[Editor’s Note: It is with incredibly heavy hearts that we must convey the news that beloved former Jalopnik writer Davey G. Johnson’s body was recovered by Calaveras County authorities last night. Mike Spinelli was not only Davey’s editor here at Jalopnik, but a good friend.]
I wrote this in a notebook some time after Davey Johnson’s motorcycle was found near the Mokelumne River during a test ride in the Sierra Nevada. “When a loved one goes missing, it’s a grinding sort of loss. A helical screw of hope and hopelessness augering into a stratum of grief, one crushing nanometer at a time. Where is he? Where the fuck is he?”
Now we know Davey’s gone. The loss to his family and his family in the automotive community is indescribable. Davey’s extended family was immense; he made casual friends everywhere he went and, through his open-heartedness and unique ability to converse on almost any subject, bonded in a deeper-than-average way with an immeasurably large number of people. To say he was one of those unique, almost literary characters who make a massive impact on one’s life is the understatement of the millennium. I will miss him forever, in ways I haven’t even considered yet. For one, this website would not be here without him, his deep well of knowledge, and his love and acumen for the absurd turn of phrase.
I’ll try to put that in context. It was under this masthead, 15 years ago, that I hurled myself at Gawker Media’s “men problem.” (A mere startup back then, Gawker needed more male readers.) The result was less a website about cars than a daily stream-of-consciousness routine to occupy a chaotic mind.
It was a great moment in online writing; anyone could do or say almost anything in 2004. I wrote Jalopnik in the voice of a lunatic whose proclivities ran afoul of the prevailing automotive media. It wasn’t very good by today’s standards, and I never thought it would last. No doubt, the Gawker chiefs would soon realize I wasn’t a mercenary slimebag soaked in Adderall and nerd rage, and I’d have to pack my shambolic takes on industry news and weird-car shitposts and hit the bricks.
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Then, without plan or reason, Jalopnik became a going concern. By early 2005, I was writing upward of 15 posts per day, mostly mini promos “curating” other articles and occasionally ranting about who-remembers-what. I was feeding the Google machine, and it demanded lots and lots of words. I was coming unglued. The site was engulfing my life, and I needed help.
Sometime in 2005, I got an email from Davey G. Johnson. It was a rambling screed of praise and solidarity. The writing crackled with enthusiasm and cockeyed artistry, and closed with a job pitch. Soon enough, there he was on the other end of Instant Messenger: Some guy with the same name as the manager of the ’86 Mets. And the motherfucker could write, and talk, about anything.
Davey became my partner in bull crap. He was the first digital-only coworker I’d ever had, and we spent every day on IM, hashing out stories and goofing around, which in the context of Jalopnik were the same thing. We lived on separate coasts, but bonded over SST Records artists from the ‘80s, often shoehorning lyrics from Zen Arcade and Double Nickels on the Dime and You’re Living All Over Me into headlines touting Mercedes-Benz’s safety tech or a design refresh of some Honda or other. We bent auto executives’ names into instant memes recognizable to no one but us. We turned stilted lines from carmakers’ press releases into enduring punchlines. We loaded blog posts with inexplicable references to German heavy-metal singer Udo Dirkschneider and obsessed over the symbolism of Chevy’s El Camino and the Citroen CX. Whatever we were doing, we certainly weren’t running a media business.
I came up with a term, “managed growth,” to explain the slow rise in Jalopnik’s readership as part of a grand plan to maintain its voice. I don’t know if my bosses bought it, but it seemed to shoo the wolves from the door. We opened the site to comments on an invite-only basis, but we’d send an invite to anyone who asked. Davey and I fostered a self-policing spirit, and the community of readers became our co-conspirators. We knew them all by their screen names, and as their personalities emerged, we’d refer to them in our posts. And of course, day after day, Davey would check in on IM with a cheery, “Postfather! Wass ist der haps?” and we’d get to work mainlining tens of thousands of text characters onto Wordpress in our stream-of-consciousness style, from which flowed some of the most insane takes imaginable.
A few months went by before Davey and I met in person at the Detroit auto show. It was January, 2006. We booked cheap rooms in crumbling downtown hotels and wandered into the Cobo Center press room like a couple of street dealers at a Pfizer shareholders meeting. In his orange Hüsker Dü T-shirt Davey stood out among all the suits like a five-foot-eleven-inch traffic cone. Some journalist ran up to us, read our badges, and shouted, “Ja-PAWL-nik? I love Ja-PAWL-nik.” To our surprise, many of the younger journalists, as well as an emerging cadre of bloggers and forum writers, knew who we were. We made a lot of weird-ass friends that day, many of whom are still our weird-ass friends all these years later.
If we’d pissed anyone off, it was only because we ignored the public relations reps, who weren’t sure what to make of us. Some of the younger ones bid us glad tidings off the record, while most of the older ones kept their distance. We didn’t care. Davey and I preferred to operate from the sidelines.
Officially, the automakers ignored us, but our new industry friends tipped us off to press events, and we’d crash them. Airfares were cheap back then, so we spent time in Europe, where no one knew us as anything but legitimate “new media.” On one trip to the Paris auto show, Davey and I rode the Metro, singing Berlin’s “Riding on the Metro” and reading aloud from an Audi press release in bad German accents, enjoying the scowls and wondering how this could possibly be a job.
I was, perhaps willfully, ignoring a naked truth: It was a job, and Jalopnik wasn’t our site. While the Gawker bosses were enjoying our antics privately, they were distracted by the company’s larger properties. Sooner or later, they would turn their attention to our little corner and we’d have to get serious.
As our parent company grew, more resources arrived. I hired more writers, all of whom were people Davey and I vetted. By 2007, we had assembled a deep bench of great, weirdo contributors straight out of the 1974 rookie year of High Times. They rolled with the crazy shit we’d come up with, and added their own kind of craziness, expertise, and enthusiasm. For me, it was editor heaven. I imagined being a minor-league version of Jann Wenner in 1969 or Kurt Anderson in 1986. I still can’t believe we got to do what we did for as long as we did.
Davey’s writing blossomed, and he pitched a weekly column he named Fast as a Shark after a song by Udo Dirkschneider’s band, Accept. He put a lot of pressure on himself to write long-form commentary, but the results were always personal and thoughtful, and exactly what I was hoping for. His column from March 28, 2007, “Cannibalism, In Pursuit of the Elusive Awesome” became a rallying cry. It’s still one of the best pieces of car writing too few people have ever read. I didn’t care that Davey’s column wasn’t “doing big numbers.” I was proud of him, he was happy with it, and everyone else could go fuck themselves...
...is what I should have said. But by mid-2007, my sense of dread was palpable. I was spending stupid amounts of time at auto shows rushing to break news that would grab tons of viewers from Digg and Fark so the weird, higher-minded stuff like Davey’s could breathe. New editorial voices were in my ear touting reach strategies and search-engine optimization. Worst still, a new vibe at Gawker was giving me the creeps: sadistic editors driving their speed-freak staffs to the breaking point. It was becoming a hellscape of sick, low-stakes ambition: the worst, most hubristic impulses of the human internet wadded up in one, twisted outfit. I’d gotten so caught up trying to balance the business with the Island of Misfit Toys we’d created, that I didn’t notice how hard Davey had been pushing himself. The sweater was unraveling from several threads at once. By late 2007, I had to call time. I resigned as Editor-in-Chief in November, and Davey stayed on for another few months before leaving to do other stuff.
Eventually the whole team fanned out over the automotive media landscape like sleeper agents, but I worried about Davey. I knew him the best I ever could, but like most artists’ souls, he was enigmatic and he cared deeply. Of course, whenever I saw him at Pebble Beach, Detroit, Los Angeles, or any of the other annual meeting places for automotive writers, he’d see me and yell “Postfather!” and we’d fall back into the old banter without a missed beat between us.
I needn’t have worried, though. Davey found a spot at AutoWeek, and a bit later Eddie Alterman, then Car and Driver magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, brought Davey on. He flourished there under the support of Alterman, Dan Pund, Erik Johnson and other C&Ders (all among those weird-ass friends) who understood what made Davey’s voice so special and vital to what it is we all do in this business.
I exhaled again when Davey started settling down, first in a dream of a mid-century-modern house in Sacto (as he’d call Sacramento), loaded with the cars and motorcycles and guitars he loved, and then in a relationship so well earned, I cried when I found out how serious it was. I stopped worrying about him.
He was going to be okay.
Mike Spinelli was the founding editor of Jalopnik and is now content director at The Drive and a host on the cable TV show, /DRIVE on NBC Sports.