Author: Jeremy Beal
About Johnny Kicker: A fugitive starts a band and a revolution.
Review of Johnny Kicker
It was popular to link youth with rebellion long before the 1950s, but rock and roll seemed to make it official. Although The Beats were into jazz, and Rebel Without a Cause barely brushed shoulders with Bill Haley in the hallway, it all came together with Elvis. Never mind that rock also had lesser origins in country music; it was part of its dangerous mystique to be known as black masquerading as white to infiltrate mainstream radio.
So this genre, which had to be filmed from the waist up, gave rise to B flicks about teenage delinquency and condemnations from the pulpit. Although it mellowed from time to time with the likes of Fabian, Abba and boy bands, the music created a counter culture where the envelope was pushed, sub-genre by sub-genre, in matters of clothes, hair, politics, sex, drugs or violence. A mere dozen or so years after rock's inception, protests and riots inspired songwriters to make the leap from rebellion to talk of revolution. And while leftist or anarchist politics were revived in spirit with certain UK punks, and firearms still have a role in rap, (though it's more, say, sociological than political,) music is still doing its best to startle us fifty-odd years later with Madonna's lesbian kissing at award shows, Lady Gaga's outfits, and formulaic articles in magazines in which rock stars confess to stints in rehab.
Now, in Jeremy Beal's Johnny Kicker, revolution at the hands of rock stars and their followers has returned. Anger, messy hair, and old-fashioned delinquent behavior have propelled a post-punk/grunge populace towards anarchy.
John Kichler, aka Johnny Kicker, rejects a friend's attempt to bring him into a neo-Nazi movement, but is nonetheless linked to it during his trial for killing a black man in what was, in fact, self-defense. He is sentenced to prison. His former friend is fatally shot while helping him escape from custody, and Kicker goes on the lam. He later meets Casey, a charismatic visionary, who is intrigued by Johnny's infamy and proposes that they start a band whose engine will be fuelled by this very secret. They will take the hangers-on around them into their confidence, and this entourage will loyally protect him. He will hide from the law in plain sight. The band will shun the media, conceal its members' identities, refuse photo ops and traditional record deals. He'll be the singer, Johnny the guitarist.
Their band, The Witness, is born. Its fame grows from their intense shows and hostility towards all that is corporate, as well as by Casey's incendiary diatribes to audiences, suggesting that fires be set and society razed. They become known for this increasingly revolutionary message, which spreads across the Internet and is, for the most part, cobbled together from things they've read. There is no manifesto or blueprint for rebuilding.
If one would like an explanation from a follower who'd been impatient for The Witness to start the revolution they'd been talking about, he said he wanted to do right, and would be halfway there if he set fire to every flag and church he saw. Another fan yearned for change because, "Our country goes to war and our towns burn books and we all lie, cheat and steal every chance we get." So the flag and the church are targets. Somewhat passÚ, it would seem, given that the church is almost out of business now, and generally speaking, book burning in North America hasn't been in vogue for some time.
Nonetheless, after a related incident in which someone is killed by a cop, thousands all over the continent are soon fighting the police, taking over schools, shutting down cities, and lighting those fires.
Into this mix there's a capitalistic manager cashing in on their rebelliousness, (Ó la The Stones' Oldham or The Sex Pistols' McLaren,) a writer whose paper on the trial of Kichler earns him an authority he uses to hijack the movement, and a snubbed journalist determined to bring them down. One of these individuals, who will remain nameless, is killed in a hail of gunfire by members of the band.
In Beal's detailed prose there is a subjective presence. He's involved with his characters and seems to know much of the terrain from the inside, making clear the poor chances of a successful uprising at the hands of rock musicians. We see how self-aggrandizement, greed, ignorance, gratuitous bloodshed, half-baked planning and flawed idealism gone awry would mar even the hippest revolution.
Reviewed by Trevor Clark, author of Love On The Killing Floor.
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Added 07 July 2011.
Updated 23 August 2013.