DON JOHNSON: YES, HE CAN REALLY SING
Don Johnson is leaning forward on the couch in his fifth floor office at the luxurious, beach-front Alexander Hotel. He’s been talking easily for more than an hour about his restless childhood . . . failed marriages . . . drug abuse . . . alcoholism . . . enough partying and casual sex to fuel the most hedonistic episode of “Miami Vice.”
But that’s the past, he says. He’s a changed man, trying to use his TV success as a springboard to all the things he’s been wanting to do ever since leaving his Missouri farm roots--like make a record album.
Sonny Crockett making a record album?
There’s the specter of all the Celebrity Pop wonders: Kojak . . . Wonder Woman . . . Starsky’s pal Hutch . . . Keith Partridge . . . young Mark McCain from “The Rifleman” . . . Kris Monroe from “Charlie’s Angels” . . . and--oh yes--Grandpa McCoy.
But surprise: Don Johnson’s no joke.
He’s a creditable, mainstream pop-rock singer whose borderline tenor/baritone voice combines some of the appealing, if melancholy romanticism of Jackson Browne with the Everyman anxiousness of Glenn Frey. There is echo on his voice in places on the new album, but that’s not uncommon in today’s recording world. Johnson has solid pitch and acceptable control.
We’re not talking Ray Charles, Elvis Presley or Stevie Wonder here. Johnson needs to develop more vocal character, but he’s a legitimate pop entry who would have deserved a record contract even if he weren’t America’s reigning male sex symbol.
Unlike the album by “Miami Vice” partner Philip Michael Thomas that sank without a trace, Johnson’s musical move is off to a fast start. His first single, “Heartbeat,” was added to more Top 40 radio station playlists the week of Aug. 11 than any other record in the country: 102, according to trade publication Radio & Records. Last week, 80 more stations began playing the single----a mid-tempo rocker written by Wendy Waldman and Eric Kaz. An Epic Records spokesman described the reaction as “virtually unparalleled for a debut artist.”
I played an advance tape of his album--which arrives in stores Monday--for a dozen or so friends, without telling them who was singing.
Some had quarrels with the music itself, calling it too conventional. But everyone liked the voice. Then I showed them the tape box with Don Johnson’s name on it. Jaws dropped. Eyes widened. One guy winced.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” was the most common response. “You mean that Don Johnson.”
At 35, Johnson has an aura of invincibility. His golden brown hair is cut in a summer, spikey style that makes him seem younger than in the old “Vice” episodes.
It’s 11 p.m. and Johnson already had spent a dozen hours on the “Vice” set, but there’s no sign of fatigue as he sits in his office at the hotel. The only items on the glass-top desk are a phone, a few letters, a list of messages. No clutter.
Johnson is relaxed, talking about tabloid topics like divorces and drugs because he’s talked about them before--often. The walls are filled with nicely framed covers from Newsweek, People, Rolling Stone, US, TV Guide.
“I learned long ago that if you tell the truth, you can’t get into trouble, no matter how outlandish it is,” he explains. “It’s when people think you are lying to them that the trouble begins . . . and it is the same with the media.”
He laughs heartily--something he does frequently. By punctuating the darkest story or most disarming joke with laughter, he seems to suggest that the secret to dealing with pressure and fame is to not take anything too seriously.
The same point is driven home by the first magazine cover you see when entering the office: Mad Magazine. The drawing is of a glamour-boy Don armed with--not the requisite gun in holster--but a portable hair dryer.
It’s during this causal mood that a question breaks his rhythm. The most revealing song on the album, also titled “Heartbeat,” is a melancholy reflection on lost love called “Can’t Take Your Memory.” Sample line: “You can throw away reminders of you and me / But you can’t take your memory / No, you can’t take that part of you from me.”
The question, simple enough: Why did he write the song?
Johnson stares at the tape recorder for the first time during the interview--and asks that it be shut off. He feels self-conscious talking about the song: “I can see someone thinking, ‘Awww, the poor little rich boy.’ ”
But he is reminded that this interview is supposed to be about his music--and that it’ll be easier for people to take his music seriously if they know the emotions behind it.
Johnson gradually warms to the question. He doesn’t object when the tape then is finally turned back on.
He explains he liked the mood of the song written by drummer Curly Smith, but felt it needed different words. So, he carried a tape of the song with him, trying to think of new lyrics.
“I was in Los Angeles and I had been over to see Jesse (his then 2-year-old son) and Patti (the boy’s mother, actress Patti D’Arbanville),” he says. “I went back to the hotel that night and the lyrics started pouring out. I can look at the song now and see this deep sense of yearning, this sense of loss in someone’s life and I can certainly identify with that.
“The irony is that the situation I am in makes it harder to fill that void. On one hand, I am living out my dreams, but on the other I am at the point in my life where I know any lady who is worth spending time with is worth giving quality time to. And, time is a commodity I don’t have a lot of now. I just hope it won’t always be that way.”
The self-consciousness surfaces again. Johnson tries to shift the mood.
“But hey, I don’t want to give the impression that I am sitting around every night with my head between my hands. I’m not much into complaining.”
An aide explains out of Johnson’s presence, “You have to understand, Don takes everything very seriously. His work is his world. He thrives on it. He’s a workaholic.”
Elliot Mintz, a one-time Los Angeles radio personality who serves as Johnson’s “media consultant,” suggested that Johnson’s idea of hell would be two days on the beach in Hawaii with nothing to do.
“I have 14 phone numbers in my directory for Don, including two at his home, one in his production office, three in the motor home on the ‘Miami Vice’ set and one in his car. . . . When he’s through shooting a scene for the show, he’s most likely in the motor home talking business.”
Danny Goldberg, who manages Belinda Carlisle and Bonnie Raitt, among others, represents the music side of Johnson’s career. He recalled flying East a few weeks ago with Johnson when the actor fell asleep for two hours. “When he got up, he looked at me and said, ‘My God, the only thing I dreamed about was camera angles.’ ”
Johnson later agrees: “I know I am driven and that it is obsessive in some way, but I don’t feel like it is a curse or anything. I really love it. On some level, my work is my mistress and my lover and my . . . well, anything you want to mention.”
It’s no surprise that Johnson and his brain trust spent a lot of time thinking about ways to minimize the Celebrity Pop backlash concerning the new album.
The game plan, as designed by Mintz, was to avoid introducing the album through a series of the normal celebrity interviews on “Entertainment Tonight” or “Good Morning America.” Instead, Johnson has concentrated on talking to people who normally deal with music, particularly syndicated pop and, mainly, rock radio shows.
Explained Goldberg, “The great thing we have going for us in Don, aside from the fact that he genuinely can sing, is that ‘Miami Vice’ has a credibility with record buyers that normally TV shows don’t have.
“Yet there is the whole celebrity side of his persona . . . the tabloid, the macho side . . . which is not helpful in making people feel comfortable with him as a recording artist and he is ultra conscious about this stuff. So, Don wants to be very careful about presenting it in a way that people will pick up his sincerity.”
When a photographer asks on the “Miami Vice” set if Johnson has something “musical” with him, Johnson pulls out a prized guitar--a gift from the late Duane Allman to Dickey Betts, then to Johnson.
He even sings along softly as he strums the old gospel tune “Amazing Grace.”
But Johnson feels uncomfortable, as he sits in a director’s chair outside his trailer in a Miami suburb. He isn’t bothered by housewives and children who are sitting on lawn chairs watching the day’s filming. Johnson enjoys singing in public and shows no self-consciousness.
He is just worried about what kind of signal that would be sent out by a picture of him playing the guitar.
He finally offers: “I’m afraid it may look too hard-sell to be playing the guitar, as if I was trying to force an image down their throat. How about just setting it by the chair so that it’s more casual?
“I don’t think it will matter once they hear the music, but a lot of people will see the picture before they hear the album and that does concern me. I don’t want to hype it, as it were.”
Mintz, 41, met Johnson in 1970 at MGM. Mintz was a publicist and Johnson was starring in his first film, “The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart"--one of the many youth culture movies turned out following the success of “Easy Rider.” The film was panned by critics and MGM dropped Johnson. He spent the next dozen years trying to re-establish himself. There were occasional roles in offbeat or small-budget films, like the acid-Western “Zachariah,” and some TV movies, including “Elvis and the Beauty Queen.” Johnson was cast in five NBC pilots, but none made the air.
Mintz ran into Johnson several times over the years, and the memories aren’t all pleasant.
“There was a period (in the late ‘70s) that he was drunk and on the skids, the kind of person who was difficult to be around unless you were high,” Mintz recalls. “Still, there was something about Donald that made you feel success was inevitable for him.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people who knew him and they always just kind of felt he was one of those guys who was just going to get there . . . no matter what happened, no matter where he would fall down or how many marriages that didn’t work. He seemed to be the cat with nine lives. He was going to come through.”
Mintz said he knew Johnson was “home” when he first saw “Miami Vice.” He adds, “That character (Sonny Crockett) was an extension of things Don had done. He drove fancy cars when he was broke and wore fancy clothes when he couldn’t afford them . . . and he always had this effect on people. When he walked into a room, women--especially--reacted and sometimes in the most unabashed way . . . and I’m talking about long before ‘Miami Vice.’ ”
No question: Johnson is fun to be around.
It’s early afternoon on the “Miami Vice” set and Johnson is in his mobile home, eating a pasta salad--his only meal of the day.
Johnson’s an entertaining and animated speaker who even picks up a couch cushion to demonstrate how he snuggled with his own pillow at night as a youngster, straining to listen to the Chicken Man on the rock ‘n’ roll radio station from Chicago.
He has also filled with playful anecdotes, most of which have a playful twist. Mention baseball--and he tells you about the time he played catcher in high school.
“My favorite thing as a catcher was talking to the opposing batter,” he relates. “I’d totally psyche them out, telling him how hard the pitcher could throw the ball. I’d smile at them . . . as if to say, ‘Boy are you in for it . . . the next victim please.’ I would even pull this sponge from the glove, and tell them I kept it there to keep the ball from breaking my hand.
“I’d say, ‘Could you imagine what would happen it that ball hit you in the head?’ The batters would be so nervous they would be glued into the batter’s box--and the truth was the pitcher wasn’t that fast at all.”
Johnson laughs and asks his secretary for a bottle of a non-alcoholic beverage that he found in Switzerland and carries everywhere with him. He’s been known to bring his own six-pack into exclusive restaurants.
Given his self-assurance, you get the picture of someone who has long known he can use his good looks and charm to win friends and influence people. Yet Johnson’s history suggests a man with considerable ambition and drive--not the image of the typical TV pretty boy. He’s got his own movie production company, and is intent on directing. The new album and the recent, well-received appearance in a TV adaptation of Faulkner’s “The Long Hot Summer” indicate he is eager to stretch.
“Sure, I was always able to use that charm to get things . . . way back to things like being able to con a good grade out of a teacher, but it is a pretty empty accomplishment . . . sort of like casual sex,” he states.
“I had dreams of making my mark, of making it as a good, solid actor who was respected by his peers and the public alike. But I never dreamed of the kind of intense celebrity and press consciousness that I have.”
Did the repeated rejection contribute to the drug and alcohol abuse?
“I think they walked hand in hand, partly the cause of it, partly the result of it. There are memories of those days that sometimes comes back in waves and I go, ‘No, that didn’t really happen did it?’
“The problem with drugs and alcohol--and this is what is so insidious about it--is you always feel you can handle it. You will blame it on the rest of the world rather than taking it right home and saying, ‘Hold it, I am messed up and it is my fault.”
Johnson, a native of Galena, Mo., began singing in country churches before he was old enough to go to school. About those days, Johnson remembers, “I would sing harmony because I could sing really high at that age. It was fun getting all the attention. People would come up after church and pinch me and give me a quarter. I am sure the first inclination, the first bug to be in show business, was planted right there.”
As he got older, he listened to country music, then R&B; music and blues, and eventually Elvis Presley and the Beatles. He even tried putting some bands together after the Beatles arrived. “I was really into that . . . the music and the whole life style,” he recalls.
“I was wearing a (ducktail) when I was 9 . People used to think it was cute, but I was dead serious about it, man. My parents used to like to give me a flattop and I couldn’t wait until it would grow out enough so I could pull it down in front a little bit and push it back on the sides.”
Johnson shifted to acting when he was awarded a leading part in a production of “West Side Story” and did so well he later won a drama scholarship to the University of Kansas. (As early evidence of his charm, Johnson, then 18, caused a campus scandal by moving in with his female drama professor, 29). After two years, he received a grant from the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. That led to Hollywood--and the movies. Music, however, remained a personal passion.
Johnson used some of his acting money to make demo recordings and he even co-wrote (with guitarist friend Dickey Betts) two songs that appeared on the Allman Brothers’ “Enlightened Rouges” album in 1979. But Johnson wasn’t satisfied with the tapes and didn’t shop them around.
Johnson met CBS Records head Walter Yetnikoff at a party last summer and mentioned his desire to make an album. Yetnikoff virtually signed him on the spot; no audition.
“I’m sure part of him was thinking that no matter what I did (musically), the record would sell a certain amount even if people just wanted the cover,” Johnson speculates. “But we also discussed music and I think he got a sense from me that I was confident about where I was going.
“I wanted the record to be modern, tough rock and I think I achieved that on some level. I didn’t want it to sound like something that other people designed and I just stopped by for a few minutes to do the vocals. And I made it clear to Walter that I would walk away from it if I didn’t think it was credible. I was prepared every step of the way to throw it away and walk away.”
As soon as word of the project leaked out, Johnson and producer Chas Sandford were flooded with material from hopeful songwriters. Lots of songs echoed the sensual, synthesizer strains of the “Miami Vice” theme. Other songs appeared tailored for Johnson. Among the rejected numbers: “Mr. Miami” and “Miami Don.”
The album features tunes written by rockers as Tom Petty and Bob Seger, and guest appearances by Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Dickey Betts. Yet Johnson isn’t overshadowed, even if some of vocal and instrumental arrangements are too anonymous. There’s a strong Top 40 accessibility to tracks like “Heartache Away” and “The Last Sound Love Makes,” but there is also enough snarling guitar and punchy drums to attract mainstream rock airplay.
Johnson seems most comfortable on the ballads. There is an especially winning edge to his sensitive treatment of “Can’t Take Your Memory” that suggests he may be able to inject more vocal character next time out. And Johnson is already thinking about the next album. He’s even considering a few, selected weekend concerts late in the year, though the TV demands will keep him from actually touring.
The day’s shooting is running more than two hours behind schedule and Johnson is restless. The phone rings steadily, mostly business calls--everything from endorsement offers to changes in the schedule for a long-form video he is doing in connection with the album. But one of them--every day--will be from 3-year-old Jesse.
“I had no idea I would enjoy being a father as much as I have,” he says. “I approached it with many reservations, but it has truly changed my life. It also makes you aware of your influence on kids. When I used to smoke, Jesse would watch me smoke. I wanted to quit anyway, but that was the impetus for it.
“Then the awareness of the impact I was having on kids around the country, smoking on ‘Miami Vice,’ aware that kids 7 and 8, 9 year olds would see me striking a Lucky every Friday night . . . thought it was important for them to see me quit right on the show, too.”
There’s a knock on the door, signaling it’s almost time to shoot the next scene. Before he goes out, however, a secretary reminds Johnson of an evening business appointment that’ll keep him tied up until midnight. She also tells him he’s got to be on the set the next morning by 7. Once again, he’ll be heading home--alone.
“The things that strike me the most about Don are his vulnerability and his aloneness,” says Mintz in a separate interview. “When you sit in a room with him, especially late at night, you wish he had someone to share all this stuff with. You wish he had someone to bounce off these peak experiences. That’s why the album seems to real to me . . . that song (“Memory”) is Don.”
Before putting on the dark glasses and stepping out into the sun, Johnson pauses.
“This record is really important to me,” he stresses. “That’s why I was willing to take a healthy and thriving career and jeopardize it by doing something that I wasn’t known for . . . something that already has a stigma about it . . . people will say this (record) is bull---- and ‘the jerk ought to stay with what he does.’ But I’m someone who likes to take risks.
“I really love what I’m doing. At one time, I thought that was all I needed. Listening to the album, however, I can see I’m beginning to feel that there are things missing in my life . . . like, I hope I can have a big family some day. I hope this drive will shift a little bit to include that. There’s no reason to think otherwise. Everybody lives on hope.”