You’ve never heard of Johnny Society. Few have. The name may well be synonymous with “John Doe,” for the meager attention they get. But then, Kenny Siegal—Johnny Society’s diminutive singer-songwriter-battery—he doesn’t see it that way.
He being the guy writing the songs, baring his soul each night by giving howling, impassioned utterance to words birthed from his most personal experiences, you’d think he’d be a bit more concerned that his career has spanned six albums (one on Geffen with the band Hunk, another with The Hand, four as Johnny Society) is only now gaining momentum.
Calling from a tour stop in Santa Fe, N.M., Siegal explains in a scholarly Long Island accent his comfort with the pace of his career. Critical acclaim, if not even moderate awareness, has met each of his records, dating back to Hunk. Johnny Society did its first nationwide tour in 2001 with Joseph Arthur; in ’03 they’re out on a wider jaunt with labelmate Chris Whitley. And the people at the shows, they listen. And they like. That’s good enough for now. Success, inasmuch as it means money and fame, are second to the joy of making music. Joy? Well, it’s compulsion, too.
“I’ve been functioning on this insane tip—I’m a songwriter and I have to do my work, regardless of how big it’s becoming or how small it is. There’s a certainly purity in that and a certain solace in that. That’s actually where all the records come from. I don’t make those records when the company asks me for a new record. I make the records, then figure out how it’s gonna get released [laughs].”
The latest unsolicited slab of songs is Life Behind the 21st Century Wall, which critics, fans, label and artist view as Siegal/Johnny Society’s magnum opus. The record is a continuation of the psychotic rock first peddled on 1997’s It Don’t Matter and honed through 1999’s Wood and 2001’s Clairvoyance. By siphoning the secret sauce outta such musical Big Macs as the Beatles, Cheap Trick, The Kinks, Jane’s Addiction and various rootsy antecedents, Johnny Society has achieved the New Millennial equivalent of finding the Lost Ark: an original sound.
In a single well-smithed song, Siegal might draw any or all of 10 different wells. Hot gospel insanity propels “Charity,” ’70s pop-and-soul moves “I Can’t Win,” AM-radio drives “Trust,” barefoot Americana fuels “Get Off My Farm.” Beyond that, glam rock, Delta blues, jazz, ragtime—countless other sonic variations pop up to surprise and delight within what is essentially power trio rock where the guitar trades off with a Fender Rhodes and the singer sounds like Ray Charles slow-roasting on Satan’s spit. This, without meeting the disjointed, confused fate that befalls many who attempt the same. Naturally, that presents problems for anyone who’d like to attempt to market the band, much less describe them to anyone.
“I can’t really concern myself so much with it,” Siegal says, though he is perplexed by the fact people don’t wanna take a chance and that it “gnaws at me as well. How could you be an intelligent and a perceptive artist these days without kinda grabbing and using all of the wide ranges of influences out there?”
Well, maybe there’s a happy medium? Other artists have given a little and gained a lot. Why not try to find a happy place somewhere in the middle of creative integrity and commercial viability?
“I don’t compromise and I don’t wanna compromise what I’m doin’,” he says, adding that probably contributes to his obscurity. “I believe I pose a threat to most A& guys, you know? Because uh, I see through their bullshit, to be frank.” And like so many artists, he invokes the labor of love manifesto, claiming success in just being able to eke out a living doing what he’s born to do, even if it confuses and sometimes frightens people.
“Somebody recorded one of the shows we played in Arlington, Va., and they gave me a CD. I put the CD in and listened to it and I said, ‘You know what? No wonder we’re not fuckin’ famous, man. We sound so psychotic [laughs].’”
He has faith things will work out—even postulates that it is. The crowds at the Whitley shows are buying CDs and signing the mailing list; the band is running hot.
“There is a real serious amount of energy we put out,” Siegal says. “Maybe it’ll take a while for people to figure out what the fuck we’re doin’. But I think there are people that do appreciate it and that number is growing, you know?
“I knew this years ago, that the name of the game for me and for my work is patience. I’ve already reached the goal. You reach it all the time, and then you lose it. It’s just kind of a process, man. Rock stardom—that’s a whole materialistic bullshit thing that the media wants to attach—when you sell millions of records. But the phenomenon of reaching your potential as a songwriter or musician, it happens when you get the magic, man.”