-By Gary 17, TorontoMoon.ca
The first person I ever saw play a guitar live, in 1964 or early ‘65 in a church basement in the upper-middle-class suburb of Aldershot in Burlington, was a scruffy, “greaser” (as we called them in those days) bad boy who lived with his family in the motel they owned and was in every way a stark contrast to most of my school mates. Such was my introduction to the visceral power of Rock ‘n’ Roll and to self-proclaimed “Rock’n’ Roll Rebel” Johnnie Lovesin.
According to his wife, Michelle, posting on his Facebook timeline, Johnnie passed away unexpectedly three months shy of his 70th birthday on the evening of February 23.
Shortly after his special appearance at the weekly “Canteen” teen dance, where he dazzled us with electric guitar acrobatics and that has stayed so alive in my memory, Johnnie quit school and moved away to take up residence in “The Village” of Yorkville in TO, where he soon created an enduring legend for himself both as a musician and as an infamous part of the drug subculture there. As part of that scene he was a seminal component of what has become known as “The Toronto Sound” that marks that time and place as a sonically unique halcyon decade.
Prior to his church basement concert and leaving Burlington, Johnnie had sat behind me during one of his stints in Grade 9 and relieved his evident boredom by tormenting me in various ways; but we became friendly thirty or so years later when I began covering the live music scene in TO after starting The Open Season and then to-nite and had occasion to write about him many times leading up to and after release of his dynamic 1996 album Ready To Rumble, which I enthusiastically reviewed in to-nite.
Of course he had continued to set the TO Rock scene ablaze all along, including some memorable concerts of which videotapes and/or audio recordings have survived. YouTube vids of a particularly scintillating show he staged at Diamond Club in 1986 include performances of the song “Bad Talk” from the album he’d just released, Tough Breaks, which had followed his 1980 debut Set The Night on Fire and 1983’s Rough Side of Town.
On the videos Johnnie exhibits the same uninhibited demeanour and in-yer-face, uncompromising, undiluted and loud Rock ‘n’ Roll that characterized pretty much all of his live shows. It wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea —but who drinks tea while they’re rocking it out anyways?
A three-night 1990 show he did opening for the Ramones at El Mocambo [tapes of which drummer Dennis Brunet ironically had announced just earlier this month that he is in the process of putting together as a live album] was controversial at the time, apparently. Promoter Gary Topp felt compelled to post on social media today that “Gary [his partner in The Garys] and I stand by our decision to have Johnnie and his Invisible Band open the first three Ramones shows in Canada. What he did was punk in very sense. He bucked the punk image. He was huge in personality, a great musician and a really sweet man.” According to a Toronto Sun reviewer, he had “blown the Ramones off the stage.”
By the time I came onto the scene in early 1992, Johnnie was already a certified legend and had gigs at bars across the city too numerous to mention and we began to run into each other a lot, bonding through both music and our shared upbringing.
One day from that time stands out to me: in the summer of ’93 or ‘94, he and I and our children (my daughter Crystal Melody and his two boys, Morgan and Britain) ended up doing the CNE together —the kids all delighting in the rides and Johnnie and I making the most of the beer garden, where we happily reminisced and bullshitted the day away while simultaneously feeling like good dads.
By May of 1996, Johnnie had put out a new album, Ready To Rumble, which was released in the basement of The Drake Hotel back before its gentrified makeover, when the room was briefly known as Rockin’ Blues Bar. But less than a month after the release party he suffered a near cataclysmic brain aneurysm while performing at a concert at Nathan Phillips Square. A benefit show to help him along was staged at Grossman’s Tavern, where he’d often performed in its halcyon days, featuring some of the scene’s most celebrated artists.
Nevertheless, it was not at all certain that he would survive or retain all his mental and physical faculties if he did —but, after a couple of weeks or so in intensive care, bounce back Johnnie did, in spades. By November he was back in action on a regular basis, as we reported in a brief snippet in to-nite on November 6 and ended up taking over leadership of the house band at the legendary Matador after-hours club, where he’d also been a longtime fixture.
It was during that period, in the summer of 1997, that Johnnie also demonstrated to me what a stand-up guy he could be as a friend. After I temporarily became homeless following a disastrous situation with an unscrupulous landlord, he offered me a room in his house at no charge, from whence, in the two weeks I stayed as his guest, I was able to start marshalling my resources to deal with my situation.
In addition to his activities on stage in those years, Johnnie also continued a regimen that included regular boxing workouts and he was a favourite of the local ring community. He was always proud of his ability to box and in fact one of the last photos from his recent years of failing health shows him still affecting the pose —albeit from a bar stool and with his cane handy.
Speaking of fights and rumbles, no portrait of Johnnie would be complete without a mention of his lifelong association with biker gangs, going right back to his Burlington days. For a couple of patch groups he was pretty much the official Rock ‘n’ Roll entertainer of record, including and especially The Vagabonds, for whom he wrote his timeless anthem “Vagabond Song”.
By the spring of 2002, I was reporting in to-nite that “the 52-year old fireball is as busy as ever and this weekend appears Saturday night at Waves Sports Bar in Etobicoke, then guests with Bear Sun. at J.R.’s Bar & Grill, where he’ll also showcase Sat. June 22. He’ll also appear at Timothy’s Pub the following Sat. and is featured Fridays at Mickey Magoo’s.”
Another report, from June of 2002, mentions he was “stepping up his gigging roster in preparation to finishing recording a new album of original songs, including his anthemic “Vagabond Song”. The veteran guitar ace drew a strong crowd last Saturday at J.R.’s Bar & Grill, where he appeared with a five piece band that included a saxist, percussionist Rocco and his usual power rhythm section of drummer Nick Cautillo and bassist Chris Chown.”
Johnnie pretty much kept up that pace through 2003 and into 2004, but after his mother passed away he subsequently moved into what had become the family home in the hamlet of Jordan, Ontario, in the heart of Niagara Region’s Wine Country and his appearances started to become infrequent.
Although he continued to perform occasionally for a few years and had been doing some recording at a studio he set up in the house, other health issues began to afflict him, particularly restricting his mobility and eventually requiring the use of a cane and a mobility scooter over the past several years.
Nevertheless, he roused himself to appear at occasional house parties and for what is now going to be regarded as a legendary show in Toronto for his birthday in May of 2016, about which we reported at the time.
By Thanksgiving that October, however, as we subsequently also reported, he was hospitalized with an unspecified but serious condition and at some point was moved either to rehab or a longer-care facility in Toronto.
Tough breaks Johnnie had a few of in his life, but whining about them just never seemed to occur to him. In every photo posted to social media of him while in care, he’s smiling or looking defiant and he continued to profess a “take no prisoners” attitude till the end.
Naturally tributes to this iconic Rockabilly/Rock ace have been flowing steadily on his Facebook page and other social media since the announcement of his passing was made Sunday evening.
Perhaps the most touching I’ve read is this one from his brother William Lovsin [sic] on Johnnie’s Facebook page:
“To my dear brother Janez. I am so deeply heartbroken to hear of your passing so early in your life with so many songs left unwritten. For me you were always my songwriter musician hero and was eternally proud to point you out as my brother to my friends.
“I have to say this. On Feb 23 I was at a Variety Show ‘Tribute to the Beatles” (Florida) and thinking about Johnnie and how he would easily fit in that band. I would be so proud to say - Hey. That’s my brother up there. It was 7:30. When I first heard of his passing next day I said to my wife ‘I was thinking of Johnnie around 7:30 last night.’ Later in the day when speaking to Michelle she told me Johnnie died at 7:30.
“Through tears in my eyes I write this with passion and regret that he is gone. Never forget . Love you brother Johnnie. William”
Details have not yet been announced as to visitations or a funeral or life celebration but I shall share that information with subscribers when it becomes available.
-Copyright © 2019 by Gary “17” Webb-Proctor & TorontoMoon.ca. All Rights Reserved