Backstreet Boy A.J. McLean stood on the Wiltern Theatre stage Monday and read highlights from the Los Angeles phone book, to deafening screams and blinding camera flashes from the audience.
OK, he didn't.
Rather, he gave the touring debut of his alter ego, an English chap called Johnny No Name, who performs songs originated by acts ranging from Rage Against the Machine to Wild Cherry to, yup, the Backstreet Boys. This was the kickoff of an eight-city trek to benefit VH1's Save the Music Foundation--which boosts school music programs--and the first foray of any note by one of the B-Boys outside the mega-huge group.
And a fun one it was, as McLean (more or less keeping in character) and his band romped through the list of hits with plenty of the winks that were totally absent from Garth Brooks' Chris Gaines masquerade, a similar alter ego trip.
But McLean (he's the edgy Boy, with the tattoos and facial hair) probably could just as well have read the white pages, and not simply because the screams made it hard to hear what he was doing at all. These, after all, are fans who created pandemonium simply for a pre-show appearance in the audience by McLean's girlfriend. They would have been at the show no matter what he was doing.
"Yes!" said Monique Cardona, 13, of Alhambra, sitting with her mom, Christine, when she was asked if she would go to see McLean do just about anything.
And it was unanimous among the other young girls in the vicinity--Elise and Amanda Luckey (14 and 12) and friend Jessica Hughes (15), all from Oxnard, and Caitlan and Carianne Steinman (11 and 13) from San Diego.
Asked if they were there to see Johnny or A.J., the answer was definite: "A.J.!"
Cardona thought about it a second, then noted, "My poster says A.J., not Johnny."
That's not exactly what McLean is looking for.
"I want people to differentiate Johnny from A.J.," he said in an interview at a Beverly Hills hotel early Monday afternoon. "It's frustrating to be on stage and still be looked at as so-and-so from the Backstreet Boys."
But even he had trouble keeping the line during a press conference across the street at the Hard Rock Cafe minutes before, repeatedly talking about No Name in the first person and then, catching the gaffe, switching to third person.
It's no big deal, though. Johnny No Name, he made clear, is just something to do for fun during Backstreet downtime. The character was originally called Johnny Suede, taken from the label in a jacket a Backstreet backing band member bought for him last year in Nashville. McLean adopted the moniker as his alias to use in hotel registration, and it stuck as a nickname. Soon he and some of the backing musicians were talking about putting something together as a goof.
Johnny Suede made his official debut Jan. 9--McLean's 22nd birthday--for a concert at the Hard Rock Cafe in B-Boys headquarters, Orlando, Fla., as a Save the Music benefit. And that inspired this short tour, with the name changed after it was discovered that Johnny Suede was the copyrighted title character of a 1992 film starring Brad Pitt.
"I've been trying to get together with these guys and just do something," McLean said in the hotel interview, pointing at the seven musicians, six of whom tour with the Backstreet Boys.
At the same time, it lets him return to his acting roots--his interest before he was picked by Lou Pearlman's Trans Continental Records operation to be in what would become the breakthrough act of the boy-band craze, paving the way for 'N Sync and 98 Degrees, as well as female popsters Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.
"I grew up with no siblings, doing the whole auditions thing by myself," not part of a group, McLean said.
Of course, that raises the knock that the whole Backstreet Boys persona is itself just an act, no less than Johnny No Name.
"It's almost a double life," McLean said.
Sitting next to him, his manager and mother, Denise McLean, shook her head and said with a laugh, "I've never known who he is! He's always been at least two people."
So maybe Johnny is closer to the "real" A.J. McLean than the Backstreet Boy is. But if so, it wasn't clear just what that is from the show. McLean is an adept vocal mimic--he was almost dead-on doing Scott Weiland in the show-opening version of Stone Temple Pilots' "Down," with the band rocking hard behind him. And he seemed able to slip into whatever style was demanded, from earnest seduction ballad (his own R&B-styled; "Lay Down") to nutty disco (Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music").
But as a statement, the show served only to reveal what McLean likes, and how his tastes sometimes reach outside the Backstreet paradigm, with no attempt to establish who, musically speaking, he (or No Name, for that matter) is. These were not personalized interpretations, or even the kind of joke versions--lounge reworkings, or whatever--that might have suited the No Name character. They were merely note-for-note copies of the originals.
He did accomplish one goal, though. Before the encore, in which he performed as McLean rather than No Name, with fellow B-Boy Howie Dorough joining on the Commodores' "Brick House," the fans were enthusiastically chanting, "Johnny! Johnny! Johnny!"
But under just slightly different circumstances, they could easily have been chanting, "Phone book! Phone book! Phone book!"