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Walk, Don't Run
New Memoir Captures the Excitement and Heart of the Rock 'n' Roll Dream
It's always tough to recognize the most important moments of your life while they're happening. Life-defining milestones can come along when you least expect them and change your path completely. That was certainly the case for Steven Jae Johnson, who was minding his own business on the front lawn of his high school when one Joey Zagarino sauntered up and recruited him to be in a band. A minute later, the frontman of a "rival" band, Eddie Olmos, strolled by to congratulate Johnson—or "Rusty," his nickname—on the new gig. Just like that, Rusty's life changed forever.
Getting recruited to sing and play drums in a high school rock 'n' roll band in the early 1960s might not seem like a huge moment. After all, the things that most of us do in our high school years only define a small segment of our lives, before we move on to the strange and confusing world of adulthood. For Steven Rae Johnson, though, getting asked to join the Upsets kick-starts a life story of music, dreams, brushes with fame, and unbreakable friendship. The event also serves as the first and most pivotal scene in Walk, Don't Run, Johnson's memoir and this month's indie groundbreaking book.
Many rock 'n' roll memoirs or biographies spend a good deal of time on exposition in the form of early life details. We read about artists before they were artists, learning about their parents, their siblings, their childhoods, and everything that happened before they ever sang a note or strummed a guitar chord. This kind of information can be illuminating, but it can also feel sort of like the previews you have to sit through before your film starts to play at the movie theater. Johnson wisely chooses to skip all of the pleasantries and dive right in with his first day as a member of the Upsets. That choice proves to be a pattern throughout the book, too, as Johnson frequently breezes through the exposition and scene-setting to focus squarely on the action and significant events. It's a smart authorial decision that makes Walk, Don't Run a zippy and effortlessly entertaining read.
Indeed, instead of concerning itself with the usual excavations of fact that so often push biographies to being 100 or 200 pages longer than they need to be, Walk, Don't Run reads more like fiction than memoir. Action-driven paragraphs trade off with Johnson's best approximations of the conversations he shared with friends, bandmates, and famous musicians over the years. Instead of surveying the scene decades after the fact, Johnson's writing puts you right in the scene. As a result, the book captures not only the day-to-day goings-on of life in the 1960s, but also the special bonds you form with people when you make music together.
Those special bonds are ultimately what Walk, Don't Run is all about. Sure, there are other themes at work, too: the trial and error that goes into making your dreams come true; the sacrifices you make when you set your eyes on stardom; the way everything looks so much simpler when you're young and full of zeal. In fact, some of the very best parts of Walk, Don't Run are about youth and how, when you're young—and especially when you're young and playing rock 'n' roll—you feel invincible. I can't recall a book—fiction or fact—that so perfectly encompasses the feeling of adrenaline and excitement that courses through you when you're on stage and the house lights are about to come up. As for an early scene where Rusty, Joey, and a pair of their bandmates end up on the run from the cops after a drunk driving incident, it reminds you of the stupid things you do when you're young—and how off-the-wall hilarious they seem as the years continue to drift by.
Still, the heart and soul of Walk, Don't Run is brotherhood. In one scene, when they're not sure they'll ever see each other, Rusty and Joey slice their thumbs open with a pocket knife and leave their blood on the same piano key—"blood brothers in music forever." Later, Eddie becomes a part of the cadre. Together, these three take an incredible journey of music and shared passion—a journey that takes them to the stages of Hollywood's Sunset Strip, to the front room of Frank Zappa's house, and even to the control room of a recording studio, to help Mick Jagger and Keith Richards craft Exile on Main St. (For the rock 'n' roll fans out there, Joey Zagarino is the "Joe" who's "got a cough" referenced in the Rolling Stones' "Torn and Frayed.")
From their early verve for music and the promise of a record deal to their misadventures behind the wheels of classic cars, all the way to the crushing tragedy that serves as the book's climactic moment, Rusty, Joey, and Eddie live out their lives like the characters of a Springsteen song. With Johnson's infectious writing style and his palpable love for both his music and his friends, Walk, Don't Run is a song you'll want to experience for yourself—probably more than once.
Walk, Don't Run is available in paperback and eBook formats from Amazon.com. You can also buy the book directly from its publisher, Kallisti Publishing. Purchases of the book come with a free download of the "soundtrack," which features a set of songs that Rusty and Eddie recorded in 1968. The soundtrack is available at walkdontrunthebook.com.
Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for IndependentPublisher.com, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.