As It Happens

'He was fearless about everything': Denis Johnson, author of Jesus' Son, dead at 67

The painter Sam Messer pays tribute to his friend and collaborator, the poet, journalist, and author of Jesus' Son, Denis Johnson.
Denis Johnson, author of Jesus' Son and Tree of Smoke, died this week. He was 67. (Cindy Lee Johnson/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

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Denis Johnson was often called a writers' writer.

And in the tributes pouring out on Twitter, author after author is sharing quotes and expression of awe at what the poet, journalist and short story master managed to do with the English language. 

Johnson died earlier this week at the age of 67.

Samuel Messer is a painter and the associate Dean at Yale University's School of Art. Johnson had been his friend since they met in 1981. Messer spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about how he is remembering his long-time friend and collaborator. 
Sam Messer and the late Denis Johnson standing in front of one of Messer's paintings. (Sam Messer)

Carol Off: Sam, first of all, my condolences for your loss. How are you remembering your friend today?

Samuel Messer: My wife and I went for a long walk and we were just sitting down and writing down all our memories of DJ — I call Denis DJ — of all the times we spent together, starting for me back in 1981.

CO: How did you meet Denis Johnson in '81?

SM: We were both fortunate enough to have residencies at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Centre, where there were 10 writers and 10 visual artists.

CO: And what were your impressions of him?

SM: That he was insane. That he was just amazing. Just someone who always had the biggest grin on his face and was always astonished about everything. We just kind of bonded right away and started doing things together. He was the first living writer that I ever realized I knew and I think I was the first living artist. Before that we always knew people who were in the history books.

CO: And as your friendship deepened, what did you learn about him?

SM: I learned how to be nonjudgmental. Denis was the least judgmental person I've ever met in my life. He was also someone who never lost that first thing that I first knew of him, which was he never lost his sense of wonder or astonishment. He was always, in a sense, fearless. He was fearless about everything. He taught me not to fear myself because he overcame himself. Just the stories over the years that he would tell me, from meeting Charles Taylor, to being in places in the world and just without judging anyone. 

CO: And when you say Charles Taylor, you mean in Liberia?

SM: Yes, he interviewed Charles Taylor. He and a reporter from The New York Times got ushered in to meet Taylor. Taylor never spoke to them but he had them sit down and Taylor had a reggae band that played for them and then proceeded to show them an 8-track tape of him interviewing and basically torturing and killing Sam Doe. Denis said he realized the way the chair and the TV were, where Sam Doe had been. Then Taylor gave him these T-shirts with their band's name on it. He came back and saw us in California after that. When he came back he said he washed the T-shirt and it was a Coca-Cola T-shirt that had been painted over. Denis also had been in Kabul when the Taliban took over and he actually was in New York on 9/11. Just his reactions to all of those things showed me he had no hatred and no judgment. 

He never lost his sense of wonder or astonishment. He was always, in a sense, fearless. He taught me not to fear myself because he overcame himself.- Samuel Messer

CO: What you're describing are things he wrote about in the journalism or essays he put together based on those experiences. Most of what he wrote though seems to have come from his own expressions and from his own internal world. If you met him in the early '80s he had recovered from horrible drug addiction and alcoholism at that point. How did he draw on those experiences, in his own fiction, and in, I guess the most astonishing of his stories that people have been influenced by, in Jesus' Son. Where did you see his experiences turn up in his fiction?

SM: Well everything in that book was true. Denis was F--khead. That's the lead character. That was Denis. The amazing thing about that book is that he uses the same words as everyone else but the miracle is they don't sound like anyone else's. He spoke once, I think it was New Yorker thing, where he talked about he learned about poetry that you just have to write about your life and he said, "Oh, so it's easy to be a poet." That's what he did for the rest of his writing. But he was able to write more than just about himself. Those stories, though they came from his life, he was never selfish. So they were never really to speak about him personally overcoming anything.

CO: The stories though are insane and astonishing, as you've described him. They are outrageous experience and this comes from his own life does it?

SM: Yes and they came from his life because if you knew Denis, you would realize that Denis was so open. He was that way to other people and people were that way to him. Just the energy that Denis put out and the way that when you saw him people were not afraid to be who they really were. They were not afraid to have to pretend. I just saw that from every experience whenever I was with Denis.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Samuel Messer.


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