Madison won’t be the same without Johnny in the audience.
Over the last month a lot of Madisonians—and especially musicians, music fans, and people who have lived here for a long time—have been processing the death of Johnny Miller. He died on October 9 at the age of 55. If you went to see live music in Madison with any frequency over the past 30 years or so, chances are you’ve seen Johnny in the crowd, often taking photos and in recent years obsessively taking videos with a little Flip camera.
Johnny went to so many shows that I can’t really pinpoint exactly when I met him—sometime soon after I moved here in 2006. I do know that not long after we met, we were at a show and got into a conversation about these nice earplugs he used. A couple weeks later we ran into each other again and he gave me a pair out of a big box of them that he’d ordered to share around with his frequent show-going friends. He was randomly generous that way, and generous also with his humor and his brilliantly warped view of the world. Perhaps that’s why, despite being such a loner and dealing with great personal struggles and self-destructive tendencies, he was still well-known and well-liked. I’m sure many people just know him as an eccentric, frequently Hawaiian-shirted figure, but many of us also experienced his kindness and warmth and cracked up at his warped jokes, even though seemingly almost no one ever got very close to him. Years later, Johnny even helped me get some temp work at a time when I really needed it.
Before he died, Johnny apparently erased much of himself from the Internet, deleting most of his Facebook friends and not leaving many pictures or other traces. What he did leave up was his YouTube account, with hundreds of videos he took during the last six years of his life. It’s insane to browse through, spanning from touring artists including Robyn Hitchcock (Johnny’s favorite) to local bands like Dick The Bruiser, from jazz to punk to country, from club shows to the Sugar Maple Traditional Music Festival to Dockstock (an annual get-together at a practice space on the south side, near where Johnny lived).
I never really understood Johnny’s impulse to document shows so obsessively, but looking back through all this now, I’m glad he did. I see now that it was important to him, and it reminds me of, well, nearly all the times we got to hang out. This was what he chose to leave behind. Not only did he love music, but he also found a sense of community in it. Music provides that for a lot of people who have trouble finding it elsewhere.
Johnny also left behind, on his Facebook account, a few photos and videos he took in the UW Arboretum. Last year he told me he’d been taking daily walks there. He used to post a lot of photos and videos of the flowers and mushrooms and trees, and that seemed to give him a bit of peace during some difficult times. In his obituary, Johnny’s family asks that people donate to the Arboretum in lieu of flowers. A few friends have set up a Facebook memorial. A family service was held in Milwaukee, where Johnny was from originally, but a few of us are working on planning a Madison event in his honor soon.
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