The Elusive Surplus: Otis G. Johnson

Everything – God Is Love 78 is essentially one thing: the document of a man from Detroit, Michigan, trying to enter a dialogue with God by means of a Hammond organ, its built-in drum machine and his voice in 1978. Elder Otis G. Johnson, as he calls himself nowadays, is a shadowy figure with only a self-penned biography to boast: “Elder Otis G Johnson Lives in LaVergne , TN. He has had a lengthy career in entertainment, having Been both A DJ and On-Air TV Host of Gospel programs in Detroit for 16 years.. Johnson has also been Active in the Ministry of Gospel for Decades,” [sic]. Just as the comma at the end of this paragraph that is found on his social media accounts, his musical endeavours leave open a space to be filled by whoever happens to stumble over his output. The recordings that have been heaved out of obscurity by Chicago-based archival label Numero Group in 2013, have a primitive, casual feel. They all consist of the same formula: the drum machine supplies a static rhythm that is the groundwork for Elder Johnson to sing, wail, and announce God’s goodness over – plus his improvisations on the Hammond keys: single notes, chords and pads, apparently interchanged at the pace of Johnson navigating through his praise of the Holy.

He mumbles, “Walking with Jesus Christ/in this sick, sick world…” in the opening track of the record; we hear the drum machine locked into a muffled, heavy backbeat, the Hammond establishing a rather bleak atmosphere, and – just after Johnson resorts to a more unhinged way of singing, complete with his voice breaking – a squeaky piece of furniture and a door shutting in the background. The inclusion of the most profane, even if involuntary, is a substantial part of the appeal. The general aesthetics might call distorted, stripped-down versions of There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971) by Sly & The Family Stone and the B-side of Tony T.S. McPhee’s first solo album The Two Sides Of Tony (T.S.) McPhee (1973) to mind, two records prominently showcasing the bland and rather static built-in rhythm function of an electric organ lying at the core of otherwise experimental environments, probably conjured by lysergic intervention. These albums are marked by meticulous compositions and have helped to introduce a new rhythmic element at the dawn of drum machines. Even though it might have fallen into Johnson’s hands just as unexpectedly as it did in the cases of the aforementioned artists, it wasn’t used to innovate or push music itself further: it was simply a tool enabling him to establish the most personal way of expression; alone and not in need of any outside influences. While one might think further of the debut album by Alan Vega’s Suicide (yet another man shouting words whenever he sees fit over a minimalist backdrop), certain low fidelity re-workings of 1990s R&B that came out of the bedrooms of the twenty-tens and the Good God! compilations showcasing forgotten gospel gems rooted in funk, nothing quite hits the spot when we want to encompass of what lies at the core of this oddity. One is better off to leave drawing upon references behind and approach this set of homecooked prayers in a different way.

While the expression of a recording artist can be manifested in every conceivable detail, from a certain vocal style echoing the lyrics that are being sung to the artwork of the final product, its reception by others naturally prevents a universally valid translation into the meaning intended by the artist. In most cases, the sound, artwork, lyrics and artist photos are so boldly stated and built along trodden paths that they make us think that, to a large extent, we know how to interpret the work of art in question. To speak of this in regard of somebody recording themselves at home with a small and strictly Christian audience in mind only makes sense since it eventually popped up in pop culture, where these forms of expression are co-dependent. The phenomenon of outsider music often refers to naiveness or even disability; in some cases, the inherent kitschy qualities or the lack of ‘quality control’ through a label qualifies works to carry the term. Otis G. Johnson’s wacky command of the keys with its temporary disregard for both tonality and timing, among other characteristics, definitely make his music apt for this category, but the novelty aspect isn’t in the centre of what makes his work worthwhile. Speaking of religious feelings and their essence brings language to its knees, with art being the most obvious runaround. This frequently leads to the use of highly codified and symbolic means to make the crack visible wherein these feelings express themselves. Johnson’s record presents us a different route with its song titles and lyrics seemingly unaware or at least uninterested in an articulation through stylized form and the actual musical content that’s just as off-the-cuff as it gets. This is where the difference lies to the albums we are used to, composed of different forms of art interlocking and signalling meaning, regardless if it is there or not: these eight repetitive songs making up a rather monotonous album carry something with them that, in their best moments, make spiritual longing truly palpable and the absolute indifference to aesthetics is a considerable part of the authentic feeling that the record is able to convey. A lot of what has been dubbed outsider music is essentially failed attempts of ‘naive’ people to craft something similar to pop’s standards, in turn creating a warped version of well-known practices that are of value only for the so-called initiated. Johnson manages to assemble something that doesn’t require pop-cultural knowledge to be validated, appreciated or understood. It sounds like the direct communication of someone immersed in a spiritual quest that happens to choose the tools at hand to express himself, disregarding anything that lies outside of that ambition. The theologian and philosopher Rudolf Otto states that the idea of the Holy if understood as something going beyond the widespread use of the term and its moralistic implications is something that needs to be explored through ways other than trying to grasp its essence through the written or spoken word.¹ Listening to Everything – God Is Love 78 is inspiring in that regard since it documents someone doing so in a bare-bones fashion. It so opens a space of longing and confrontation with what evades us. If you have sensibilities resonating with those of Johnson, his vulnerability that is on display might do some of that work for you. The album itself isn’t very exciting to listen to after the first rush of ‘how can this be?’ wears off or enjoyed in the wrong moment, but when the pieces do come together, it has that one special quality that makes it stand out. It puts an experience of the mysterious surplus implied by the attempts of language to grasp the spiritual, such as holy, into music. The record succeeds in that because it does so without pretense and leaves you with the possibility to indulge in the space that it opens – a rare occasion.

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