I wanted to share a story about one of my favorite Big Brother magazine assignments: The Johnny Lee Countee interview, circa 1996. Mark Oblow, who was the owner of Prime Skateboards, had received Johnny’s sponsorship tape. I guess he was trying to get on the team, or at least get some free boards, and that’s when I realized he was the perfect fit for the magazine and I should go shoot an interview with him. I’m not going to lie; I was a little apprehensive, because I knew I’d be going into a rough neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles. But I figured if this was going to work out I had to show up to his house early in the morning and go by myself.
The day I met Johnny Lee for the first time, he still lived with his mom and dad. He saw me pulling up in my car and greeted me with a smile and a soft-spoken voice. He was ready to go with his skateboard in hand, and we didn’t waste anytime. We started shooting right away in his driveway and at a curb across the street. That’s all he had, but he was knocking out some of his best street moves he could for the interview. We then took a break from shooting and started to chitchat, getting to know each other. I asked him what it was like growing up in South Central, and he said it was tough because the gangs in the schools would cause problems. But he found his escape through skateboarding, and he went on to say he’d been skating for more than 25 years and skated the first generation skate parks. Johnny Lee had the right spirit.
We finished shooting the interview, but that wouldn’t be the last time I saw him. A year later, we decided to give him a video part in theNumber Two video. This would be my first official video part that I created for the Big Brother videos. I went back to visit Johnny Lee by myself again, and filmed the video part in a few days using Super 8 film and some kind of DV camera format. That’s when he broke out his yellow DEVO suit that he’d bought in the ’80s, and he ended up making the cover of the video, too. Everything was falling into place for Johnny Lee.
The Number Two premiere was held at the El Rey theatre in Los Angeles, and Johnny Lee was excited for the event. He even brought his DEVO suit to wear. “There’s one thing about Big Brother premieres and parties,” I told Johnny Lee, “they’re wild, sometimes a little crazy, and just about anything can happen.” He mentioned this was going to be the first party he’d ever gone to, and he was really excited about seeing a punk band called The Smut Peddlers. It was his big night out and he was ready to paint the town. Right then I started to experience a weird, surreal moment, realizing how I was introducing Johnny Lee to a whole new world that he’d never been exposed to before. I was happy for him though, and that’s when he ran off into the crowd because he heard the band starting up. The Smut’s were playing and Johnny Lee was in the pit with his vintage DEVO suit on, not realizing he’d blown out the crotch out and his ding-dong was hanging out! I don’t think he even cared, because a new skate star was about to be born. When the movie was playing and his part came on the screen, Johnny Lee got up on the stage and was jumping around with joy, smiling like it was the best day of his life. And I’m sure it was.
A few days later, I called up to ask him if he’d gotten home okay and apologized about the loss of his DEVO suit. He said, “It’s okay, Rick. It was worth it.” He thanked me for everything and that was pretty much the last time I ever heard from him.
Twenty-something years later, I received a call from Jeff Tremaine asking if I wanted to go to DEVO’s studio in Hollywood, where Rob Dyrdek was going to record his version of “Uncontrollable Urge” for the Ridiculousness television show. I was like, “Hell yeah!” and I brought along the Number Two video box cover to get their autographs. When I handed the video to Mark Mothersbaugh, he said, “Look, there he is!” and he started talking about how cool the video part was. This really made my day. It’s good to know that Johnny Lee’s favorite band validated his part in the video after all the years and that they knew about the legend of Johnny Lee Countee.