Rudy Panucci On Pop Culture

Monday Morning Art: Goodbye, Johnny


Monday Morning Art isn’t new this week. It’s a painting of Johnny Rock that I first posted here early in 2011.

Johnny Rock died Friday at the age of 49. Johnny was one of the most consequential people in my life. His death, though not unexpected, punched a hole in my heart, and I’m going to need to tell you a bit about my friend.

Johnny was larger than life, one of those people of mythic charm that you feel lucky being around. If not for Johnny, I may never have gotten involved in the local music scene to the extent that I have been for the past 28 years.

In the fall of 1989 I had just launched Radio Free Charleston on WVNS radio, and I didn’t really think that anybody was listening. I was playing a mix of alternative and progressive rock and had just started mixing in some local music that I’d come across. The show aired at 2 AM.

I was shocked when I got a call on the station line one night shortly after the show started. It was Johnny, talking to me for the first time. In his usual hurried manner of speaking, he blurted out, “Hey Rudy, love the show. I’m in a band called Go Van Gogh. We’re the best band in town and all the other bands hate us. It’d be cool if you’d come see us and play us on your show!”

I was skeptical but curious. At that point in my life I hadn’t set foot in a bar in seven years. I lost several friends due to a drunk-driving accident and just didn’t feel comfortable in that environment. I never drank anyway, so it was no big loss.

The following Tuesday I walked into The Charleston Playhouse for the first time. It was open-mic night. The first thing I see is three-fourths of Go Van Gogh: Johnny, his brother Tim and Steve Beckner. They were playing “Rocky Raccoon” from The Beatles’ White Album. Johnny was just playing a floor tom. At that moment I was home. I needed to tell more people about this music. I had found my place in Charleston’s music scene.

I got to be good friends with Johnny and all of Go Van Gogh, and through them I met many other incredible musicians. I had Go Van Gogh on Radio Free Charleston live, where Johnny managed to accidentally drop one of the funniest f-bombs in broadcast history.

I learned that most of the people I would meet in Charleston knew Johnny from his days at Budget Tapes & Records, and even more knew him from when he worked at Hollywood Video. Johnny was a legend of Charleston’s West Side. He wouldn’t have any of that “Elk City” nonsense. It was the West Side and nothing else.

When Radio Free Charleston‘s first incarnation ended I stayed in touch with Johnny and the band. I’d go on to work with them on some video projects. I’d go out of my way to Hollywood Video to see what Johnny was recommending. It was just fun to be around Johnny, and he definitely knew his cinema.

Go Van Gogh split up in the 1990s as the Beckner brothers moved to Nashville and the local scene hit one of its periodic doldrums. Johnny stopped playing drums, and I dropped out of most socializing to take care of my mother for more than eight years. At right you see Johnny with Mel Larch and Jason “Roadblock” Robinson outside the Empty Glass in 2010.

When I started writing PopCult and began reconnecting with my old friends, I found out that Johnny had a really rough patch of wretched health. He’d spent months in and out of hospitals with a variety of ailments, some exacerbated by his own behavior, some not. Once Mel and I went to see Johnny in Charleston Memorial. He was in ICU, and when we got there, he woke up and we talked for several minutes. I gave him a Hot Wheels Batmobile. After we left he slipped into a coma. We thought then that we’d seen our friend for the last time.

When he woke up several weeks later he thought that he’d hallucinated our visit. When I told him that we’d really come by, he then got upset because his Batmobile was missing (I got him another one). Johnny was frail at this point, but desperate to get out and be his old self again.

The problem was that years of physical sickness had done a number on Johnny’s self-esteem. He’d developed a lot of social anxiety issues, and he’d taken to medicating himself with alcohol, which at this point was terribly detrimental to his health. It was heartbreaking to watch because Johnny wanted to come out, and he’d be his old self until he hit a point where he had too much alcohol in him and his body would just shut down. At left is a photo of Johnny with Mark Beckner and me at a Nanker Phelge show in 2010 (photo by Stephen Beckner).

It wasn’t always easy being Johnny’s friend because as gregarious and charming as he could be, he was also very stubborn and did not want to follow his doctor’s advice. Some of Johnny’s friends are justifiably upset with him because, if he’d taken better care of himself, he may still be around. There’s some anger that Johnny didn’t try harder to stick around longer. It could be aggravating and frustrating caring about Johnny.

For me, I couldn’t stay mad at Johnny for long. Being a notorious non-drinker myself, I tried to get Johnny to come along to places that didn’t serve alcohol. Everybody has their demons, and Johnny’s were plentiful and robust, but you still loved the guy. He continued to spend time in and out of the hospital, but now we could keep in touch via Facebook, so he never felt totally abandoned.

And that was another of Johnny’s issues. He felt left behind by the music scene. He knew that Go Van Gogh was “this close” to breaking through (and they were). He’d develped a kind of agoraphobia coupled with a manic depressive cycle. For years he self-medicated to get enough courage to leave the house. He finally stopped drinking, but then he could only go out if he was in a manic cycle and felt up. If you couldn’t pick him up and head out right then, you’d miss the window. Dozens of times I’d be tied up when he was wanting to go out and I’d try arrange to run out with him the next day, only to have him feel too sick to go out when I got there to pick him up.

Twice earlier this year, I got lucky. Last January, just days after Lee Harrah’s mother passed away, I’d arranged to take Lee out to lunch, just to see how he was doing. That morning Johnny posted on Facebook that he wanted to go out and just do something. I messaged him immediately and asked if he wanted to join me and Lee for lunch.

The timing was finally perfect. I picked up Johnny and he was decked out head-to-toe in brand-new gear from his favorite football team, Chelsea. Johnny was a bigger anglophile than I am, to the point of watching soccer regularly. He was beaming. We were going out and he was going to help Lee. Lee was delighted to see Johnny, and helping Johnny made Lee feel better. After lunch at the China Buffet in Kanawha City we made a stop at Budget Tapes & Records. It was glorious. We all got to see our old friend John Nelson and everybody there treated Johnny like the rock star that he was born to be.

It was a great day. I’m going to treasure that memory.

A few weeks later Johnny posted about wanting to go out again, and my day was free. This time it was just me and Johnny and we once again hit the China Buffet (he’d never been there before our first visit and loved the place), and we got to hang out and talk for about three hours.

It was the kind of rambling, hilarious conversation that you can only really have with someone you’ve known more than half your life. We joked about comparing our medical ailments like old men. We teased each other about baseball (I’m a diehard Yankees fan, while Johnny, sadly, was a Red Sox fan). We talked about film, music, the old days, and our future plans.

And we discussed mortality.

I’d mentioned how every time I write an obituary, I say it’s the last one I ever want to do. I’d “come out of retirement” to write the obituary for Lee’s mother in January, but when asked to speak at her funeral, I became the human embodiment of a deer in the headlights.

Johnny knew that I absolutely hate speaking in public. I’m fine in front of a camera or behind a microphone, but a live audience is just something I would rather never face. At my best, speaking before an audience is a hellish torment. And at a funeral, I’m at my worst.

I told him that I never wanted to write another obituary or ever speak at a funeral. Without missing a beat, Johnny replied, “Well, you won’t have to worry about that with me. I’m immortal.”

It was one of Johnny’s typical joke responses, but in a sense, he was right. His physical form may be gone, but his spirit will live on. Where ever an insecure kid in a band, totally filled with self-doubt and insecurity, puffs up and says he’s the best in the world, that’s a part of Johnny. Whenever somebody staunchly defends Charleston’s West Side, Johnny’s smiling down.  Whenever somebody sarcastically punches a hole in an over-inflated ego, Johnny’s giving a thumbs up.

“Rock is dead they say, Long Live Rock.”

I know Johnny would probably rather have a lyric from The Jam or XTC there, but I don’t think he’d mind The Who, and it really does fit.

I’m gonna miss you, Johnny.

I’d like to think that where ever Johnny is now, he’s healthy, driving again, playing a gig with a great band every night, and has a couple of hot chicks to carry and set up his drum kit. Johnny loved being a drummer, but he hated actually carrying the damned things.

Tomorrow we’ll have more on Johnny on Radio Free Charleston, and we’ll post links to some of his video appearances here in PopCult.


  1. Janice Rael

    Loved Johnny Rock, was proud to know him and be his friend in 1990. I’ll miss him.

  2. Kathy Shafer

    I had the biggest crush on Johnny Rock in college and I always treasured our conversations. He will live on in my memories and I thank him for making me feel like a “cool chick”.

  3. Larry Shockley

    Knew Johnny going back to at least 1989 when we worked at Budget together. My fondest memory was throwing Meatloaf on the turntable at Budget and him yanking off a few bars in saying that he couldn’t stand 70’s A.O.R! LOL Great memories from a gentle soul..

  4. Johnny Compton

    The first time I met him, I was playing Highway Song on acoustic and somebody called me Johnny Rock….when I came offstage, he walked up to me and told me that he was the Real Johnny Rock…I loved him immediately….Safe travels Johnny…I’ll see you again.

  5. mary

    Johnny was the real deal. Always made me laugh and loved flirting with me. good times.

  6. Dale Bennett

    Wow! Great blog. Johnny was as good as it gets. Other than his brother Tim. The both of them are guys I will never forget. I got to know Johnny through Tim and I am forever grateful. Johnny was just the right guy to hang out for lunch with at the mall as we both worked there for a while. He was one funny dude let me tell you. And when it came to music and movies, he was the one to ask any question you might have. I am sorry to hear of his passing but will forever cherish our friendship. However I didn’t know Johnny as much as I do Tim and was not as close to him either but I sure did appreciate him. I pray God has him now and he is made new with his health and playing music once again as the Rock Star that he is.


    Johnny Rock!!!!
    I must say that I have known Johnny from the beginning. I was introduced to him by my older brother around 1984. I was amazed by Johnny’s style and his knowledge of music (he had a photographic memory when it came to music and cinema trivia). With Johnny, it always about the music and his fans. He could remember every one of them. When I played guitar in True Rumor we would always practice nightly at my house. With that came all the fun and wisdom Johnny had to offer. I can remember one of our first shows. Johnny was so excited that he tripped and fell over a curb while carrying his drums. After the show Johnny complained about his arms hurting. Come to find out that he had broke his arm. That was the real Johnny Rock give the people what they wanted no matter how much pain it caused.
    I can not say so enough about my friend, band mate, and music guru. I will never forget him or all the funny
    moments we had together.
    Take care my brother! See ya on the other side…

  8. Sham

    Somewhere in my basement I still have the trumer rumor cassette that Johnny and Tim gave to me. I will always treasure that piece of Charleston history. Johnny was the real deal, bled rock and roll. Rudy you did an excellent job in describing who he was and who we always will be in all of our hearts. Rock on Johnny till we meet again

  9. Sham

    Johnny was the real deal, he bled rock and roll. There’s a true rumor cassette somewhere in my basement I need to dig out. A piece that I’ll always cherish that Johnny and Tim gave to me and I think it’s just an awesome piece of Rock and Roll history of Charleston. Rock on Johnny until we meet again

  10. Rosemarie Hunter

    Johnny, Tim and I along with a crew including Shockley and many more studied at State together…. He was as cool a dude as they come and classy…. A gentleman to me with a smile on always. I will remember the happy times.

  11. Johnny Riggs

    That’s terribly sad news. I hadn’t seen Johnny in years, but we talked on Facebook all the time. He and I went to school together. All through junior high and high school at South Charleston we argued and agreed about all the bands we loved together. We were both huge KISS and AC/DC fans, and his high school band (with his brother) ZYPOLT played songs by both of them as I remember.
    I’ll miss his insane posts. I’m really sorry he’s gone. I’d hoped to run into him again someday in Charleston. I miss my hometown, and it’ll miss him I imagine. A beautifully written eulogy, m’friend.

  12. Johnny Riggs

    It’s so weird. There aren’t a lot of people in the world still around that I’ve known since the mid 70s. Wow. I hate losing friends, but it happens more and more now that I’m in my 50s. Bleh.

  13. Johnny Riggs

    Trying to click on pics to see them larger but they don’t seem to be working. Darnit. Okay, sorry for posting 1000 times. Love and stuff.

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