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Don Johnson Wants to Be a Rock & Roll Star

The ‘Miami Vice’ star is looking for a hit record to call his own

Don Johnson, Miami Vice

Don Johnson from 'Miami Vice,' in November, 1986.

Michael Putland/Getty

It is high summer in Miami Beach, and the heat is Ethiopian. Down along the sweltering strand, off-season carcinoma fanciers sizzle under the fierce midday sun or baste listlessly in the souplike surf. But up here in the Hotel Alexander, far above the human barbecue, coolness reigns. The air is crisply conditioned, the décor moderne. Don Johnson fits right in.

He is wearing white suede deck shoes, off-white cotton slacks and — this being the season of ”no more earth tones” on Miami Vice — a bright banana-yellow T-shirt. No socks, of course, and the celebrated chin stubble is perfect. A pair of Italian shades lies on the coffee table before him, and his eyes glint green and blue in the sunlight bouncing off a glass-top desk near the windows. Under the desk is a near life-size plastic replica of Elvis the alligator, Detective Sonny Crockett’s eccentric pet; on a nearby wall are two gold keys awarded to Elvis and to Johnson, who plays Crockett on Miami Vice, by the City of North Miami. Elsewhere on the walls are photos of Donnie with famous friends and acquaintances — Cybill Shepherd, Miles Davis, Ronald Reagan — and a swarm of framed magazine covers on which he is featured: People, TV Guide (three of them), Tiger Beat, the Star, even Mad. Also something called the Gorgeous Guys Photo Album. No mention of Don’s recent pay raise — which reportedly put him over the $100,000-per-episode mark but one look at the half pound or so of pricey Ebel wristwatch wrapped around his well-tanned arm or the sleek gray Mercedes that’s parked out front, and you get the idea. Johnson is smiling. Let’s face it, you’d be, too.

We are sitting in the Don Johnson Office, a suite of rooms of which the star’s is the largest. In the others, office staffers — all female, mostly young: the Hen Squad, Don calls them — briskly administer his burgeoning empire. The Hotel Alexander is also home base for the Miami Vice production office, but that’s on another floor and need not concern us. The action’s all here. Don’t misunderstand: Johnson appreciates what Vice has done for him. It’s provided more than just fame and fortune and the attendant perks: the chauffeured Mercedes with the cellular phone and the top drawer Alpine tape deck; the big silver Blue Bird mobile home stocked with the Sony A/V stack, a personal chef and a fridge full of Johnson’s favorite coconut Popsicles; the thirty-eight-foot Scarab speedboat, with twin 420s in the stern, in which the off-duty Don likes to go for restless, postmidnight roars along Miami’s moon-splashed canals, rattling the condo windows of all the less interestingly rich by whom he’s now surrounded.

No, Miami Vice has meant much more than all that. The show has enabled Don Johnson, after eighteen years in showbiz — some of them truly grueling — finally to exercise all his options. Vice is nice: heading into its third season, the New Wave cop show that rewrote the rules for prime-time TV style is hotter than ever. But what it’s mainly allowing him to do is branch out. And at thirty-six, looking back on a drug-addled youth merrily piddled away in bad B movies and worse, branching out is very much on Johnson’s artistic agenda — however towering his current tube renown.

”This won’t last forever,” Don says, chastely sipping a Perrier. ”It’ll change. It’ll become something else, maybe.”

Strike that ”maybe.” In the last year, Johnson — who no longer drinks, smokes, dopes or even sweats, for all a casual observer can tell — has stepped out from under the Vice umbrella to star in a well-received TV remake of The Long Hot Summer and, with buddy Glenn Frey, to appear in a profitable and high-profile Pepsi commercial. Right now he’s got at least three feature-film scripts in development, one of which — he hopes it’s the one that has him playing the manager of a hot, young rock band — will definitely start shooting next spring, during the Vice production break. That annual interlude is playtime for Johnson. This year he utilized it to whip up another project, and that is what really has him grinning now as the day dwindles down toward camera call for the third episode of the upcoming Vice season. Last spring, Johnson began working on some tracks at Miami’s Criteria studios, and the resulting tracks, ten in all, are finally ready for release under the title Heartbeat. It is Don’s debut album.

Yes, you heard that right: Don Johnson has made a record. Already you’re thinking: Spare us, sweet Jesus. Not another TV-star pop move. Not another David-fucking-Hasselhoff, or some hideous New Age Jim Nabors. And not — please, dear God — not another Philip Michael Thomas turn.

Surely you remember? Perhaps not. Thomas, who plays Ricardo Tubbs to Don’s Crockett on Vice, released an album of his own last year, called Living the Book of My Life. It was a humongous bomb — the music a tepid gruel of treacly reggae, the lyrics a mind-puckering jambalaya of self-enthused psychobabble, the sound akin to something one might hear inside an industrial trash dumpster. Thomas took credits for almost all of it and fell flat on his profile. Nice voice. Musical taste: nada. The vaunted Vice charisma did not carry over. Living the Book of My Life made a beeline for the cutout bins, and Philip Michael Thomas’s hipness index dipped precipitously.

So why is Don Johnson, on the eve of offering up his own first disc for critical delectation, still smiling? Lame attempts by TV hotshots to rock out have been routinely savaged by reviewers over the years. Doesn’t he fear backlash, a repeat of the P.M.T. debacle? A possible Vice wipeout?

”I was disappointed for Philip,” he says, rubbing up against the subject with some reluctance. ”Because Philip’s got a beautiful, beautiful voice. But I think he would agree that he just tried to undertake too much, you know? Producing, writing everything. I know this sounds funny from a guy who is doing a television series, developing film projects, doin’ a record and all this shit — but I know my limitations.”

From the outset, he candidly assessed his musical assets as sparse — some at-home guitar slanging; desultory bouts of song scribbling. But he had been singing since his farm-boy days back in Missouri, when he’d soloed on Baptist choir anthems every Sunday. (”People’d pinch me on the cheek, give me a quarter, tell me how wonderful I was — that’s where it all went bad!”) And his light baritone, while limited — whose isn’t in some way? — had a certain sinew to it, a discernible character. He really saw himself as a rocker, too, not just another hunk-puss imposter from the vast video wasteland, and he was determined not to make a hunk-puss record. As a kid, he’d frequently infuriated his father by dialing in black R&B stations out of Kansas City on the family radio. He was an original Beach Boys fanatic and later flipped for the Beatles and the Stones. Nothing radical, but Johnson felt that he, too, as much as anybody else, had lived the rock & roll life. There was a time, he remembered, when it was the life that everybody lived.

That time was the Sixties, of course. Following a mildly delinquent youth in the James Dean mode, Johnson had followed an acting muse to San Francisco in 1968, where he landed his first professional stage job — in an obscure rock musical — and on off nights immersed himself in flower power amid the hippie hordes at the Fillmore and Avalon ballrooms. By 1969, he’d relocated to L.A., hired by actor turned director Sal Mineo to appear in a homosexually explicit version of the prison play Fortune and Men’s Eyes. Acting always remained primary — ”I was less into music than perfecting my craft, so I could make a living at it, you know?” — but before long Johnson was hitting the clubs and catching every hip act from Tim Hardin to the Mothers of Invention. At parties, he’d hang with members of the Mamas and the Papas, or perhaps the Doors, knocking back drinks, smoking dope, maybe snorting a little blow. L.A. was wild then. ”Stayin’ loaded and fucked up all night long, hanging out in the coffee shops, talking political trash with every idiot I could find — that was pretty much what I was into,” Don says.

He also met — and soon moved in with — a noted scenestress of the period named Miss Pamela, a member of the GTO’s (”Girls Together Outrageously”), a group signed to Mothers leader Frank Zappa’s record label. From time to time, Miss Pamela also looked after Zappa’s kids, Moon Unit and Dweezil, and so Frank and Don quickly became acquainted.

”I remember Dweezil being diapered in my presence,” Johnson says, chuckling. ”Frank and I used to talk about doing movies together, crazy videos; and I sang some stuff for him, and we talked about recording, but it just never sort of worked out. He’d be doing a record, or I’d be off in some other universe. But I used to enjoy just bullshitting with him. Frank’s a genius.”

Don’s first movie, The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart, turned out to be a teen-junk abomination, but it took him to New York in the summer of 1969, and there he fell in amid the decadent denizens of Andy Warhol’s Factory — Holly Woodlawn, Baby Jane Holzer, various members of the disintegrating Velvet Underground. The Factory was also where he first laid eyes on Patti D’Arbanville, the actress who, thirteen years later, would become the mother of Don’s son, Jesse, now three. Patti was just seventeen when they met and at the time was posing nude for a Warhol photo layout. It was the era of antic youth and anything goes.

”We were all fairly fucked up,” Don says, ”and the reefer took its toll on my memory. But I do remember we all knew something was happening. We had come together from all over the U.S. — me from Missouri, Holly from Florida, Lou Reed from Long Island, Andy from Michigan or Minnesota or some-fuckin’-where. And the one thing we all had in common was that we hated boredom — I think that’s why we gravitated to each other. We were all young, and completely fuckin’ crazy — completely on the edge and pushin’ the outside of the envelope. It was just a constant ballet of debauchery.”

Cocaine was definitely the hip drug by then, and Johnson dutifully dabbled. He remembers stuffing some up his nose one night in the men’s room of a midtown disco called Hippopotamus. ”I walked out of the bathroom with cocaine all over my upper lip, and I walked dead into this black guy. I looked up, and it was Jimi Hendrix. My jaw hit my chest. He smiles and goes, ‘Man, you can’t be walkin’ around with shit on your face like this’ — and he’s like wiping the blow off my upper lip, you know? He was so charming. I might have given him some blow, I don’t know what the fuck I did. I was thunderstruck.”

Johnson’s next film, Zachariah, released in 1971, considerably expanded his rock connections. Conceived by the Firesign Theatre, the conceptual-comedy troupe, it was an ”electric western” that featured Country Joe and the Fish, Doug Kershaw and Joe Walsh’s James Gang, among other acts. Don remembers its filming as being appropriately uproarious.

”We were all down in Mexico together, makin’ this picture, and of course we were all fucked up and havin’ a wonderful time. We made music constantly. And it occurred to me at the time that although I had spent the last few years concentrating on my acting, I really missed music. So back in L.A., I went down on Hollywood Boulevard, and I bought this twenty-dollar Crown guitar and started teachin’ myself how to play. It didn’t take long to realize that I was not going to play like Eric Clapton. But I found it therapeutic for between acting jobs — they weren’t exactly beatin’ my door down at the time — so I kept at it. I was never gonna be a virtuoso, but I could play.”

By the mid-Seventies, Johnson was embarked upon his fifth film: Return to Macon County, a drag-race epic in which he was paired with another semi-known actor named Nick Nolte. It was while filming this flick down in Georgia that Don made the sudden acquaintance of Allman Brothers guitarist Dickey Betts.

”We were doing a scene where I was in a yellow ’57 Chevy with some guy, and we had blocked the driveway out to this farm. After a while, this crazy son of a bitch in a four-wheel-drive pulled down out of the driveway and started honkin’ his horn and eventually drove right through the scene. I thought that was pretty fuckin’ cool, not to be intimidated by a movie company, which most people are. Somebody said, ‘Yeah, that was Dickey Betts.’ And I went, ‘What? No shit?’ Later that week I was at the Bistro in Macon, and Dickey was there, and I bought him a beer. We started bullshitting, and we sat there and got drunk together. Just became instant friends. It’s a friendship that’s endured several road trips and a couple marriages each. Man, we had some big times together.” (The two also cowrote ”Blind Love” and ”Can’t Take It with You,” which appeared on the band’s 1979 LP Enlightened Rogues.)

The Allman Brothers, with whom Johnson was soon ”roading it,” were a group noted almost as much for their enthusiastic substance abuse as for their music, and they tended to attract similarly oriented interlopers. It was during an Allmans swing through New York one night that Don first encountered Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood. ”We sort of got thrown out of a hotel together,” Don recalls. ”We were just practicing our art. Unfortunately, it was about 4:00 in the morning, and we were drunk or something and jumping up and down on a bed and playing guitars and stuff real loud.”

All right, you get the picture — Johnson’s been around the music scene. But he’s never been in it, exactly, and he knew from the outset of the Heartbeat project that he’d need guidance. He wanted to make a saleable contemporary rock album, but he also wanted it to have spirit and at least some vestigial smidgen of spontaneity — no simple task even for those recording vets vaguely aware of how to go about doing it. He had no band, of course, so he knew he’d have to rely on session players to build his basic tracks. But he was also aware of how tired this strategy had become over the years — backup too seamless can put listeners to sleep. So instead of simply hiring the usual crew of practiced L.A. session aces, he recruited rock manager and record exec Danny Goldberg to monitor the project, and Goldberg brought in Chas Sandford, a guitarist and songwriter who’d recently penned hits for Stevie Nicks (”Talk to Me”) and John Waite (”Missing You”). Johnson liked Sandford, who, like him, had been a hard-core Allman Brothers fan back in the carefree Seventies. So he named him producer and told him to put together a band.

Sandford enlisted bassist Mark Leonard and ex-Jo Jo Gunne drummer Curly Smith. Bill Champlin — frontman for the Sons of Champlin back in the Haight Ashbury days, lately of the band Chicago — was brought in to play keyboards and sing backup vocals. Johnson and Goldberg iced this basic cake with contributions from celebrity pals — spare songs, guest vocals, hot guitar leads. Tom Petty turned over a tune called ”Lost in Your Eyes.” Bob Seger contributed the oddly lilting ”Star Tonight,” and Don got Willie Nelson to drop in and add his trademark harmonies and a gut-string solo to the track. Ron Wood flew down to Florida to strum through a number called ”Heartache Away” and was audibly impressed by that track’s soloist, Stevie Ray Vaughan, another of Johnson’s compadres.

”Stevie Ray’s a trip,” says Don. ”I’ve never seen anybody attack a guitar like he does. He plays so loud that, I mean, I was in fear of not bein’ able to have children. Ron Wood heard him and said, ‘He plays louder than Keith — and believe me, that’s fuckin’ loud!”’

Another guitarist brought on board — for a rousing pop stomper called ”Last Sound Love Makes” — was none other than Dweezil Zappa, now long out of diapers and heading his own band. ”I had heard that Dweezil played like Eddie Van Halen,” says Don, ”and that interested me. But what most interested me was that he had a band named Fred Zeppelin — I laughed so hard when I heard that. So Dweezil came down and played his ass off. His solo on that track is one of my favorite things on the album.”

Also chiming in on the sessions was singer Bonnie Raitt, whom Don had met last year at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. ”She was playing on this river boat, the President, and I was standing stage right when she came off. She went, ‘Oh, my God! It’s him!’ I looked behind me to see who the fuck she was talkin’ about. She said, ‘No — you, you dummy!’ Turned out she’s a big fan of the show. And I just love her voice; she sings like an angel. So we went backstage, and there was this well-known rhythm & blues band back there. Bonnie went into their room and said, ‘Guess who’s here — the guy from Vice.’ And the whole band took their drugs and threw ’em out the window of the boat! It’s true! She said, ‘No, you fuckin’ idiots — the guy from Miami Vice.’ ”

Finally, Whoopi Goldberg, yet another pal, came down to Criteria just to hang out, but Johnson inveigled her into teaming with him on a James Brown-style rap track called ”Streetwise.” It won’t appear on the album — it’s a little too horn charged and hard edged to fit in — but it will be featured on Miami Vice next season (as will ”Star Tonight”), and there’ll also be a separate ”Streetwise” video. In fact, a full-length conceptual video, made up of all the songs on the album, is being planned. Does the finished LP justify such lavish elaboration? CBS Records obviously thinks so — it’s footing the many bills — and Johnson himself is not too modest to agree. The surprising thing is, both may well be right. Heartbeat is a shrewd and seductive record: an impeccably produced commercial rock album that ranges comfortably across several contemporary styles — from the sing along, smart pop of ”Last Sound Love Makes” and ”Heartbeat” (the first single, an overhauled Eric KazWendy Waldman composition) to the Eagles-like ”Lost in Your Eyes,” the stark, Elton John-ish ”Can’t Take Your Memory” and the subtly haunting ”Star Tonight,” which sounds for all the world like just the kind of hit Neil Young could use right about now. Whatever the album’s ultimate marketplace fate, Johnson says it’s come out sounding exactly the way he wanted it, and that’s enough. Of course, he would like to sell a few of the suckers, too.

”If it flies, great,” he says. ”If it doesn’t,” he adds with a laugh, ”well, I hope it sells enough so they’ll let me make another one.”

We are wolfing down pasta in the kitchen of the big Bluebird trailer, parked somewhere in the affluent wilds of Coconut Grove. Johnson, between takes, is wearing one of his new Vice suits, a charcoal Gianni Versace number that he may well have acquired from the designer himself (Don was a house guest not long ago at Versace’s lakeside palace in Como, Italy). Even more decorative is the girl by his side, a young model named Donya (no lie) Fiorentino. Donya is from Florida, and first became aware of Don a few years ago when he moved in next door to her family. He was her first love. But she… . . . well, she dumped him, it seems, to take up with an English musician named Andrew Ridgely, known to Brit teens as one-half — the lesser half, actually — of the rabidly adored pop duo Wham! Recently, with Ridgely’s future in considerable question following Wham!’s demise, Donya dumped him, moved out of their Monte Carlo digs and returned to Johnson. She is now all of eighteen. So much for D.J.’s alleged lifelong attraction to older women. And so much for gossip.

Don is on to more substantial topics. His foray into the music biz has been educational. Like, what’s with this PMRC — the group of Washington wives who want to rate records and, in general, remove from all kids’ reach anything to the artistic left of, say, Howard Jones? Don’s recording mentor, Danny Goldberg, founded a countergroup called the Musical Majority just to beat back the cultural incursions being made by such politically well-connected fuds. Don finds their intermittent successes dismaying.

”I’m absolutely and completely against the PMRC,” he says, in a tone that would not be inappropriate to the consideration of a bowlful of dead beetles. ”It’s bullshit. Either you have freedom of speech, or you don’t. That’s my feeling about censorship, pornography, all that stuff. Some people talk about pornography promoting violence, but violence is a result of repression, not liberalism. ‘

‘The sexual revolution brought free sex and all that, and it was prevalent for a long time, but now it seems to be waning. People are saying, ‘Look, it doesn’t work. You can’t just have free sex, everybody fucking and sucking all over the place. You’ve gotta have some sort of code of morals, some integrity that works for you.’ Okay, there was a gigantic explosion of pornography in the Seventies. But recently… well, look at Playboy, Penthouse. And Playgirl‘s just gone bankrupt. Those magazines are not happening. So my feeling is, the less you regulate a society, the more it will regulate itself.”

Of course, if there really is a sexual recession, the spread of AIDS may have more than a little to do with it. Don agrees — these are ominous times on the dating scene. But while he admits to having done some ”major womanizing” in his day, he claims he was never as rapaciously promiscuous as some may have thought, even in pre-AIDS days.

”I don’t like one-night stands,” he says. ”I mean, I’ve been there, it’s happened; but my experience is that you’re left empty and unsatisfied. There has to be some poetry.”

Nor — despite rumors that he posed for youthful skin shots hawked in the back pages of gay-men’s magazines — was he ever bisexual. He never posed nude, he says, but neither was he averse to baring a little flesh to hype his hunk quotient. ”Some gay magazines probably got some pictures I had done with some photographer or another, and they published them. I don’t really have an opinion about that. I made up my mind a long time ago that a person’s sexuality doesn’t make a difference. It’s so hard to maintain relationships in this world anyway that what ever gets you off seems perfectly fine with me. I think I still have a large gay following — and I’m proud of ’em.”

He is about to tear into the recent Supreme Court antisodomy decision (”That’s what happens when you let the highest court in the land get too far to the right of center”) when he catches himself and stops. He finds the idea of simple pop stars promoting their usually unremarkable political philosophies distasteful, not to mention tedious. Singers should sing, players should play. He’s done his bit; now the public can decide whether he should press on or, in the future, just stick to doing prime-time designer shoot-outs on the tube. However the reviews may fall, Johnson is convinced he’s delivered more than just another TV-star-goes-pop LP. But can that really be enough? Doesn’t he, deep down, really hope that Heartbeat will make him the nation’s newest musical sensation? ‘

‘Well,” Don says, with appealing realism, ”I’m not really new. I’m just sort of current.”

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