by Carey Murphy & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & omehow, inexplicably, Calvin Johnson has flown under the radar for the better part of his 20-plus year career in music. But very few of us actually understand the collective debt we owe to him. I mean, dude almost single-handedly changed the way we listen to music. He certainly changed the way music is made. He made Olympia the Northwest epicenter of challenging experimentation. And for all this, he shrugs off all of the kinds of suggestions I'm about to make with an "aw-shucks" genuineness that makes me feel ridiculous for having accomplished so little and being satisfied with it.
Here's a prolegomenon for you: Without Calvin Johnson, there would be no indie-rock. All those lo-fi/no-fi shoe-gazing mope-rockers you fawn over? Nope, not without Calvin Johnson. Independent record labels that champion the musical risk-takers? Nope, not without K Records. Punk? In a manner of speaking, sure, with the help of key figures on the other side of the continent like Fugazi's Ian MacKaye. He is D.I.Y. personified. He has the Midas touch. For evidence of his own musical successes, look to Beat Happening, the Halo Benders, and Dub Narcotic Sound System. Or buy anything from K Records -- musicians no less influential than Modest Mouse, Built To Spill, and Beck once found homes there. If there is a barometer for cool, Calvin Johnson is mighty close. This fact alone makes attending his appearance on Wednesday at Cheney's Kafka Coffee the area's musical event of this very young year.
"Sure," I hear you saying, "you obviously dig the guy and think he's influential and important. But what does the music sound like?" That's not so easy. With the exception of the Magnetic Fields' Stephen Merritt, there is no voice as immediately recognizable as Calvin Johnson's, a baritone gravel that grates as readily as it soothes. And it must perform each of these tasks to balance the mania of the live show. He's confrontational in all the right ways, because it is in the live performance where things get really interesting. Performer and audience members become one -- there is a symbiosis, a synergy created through the palpable intimacy. And Calvin Johnson sees it all before any of us. He is the proverbial man behind the curtain. The live performance will be the means by which he carries out his gleeful plans.
There are some exceptional stories about his past efforts at making the audience a part of the evening's festivities. On tour with Phil Elverum's Microphones a number of years ago, Johnson apparently taped notes under the seats for audience members to find. "Call Calvin an asshole in the middle of a song" and "Throw something at Calvin" are just two examples -- extremely confident examples I might add -- of his inclusive vision. I would recommend checking the bottom of your lattes at Kafka: there just might be something akin to Willy Wonka's Golden Tickets. And this Golden Ticket will be your invitation onstage to sing along, or play the tambourine, or clap your hands. It just might be magical. And these magical attributes might be the easiest way to think about Johnson: He is as Wonka-esque as any figure in music.
By maintaining a kind of youthful idealism, a necessary na & iuml;vete, Calvin Johnson manages to exist in an artistic realm beyond doubt. It never enters the picture simply because it never needs to be a part of the creative equation. The ethos must be: I'm going to do this. In this regard, the results do not matter nearly as much as the process of reaching the endpoint. This return to innocence, this supremely confident belief in self, has allowed Johnson to exist in an artistic bubble of sorts -- because he refuses to accept creative limitations of any kind, he creates without the preconceived notions of music fitting into this or that category. Of course, it is much easier to recognize just how ridiculous these categories are when you helped to dismantle most of them in the first place. But Johnson creates unselfconsciously. He knows what he wants even if the listener doesn't.
Wednesday's show in Cheney marks something close to the mid-point of a pretty intense two-week tour of Washington and Oregon that hits many unexpected stops along the way (Can you say Walla Walla, Kennewick, Yakima, Wenatchee, and Mount Vernon)? And this tour follows five dates in Australia and New Zealand. As you can tell, dude is busy. Lucky for us, he wouldn't have it any other way.
Calvin Johnson at Kafka Coffee, 410 Second St., Cheney, on Wednesday, March 1, at 8 pm. Free. Call 235-2577.