The Death of Gabriel Johnson, Monarch of Pop
Reading Time: ~10 minutes
Richard Ames was a man whose every move indicated violence. A man whose powerful aura made rooms swell and stick. People whispered around this ominous, heavy, suffocating force whenever it flooded their presence. No one wanted to be in a small room with him and no one wanted to be in a corner with him.
Naturally, Richard Ames sought these methods of entrapment over all others. When he did have someone cornered, whether in a cubicle or behind a desk, he would rest his knuckles against the surface rather than his palms, as if at any moment he would lunge. He was currently in this position on a desk.
The unfortunate victim of this particular assault was a man named Ed Hines, who blew his nose many times throughout the day and always had a shiver in his voice. Presently, his voice was quavering within Antarctic temperatures. “Mr. Ames, sir, you see, we had Tina Point’s new album just come out and we didn’t-”
“Gabriel Johnson only dies once, Hines! How many more fucking turds is Tina Point’s beautiful little ass capable of shitting? Huh? A lot, that’s how many. I thought that was fucking ass-umable.”
“I understand, sir, but you’ve also scorned Greatest Hits albums in the past. When Velvet Night approached you with that contract, you reacted very poorly.”
“Velvet Night? Velvet Night? Of course I reacted poorly, Hines. Velvet Night isn’t motherfucking Gabriel Johnson, they’re Velvet Night. Gabriel Fucking Johnson was a legend for three decades.”
“Sir, the other problem is that a lot of different Johnson albums are being produced at the moment. We would only get a small-”
“No, Hines.” Richard’s voice had dropped to a fatal whisper. His knuckles pressed into the desk.
The metal frame creaked underneath his weight. “We have a unique album. That’s what we do here at High Aims Records. Our album will be divided into three parts. There will be the first phase of Johnson’s life, when he was Gabriela Johnson. Remember? Pop singer wants gender change. People screamed in the streets. The first part will be called Pure.”
Richard still didn’t move. He stared into Hines, challenging him to break the silence of laboring genius. “Then, Gabriel Johnson had his second phase, when he was married to Tyra Savings. Phase Two, Chained. And Phase Three? We call that one Exile, when he moved to Paris because he was accused of inviting those senior citizens over his mansion and molesting them.”
Hines blinked. Richard’s eyes locked onto him. “Hines!”
“Why aren’t you writing this down? This is your fucking assignment. Person is already publishing a few issues to show just how unfair all of those trials against Johnson were. There were no actual charges, remember? Everything got dropped? That’s the bait for the magazine. See? The god damn unique angle. New interviews or evidence or some bullshit. And people will buy three fucking issues. See? Three issues!” Richard Ames struck three fingers from one fist and lanced the air in front of Hines’ nose with them.
“Why does it seem like Nancy Fucking Trailot can understand this shit better than you? The magazine gets it. It’s TOP-IH-CAL. And think of all the kids who will be buying this shit because they all hear tributes on the radio. We have to move!”
Richard Ames pounded a fist on the desk and turned around, striding back to his office. People watched him with reverence for his royalty. Hines blinked a few times, rolled back to his desk, and started typing on his computer.
The secretary looked at Richard’s office, then at Hines. “See? I told you that you shouldn’t have waited until this afternoon to start on the Johnson albums. He’s already been dead for three hours.”
This was the day of Johnson’s death. Vultures with microphones and pencils and phones flew across the countryside. Other people were put on planes and trains and cars, different breeds of scavengers eager for information. Angela Clounder was one of them. Currently, she was driving across a dusty Arizona desert with the windows open, flooding the car with dusty, Arizona air.
She chewed the unfortunate ends of her bangs as they flapped into her face. She furiously assaulted the buttons of her Ipod, navigating through her songs, all of which she had spontaneously started hating.
“There’s no fucking good music. What the hell is this? Dr. Spray? I’m not fucking eighteen anymore, I’m out of college, and I’m a fucking thirty-two year old woman. Look at you! Look!” Her accusing eyes were pulled to the rearview mirror. The street unraveling behind her was the same as the one in front of her.
“You are thirty-two! You have a job that you don’t really care about and no family that isn’t locked in some haven in New England for aloof snobs… but that means, that’s all of New England, isn’t it? Just some little peninsula or whatever where everyone who thinks they’re smarter than the rest of the world go and shack up.”
She nodded to herself, obstinate in the validity of her discovery. She jerked her hands from the wheel to now consult the windshield with more vivid gesticulations: “And where are you? What is this? Driving to a fucking… clinic… for old crazy rich people. Locked away so they can’t embarrass anyone! Is that even legal? Is it?”
A cloud of dust curled into the car and flecked her tongue. Angela sputtered and shook her head. “This fucking magazine… Nancy Trailot is too old to even be in fucking charge. We should bring her here and lock her up.” These words summoned a throaty chuckle. Another Dr. Spray song melted out of the speakers and she nodded her head, slowly re-remembering what was redeeming about his music.
The drive was almost another hour. Angela finally sighted a large building hanging on the horizon like a gleaming, white pearl. It was more of a tower than a nursing home, the single beacon of humanity in a rumpled blanket of dehydrated earth. Angela pulled into a parking lot that consisted of six spaces, two for staff and four for visitors. All four visitor spaces were empty. She ground another piece of hair between her teeth as she pulled into a space and turned off her Ipod. Without the crackling of music, the air went silent, amplifying the jingle of her keys and the resonating slam of the door.
She walked through a pair of polished automatic doors and found herself face-to-face with a nurse who was chewing gum and luxuriating in front of a computer screen. One hand moved like a turtle on the mouse and the other was buried in dangling, blond curls. She looked up when Angela strode up to the desk in her sweaty jeans.
“Hi there. I’m Angela Clounder, reporter for Person magazine. I need to see one of your clients… a Mr. Sparting.
“John?” The nurse had the voice of a parrot and cocked her head to the side when squawking the name.
“John Sparting.” Angela chewed on her hair again, looking at the nurse as her wandering fingers stopped, buried in the curls. They stared at each other. Angela rocked on her heels, looked at her shoes, and looked back at the nurse.
“I know that you may not allow me access to him, I’m not sure what your policy is with your… clients.” Her tongue rolled on this word, as if its initial elasticity had already worn out with a second use. “But it’s really important.” The doe-eyed nurse remained unfazed. “You see, because Gabriel Johnson was… well, they think he was involved with… you know, not, like they were dating… but that… accused-”
The nurse decapitated this abomination with the rigid slash of an arm, pointing to a shining wooden door on the right “He’s in there. Just knock to see if he’s sleeping or changing or whatever. He doesn’t do much.” The nurse looked back at the computer and her clicking resumed.
“Thank you! Oh, thank you,” Angela said with the silky sigh of deflating apprehension. She regained her stiff-legged gait and arrived at the wooden door, knuckles perched and ready to knock, but the door suddenly opened and revealed a saggy, wheezing man.
“Sparting? Did someone ask for me? Did someone say Johnson?” John Sparting’s voice sounded like broken bagpipes. “Do you mean… Gabe?”
Angela nodded, biting her lip. “I’m just here to ask you a few questions, Mr. Sparting. As I’m sure you’re aware, Gabriel Johnson is d… passed away this morning.”
“What!” John’s eyes widened briefly, then he retreated into the room, sitting on a tiny bed draped in excessive amounts of blankets. He stared at an empty bookshelf for several minutes.
Angela patiently watched specks of dust dance in the ivory sunshine emanating from the room’s single window.
“Are you… are you okay, Mr. Sparting?”
John remained immobile for another few minutes, with the invulnerability of the elderly to the discomfort of all others. He twitched and looked up at Angela with bleary eyes. “Oh, Gabe. It wasn’t good, but… but it wasn’t bad. You know, Richie introduced us. Gabe and I, we had a special bond. When was that? 2002? That was before all the ruckus with… with all the others that Gabe saw. Richie had just starred in… in… you know, one of his movies, and I said: ‘Son, you need to introduce me to this Gabriel Johnson.’ Because I was older than most of his fans, see, but I understood the music better. That’s why. Because I was older.”
Angela waited as John’s eyes narrowed. “We got along so well, Gabe and me, it was… that was 2002, wasn’t it? I think. Maybe early ’03. But… it was good for a while. But Gabe, he wanted more from me. I just…” The man’s eyes rippled with tears. “I don’t know what it was, then. I was taking pills already for my… and… Gabe was so…”
“Uh…” Angela held up a hand. “Wait. Are you saying that Gabriel Johnson… are you saying that he touched you?”
The old man nodded sullenly. “I still have his letters and… other things.”
“Pictures.” John Sparting stared into space. “Oh, but he left me. Or got sick of me. Gabe left me in 2004 and now I’m here. They moved me here.”
“Why haven’t you gone to someone? Why didn’t you charge Gabe with…”
“Can you charge someone for love?” John Sparting asked forlornly.
Angela shuddered. “Are you saying that you wanted him to… to…”
“Oh…” John waved a hand. “Not particularly. But I wanted attention. Richie was too famous, then. And I just figured…” His face dropped and he looked Angela up and down. “Excuse me, who are you?”
“Angela Clounder. I work for Person magazine and-”
“I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” John’s eyes were cloudy. “I don’t know how you got in here, but I want you out.”
“But Mr. Sparting… we were just-”
“Out! Nurse, out! Nurse, get her out!”
And, just like that, Angela Clounder’s interview with John Sparting was over.
Nancy Trailot’s office phone began jangling while she was painting her nails. She fumbled with the speakerphone button and, after a considerable feat of acrobatics, managed to press it without taking the bottle of nail polish out of her hands. “Yes?” She examined her nails in the mellowing light of summer evening.
“Nancy, it’s Angela. I just got back into Flagstaff. I just interviewed John Sparting.”
“Mm?” Nancy deftly coated another nail. The shade was called Tiger Orange. She smiled, thinking of all the boys she would dazzle with the color tonight. She was addicted to the flushed interns and college graduates who flocked to New York City in blind pursuit of their potential. She was a woman who vampirically necked different victims to drain them of their own youth.
“What? What were you saying?” Nancy blew on her fingernails.
“I was…” Angela stabilized this statement with a sharp breath. “I was saying that John Sparting told me that Gabriel Johnson had touched him. This is huge, Nancy.”
“Hm! Imagine that.” Nancy’s brow furrowed. She watched the water cooler in her office bubble.
“So you have evidence that it was consensual, of course?”
“Well, no, not really. I don’t even think it was. It didn’t sound like it was.”
“Mm.” Nancy sighed. “That’s just not going to work with this issue, Angela. Let’s try to keep focused here.”
“This is our tribute issue. You and Heather and Matt are getting interviews with all those oldies who got invited to Johson’s house over the years.”
“So you said you got an interview? Did Sparting talk a lot about Johnson? Did he like him?”
“Kind of. I don’t know, though, I mean, Nancy, it sounded like there was some seriously bad things going on. John was saying how he was whacked out on pills while all of it was happening.”
“Mhm, well, why don’t you just do your little piece last, in the third issue about Johnson. It’ll be fun, we’ll go back in time, right? See? Heather’s guy was the most recent charge, so we can clear that up first. Then Matt can go and you can do yours after.” Nancy took one last look at her nails.
“It’s important stuff we’re doing here, Angela. We’re showing the world that Gabe Johnson was innocent.”
“So, listen, I just gave you a nice little extension. I’m sure you’ll be able to get something from Sparting if you try just a teeny bit harder. Okay? Goodbye. Have a fun night in Flagstaff.” Nancy Trailot pushed the speaker button, rose from her chair, and left the office.
Richard Ames had flown in Tina Point from California. He had gotten Hines to call Guns’N’Riches in Brooklyn and interrupt Velvet Night’s national tour. Jake Woodpond, who was presently taking a break from recording to stumble after an acting career, had also been called. These were the highest selling artists of High Aims Records. They were now attending the ingeniously named event: “Music Never Dies: Tribute to Gabriel Johnson.”
The event was televised on the AIM Music Network and photographed by people from Person magazine. Richard Ames was due to give the opening speech. All the artists would then sing a tribute song together, a beautiful piece written by Tina Point’s songwriter, a middle-aged man named Mark Lockley. As each artist came onto the stage, their name and latest record would be announced.
Ed Hines had organized the event, but Richard Ames had invented it. His brain was a marketplace of scales, all weighing the different values of different variables. The tribute song would be added to The Johnson Journey when it was released next week. An exclusive offer.
“I know I speak for all of us at High Aims Records when I say that Gabriel Johnson’s unique talent was a fire that ignited everyone around it.” Richard Ames pursed his lips solemnly and looked into the spotlights. “To lose any great artist is a tragedy, but our loss today was something more- it was the end of an era. Johnson reinvented music. He did things that had never been done before… and he did them for almost thirty years.” Richard Ames nodded. “He has made a highway where an impenetrable forest used to be. He did things that others thought were impossible. Wherever he went, he…”
Nancy Trailot was presently scanning the crowded tables for any promising waiters or busboys. She absently swirled her glass of champagne and squinted in the gloom of the theater lights. There was a red-cheeked boy carrying around a plate of champagne bottles. She quickly finished her glass and motioned to him. He started over and she smiled, knowing that the trap was set.
Meanwhile, Richard Ames’ speech was reaching heartwrenching proportions. Some members of the crowd were openly sobbing. “…and I only wish I had gotten to know him better when, in 1990, I met him at the ceremony for the Grandy’s, when he took home a record sixteen Grandy’s. It is such a shame, the way he was treated in this decade. What a foul note for him to end his song on!” Richard Ames was apparently oblivious that his own Person magazine had been at the head of the pack in spreading different stories of Gabriel Johnson’s so-called octophelia. “Now, I want everyone to think of Johnson while some very devoted people come to sing for him. Goodbye, Gabe. You will always be alive in your music!” As the audience clapped and whistled, Richard Ames disappeared behind the red curtain, went out a fire door, and took his limousine home.
John Sparting had given Angela pictures. Explicit pictures. Johnson was in many of them, touching a very dazed and a very naked Sparting. There were over fifty letters as well, with loopy cursive and I’s dotted with hearts. It was a treasure trove of nausea. Angela spent the entire ride back to Flagstaff imagining the headlines of Person. The famous Angela Clounder, the investigative journalist who finally unearthed the truth of the notorious Johnson trials.
Her cellphone rang when she walked into her hotel’s lobby. “Angela Clounder?” It was a man’s voice.
“Ms. Clounder, this is Edward Hines. I would just like to ask if you would accept a promotion from senior reporter to managing editor of Person.”
“Managing editor? Wha… who… what about Nancy?”
“Ms. Trailot made several unfortunate mistakes last night at the Johnson tribute show.”
“Correct. Will you accept the position? You will need to come back to New York. The first Johnson issue is well underway, but it needs someone with your experience to make sure it is up to Person’s standards.”
Angela Clounder’s voice shattered with a tiny “Yes.” After the conversation concluded, she began to imagine strutting through the labyrinth of cubicles and ordering people to construct her vision of Person. Page after glossy page of Clounder-approved material cycled through her mind. This, she decided, would be a perfect position to expose Gabriel Johnson as nothing more than a hideous octophile.
With the momentum of triumph, she walked into the elevator, rode the shuddering cell to her floor, and arrived at her room. She sat on the bed and turned on the television. The screen summoned the image of a figure with a jacket over her head. A swarm of microphone-wielding reporters were climbing over each other to reach this figure, but a man with a briefcase was keeping them back with the sheer volume of his voice.
The headline below the scene read: “Nancy Trailot, Managing Editor of Person, Accused of Sexually Assaulting Underage Boy.”
Angela stared at the words. “No! Nancy? Nancy did that?” She shook her head and flourished her eyelids with a swift open-and-close. “That’s just… that’s just not possible. How could she? I never would have thought…” Angela Clounder often confused solitude for an opportune time for self-indulgent monologues.
Nancy Trailot wasn’t a particularly famous entity on the mediascape, but women becoming engaged with young boys was always fresh material. Different newscasters were now speculating on the exact duration and nature of Trailot’s relationship with this unknown boy, and whether it was just one of many. Nothing was actually mentioned about the actual charges or actual victim.
Angela Clounder stared at at the television and then stared at the pictures of Gabriel Johnson touching John Sparting. She beamed, now imagining the pictures hovering on the upper-right screens of every major news network. This was material that would whitewash everything else. For a full week, Angela Clounder would be famous.
Richard Ames was given the Gabriel Johnson issue of Person magazine on Friday. The magazine went to the presses on Saturday. It only took a few seconds before he was loping through the office towards Hines’ desk. He slapped the draft of the magazine on the desk, scattering papers and pencils. Hines looked up from his computer, his eyes wide and terrified.
“Hines, what the fuck is this?”
“Sir? That’s the new issue of-”
“No, Hines. It can’t be the new issue. There must be some kind of… mistake.” Richard Ames swallowed down a few other words before strangling others. “This cover page is accusing Gabe Johnson of molesting senior citizens.”
Hines looked down at it, now grateful for an excuse to not look at Richard. He put a finger on it, drawing it across the cover, as if he was able to erase all the offending material with the motion. “This must be something from the new managing editor.”
“God damn. Who is it? Tell me. Angela something, right?” Richard rumpled the magazine into one fist and swept it from the desk.
“Clounder, sir. Angela Clounder.”
Richard Ames was already out the door.
Angela Clounder was leaning back in her chair, gazing whimsically at her computer screen, spinning in a watery world of recognition and validation, when Richard Ames burst into her office door with the force of a hurricane. The draft of the magazine was now withered and crushed in his grip, battered into obedience. He dropped it onto the desk, smoothed it out, and pointed at the headline: Gabriel Johnson: Monarch or Molester?
“Angela, what the fuck is this?” Richard Ames’ rallying cry for answers was always the same.
She blinked. Richard Ames had never spoken to her before. She had only seen him swinging from cubicle to cubicle, hollering at different people, like some primal ape traveling from vine to vine. “I… it’s our angle. Person has exclusive evidence that Gabe Johnson touched senior citizens who weren’t really willing. I interviewed one of them, John Sparting, actually.”
“Listen, Angela. People don’t give a shit about those trials. Trials are fucking boring. No one knows what the fuck is going on and nothing happens after them.”
“But… but… this is big. Gabe Johnson wasn’t a pop star, he was-”
“It’s not big. You know why you were promoted, Ms. Clounder? Because Nancy Trailot had sex with a sixteen-year old busboy at the Johnson tribute event. That was big yesterday, now it’s just gossip. The ratings dropped for the news networks that are still covering it. People don’t care anymore. Ms. Clounder, it’s very fucking simple: no one cares whether Johnson was an octophile. It’s not exciting, it’s not relevant, and it’s not profitable.” Richard Ames narrowed his eyes at her, apparently trying to decide whether his wisdom was being received.
Angela opened her mouth to talk, but he put up a hand. “New evidence that would condemn Gabe Johnson would spoil people’s memories of him and people fucking hate having memories spoiled. Johnson was a victim of his kindness and his celebrity. The trials were blown out of proportion for publicity. That is the theme of this issue. So get… get your fucking shit together or I will find someone who can.”
The implosion of the hurricane was as alarming as its arrival. Richard Ames left the room and it was left hollow and eerily still. Angela Clounder poked at the corpse of her magazine draft with a broken sigh and shifted in her seat. She took a deep breath and started working on the exciting, relevant, profitable issue of Person magazine.