Andrew Johnston, 1968--2008
TONY staff remembers a dear, departed colleague.
Wed Nov 5 2008
Even though our Time In editor, Andrew, had been living with cancer for years, the end is not easy for us. He died on October 26—a passing that his mother tells us was “peaceful as could be.” That’s ironic. Feisty until the end, Andrew was a fighter. I remember his polymath’s curiosity, his enthusiasm that often spilled over into rage but also effusive emotion. He had a big heart. I choose to recall him on a summer afternoon in 2006. Andrew was about to enter the hospital for his first operation, but beforehand, he wanted to go see A Scanner Darkly. I was happy to oblige. We had lunch. As the lights dimmed in the theater, Andrew leaned over and whispered, “Check it out.” He rolled up his sleeve to reveal a new tattoo on his shoulder, the colors still hot and flush. Looking closely, I saw it was a quote from Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” Squinting his eyes, Andrew had the resolve to go wherever this disease would take him. And in my heart, I feel that he beat it. —Joshua Rothkopf.
I’ve pretty much been a geek my entire life, drifting through a series of fascinations: comic books, pro wrestling, rock & roll, politics. One of the advantages of being a geek in our modern culture is that it keys you in to a sort of collective consciousness, a lingua franca that enables you to connect with a wide variety of people (or at least a wide variety of people geeks like me encounter). Sports does the same thing, but without the conspiratorial feeling of belonging to, if not an aggrieved subclass, a defiant minority.
Andrew was a wholehearted geek, and while we may have had nothing else in common, we shared that, and it was enough. We became work friends, then actual friends. We saw X-Men 3 together, and The Descent, the latter right after his first round of chemotherapy. We went to hipster hamburger restaurants and watched the initial presidential debate (the night after the Sarah Palin pick was announced, Andrew was the first person to tell me that McCain had just blown the election). He tried to teach me to play Xbox games that I was way too video-game illiterate to grasp.
Occasionally, his persona could be opaque, as if he was merely the sum of his digital obsessions, but then the humanity would bust through: He’d share the details of an encouraging second date, or brag about his dog, Grover. Several years ago, five minutes after arriving at my birthday party, he hit it off with a female geek friend of mine, and they spent the next three hours talking on my roof (I was really disappointed it didn’t happen with those two). And I was with him last New Year’s Eve, as we shared a hope for a better 2008 than 2007. Perhaps most relevant in these pages, he was a fine writer, the kind of cultural critic who compensates for verbal awkwardness by expressing himself with eloquence and authority in print.
I remember leaving an advance screening of Batman Begins with him. I liked it, but as a longtime Batman acolyte, I was mildly disappointed, and I nit-picked over the costume, the chase scenes, the characterization of minor villains. Andrew, however, was beaming. He got exactly what he wanted: a big, noisy, thrilling good time, featuring Batman beating the crap out of bad guys. Geeky as he was, he didn’t let petty geek bullshit get him down. —Noah Tarnow
It goes without saying that Andrew’s passion for what he did here was exceedingly strong. I know from experience that it’s a characteristic he valued greatly in others as well. I had the honor of serving as co-captain of the TONY bowling team with him last year—a title he bestowed on me after I’d circulated a particularly awesome smack-talking e-mail to our fellow team members about the victory drinks we would all have after defeating that week’s opponent. He recognized my passion right away and weeks later assigned a story to me: a Q&A with Zane Lamprey, the host of a show called Three Sheets in which Lamprey travels the world drinking. On offering the assignment, he wrote me this: “I always like to assign stories to people who are really passionate about the relevant subject.…”— Katharine Rust
For many years, TONY has put together an annual issue we call Essential New York; basically, it’s our “best of” issue, and in it we used to write little love letters and observations about the things that make living here special to us. In the 1999 issue, Andrew penned one blurb that, even a decade later, I still think of every time I see my West Village street in a movie. I particularly liked it because he captured that oxymoronic feeling perfectly: We New Yorkers feel coolly superior at the time of the film crew’s annoying inconvenience, but then become utterly nerdy and giddy when the result of that annoyance shows up in Spider-Man, or most recently for me, Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist. This is what he wrote.” — Billie Cohen
Seeing your building or block or office on the big screenThere are few things more aggravating than returning from a long day at work to be told by a pimply-faced production assistant that you can’t enter your building because a film shoot’s in progress. But in a city that never stops changing, having the place where you live, work or buy your morning joe turn up in a movie can preserve a sliver of your NYC experience in an entirely unique way. Surely it’s worth putting up with a little inconvenience so that, years from now, when your grandkids ask about life in the ’90s, you can just pop a tape in the VCR and say, “I lived there.”
People unfamiliar with Andrew’s eccentricities can be excused for thinking him a raving, vending-machine-assaulting, apartment-key-misplacing (I once heard him, from across the lobby, go on for about 20 minutes one night about how they disappeared—they were, of course, under one of the many piles of crap he kept on his desk at all times), Hüsker Dü shirt–wearing maniac. For those of us who go to know him a little better, those suspicions were not alleviated so much as they were totally confirmed. But that was him, and exactly what made him such an interesting person to talk to in a city peopled with so many ambulatory, boorish cliches. Contrary to popular opinion, he did not watch TV 24 hours a day; Andrew was utterly well-read (last I talked to him, he was poring over something about Alexander Hamilton and Federalist ephemera, I think) and attended cool shows pretty frequently (ran into him on several occasions, the last being some Times New Viking show in Brooklyn). He was generous (gave me an old N64 of his when I weirdly got fixated on technology from the mid-’90s), encouraging to me professionally and a bold, talented writer whose hilariously exuberant opinions (he summed his much beloved season one of Friday Night Lights thusly: “FNL is the best series of its kind since the legendary My So-Called Life”) I will sorely miss reading. Happy trails, friend.—Drew Toal
Andrew was a booster of great TV—he was an early champion of Mad Men, Deadwood, The Sopranos, The Shield, Friday Night Lights and pretty much any other show that was worth a damn. Every time he underwent cancer treatment, at a juncture where doctors warned him he was very likely not going to make it, he’d emerge on the other side and get a tattoo to celebrate the fact that he was still alive. At the time of his death he was edging into Illustrated Man country. His prize tattoo was the Friday Night Lights motto: “Clear Eyes, Full Heart, Can’t Lose.” The screen saver on his laptop and his work computer was Kurt Russell driving that car with the skull and crossbones on the hood from—yep—Death Proof.
Andrew knew deep down that ultimately you can’t beat death; sooner or later it always gets you. So he decided to fight as hard as he could and enjoy life while he could. Three weeks ago, when his legs had started to give out and he was having a great deal of difficulty even crossing a room, he asked me to go with him to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds play Madison Square Garden. It took him 15 minutes to get into the Garden, and he left well before the encore was finished because, as he put it, “I don’t want to get trampled by the mob.” He’d often follow up an especially difficult surgery by going to Austin and spending a couple of weeks catching live bands and hitting barbecue joints. He celebrated his 40th birthday a few months ago, shortly after finishing a brutal round of chemo, at a Brooklyn beer garden, downing pint after pint of dark beer and eating enough sausage to kill a grizzly.
He taught me how to live.—Matt Zoller Seitz