Look, this guy Robin Johnson is a world-class guitar player and singer/songwriter from both Minneapolis and Tucson, who you’ve likely never heard of. We rarely hear of the deserving ones, the storied ones, at least not until it’s too late, like old Townes Van Zandt.
First, as a sprightly 17-year-old Robin and his overlooked power-glam teen poppers The Pills, released a four-song EP, touted by then-taste-makers Trouser Press as “the west coast’s answer to the New York Dolls.” (The obscure-o combo with the giant chugga-chugga chords and hooks recently found unlikely new life via popular TV series Glow, which, by some act of divine intervention, commissioned a Pills tune.)
The band became Gentlemen Afterdark (GAD), and won a big fan in Alice Cooper.
The Coop took GAD directly into the studio, pulling in longtime songwriting/guitarist running bud Dick Wagner (also of Lou Reed’s Live: Rock and Roll Animal), to co-produce and engineer. The national acclaim began: A People magazine cover story saw GAD picked as “Rising Stars,” alongside Tom Cruise. Hollywood called. The Coop record stiffed but an A&M demo deal — financed by producer Jimmy Iovine and engineered by Rob Jacobs (U2, Eagles etc.) — saw great songs but little fanfare. Like the subversive Pills in Tucson, GAD got lost in L.A.’s Sunset-strip metal scene, was all wrong time, wrong place.
Robin next founded and fronted the gritty pop band Brilliant Fools. Again, great songs, wrong whatever. So he hooked up with Sidewinders/Sand Rubies singer David Slutes to pen some brilliant singsong. The resulting band, Maryanne, and ten-tune LP, Your First, Your Last, Your Everything featured heady nods to ’70’s radio pop, the kind ruled by Harry Nilsson, Badfinger, Cheap Trick and ELO. The record won great press, but little else.
By now, the big-kid toxins — heroin, cocaine, alcohol — had the ever-boyish Robin by the throat. Coming of age as a glam/punk rocker in the dead of the American southwest made for interesting company, and addictions. Bad habits were killing off his close friends, including Gin Blossoms’ founder Doug Hopkins to alcohol-fueled suicide, and Supersuckers’ co-founder Eric Martin to an overdose, and so many others. Robin’s self-destruction and reality rejection nearly did him in. In many ways, jail saved him.
Surfacing as a recording-touring bass player for Slutes and fellow Sidewinders/Sand Rubies guitarist Rich Hopkins, he began traveling in the same old circles of Phoenix, Tucson, El Paso and Austin. But Robin found salvation. Spinning knobs at the world-famous Hotel Congress in Tucson — engineering everyone from the Shins, to Maroon 5, and touring with Greyhound Soul, locally and in Europe. He and Slutes paired again too, and are looking to release the best of it. So now Robin lives in Los Angeles. Struggling, of course, but penning the kind of commanding pop that soars, snaps and bashes. Songs that ache for connection and sound earned, born of a life lived, the aural equivalent of finally making it to the damn ends of the earth. So go out (preferably) buy, steal or stream his debut solo record, The Fighter EP.