West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 19 | October 10 - 16, 2007

Obituaries

Dean Johnson, 45, gay party promoter on Downtown scene

By Paul Schindler

Dean Johnson, a self-proclaimed rock-and-roll fag, porn star, party promoter and junkie, was found dead in Washington, D.C., last week, but went days before being identified.

A thorough original, Johnson, unmistakable at 6 foot, 6 inches tall (before the heels), with a shaved head and one or another flamboyant selection of eyewear, was a fixture on the Downtown hipster/party scene for more than two decades. He was 45.

His death came under mysterious circumstances and was announced days after a desperate e-mail from band mates circulated inquiring about anyone with knowledge of his whereabouts. The message explained that one of them had received an alarming cell phone call about him from an unknown man after Johnson had uncharacteristically missed a gig.

The Washington Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed that an autopsy was performed but said no determination of the cause of death had yet been made. The office also confirmed rumors circulating that another man was found dead at the scene, but would not divulge the name of that individual.

Though Johnson frequently talked publicly about his drug use, saying on one occasion that he did heroin through most of the time the current president’s father was in office in the late 1980s and early ’90s, friends and journalists who had seen him in the past several years said he was clean. New York magazine’s Intelligencer column quoted friend Joe Birdsong saying that Johnson had battled drugs “historically, but in the past year he had cleaned that up.”

Through the years, Johnson worked with many of the biggest names in the Downtown scene and threw some of the best-known parties. In the late ’80s, he was famous for his Rock and Roll Fag Bar parties and a decade later was featuring such stars as Kevin Aviance at his monthly HomoCorps musical showcases at CBGB, then still a Bowery hotspot.

With his bands Dean and the Weenies and later the Velvet Mafia, Johnson performed gigs at Downtown clubs over three decades, and with Holly Woodlawn, he was pictured in Vanity Fair.

With newer party promoters such as Jonny McGovern, Johnson also hosted more down-and-dirty gatherings at venues such as the Cock. This month, he was scheduled to host a weekly reading series, “Reading for Filth,” at Rapture Cafe & Books on Avenue A.

A sketchy diary, running from the year 1979 through 2004, posted on VelvetMafiaTheBand.com, chronicles his encounters with the famous and the dubious, from Andy Warhol and Grace Jones to Vietnam vets with whom he turned tricks in Jersey City alleyways for crack money: “Back to rehab” is the closer on that last entry. Slight as it is, the diary nonetheless provides snapshots of New York’s queer evolution over 25 years — from cruising and sex on abandoned Hudson River piers to the early days of Danceteria, Area and the Pyramid; from the heyday of the East Village art scene peopled with stars such as David Wojnarowicz to the emergence of sleazy party scenes at the Hole and the Cock.

The Velvet Mafia site also includes Johnson’s tribute to his late mother, Linda Lee Atkins, who died at her home in Litchfield, Maine, in 2005 after a long bout with cancer. The tribute said she was “always unconditionally supportive of my work,” and Johnson is said to have spent considerable time in her final years caring for her.

Dean Johnson is survived by his father, Ellis Johnson, and his sister, Beth.


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