I found him. Without looking I found the man from the whisky bottle. I found Johnnie Walker.
He didn’t have anything to do with the Scottish whisky. He lived in Tokyo, where he worked in modern art and put on extravagant parties as he let the world around him flow over with fake stories and rumors.
If I had the opportunity to ask Johnnie Walker a few questions, I would start with this:
»Who are you, Mr. Walker?«
He would look at me for a bit and then give a small laugh.
»Are the stories about you true?« I would ask him again.
»Sure, sure, why not. You can believe anything you want. What stories?«
»How about this story – is this story true?«
»Listen,« he would say, and I imagine he leans forward and put his elbows on the table between us. »This story is not my story. This story is your story about me, so maybe I should ask you – is this story true?«
Johnnie Walker, puppeteer of the Tokyo art world, the albino from Manchuria, Murakami’s cat killer, would then stare at me and wrestle his eye brows.
»True,« I would say to him. »This story is true.«
“I am not the body, You are not the body, We are not the body.”
– Johnnie Walker
It doesn’t make sense to meet a fictional character in real life. It’s a pity, almost, to see his expressions and personality yourself, instead of having them explained by an author. Johnnie Walker is a face on a whisky bottle, off course, but he is also a character in a weird, existential novel, a concept and a figure – but in spite of all that he was standing right there, in the ballroom of one of Tokyo’s finest hotels. I knew who he was, at least who he was in another world. But still I had to ask:
»Who is Johnnie Walker?«
The man I asked was Edan Corkill, editor of the arts desk at the newspaper Japan Times. He sighed and flashed a little smile.
»That question takes a very long time to answer, especially if you want to cover all the grey areas,« he said. It was just a few hours since I had met Johnnie Walker for the first time. With a light green jacket and John Lennon glasses he was striding around at the annual Tokyo Art Fair. He asked us if we were invited to “the party at the hotel”. No, I said, and Johnnie stuck an invitation in my hand before he toddled onwards, kissing cheeks right and left. The party was the ceremony of The Bacon Prize, an award for young artists, initiated by the art collector and entrepreneur Johnnie Walker him self. And now I stood drinking cool white wine in the mahogany colored ballroom at The Peninsula Hotel, a few hundred yards from the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.
The people in the room came from two different worlds – the world of money and the world of art – and I belonged in neither. From the world of art there was Jack, a Japanese performance artist sitting in the corner wearing a suit and a clown mask. From a distance it looked like he was masturbating, but closer up you could see that he was pumping up long balloons, they came streaming out between his legs like a thin long thread of yellow, red and blue feces. Other representatives from the art world were mostly ignoring him and were spread out in the room, dressed in leather and polka dots. People from the world of money were trotting around, networking with everyone else – even me. From this world I met Dr. Georg Albrecht Mai.
»What a delight to meet another Dane here,« he said, laughing loud and heartedly.
He was bald, wearing a grey-white blazer and a red tie with a pearl needle. His white beard encircled a constant smile. His cane was embroiled with silver and right above his heart was a little needle with a Japanese and Danish flag. He talked with a hint of a German accent.
Dr. Georg Albrecht Mai had lived in Tokyo for a few years while his husband was a diplomat at the Danish embassy. He had spent his time in the Japanese capital “helping out young artiztz” and he was back for a few weeks visiting friends.
»Who is Johnnie Walker,« I asked him.
He averted his eyes. The laugh that had been a constant partner in our conversation so far disappeared.
»He is a dubious character,« Dr. Mai answered.
»When my partner and I lived here in Tokyo we where invited to his home many times, but we never returned the invitation. He is the emperor without clothes.«
We were looking at the video playing on the big screen behind the stage. It showed Johnnie walking around the streets of Tokyo with his dog Francis Bacon. The dog, often just referred to as Bacon, was a gigantic Irish wolfhound imported from Budapest. The size of a small pony, it could have swallowed a child in one bite, but Bacon was a vegetarian, Johnnie says, it ate only soy sausages. Bacon died in 2008. The Bacon Prize, to be awarded to a young artist in a few minutes, was named after the dog, and presiding over the ceremony was a statue of the dog, size 1:1, dressed in a white fluttering dress.
»Supposedly Mr. Walker used to be a banker.« Dr. Mai almost whispered. »He says he supports the arts, but so far I have not met a single Japanese artist who has received any funds from him. The rumor is that he is running out of money.«
Johnnie Walker was over in the corner waving his arms around talking to a pair of nodding westerners. I collected rumors about him. Johnnie is albino, gay and jewish, they said, he had lived his entire life in Japan. A networker par excellence, the life of the party. But in between the happy sentences, people were whispering about skeletons in his luggage. They spoke of very young lovers and a prison in Africa.
In my head the character Johnnie Walker started to form.
He took the stage. His piebald head was covered with a green army cap and the round glasses mirrored the light for just a second, covering his eyes. Johnnie pointed at the video of the dog Bacon that was still showing behind him.
»As you all know, this award is named after this wonderful dog. Here you can see it running around terrorizing Tokyo, like a true Irish terrorist.«
No one laughed. Dr. Mai unsuccessfully tried to capture the attention of the ambassador of Luxembourg, who was passing us in haste. After him a silver tray of white wine came dancing over the heads of the audience, I took another glass.
»It could be fun to interview this Johnnie Walker,« I said.
»That shouldn’t be a problem,« Dr. Mai said. He shifted his weight on to his cane and let his gaze run down to my shoes and all the way back to my eyes.
»He’ll like you.«
On the stage Johnnie Walker handed the Bacon Prize to a young, smiling woman. She was in the middle of her acceptance speech, but you couldn’t hear it over the buzz of small talk that covered the room. “He’ll like you…?” As Johnnie descended from the stage and started a conversation with a new group, I went over and stood within hearing range. I wanted to see where this story would go.
“My name is Johnnie Walker. Johnnie Walker. Most everyone knows who I am. Not to boast, but I’m famous all over the world. An iconic figure, you might say. I’m not the real Johnnie Walker, mind you. I have nothing to do with the British distilling company. I’ve just borrowed his appearance and name. A person’s got to have an appearance and name, am I right?”
- Johnnie Walker, in “Kafka on the Shore”
There are plenty of people who know Johnnie Walker. They can envision him with tall hat and sharp features as he is whistling a jolly tune while he tenderly pulls a cat from a cardboard box. They can see him caressing it before he quickly pulls out a scalpel and make a precise incision from the cats head down over its stomach, the guts spilling out as from a piñata, and Johnnie takes out the cat’s still beating heart and puts it in his mouth. They see him sucking his fingers clean of blood and closing his mouth in a tight smile.
It’s the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s version of Johnnie Walker they know. Johnnie, the character, is a sort of villain in the novel “Kafka on the Shore” and he stands on millions of bookshelves around the world, including mine. I have read and tried to understand why Johnnie Walker wanted to harvest cat souls, I’ve seen the rows of severed catheads in his avocado-green fridge. In my dreams I have spoken with his talking dog. But until that night at The Peninsula in Tokyo, I had no idea that Johnnie Walker was alive and lived in Tokyo.
Well, alive was maybe a stretch. It was hard for me to determine whether or not the human being Johnnie Walker actually existed in a traditional bodily sense. There was a version of him that existed for sure, I found out – a version with the Japanese name Joni Waka. I was sure he existed because he had a passport with the name Joni Waka printed on the inside and because he owned a gallery in a fashionable part of Tokyo called Ebisu. He also helped some of Tokyo’s richest men collecting art.
I found out that Johnnie Walker – the English pronunciation of this person’s name – existed as well, but in a different way. He was a concept. He lived his life as a character in a novel, but also in a cartoon and as a piece of art on a wall. And he lived as scrappy rumors whispered in the corners of Tokyo over glasses of cool wine. After talking with different people in Tokyo, I only knew one thing for sure: Johnnie Walker changed appearance for every person you asked the question “Who is Johnnie Walker?”
For some he was a mathematical genius that had made a fortune on Tokyo’s stock exchange. Others said he had his roots in the artist community in Paris. Some called him a close friend; others said he was the worst thing they had ever heard about. I found out, that the person I met that night at The Peninsula existed in many different shapes and different universes. Soon it would be clear that I was not the only one who thought that Johnnie Walker did not belong here, in the real world.
It was early in the evening, and the narrator of the next story, the oenologist David Martin, walked through the wide grey streets of Tokyo wearing a suit and a 1990-something tie. The music was roaring out through the penthouse apartment ten stories above him – “I’ll never forget you, I’m crying,” someone sang. The sound followed him all the way up through the elevator, he opened the door to the penthouse and let the music wash over him. “I wanna love you, all right all right.” The guests looked like Tokyo’s elite and all the elites friends, they were spread out in the square room drinking red wine from plastic cups. A few of the guests were chit-chatting in small groups, while the rest had their puzzled gazes focused on what was going on in the middle of the room: a young, pretty woman – topless and wearing a short skirt and tall, black boots – was standing in the windowsill. She was tugging at the curtains to keep her balance while she rocked from side to side with the music. Before her a bald man in an undershirt was lying facedown on the floor. He was apparently crying desperately and absorbed in his worship of the girl. David stared at the performance for a short moment.
»Hey, my name is Johnny Walker.«
Johnny, a wide man with a hint of a double chin, came towards David with open arms.
»Ah…. Eh… David Martin…Euh… I’ve bought a bottle… The brandy Heuralt, you know it?«
»Thank you! You’re welcome! Have a drink…« Johnny said with his arm around David’s shoulder. David took a plastic cup and found a familiar face to talk to.
»Oh boy, is our host a little weird or what.. If he’s Johnny Walker, then you’re Lady Di!«
»No no, that really is his name!« his friend replied.
“All right, all right,” it came from the stereo and the half-naked girl jumped from the windowsill and crashed into David, he spilled red wine over his suit. She toppled on the floor and jerked suspender-clad legs in the air, and the bald man danced around her, now even more in despair. David escaped the madness and walked out to the terrace to mingle with Tokyo’s skyscrapers as backdrop.
This story about one of Johnnie’s parties could have been true. Johnnie did in fact own a luxurious penthouse apartment in Tokyo, and he was known far and wide for hosting extravagant parties, especially back in the 90’s. People I talked to described the parties as ‘crazy’ and ‘weird’.
But this story is a lie. It was the cartoon character David Martin’s story about Johnnie Walker. Well, actually it was the French comics creator Frederic Boilet’s story about David Martin’s story about Johnnie Walker. And Johnny, the person David Martin met in this cartoon, was not the same Johnnie that I met that night at a fashionable hotel near the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. For one thing, David Martin’s version of the man had a different name – Johnny was spelled with a ‘y’ in the end instead of ‘ie’. And with thick, black hair this version of Johnnie Walker did not resemble the real life Johnnie, who was bald.
This version of Johnnie Walker was created after the cartoonist Frederic Boilet returned from vacation in Tokyo in 1993, where he attended a couple of Johnnie’s soirees. Here Boilet got so inspired, that Johnnie was featured in a couple of scenes in the cartoon novel ‘Tokyo est mon jardin’ (Tokyo is my garden). The book was published in 1997, and the story of a young man trying to rub elbows with the Tokyo elite would not have been complete with out a guest appearance from our friend, the fake Johnnie Walker.
»In my book, ‘Johnnie Walker’ is renamed ‘Johnny Walker’. I have not tried to describe the real Johnnie Walker,« Boilet wrote me in an email.
»It is a character that plays its role.«
Boilet had just borrowed Johnnie’s appearance and name to use it as an instrument in a story. And “a person’s got to have an appearance and name, am I right?” as another fake Johnnie Walker, the one from Murakami’s book “Kafka on the Shore”, said.
Frederic Boilet had casted Johnnie and reinterpreted him to make him fit into his own story. The writer Haruki Murakami had done the same. Both of them had cut Johnnie out of reality and translated him, so he could be used in their own universes. For these two artists, the man Johnnie Walker became a character, who fitted perfectly into their interpretation of Tokyo.
In the Tokyo I came to know, however, Johnnie was a curious figure that poked the imagination. Rumors and half-truths swirled around him, and in a way he was constantly being interpreted, because the name ‘Johnnie Walker’ could really be used for anything, when you wanted to tell a story about Tokyo. All of a sudden he showed up in people’s stories being all flamboyant and eccentric and he was a suspiciously perfect example on just how weird Tokyo can be. The rumors ran amok, he became a caricature. I myself fell into that same trap; just like Johnnie had borrowed his name from a British spirit, I ended up borrowing Johnnie’s appearance in order to tell my own stories, and I suspected others of doing the same. So when the stories about Tokyo started flowing, I would think about the role of Johnnie Walker as I would think about Scooby Doo: He is always there to remind you that even though the tale seems true, you are in the world of fiction. And that world can be a dangerous place.
“I am the Andy Warhol of the Tokyo art world – without the sex and drugs, unfortunately.”
- Johnnie Walker
I caught the Australian sound artist Bob Scott on the phone, and he told me his story. He was tired. No, he is tired. It’s 2006, right now while he tells the story, it’s way past midnight and he has finally found Johnnie Walker’s gigantic house, where he is going to stay for a week. That’s what Johnnie spends a lot of his energy on – housing young foreign artists. The project is called Artist Residency Tokyo (A.R.T.), and for the last 30 years it has given shelter to artists in a huge concrete building in the middle of Tokyo. Sometimes Johnnie chooses to let the artists stay at his own house. He prefers young men, the saying goes – someone I talked to described Johnnie Walker’s relationship to art like this:
»He knows what sort of art he likes, and he invites it to his home.«
Johnnie Walker liked Bob Scott, who right now is standing in front of the entrance to the house. He’s tired. It’s just a few sentences since Scott arrived from Australia and he has spent hours rehearsing for a project, where he is going to play stoned out DJ-sets at an abandoned building site in the fashion neighborhood of Aoyama. So he wants to go to bed, but he can’t, because Johnnie is out of town – in China, maybe? – and Scott has promised to take Johnnie’s dog for a walk. It’s standing behind the door, mad from waiting.
Perhaps Scott thinks: Will it talk to me? Because all of a sudden he is in another story. Bob Scott is standing in the middle of Haruki Murakami’s novel “Kafka on the Shore”. Here, Johnnie Walker is the villain, he whistles merry tunes and tries to make a flute larger than the universe. His gigantic dog speaks and takes control over your mind while it licks fresh cat blood off of its glistening teeth.
»I had just read the book and suddenly felt like I was standing in the middle of it,« Bob Scott told me over the phone.
He managed to get the talking dog into a harness and with it Scott walked out into the night. On the phone he stepped out of Murakami’s story and back into his own. Man and beast got lost in the streets of Tokyo and didn’t make it back until hours later. Here, Scott accidentally took the Irish Wolfhound’s bed and had to share the mattress the rest of the night.
When Johnnie got home, Scott’s story escalated, and the city of Tokyo increasingly felt like something out of another dimension to him. Johnnie entertained with extravagant meals and colorful parties, they drank until drunk and got into fights and suddenly Johnnie pulled out a key chain and gave a tour of an apartment apparently belonging to the Sultan of Brunei. The visit ended in a desperate chase through the streets of Tokyo to the Israeli embassy, where Johnnie as a joke had hidden Scott’s luggage.
Through the phone Bob Scott snickers at the fragmented and speedy story. The whole experience went by in a flash, it seems. Even though he had spent about a week in the company of Johnnie Walker, he didn’t really know anything about the man. He just knew that it had been an amazing experience to meet Johnnie and his dog, he told me, it was unreal. I told him the dog died a few years back. He was sad to hear that.
After talking to Bob Scott I took to the Internet to find Johnnie. But the person, the physical human being, proved tough to find. The stories about him, however, were spread around the web like little sandbanks of acid. Johnnie Walker peeked out in the commentary under an article about Japanese modern art (“who is that elderly, gay white man that I see at all of the high-end openings and shows?). He also showed up here, in a story from the Swiss artist Jonathan Delachaux. In the story, the artist is travelling around Japan with his wife Zoe and Johnnie Walker visits one of his exhibits, bringing along what appears to be his young Asian boyfriend. Johnnie took whatever that was left of the paintings, paying just a fraction of the accumulated price. “Write me a postcard, I’ll send the rest of the money,” he said while exiting the story. He still owes the artist $6,000, but it’s no problem.
»I wish I could meet him again,« Delachaux wrote me in an email.
»If you see him, say hi from Zoe and me!«
I speeded up time and found Johnnie several years later in a post on the blog Bromios, where he was merging his huge Mercedes in and out of traffic on one of Tokyo’s elevated highways while the neon lights from the commercials were mirrored in the round eyes of Johnnie’s dog. He suddenly hit the breaks and yelled “Bakarayuo!” before he drove on towards his favorite restaurant at the top of the Park Hyatt building, where a girl, probably on cocaine, sunk her fingers into the writer’s hair.
But Johnnie disappeared from that story to and whirled onwards and was suddenly standing, alive an talking, in a video at the French web site Jeremix.tv:
This is how it must have been for all the artists to meet Johnnie Walker of Tokyo: short, picturesque and with an eerie choir singing somewhere in the background. It was nice that I wasn’t the only one with that experience, I thought. It’s weird – before one really understands what is going in the video, Johnnie’s gone. As in the rest of the stories about him on the Internet, he suddenly disappears from the screen, leaving just the outlines of an interesting character behind.
I got the same feeling of coitus interuptus when people told rumors about him; Johnnie always found the backdoor in one of the sentences and escaped. No ending or conclusion was given. Every time it was as though I had just gotten the middle part of a story, and the only thing I was left with was the feeling of having experienced something odd. The myth of Johnnie Walker was like a pop culture guerilla warrior that stormed through the room and screamed its name before it smashed through a window and ran off into the night while everybody was talking about who that could have been.
I was one my way through the stories from artists around the world that painted an image of Johnnie Walker as an extraordinary host. All of them would love to meet Johnnie again. Me too, but the trail of the Internets version of Johnnie Walker had cone cold.
But what about Joni Waka? All the stories I had found had been about Johnnie Walker, but what about the Japanese version of him? How did the Internets story about him sound?
I found him here. He suddenly showed up, behind the wall, at a website for a gallery. He was hiding, I think. He was hiding in a different shape, but it was definitely him. He just didn’t look like himself as he was hanging from the ceiling dressed in white and grey feathers.
It was the artist Dani Martin who was telling a story about him: “Portrait of Joni Waka as a fallen angel crying behind the wall” it was called. The fallen angel – could this be the story about when Johnnie disappeared? I flipped through my notebook and found the rumors, I had written down:
Few people knew why or even where Johnnie went in 2005. They just knew he vanished. The man who was (and still is) in the center of creative class in Tokyo, the man you could trust to show up at every art opening and who was always ready to party, was suddenly gone. And just as suddenly he showed up again a few months later. Bob Scott, the Australian sound artist, had also heard the story.
»Johnnie told me he had a lover somewhere in Africa, a young man. But there had been some problems with the lovers parents,« Bob Scott told me.
So the story goes that Johnnie ended up in an African prison. After what must have been a nerve wrecking couple of months of diplomatic attempts to get him out, Johnnie returned to Tokyo again.
A young lover, Bob Scott called it. For other people in Tokyo the story was just a new rumor about Johnnie and the very young men.
In my head the art work with the white feathers quickly became the symbol of a collapse; it turned in to the story about Johnnie Walker, the wealthy business man and art entrepreneur whose boyfriends got younger and younger until he one day disappeared, ended up in an African prison under suspicion of pedophilia. The ultimate downfall.
I looked up from the picture of the fallen angel and realized, what I was doing. I saw that entire story in the artwork of the fallen angel without knowing anything for sure about this man. It wasn’t even himself who was telling this story, but I wanted it to fit.
And what about the rest of the Johnnie Walker myth? The more I talked about the man, the more rumors and stories I wrote down in my notebook, the more abstract he seemed. I hadn’t physically seen him since that night at the fancy Tokyo hotel, and in my head he had changed shape and appearance many times since then.
I had to talk to him. Write it all down. I wanted to hear how he escaped a prison in Africa, I wanted to hear about a life that spawned so many rumors: About the time he arranged parties for Guns n’ Roses, his mathematical genius, what it’s like to live as a Jew and albino in one of the most homogenized countries in the world, about his masquerade dinners, his legendary wolf hound. The picture of him as a fallen angel was still open on my computer and in my head. Johnnie Walker wasn’t just equal to the sum of all the rumors about him. No, he was a door into thousands of other stories. For me, that was how he existed, right then and there.
But besides that was he also a real human being? And is it possible, I thought, to be both a story and a human at the same time?
“Are you a foreigner, Mr. Johnnie Walker?”
Johnnie Walker inclined his head.
“Well, if that helps you understand me, feel free to think so. Or not. Because both are true.”
- From “Kafka on the Shore”
The phone rang a few times.
Not exactly a friendly answer. No “This is Johnnie Walker, how may I help you?” or anything. Just a short quick “hello”. The sharp tone in the other end didn’t exactly ease my nerves.
»Yes, hello, is this Johnnie Walker?«
»Hi, my name is Mads, sorry to bother you. I’m a Danish journalist and I am looking to write a story about you.«
I was stuttering more than usually.
»Sure,« he said.
»You can come by my house. Do you know where it is?«
I did not. Johnnie started giving me directions, quickly and precise, while I scrambled to find pen and paper. I was to show up at his house a few days later, at 9 a.m. I exhaled as I hung up the phone and tried to find meaning in the directions, I had just written down.
I was not ready for this interview. Where would I begin? Since I met him for the first time, I had put so many stories into his character, I had stapled together rumors from different sources in my own way, and all of a sudden I had to ask him about stuff. What did I actually know about this man? Where did Johnnie Walker even come from?
No one knew. The people I asked answered Israel, France, Spain. And New York, off course, because Johnnie is from all over the place. Marc Johnson, a French artist that had been living with Johnnie told me that Johnnie was a polyglot.
»He speaks nine languages, even some dialects from Africa. He can talk to everybody. Maybe the myths are being helped along by that,« Johnson told me over the phone.
I wonder if he speaks Danish, I thought. The rumors had it that he had a Danish nanny at one point, when he was growing up in Manchuria. But did he actually grow up there? Maybe he lived there with his Jewish parents back when Manchuria was occupied by Japan.
That was before World War II. Leading members of the Japanese army had by coincidence gotten hold of the propaganda book “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, that had been made by the secret Russian police in the early 1900’s. The book was about the Jewish sense of business and that the Jews supposedly was behind a global conspiracy. In Germany the book was taken as another argument to end Judaism, but in Japan they read the book in a completely different way; they read it as a guide to how useful the Jews could be. They were skilled merchants and had connections all over the world, the book said. So the Japanese started giving European Jews visas for Manchuria, hoping that they would build the industry and infrastructure. Maybe Johnnies parents where among those, who escaped Europe and travelled through Russia to Manchuria, before they ended up living in Japan after the war? Maybe he was even conceived while his parents were travelling on the railroad across Siberia, away from persecution and towards a new era in occupied China?
But then Johnnie Walker had to be about 75 years old – it didn’t fit. How about Shanghai, then? Shanghai had a huge Jewish ghetto during the Japanese occupation and a lot of those Jews ended up in Kobe after the war. Maybe that was how his parents ended up in Japan?
It was one big mess. But one of these myths had to be true, because Johnnie Walker had to have a mystical background. A person like him had to be a product of a great story, complete with grey areas and twisted historical factoids, with people reading books backwards and ideas and prejudices turning up in new shapes and with skewed nuances. That must have been how Johnnie Walker was born.
The story was already written, now I just had to get the main character to nod.
Johnnie called me the day after our first conversation. There was a change of plans, he had to go to Hong Kong and didn’t have time to meet with me. He wanted to change the time, but first he wanted to hear more about what sort of piece I was looking to write
»Well, I want to write about you,« I said, »about your story.«
»Yeah, I don’t do that.«
I didn’t know what to say. The only thing I knew for sure about this man was that he loved to talk about himself. Now, when I had finally gotten him on the phone, he told me he only wanted to talk about the art scene in Tokyo and how he helped young artists and provided contacts. What was I supposed to do with that?
»I’m just the puppeteer behind the whole thing, you know.«
»That’s why you are interesting,« I replied.
»If you wanted to write about the artists I’m supporting, I’d be happy to talk to you.«
The phone went quiet for a few seconds while I was trying to think of a new strategy. Johnnie interrupted my thoughts in a more positive tone.
»How about I send you some material about the A.R.T. project?«
I contemplated lying. For a few quiet seconds I thought about telling him that I really wanted to write about his artist residency project, just so he would let me into his world. So that I would get to sit down and talk to him, look him in the eye and get to know him better – all for the purpose of the story.
»I’m just trying to be honest with you – I am not one of those people, who constantly try to draw attention to themselves.«
Honest? Honest was the last thing I wanted Mr. Johnnie Walker of Tokyo to be. I wanted him to dazzle me with tales from the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai, I wanted to hear the myth of how he escaped an African prison in the moonlight, I wanted to pet his imaginary dog. I wanted to hear lies.
»Okay,« I said, »but let me honest too. Mostly, I would like to write something about your story, which is what really interests me. But it would be nice if you wanted to send me some stuff about the A.R.T. I’ll look at it and think about what we can do.«
»Okay,« Johnny said.
»Great, and we will talk later.«
I looked at my phone a few seconds, my heart pounding, before he hung up. Shit. This man felt like one of the greatest stories I had ever heard and even better – nobody had written it yet. It only existed as rumors in the Tokyo art world and as fragmented sentences on blogs written by artists who had lived with him. It was a chance to write something great, and I had just blown an interview with the guy. I was depressed.
And relieved. What on earth would I have done if I had actually met him – what questions would I have asked him? Would I have tried to fact check his background story, asked him to reveal secrets about his love life? Did I want to talk to him about how you build stories and myths about yourself?
I was still standing with the clumsy Japanese phone in my hand. It didn’t feel right to talk to him. It was fake in a way. I felt like I had just stuck my arm into a novel and poked the main character on the shoulder, like I was yelling at a character on a theater stage – and the character answered me. So far Johnnie Walker had had walls around him, walls of stories and grey areas. But the fourth wall was shattered, I had kicked it in from the wrong side. I had gotten a peek behind the stage curtain and almost lost the magic.
I was grateful that Johnnie hung up the phone before the magic completely disappeared. The story about Johnnie Walker – Haruki Murakamis story, Marc Johnsons story, Frederic Boilet, Jonathan Delachaux and Edan Corkills story and my own story about him – was still intact. Imagine if I had gotten actual facts to deal with?
Even though I had barely started to check the facts, I already felt like I had too much of it. It was noise in my stories. But the facts weren’t done with me. Some days later, out of the blue, there was an invitation. An invitation from Johnnie.
“Now that you’ve said hello, I’m afraid we move right into farewells. Hello, good-bye. Like flowers scattered in a storm, man’s life is one long farewell, as they say.”
- Johnnie Walker, in “Kafka on the Shore”
With my wrinkled invitation in hand, I went to Johnnie’s house. The hyper-efficient train took me through Tokyo’s cracks of residential areas before it suddenly drove over gigantic traffic lights filled with neon and steam from the alleys. I could see pedestrian crossings filled with bent necks, but the train went underground and back to the real city, the dark part of the city, where people sleep and get up before they travel back to Shinjuku or Ikebukuro or one of the other clusters of activity where they work and drink on command and perhaps never see their shadows. Suddenly my train drove through another intersection that blinded me with commercials for boy bands with flat hair and crooked smiles, and then it stopped at the station in Shinjuku. I got off and followed the instructions on the invitation. In a little alley a few hundred yards from the station lived Johnnie Walker.
I wasn’t invited to Johnnie’s for a cup of coffee or a personal tour. I was invited for a reception. The architect of Johnnie’s house, Joseph Kosuth, was in Tokyo, and Johnnie held an art opening to celebrate. The work of art was the house itself. It was right there, right in the middle of reality, and looked like a house from Monopoly that had fulfilled its lifelong dream of escaping the box and living together with the real houses with real people inside. It was all black and was the only house in the neighborhood with a tilted roof. Lit up letters hang on the side of the house, giving it a voice.
Off course – Johnnie Walker had wrapped his house in literature.
»A living dog is better than a dead lion,« the house said. It had borrowed the verse from The Old Testament.
»Some of my best leading men has been dogs and horses,« the house quoted Elizabeth Taylor for saying.
The insides of the house were also plastered with quotes.
»Did you ever walk into a room and forget why you walked in? I think this is how dogs live their life,« the comedian Sue Murphy said on the white wall.
The quote fitted nicely on my situation – my brain was filled with white noise. I stood right inside the door in the little hallway that extended into the living room. I looked around. There were a few guests chitchatting, and Johnnie was in the kitchen preparing snacks and said hi when he saw me.
It was all extremely… real. He was right there arranging wine bottles. What world did I expect to enter, when I opened the door?
I quickly figured I had a different idea about this reception than the other guests. They had come to the art reception to look at the house. I had come to the art reception to look at another work of art – Johnnie Walker himself. I had only studied this painting – or whatever he was – from afar and gotten idea of it. Now I had come to his home to poke my nose right up at it to see all the details. But it wasn’t a piece of art that lived inside this little house packed in literature and detached quotes. It was a real person. Our roles had switched. I thought my world was real and that there would be flurries of amazing stories as soon as I opened the door into his world. Instead I opened the door and found a whole bunch of facts. He was no long the character Johnnie Walker, he was no longer caught in a web of myths, because he stood right there and was real. It was me that lived in a world of stories.
I tried to shake off the reality and dove into the cheese. Here I met Jason, a 45-years old surfer-looking dude, who apparently ran a gallery of some sorts. Under his arm he had a book of Japanese short stories that he used as a conversation prop.
»Do you read Japanese literature?« he asked me and lifted up his book. I shrugged.
»Actually I’ve mostly read the books of Haruki Murakami, but…«
»Yeah, but that’s not really literature,« he interrupted.
I looked over at Johnnie. He was filling up bowls with crisps and chatting with his guests. I was inclined to agree with Jason – Johnnie Walker did not look like literature. He looked very real and was doing real stuff. In fact, in this very moment he was edging his way between us and looked me straight in the eye. He said hi to Jason and introduced me.
»Mads is a writer,« Johnnie said.
Yeah, and you are a fictional character, we shouldn’t be meeting like this.
I finished my wine and left the party early. On my way home in the train I flipped through my notebook. One page after the other filled with tight scribbles and yet I only had a vague idea about what Johnnie Walker was. To flip through those pages was like looking at an abstract painting from which you could read anything. Marc Johnson, the French artist who had lived with Johnnie, had said it like this:
»You can construct a fictional story out of him if you want, but it’s not Johnnie,« he had told me weeks earlier, when we spoke on the phone.
»There are a lot of myths about Johnnie, but I don’t believe them. I believe in the man.«
But as for the question of who that man actually was, no one had provided a decent answer.
In a corner of the Internet I had found an old interview with Johnnie in the magazine Asia Art Archive, where he talked about his background:
»My family is a mixture of traditional and bohemian values. We are merchant class Jews with a tradition for supporting our peers in contemporary culture – artists, writers, musicians, architechts, designers, film makers etc., not only in doing mitzvah but also to enhance our lives, making them more fun and interesting,« he told the magazine.
I asked Edan Corkill, head of the arts desk at Japan Times, what he knew about Johnnie Walker’s background. He shrugged. He didn’t know much except that Johnnie Walker was a Sephardic Jew. Probably, he added. But he didn’t really wanted to know more.
»To find out that, for instance, he was really born in New York and just came to Japan by a coincidence in the 1970’s would be kind of sad,« he said.
Edan Corkill was one of the first to open up the door for me into the myth of Johnnie Walker. Since then it had survived with me, feeding off of the grey areas and rumors. He lived behind a veil of stories, where his background could be anything; he could harvest cat souls one day and visit the Sultan of Brunei the next. Johnnie Walker lived in a bubble of stories, and I was actually satisfied with that. So seemed Edan Corkill:
»It would almost be a shame to punch a hole in that bubble.«
I wrote down Edan Corkill’s quotes in my notebook. There they stood next to all the other interviews I had done, the articles I had cut out and all my hypotheses. But Johnnie Walker had disappeared. I licked my fingers and flipped from one page to the other. I had written down a bunch of things I knew to be true, and a bunch of thing I knew to be false, but Johnnie was not in those notes. I found the pages where I had written about the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, but I couldn’t find him there either. All the interviews I had done with the artists – I thought they had been about Johnnie Walker, but I just couldn’t find him. Instead I found a swamp of quotes about talking dogs and young, Asian lovers. I went through all my notes searching for Johnnie. Through the Internet, through the prison in Africa. He weren’t in the notes about Shanghai either. I reached the very beginning of my notebook, past the first night at the Peninsula Hotel, where I though I had met him, but he wasn’t there either. All my notes were like Polaroid pictures, where the main person had been cut out and only the surroundings could be seen. Johnnie, the real Johnnie Walker, had escaped my notebook. Maybe he had never been there.
Out of breath I was standing right at the edge of my story and looked out. I could barely see Johnnie out in the horizon, running at full speed towards reality. He turned his head and yelled back at me.
»Remember, I am not the body!«