Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Jack Johnson v. Jack Johnson

Miles Davis is one of those artists for whom, no matter how much of their work I listen to, there will always be more. I finally started listening to Davis's album A Tribute to Jack Johnson a few weeks ago.

It reminded me of a time last summer, when I was working for Vice. There was a guy at the company who worked as an all-around music consultant. He seemed to be friends with every band, hip-hop outfit, DJ, and club owner with indie cred in New York. He was a walking encyclopedia of pop music history. He was in touch the trendiest music circles in every important city in the world. One day that summer, he was reading a magazine in the lobby and called out to no one in particular, "Hey, who the fuck is this guy Jack Johnson who's headlining All Points West with Radiohead?"

"Have you not been listening to the radio for the past five years?" I asked.

"No man, I don't listen to the radio," he said.

At the time, this seemed like the ultimate confirmation of the singer Jack Johnson's utter irrelevance. But now it makes
me wonder, where does this guy get off performing as Jack Johnson (even if that is his birth name)? He's a tepid white guy who mumbles totally forgettable songs accompanied by an acoustic guitar and flip-flops. The original Jack Johnson became the world's first black heavyweight champion in 1908 (and, incidentally, was born Arthur John Johnson). Miles Davis, who boxed himself, put out the Jack Johnson album in 1970, the same year Black Panther membership reached its height. As the liner notes Davis wrote for the album put it, "Johnson portrayed Freedom—it rang just as loud as the bell proclaiming him Champion." How can you share a stage name with someone like that?

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