings wane — and then I put it aside and wait a year or so, until the love affair is once again rekindled.