When I got out of my car at the Amherst Motel where he lives, Bennie Johnson knew who I was, even though he'd never seen me. I was early, and my car was one of several in the parking lot, but he came out of his place, looked straight over and said, "Hi, James, how're you doing?"
There's something engaging about Johnson from the second you meet him. It just made sense that he knew me. He led me in from the hard rain to his small apartment, where I was greeted by several guys enjoying plates of fried chicken, corn and mac and cheese. This is apparently par for the course with Johnson, who makes it known that anyone who needs a meal can drop by. He likes to cook for people, and he'd told me to come prepared to eat, that he was cooking his specialty and I was to try it.
It's hardly the usual interview setup, a five-way conversation between bites of fried chicken. I always bring along a digital recorder or, as in this case, a notebook, but my notebook was rendered useless between juggling the plate Johnson handed me, chatting with the rest of the crew, and keeping up with Johnson, who tells his tales at a good clip and with a habit of telling several in quick succession.
Early on, he handed me a photocopied page, part of a work in progress, and said something like, "This will tell you how I got my superpowers."
Maybe that's how he knew.
I soon got the lowdown on everyone in the room. Trent Aaron Poole is a young guy in a baseball cap who doesn't say much at first. Johnson says he needed an artist for his new project, and in short order, he met Poole at the bus stop.
Ron Nestor makes videos for Amherst television, and has been a big promotor of Johnson and interviewed him on-air. Chris Bartolich, an amiable guy who helps Johnson on some of his many outings, met Johnson at a Bible study. He is, says Johnson, "the Robin to my Batman."
It's clear that this won't be a traditional interview, but it's already worth the trip—Johnson, originally from the New Orleans area, makes the kind of food you usually have to travel a thousand miles southward to find.
There are plenty of reasons to talk about Bennie Johnson, but the reason I went over for a plate of food and a earful of chat is his new comic book. It's a perfect genre for a caped crusader, of course, and Johnson is literally that. He can be elusive—he's won two Grand Band Slam awards for Best Street Musician, but despite repeated searches, no one managed to find him in action either year to take a photo.
A lot of people only know Johnson as "Bennie The Bucket Man" or "The Motown Man." You can often find him singing Motown hits, armed with a five-gallon plastic bucket, usually on the street in or near downtown Amherst. He's been such a fixture around town that, he says, a bunch of fraternity members dressed like him one year and came down to see him play.
"A lot of people said it was racist," he tells me. "They were white—dressed up like me. I enjoyed it. But a black group thought they were making fun of me. I had to defuse the situation. I had to think quick."
So Johnson brought out one of the props he'd carried along, a clay statue of him some kids made and gave him. He told the group about his museum of homespun tributes. He saw his young white imitators as a good thing, as the same kind of tribute.
His take must have been convincing: "Two weeks later one of the people in the black group was dressed like me!"
His comic book, The Adventures of Motown Man, is the kind of art that gets called "outsider"; artist Poole's drawings are accompanied by a profusion of handwritten text in speech bubbles, and the tales that unspool in them are combinations of speculation, myth-making, tall tale, and, of course, some earnest reality. It's hard to know where one ends and the other begins with a grand storyteller like Johnson. Finding that line is hardly the point, though.
Johnson says a lot of people assume he's homeless, and it's clear, too, that many don't realize that the colorful capes he dons to play his bucket and sing are only partly an affectation: he casts himself as a superhero, a champion of the homeless and downtrodden who works with the materials at hand and the people around him. Johnson does so much with just a bucket and a voice that it's hard to argue he's anything but a figure in possession of superpowers of some sort.
Issue one of his comic (he plans an ongoing series) introduces a villain who poisons a farmer's crops and one of Motown's sidekicks, and features the protagonist taking the Oprah Winfrey show by storm and turning a Tea Party rally upside down. It's an ambitious bit of self-promotion, and offers a great glimpse into the world as Johnson sees it. He plans to make the comics available at bookstores Valley-wide.
Johnson is a polarizing figure with a history of doing what he sees as unequivocal good in ways that sometimes make people uncomfortable, angry or even litigious.
Twenty-seven years ago, he was the subject of an expansive Valley Advocate story ("The Robin Hood File," Jan. 4, 1984) examining a case brought against him by the Northwest District Attorney's office. In short, Johnson was accused of stealing money that had been donated to a group he started at the Florence Heights development in Northampton called the Unemployed Coalition.
To a lot of Florence Heights residents, Johnson was a godsend, helping them get food when they couldn't afford to buy it and even landing some residents jobs. To others, he was big on promises, but couldn't always deliver. Even his detractors, however, couldn't envision him as a thief. Even the supposedly aggrieved parties who donated money to the Unemployed Coalition—including the Edwards Church in Northampton and MassMutual—thought Johnson had been clear enough about how the money would be used.
The exception was the DA's office. An Assistant DA went so far as to ask the Advocate's reporter, when she brought up Johnson, "You mean Mr. Jive?" She went on to dub him a "bullshitter" and a "small-time con artist."
The case ended with Johnson pleading guilty to a lesser charge of embezzling $250, which brought him a year of probation instead of a possible 15 years of prison time.
Things often seem to go that way for Johnson. He is a charismatic guy, a big dreamer who's easy to like. All his plans may not come to fruition, but he keeps right on going, coming up with innovative ways to help the homeless and the downtrodden, and often succeeding.
One of his innovations from his Florence Heights days got national attention, even landing him on television with Phil Donahue. He called it Pay to Be Poor, and it was an exchange program in which the well-heeled paid hundreds of dollars to come live at Florence Heights and experience poverty firsthand.
When he breaks out his bucket and the rest of his accoutrements—a pink cowboy hat, a kazoo with a mic taped on—Johnson's whole demeanor changes. He always wears some measure of earnestness, but when he sings, his brow creases, and he gets something akin to the 1,000-yard stare. He's not exactly focused on the here and now.
His voice isn't huge; there's a softness that's belied by his outsized presence. His bucket keeps time, and that voice slides along the contours of Motown melodies with ease.
U2's Bono used to talk about "soul music," a concept he saw as trumping the usual boundaries of genre. For him, it was a measure of connection, of authentic vitality and individuality in music that might be found in John Coltrane as easily as Bruce Springsteen or Aretha Franklin. That term is the only one that's adequate to describe what Bennie Johnson does.
There's nothing of empty showmanship, nothing of affectation. This is, you can tell from the first note, an outpouring of something real, something that's all Bennie. It's an easy mistake to think all buskers are somehow lesser musicians than the sort who inhabit high-dollar stages and traipse around in tour buses. Record companies support musicians for reasons that don't always include talent and soul.
Often it's mesmerizing to hear Johnson play—there are a lot of miles and a lot of years in his voice, and there's a lot of hard-won confidence in his easy way with songs.
He's been playing a long time, and he learned in the kind of place that's good for myth-making: "I learned at a place called Alligator Bayou, about 15 miles out of New Orleans in the swamps. It was called that 'cause alligators were all around the place—but they were kind of trained. They were used to music."
He says Alligator Bayou hosted lots of blues players, and he learned by listening and doing. "Me and my brother played the washboard and the spoons," he says. "I play some harmonica. I played guitar too, but I quit doing that. I can play most anything by ear."
Even in his music-making, Johnson stirs up trouble. Northampton street musicians have to get a permit, and the rules say no drums are allowed.
Johnson says the police chief didn't care for him. "He would say, 'People are complaining. They say it's junk music.'
His permit was revoked.
"He didn't like it because I was making a lot of money. The musicians didn't like me either, because they said when I would come around they wouldn't make money." Nonetheless, Johnson says, "I don't consider myself better than anybody—I just play Motown music!"
In the end, Johnson says, he got his permit back. "I went to a committee meeting and played 'Dock of the Bay' for them and they overruled. I was the only one allowed to play the drum in Northampton."
With a track record of such unconventional victories, it's easy to see why Johnson inhabits a cape so easily.
Another of his recent musical victories was as elegant as it was revealing of his spirit. He'd been playing in front of Whole Foods in Hadley, and Whole Foods' management, he says, complained to him.
Johnson put his penchant for outside-the-bounds justice into practice once again, taking his bucket just as far away as necessary. He laughs big when he tells me, "I moved one brick over!"