In the almost pathologically defiant, rules-free autonomous zone that was the early Cleveland punk scene, John Morton was probably the single most antagonistic figure. In 1972, when the term “punk rock” was only being used in Creem and Who Put the Bomp?, and only to describe ‘60s garage bands, Morton’s band the electric eels—always lowercase, in homage to e e cummings—were making noisy, primitive, highly charged, confrontational rock music, with shows so violent they only managed to book five gigs in their three-year run, but they’d serve as key musical and personal inspiration to the people who’d go on to form the Dead Boys and Pere Ubu.
In between the eels and his artier noise-punk band X__X (we’ve told you about them before), Morton joined with guitar deconstructionist Andrew Klimeyk, future Bush Tetras Cynthia Sley and Laura Kennedy (RIP 2011), future Psychotronic publisher Michael Weldon, and a few others to form an ultimate in anti-rock bands, Johnny and the Dicks. The group was succinctly described by Jon Savage in Punk: An Aesthetic: “No instruments, no rehearsals, no music, no noise.”
This, it turned out, was meant quite literally. Johnny and the Dicks were a “band” that made no actual music, preferring performance art stunts like Mortons “Tool Jazz,” a “song” wherein he sawed 2x4s in half lengthwise while the rest of the members sat at a table eating cake. Other performances saw the band simply posing with instruments, or miming songs by other Cleveland bands.
The band released an “album,” but true to their conception, the sleeve did not contain a record.
Morton described the band and its “art terror” ethos to MAXIMUMROCKNROLL in 2011:
I loved being an artist, but it didn’t fulfill the exhilaration of performance, so I decided I would form a band that didn’t play music, but did “art!” Visual art songs like making polyester resin sculpture, posing for photos (one of the dicks was a professional photographer) and lip-syncing to the tape of a song I performed with The Styrenes. We did release a self-titled album that didn’t contain a record, each one unique with a smattering of polyester resin on it. Michele, (Wife # 1) was a Dick, along with my friend and Mirrors drummer, Michael Weldon, future Bush Tetras, Laura Kennedy and Cynthia Sley, Andrew Klimek and his sister, Karen K. Karen Karen, and photographer/artist Charles Gilchrist. Oh yeah, and a guy named Paul Paternoster. In retrospect, these people following me into the void was pretty amazing.
Art Terrorism was a purposeful quantification or updating of the Dadaist agit-prop nihilist/annihilation twisty band thing. When conceptual art was just beginning, there were two strata, in both divisions, the “Object” was deemed un-important simply the by-product of the more golden idea. (down with the Mona Lisa! It’s just some very old canvas with some fucking paint on it. Fuckin’ lumpen objet d’art worshippers!), The path I chose (also known as “The wrong path”) was based on the Dada/absurdist sensibility that the object is not important and neither is the idea, The successful branch Conceptualists were the effete [pseudo] intellectuals making cherished “golden and geniused” and oh so collectable ideas. Conceptual artists, reading Wittgenstein (which they had no fathom of) and drawing fucking numbers on the wall AND FUCKING SELLING the fucking photographs of the fucking numbers (photographs, which, by the way ARE objects.)
Johnny and the Dicks lashed out only very briefly in 1978 before Morton and Klimeyk split off to form X__X, and Kennedy and Sley moved on to the Bush Tetras (BTW, if you don’t know them, start with “Too Many Creeps,” it’s a no-wave/dancepunk classic), but one of their three performances was extremely well documented.
In 1978, SPACES was an insidery, guerrilla alt-art space, located on an empty floor in the building above a McDonalds in Cleveland’s theater district, at the time a rather bleak place apart from the actual theaters. (SPACES grew as an entity, and still exists today as an upstanding, grant-funded citizen of the arts scene.) One of Johnny and the Dicks’ performances took place there, but with a wrinkle—the band was in a different room from the audience, who took in the show via closed-circuit television.
As it happens, that feed was recorded by SPACES founder James Rosenberger, and with some audience shots and other footage of the set, it found its way to YouTube earlier this year. After viewing it, Morton told DM in an email exchange, “We performed it around the corner from the audience. They could hear the live action, but had to watch it on a monitor. I got to say, I was impressed by the video. It was a lot more complex and angry and chaotic then I remembered.”
Here there be nudity and bad words, so please proceed with discretion.
Many thanks to Paul Weaver for bringing this to our attention.