This week, unique and influential musician Art Johnson has died outside his home in New York at the age of 53. The circumstances surrounding his death are still unclear, but it appears that he choked to death on a parking ticket which he refused to pay. He was eating it in protest when he met his tragic end.
Johnson was always wary of authority. He first came to prominence in the music bars of New York in the 1980s, playing songs in his own shambolic style, which received rave reviews. Notoriously he would not let anyone record his music, and even now it is practically impossible to find any of his early recordings. When he finally signed a record contract with EMU in 1989, he refused to attend studio sessions at all.
His manager Peter Pigg remembers him well. "I'll be honest," he recalled fondly, "He was a ****. The most uncooperative **** I have ever come across. Basically he just took our money and wouldn't give us the album we wanted. So we sued him. And we were successful, which is where his first record came from."
Johnson's 1993 album "Contractual Obligations" reflected the obstinate nature of the artist. With original and challenging tracks such as "I Didn't Actually Write This Song" and "Seven Minutes of Humming To Fill Up The Second Half", it was instantly hailed as a postmodern classic.
Art critic Art Critic called it a masterpiece. "It's a masterpiece," he said.
But the album sold poorly and was seriously maligned at the time. Pigg remembered the public reaction. "No other EMU album had ever had so many returns. I was ****ing furious. We realised too late that Johnson had been ****ing about, not producing his best. He was trying to **** us over with some ****y second rate ****. So we sued him again."
It took another six years in court before the record company and Johnson came to another agreement. Both parties agreed that Johnson would make a second album, with the condition that he would not be allowed to put in any tracks which were "sub-standard or throw-away".
Johnson used the condition as an excuse to delay his work, and it was 2005 before the album was finally ready for release. By then he had been living off EMU expenses for well over a decade, and the company were quite sick of him.
Somehow he managed to get away with calling the album "The Record Company's Grip". It was a dark and sarcastic album, from the opening number "I Believe This Song Is Good Enough" to the final "If You Don't Accept This I'm Never Recording Anything Again". It was full of brooding bitterness and tuneless discordant rhythms. The record company were not happy, but agreed that Johnson had not broken the rules this time.
Relieved, he was finally let go by EMU, who were glad to be rid of him at last. To make ends meet, Johnson began busking again, and seemed to have a talent for it. Peter Pigg recalls hearing him one day. "It was about a year after we let him go. I was walking down the street, and I heard the ****. And he sounded ***ing brilliant. I told him that if he agreed that we could record him busking, then we would sign him up immediately and forgive his old ways. Of course he was short of money by then so he agreed."
Johnson's final album, "Me Busking, Live", was a disaster. Although he could be heard singing his original songs as never before, the recording was marred by a constant cacophony of car-horns, shouting, police sirens, gunfire and dogs barking - the everyday sounds of the streets of inner New York.
One of his best songs, "Vole Love", has a middle section which has been praised as "the most amazing chord sequence in musical history". On the album, the first half-second of it is audible, before being drowned out by the sound of an ice cream van and a horde of hungry children chasing it as it parked in front of the microphone.
Following the release of the album, Johnson grew tired of the music industry and began working as a freelance bin man. He had been doing that for a few years when his tragic accident occurred.
Johnson will be remembered warmly by the very few people who heard him play. To the rest of us he will forever remain an enticing mystery, as we will never now have the opportunity to hear what he actually sounded like.