Editor’s Note: Cliff Johnson’s recent death brought back a lot of memories for local lovers of live music. So we decided to reprint Bill Dwyer’s feature from Dec. 12, 2007 in lieu of a traditional obituary.
Throughout the 1970s, OPRF High School alum Cliff Johnson was lead singer for two high-profile Chicago bands, Off Broadway and Pezband. Both groups inked record deals — Pezband after Johnson left, Off Broadway with Johnson as their front man. Neither reached the national status expected of them, despite exceptional talent.
A year ago it was a good bet he wouldn’t be alive today, let alone singing onstage.
There have been three constants in Cliff Johnson’s life until this year — alcohol, mood swings, and music. The first two eventually led to bankruptcy, divorce and nearly death. The third is now at the center of a life Johnson says he’s committed to rebuilding, thanks to the gift of sobriety.
‘My new best friend’
Johnson recalls drinking for the first time in seventh grade — splitting a six-pack of malt liquor with a friend.
“I loved the feeling alcohol gave me immediately,” he said. “I thought it was so cool. It was like my new best friend.”
He became such good friends that his blood alcohol level was once measured at six times the legal limit for drivers.
But before alcoholism, there was manic depression. Johnson recalls spending much of his early grade school years in detention for an array of outrageous attention-seeking behaviors caused by undiagnosed bipolar disorder and hyperactive attention deficit disorder.
“I liked everything to come to me now, fast, and easy,” he said. “I didn’t want to work at anything.” Music came easy, and was his savior and his passion. After leading a popular band called the Rising Suns in high school, Johnson hooked up with good friend Mimi Betinis and other fellow Oak Parkers Mick Rain, Mike Gorman and John Pazdan in Pezband in early 1972. With Johnson’s voice and Betinis’ lead guitar out front, Pezband became a fixture on the Chicago music scene. By mid-1974 the group was playing before up to 2,000 fans a night at venues from New Jersey to California. Then the demons haunting Johnson’s psyche made their first serious appearance. With a record deal imminent and the band headed to Los Angeles to play a showcase gig at Whiskey a Go-Go, Johnson suddenly quit.
The decision devastated his friends, who never saw it coming.
“There was a lot of resentment,” said Betinis. “I was resentful for years.”
“It knocked us off our pins. We had to recreate the band,” said drummer Mick Rain.
Johnson, Betinis recalled, “was an ever-blossoming vine that was crawling up wherever he could.” But the golden boy who functioned so effortlessly onstage, who appeared so fearless, so cool, was a roiling emotional mess inside.
“There was a cacophony underneath it all,” Johnson said of his outward appearances. A psychic stew of fear, resentment and anxiety boiled inside even as he accomplished things others only dreamed of.
“I was, for some inexplicable reason, out to destroy everything at the same time,” he said. “I went all the way with Pezband to the point where they were about to make records, and I quit. Then I got d’Thumbs together and we brought that to fruition where it was about to take off, and I left.”
The pattern continued after Off Broadway signed a lucrative deal with Atlantic Records and released “On!” in 1979. The album, filled with muscular power pop gems, crowned by Johnson’s marvelous voice, sold over 250,000 copies in the Chicago area.
Johnson, however, was both the band’s greatest strength and its Achilles heel.
“I was told that I was the reason (Atlantic) signed Off Broadway,” he said. “I was also the reason they dumped us.”
By 1981 it was all over.
Guitarist Mike Redmond, who joined Off Broadway in 1997, has watched Johnson since the late ’70s, when he was a sound man and roadie for Soundz Music. He’s seen both the excitement and the damage Johnson’s unhinged behavior created.
“It was the good, the bad and the ugly,” Redmond said. “There were a ton of great shows, and some that sucked.” Others were just flat-out embarrassing.
Hitting bottom for the last time
Johnson can’t remember all the times he’s hit bottom, as alcoholics call the phenomenon of facing their addiction. But he remembers the final time last January.
“The darkest, deepest most devastating bottom of all the alleged bottoms I hit,” he said.
He’d been isolating in his apartment for weeks, shades drawn, not answering his phone, staying loaded on a steady diet of vodka, cocaine, Vicoden and the sleep medication Ambien. That led to setting his kitchen on fire in a mental haze. Soon thereafter, unable to keep food down, throwing up blood, he lost the will to live — but not his craving for alcohol.
“I’d basically given up on life. I just felt like I’d totally failed. That it was too hard, and I couldn’t make it work,” he said. He called his estranged wife, Patty, and told her he’d piled most of his belongings of any value in his apartment’s vestibule for her to come pick up.
“I wasn’t going to take my life. But I was just going to sleep my life away,” he said.
Too embarrassed to face her, he watched from the darkness of his room as Patty’s shadow moved across the window blinds. When he heard the door close, he thought, “OK, I’ve made those arrangements, now I can just slip away.”
But something happened on which he hadn’t planned. The following morning a prescription medication he’d been taking the previous three weeks for severe depression took effect.
“I felt like getting up,” he recalled. He walked out his apartment door wearing the grungy sweat clothes he’d been sleeping in for three weeks and took a peek outside.
“It felt kind of good,” he said.
The anti-depressant wasn’t all that took hold. Bits of wisdom he’d acquired from previous attempts at recovery also took effect. The guy who’d mocked those who sat through 12-step meetings talking about turning their lives over to a higher power, now reached out to some of those same people for help. Little by little, bolstered by a newfound humility, Johnson moved away from the darkness and back toward life, putting an end to what he calls “40 years of assault with a deadly weapon on myself.”
Johnson had to literally practice walking and talking the first few weeks of his recovery. He realized sobriety was the only thing that mattered, the one pre-requisite for having anything good in his life. So he worked diligently for it.
“I never worked anything so honestly or sincerely in all my life as my recovery,” he said.
His hard work at maintaining sobriety has been richly rewarded with an array of unanticipated gifts. Calmness. Acceptance. Self-awareness.
“I was willing to get out of [my own] way,” he said. “And now all these wonderful things are happening to me.”
With alcohol out of his system, doctors were able to diagnose his bi-polarity and attention deficit disorder. For the first time in his life, he enjoys mental clarity. He was, he said, always focused on what had happened and worried about what was going to happen next.
“I didn’t get what was happening in the moment,” he said. “I used to be baffled. I made simple things complex.”
Free from fear and anxiety and resentment. Free from the tangled webs he routinely wove to rationalize his addictions.
“They say drinking is a career,” he noted. “It’s just so much hard work to be a drinking alcoholic in denial. I had to tell lies, to cover up why I wasn’t showing up, not doing what I said I’d do.”
Those around him are amazed at the transformation. “He’s so back on track it’s unbelievable,” said Redmond. “The guy we used to be able to get to come to a rehearsal for maybe a half hour or an hour before he’d blow out of there, is now there first and leaves last.”
“I can show up for things now,” said Johnson. “I want to show up for things now. I was so self-centered,” he said. “I can remember feeling everything was coming exclusively from me, [that] I’m entertaining a crowd and it’s all about me.
“It’s not all about me,” he said. “Now I feel I’m a part of something bigger. It’s a real reciprocating thing, a mojo, that’s going on at a performance.
“One of the greatest rewards I’ve ever gotten through sobriety is to find calm in the moment,” he said. “To actually get what’s going on now.”
No longer afraid, Johnson says he’s willing to hold his personal foibles up for all to see if it will help another person begin their own recovery.
“I have nothing to hide now,” he said. “Look, there’s a hopeless drunk, with [attention deficit] and bi-polar disorder who’s coming to grips, who is actually beginning to find joy in life and have a balance for the first time ever.”
Johnson’s bandmates are also benefiting.
“He’s as amazing to me now as he was in high school, when I first saw this kid singing this stuff,” said Betinis. “I mean, he was so good.
“As an entertainer, Cliff’s the best he’s been in a long freakin’ time.”
Simple, Johnson has discovered, works best. Stay sober. Make music. Love life.
“That’s what we’re gonna do,” said Betinis.
“That’s how simple it can be,” said Johnson. “Why complicate it?”