Official Review: Walk, Don’t Run by Steven Jae Johnson
Walk, Don’t Run by Rusty Johnson is one of the most fun books I’ve read in a very long time. If you are a fan of 60’s era music, particularly what was coming from the West Coast, you do not want to miss this read. Steven “Rusty” Johnson tells the story of trying to make it into the music business at a time when music was so influential. Rusty and his two best friends, Joey Zagarino and Edward James “Eddie” Olmos (yes, that Edward James Olmos) were young high school boys when they first had dreams of making it big. As young as age 15, Rusty and Joey had their own band and Eddie, who had is own band, often teamed up with their band, The Upsets, to sing lead vocals at dance halls and clubs. Heavily influenced by The Beach Boys, Rusty and his friends lived a life of music, “cars, chicks, and surf,” attending school during the day and playing gigs at night. They often kicked off their first set with a favorite song, “Walk, Don’t Run,” which is where the book gets it’s appropriate title.
Johnson does a great job of transporting the reader back in time to when car clubs held dances and car hops served burgers and shakes right to your car. His use of the vernacular of the day (daddy-o) and nonchalant mention of details (like describing his friend’s Kinney’s loafers) makes for a rich backdrop to what starts out as a somewhat typical tale of local boys trying to make good. But Rusty’s story becomes anything but typical. Certain events send Joey to the East coast, so Rusty and Eddie team up and manage to snag a nightly gig at a hoppin’ club on the Sunset Strip. There, they rub elbows with celebrities including Jim Morrison and a pre-fame Genesis. Despite recording some demos and even driving all across the country trying to get radio airplay (Wolfman Jack fans will love this part of the adventure), no album deal is forthcoming. Although the band, Pacific Ocean, continues to struggle to secure a recording deal, it does so well at live shows that the boys are soon asked to join the variety show playing at The Factory in San Francisco.
It’s now 1968, and the string of big stars that pass through the band’s orbit is extraordinary. Milton Berle, Bill Cosby, Kim Novak, Peter Lawford, Jerry Lewis, Paul Newman, and Sammy Davis Jr. all make appearances, but you understand through Johnson’s telling that even these thrilling encounters cannot make up for the band’s inability to become recording stars. While this is all happening, Johnson continues to relate the adventures of Joey, who has made his way into sound recording back east and is rubbing elbows with celebrities of his own, including Jimmy Hendrix. Interesting opportunities also fall into Johnson’s lap, but he makes the decision to stick by his friends and stay the course with the band.
I don’t want to spoil the later events of the story, but suffice it to say that old friends become new again, and more amazing celebrities pop up along the way. The most important thing I learned from reading this book was never smoke a joint given to you by Keith Richards. Although Walk, Don’t Run is clearly a reference to the early band’s favorite kick-off song, I think the author was also talking about the best way to live life, whether seeking fame or not. Johnson is sometimes offered an easier path or an invitation to enjoy some of the less legal spoils of the rock and roll lifestyle, but he seems to accept that neither or those options are right for him. And, although you may not have heard of Rusty Johnson, there’s no doubt that he lead an extraordinary life (even well beyond the years covered by this book).
I give this book 3 out of 4 stars. It’s a fun, easy read, and Johnson has an easy-going writing style that almost makes you feel like he’s sitting across the table, sipping a beer and just talking about his life. I also highly encourage readers to google the band Pacific Ocean to learn some additional things about the events surrounding the group and even to listen to some excerpts from most of the songs off the one album they recorded (which is now out of print). If you grew up during the 60’s, I think you will enjoy this book even more as it transports you back in time and reminds you how things were then. I enjoyed the ride, and I hope you will too, daddy-o.