28 July 2021
Photo of Brian Johnston by Katherine Frey for the Washington Post
“[Human solidarity] is to be achieved not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers. Solidarity is not discovered by reflection but created.”
– Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity
Yes, we were all a little strange in high school. But some of us did not (or could not) cover up our differences. We found solidarity in that we were fellow sufferers, inhabiting the anxiety of existential questions as if they were the only stable constants. It was the fall of 1986 at Langley High School, and I had just been introduced to Brian Johnston through mutual musician friend Anu Kirk. We had seen each other’s bands, but since both of us played keyboards, at that time we were more competitors than colleagues. I’m not sure who said what first and when, but we immediately embraced the irony that we were both ‘geniuses,’ a term loosely thrown around to describe someone’s distinct weirdo-ness.
I invited Brian to the ‘Purple Room,’ my basement recording studio / safe-haven, for a jam session. I was just transitioning to guitar, partly because of ongoing problems with my wrist. I immediately realized Brian’s playing was empathic: Just like the way he converses, the way he played keyboard was without ego, but also not just a passive response. His atmospheric melodies pushed the musical conversation to new plateaus.
Next, when Brian came to the full-band rehearsal for Jesus Wept, the goth-infused group I helped start, he immediately augmented the songs, transporting our cluttered sonics from a small basement to the interior of a twilight-filled cathedral. And in the same way the music was sometimes dissonant and fragmented, Brian became the bond that held together the splintering forces within the band… not just between the members, but within ourselves. During times of teenage angst, Brian often joked ironically about death – not in a macabre way, but in the way the concept of death signals a transformation where we give ourselves permission to fully let go of our past. It helped us put our present strife in perspective, but it wasn’t until later when I discovered the wisdom in his wry humor.
Jesus Wept, 1987. From left to right: Christopher Wassell, jh0st, Xopher Davidson, Wili B. Vorticez, Brian Johnston
When we graduated from high school the next year, the band stayed in the Virginia area with the exception of Brian who left to study at BYU in Utah. Because of the geography and the obligations of his impending Mission, his cool-headed ambassador-like presence was missed and thus the band fell apart.
Continuing our new-found connection, I had many late-night brainstorms with Brian about his emerging artistic pursuits which converge his wicked sense of humor and his profound sense of empathy, spirituality, and criticality of techno-capitalism. Through a series of back-and-forth volleys I pitched a final version of his stage-name, ‘IReverend Brainskan.’ Brian ecstatically messaged back in words reminiscent to our very first high school talks where we proclaimed ourselves geniuses:
“I actually think it’s better to see how a genii ‘the other’ interprets my artistic output through their own filters. Yours is probably a better translation than I could attempt on my own. Nice play on words: ‘IReverend.’ [i]nternet/electronic Reverend, but also sounds a little like irreverent. Which is it? I don’t know… Consulting the oracle, Magic 8-Ball says ‘Please Ask Again.'” To finalize his new presence, Brian added ‘XIII’ as in ‘IReverend Brainskan XIII’ because it was the early hours of 19 January in 2013. More significantly, this new avatar was to be his 13th incarnation. Even then he joked about the ‘death’ of previous states of understanding.
Fast forward to a glimpse into the recent shenanigans of IReverend Brainskan XIII: During some of our last talks and texts a few years ago, Brian forwarded me a series of hilarious youtube videos featuring his mad-skills in spinning fire. I literally laughed for weeks afterwards. Watch as he plays with the ideas of mysticism, the occult, and the earthly elements – all within the context of a backyard DIY exercise video (that disco-infused soundtrack)!
To end this post in the same way I started, I want to highlight Brian’s journey back to music – his lifelong passion. His recent work wielded his genius sense of irony to new nuanced levels. Songs like ‘Pulse Liturgy’ introduce a series of musical/narrative works that highlight Brian’s cryptic sense of humor. The compositions and their descriptions destabilize our entrenched way of thinking while also honoring the role of faith.
His most recent work, released just a few months ago in April 2021, is called Shamanic Drum Journey Tools. The collection of meditational beats are not songs in themselves, but what he calls a toolkit to “give the traveler time to get into a comfortable position and prepare for entry into non-ordinary reality.” Music for Brian was never about narcissistic self-expression – it was a contingent medium to build new communities and question existing ones.
One of my favorite of Brian’s pieces and his re-entry into music in 2013 is Non Ex Nihilo 396hz, a composition of sequentially layered octaves. In the same way he deconstructs spoken language, he peels apart layers of a single note into a beautifully striking minimal soundscape. If you read the description, the song is based on strict harmonic and time-based rules – allowing us to realize that ‘beauty’ is something that is constructed from our imagination not inherent in any one thing. Brian asked me to collaborate on this piece, that it was merely a backdrop for whatever comes next. He wrote:
“I was trying to leave a lot of room open for you to add stuff or morph the concept into something completely different. You could add percussion, bass, guitar …anything.” I always assumed there would be chances to collaborate and today, I deeply regret not making the time then. My plan now is to take the first step and hopefully the soundwaves will still reach him.
Philosopher Richard Rorty celebrates ironists as having an elevated sense of intelligence: An ironist “has radical and continuing doubts” because s/he is constantly engaging with other forms of knowledge and “vocabularies.” Through his art and actions, Brian exhibited a profound sensitivity in understanding others’ vocabularies. He listened intently and then gently prodded us to think beyond ourselves, to question our assumptions, and then to form new enlightened communities. And in typical Brian style, he always gave and never asked for anything in return.
In the way he always celebrated positive change, I believe Brian has now transitioned – not passed away. Brian asked us to understand death as a form of transformation and in this way he ‘died’ on his own terms. For this I give him the honor and respect he deserves. Even though for now we may not fully understand, our vivid memories of him will always live on in the form of his genius sense of humor and his understated but limitless sense of empathy.
A special thanks to Brian’s wife, Ellen Congram Johnston and her extended family for their strength in sharing recent news about Brian. We are all here with you and in some small way, we endeavor to share your profound sense of loss.
…and here’s one last song from 1987 featuring Brian on keyboards. Farewell (for now) my friend.
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