Spoken word artist Duncan Wilder Johnson has turned himself practically into a spokesman for punk rock and heavy metal through his artfully raucous rants. He didn’t always have such good taste.
“I had a crush on this girl named Mary Beth — she was 14 when I was 11 — and she sat in the back of the bus with the bad kids, listening to Whitesnake and Bon Jovi and all that kind of shit.” Like any red-blooded American boy with a crush, Johnson found himself listening, too. “Just so I could talk to her,” he admits with a laugh.
His quit listening to bad hair metal, he recalls, when his musical savior, a co-worker of his mother, came to the rescue. “He took it upon himself to make me my first ever mix tape, called “Born to Skate,” and it had this punk rock and hardcore punk rock on it. There was a whole amalgamation of really big punk and hardcore bands and local Boston bands. In my 12-year-old brain, this totally blew my mind, because it was harder and more sophisticated than anything else I or my peers were listening to. I was instantly hooked.”
In a story nearly worthy of a “Behind the Music” segment, Johnson recalls his tempestuous days trying to manage a hardcore band in high school. “Being in a band is really difficult,” he says. “You’re basically married to three people, with all their emotions and all their communications and stuff, before you even start playing music. They are always really intense relationships.” Needless to say, that first incarnation did not survive high school. What did survive was Johnson’s drive. “I just wanted to go full-steam ahead,” he says.
It was about that time that Johnson discovered writers and thinkers like Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra, Jim Carroll and Jack Kerouac. “What I got out of those guys was that you didn’t need a band in order to turn people on to your ideas,” he says. “You could be on this more artsy kind of literary side of punk rock.”
The idea of spoken word resonated with him. “It inferred that all you had to do was speak words, and so you could make it your own. It didn’t have to be funny. It didn’t have to be anything, really. You could just make it what you wanted.”
Johnson describes himself as “a metalhead with a punk rock heart.” His of edgy humor and passion caught the attention of Altercation Punk Rock Comedy Tour organizer J.T. Haberstaat. “He contacted me and said, ‘You do heavy metal spoken word? I do punk rock stand-up comedy. We should hang out!’ So that’s how that friendship and partnership started.”
As for the upcoming show, Johnson predicts a lot of laughs. “[Haberstaat] is really hilarious — and the guys he’s got with him are really hilarious, too. In my case,” he says, “it’s a lot of laughs, but it also might make you think a little bit.”