Disquieting Death Stills the Nightlife
THE call came at 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 20, a warm, sun-filled Thursday in New York.
Amanda Pollock remembered rushing about her fourth-floor walk-up on the Lower East Side, getting ready for a noon writing class while tending to her colicky year-old son. She was delighted by the number displayed on her phone. It belonged to Dean Johnson, a 6-foot-6 gay performer and stalwart of New York’s underground music scene. Ms. Pollock, who once sang in Mr. Johnson’s band, the Velvet Mafia, had seen him 12 days earlier, dancing and singing at the Howl Festival in the East Village, where an adoring crowd greeted him with roars.
But the voice on the line belonged to a stranger and sounded tense. Ms. Pollock said he asked her if she was close to Mr. Johnson. He had taken a sleeping pill, the man said, and was not waking up.
“I’m freaked out,” the man said.
“Call 911,” Ms. Pollock said she told him, her stomach churning, before the caller hung up.
She had no idea who the man was, or where he was. The next morning, Ms. Pollock sent an e-mail message to Mr. Johnson’s band mates, telling them that a stranger had called and that Mr. Johnson had not replied to messages she had left all night.
At first, his band mates were not overly concerned. Mr. Johnson had told them that he planned to visit someone in Washington for a day, though they did not know whom. After 25 years as a club performer, sex party promoter and gay escort, Mr. Johnson, who was 46, knew people all over and often traveled to visit them. Yet he always returned phone and e-mail messages. Knowing him, his friends reasoned, he had forgotten his cellphone charger, or dropped his phone in a toilet. Maybe his computer was still on the fritz from the coffee he had spilled on its keyboard the previous week.
BUT their anxieties grew as the days passed. Desperate for clues, two friends gained access to his e-mail account. Ms. Pollock called hospitals and morgues in Washington and Baltimore, only to be told that no one named Dean Johnson was there. After Mr. Johnson did not show up for band rehearsal on Sept. 27, his friends called the Washington police and finally got an answer. Mr. Johnson’s body was in the city morgue; it had been there for a week.
As details of his death surfaced, the mystery around it grew. Four days earlier, the police had found the body of another man, Jeremy Conklin, 26, at the same apartment — that of Steven S. Saleh. Mr. Conklin had been pronounced dead at a nearby hospital, said Inspector Rodney Parks of the Washington police.
For Dean Johnson, whose heyday in the 1980s mirrored the rise and fall of New York’s bohemian downtown club scene, and who rarely kept the salacious details of his life private, it seemed an inconceivable way to go. The apartment Mr. Johnson died in was at the end of a nondescript hallway on the second floor of a stately building — a distant cry from the East Village nightclubs where he and the naked go-go boys under his command once reigned.
Mr. Saleh, a former Commerce Department employee who is hobbled by chronic pain, could not have been less like the downtown luminaries Mr. Johnson once partied with, among them Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. And it seemed impossible that Mr. Johnson could be felled by a sleeping pill. He had been H.I.V.-positive for 20 years, dabbled in mescaline, smoked copious amounts of pot, took antidepressants, kicked heroin and popped Viagra when hired for sex.
“In order for Dean Johnson to overdose,” said his close friend, Dale Corvino, “you would need a truckload of drugs.”
Dean Johnson arrived in New York in the fall of 1979 to study film at New York University. He was a pale beanpole of a teenager with long red hair that still showed traces of his high school perm. His sister, Beth Johnson, said he had never quite fit in his suburban Boston hometown, where he choreographed routines, casting himself as Gladys Knight and his sister as a Pip.
In the city, he reveled in the sexual liberation and subversive flamboyance he found. “It felt,” Ms. Johnson wrote in an e-mail message, “like he had finally found his way home when he went to New York City.”
In a diary that he later posted online, Mr. Johnson recalled liaisons in a warehouse, in front of a crowd, on a rooftop on Hudson Street and hidden in a dorm room while the Beastie Boys rehearsed nearby. But it was in downtown clubs that he found his calling.
One night in 1982, Mr. Johnson was waiting in a long line that snaked from the Pyramid, a dingy Polish barroom on Avenue A where gay promoters were throwing parties. The doorman, Brian Butterick, was in a Mohawk, combat boots and a kilt, and would later perform as the drag queen Hattie Hathway. He took one look at Mr. Johnson and was entranced. “He had long red hair, like this Renaissance beatific child,” Mr. Butterick said. “I immediately whisked him in.”
Two years later, Mr. Johnson found his signature look. He shaved his head and began wearing cocktail dresses, huge sunglasses and drop earrings. “Got the best job I’ve ever had in my life go-go dancing on the bar at the Pyramid,” he wrote in a diary entry for 1984. Indeed he was a sight on that bar, Mr. Butterick recalled, with his bald head bobbing as he tried to avoid smacking into the ceiling fans. And the other drag queens who danced there embraced him.
“He wasn’t threatening to us because he was the big bald freakazoid,” said Lady Bunny, who befriended Mr. Johnson in the 1980s. “And we were trying to look a bit more feminine. Emphasis on ‘trying.’ ”
Mr. Johnson soon became famous for his own parties, which usually involved large numbers of men having sex in East Village clubs, and which often ended with a police raid.
“Rock and Roll Fag Bar” was his most infamous, its name an audacious reclamation of the homophobic slur, with “Pubic Hair Club for Men” a close second. In later years, he ran HomoCorps, a gay themed night at CBGB that drew the likes of Rufus Wainwright, Laura Branigan and Kirstie Alley.
“I pegged him as the last of the red hot rebels,” said Michael Musto, the nightlife columnist for the Village Voice.
His first band, Dean and the Weenies, gave Mr. Johnson his closest brush with wider fame. It played at the storied clubs of the mid-1980s — Danceteria, Area, the Pyramid — and toured the country, with Mr. Johnson swaying and braying, charming audiences with his size 14 stilettos and acerbic rhymes. One song — its name, unprintable here — became an underground anthem, with lyrics that decried pretension, and, in one celebrated couplet, thermonuclear war and Mary Tyler Moore. The band signed with a subsidiary of Island Records, but then darkness soon found its way in.
In 1987, Mr. Johnson learned that he had contracted H.I.V. “All of a sudden, nothing seems to matter very much,” he wrote in his diary. He began taking a cocktail of drugs to manage the virus and developed a reputation for being curmudgeonly. Mr. Johnson’s band lost the record deal. The ’80s were coming to a close and the club scene was dying.
“Because of constant raids and closings of clubs, there was a lot of apathy on the scene,” Mr. Musto said.
Mr. Johnson’s fortunes were also on the wane. By decade’s end, heroin had assumed a central role in his life.
When Mr. Johnson needed money, Johnny Dynell, a longtime D.J. and promoter, hired him to work the coat check at Jackie 60, a now-defunct party at a nightclub in the meatpacking district. At the end of some nights, Mr. Dynell would find the coat check till empty and Mr. Johnson gone.
“He would steal the money, $1,000 or something, and disappear and go on a binge,” Mr. Dynell said. “He’d always had a problem with heroin. He’d kick it, and then come back. Then he’d do it again. And we’d hire him again. We’re just very loyal when you have a family like that. It’s like an uncle who gets drunk at every wedding.”
Yet Mr. Johnson was constantly reinventing himself. He kicked heroin in the mid-1990s, swapping it for antidepressants, and started the Velvet Mafia. He also carved himself another niche. “I’ve discovered the Internet,” he wrote in a 1997 diary entry, “or more specifically, the escort rooms, where men of unique proportion can make a quick easy buck.”
He practiced safe sex and was open about being H.I.V. positive, friends said, and clients seemed to flock his way. He told friends of his exploits with, among others, an actor with a penchant for prisoner of war Viet Cong fantasies, a Saudi prince, a dentist and later the dentist’s wife. His fee, friends said, started at $250 an hour, and he chronicled the standout nights online. To his peers’ amazement, he kept an active roster of clients even after he turned 40, and despite the fact, as Ms. Bunny said, that “he wasn’t exactly everyone’s idea of arm candy.”
In the last few years, Mr. Johnson had found a new audience from blogging and writing, and his stinging, riotous and crudely honest tales drew an avid readership. The Velvet Mafia had a Sept. 30 gig scheduled in Williamsburg. His performance at the Howl Festival on Sept. 8 seemed to cement his glorious return. Backed by burlesque girls, he sang and danced the role of a crooked policeman, a bobby hat glued to his head. In June, he started playing host to a night for gay writers at the Rapture Café on Avenue A, where his memorial would later be held.
“He was on an upslope,” said one friend, Lola Rock ’n’ Rolla. “He was the happiest hooker I ever met.”
IT is unclear how Mr. Johnson and Mr. Saleh knew one another, but they had been communicating online with increasing frequency, according to e-mail messages provided by Mr. Corvino.
On Sept. 14, Mr. Saleh wrote Mr. Johnson that he was allowing a 25-year-old man to stay in his apartment and that it was not about sex. The next night, Mr. Saleh sent an e-mail message to Mr. Johnson saying that the man, Mr. Conklin, was drunk.
On Sept. 16, Mr. Saleh wrote in an e-mail message: “Jeremy is dead please call.”
“Is this a joke?” Mr. Johnson wrote back. Three days later, Mr. Johnson left his apartment in Brooklyn and boarded the 12:35 p.m. train to Washington. He had a return ticket for the next day, according to an e-ticket sent to his e-mail account.
In an affidavit to obtain a search warrant, police said that Mr. Saleh told them that he gave Mr. Johnson a sleeping pill on the night of Sept. 19, and awoke the next morning to find him unconscious.
Mr. Saleh, 47, has not been charged with a crime and, in a statement issued by his lawyer, said he was shocked and saddened by the deaths and that he had provided the police with information to help determine how the men died.
In Dean Johnson’s death, some friends saw a New York yet another step further from the nightlife scene that flourished in the 1980s, and that Mr. Johnson was emblematic of.
“He was part of the club scene, and the club scene is, to a large degree lost, killed by bottle service,” said Lady Bunny, the drag queen. “New York is not a place for a funky, baroque bohemian to flourish in anymore.”