ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON SEPT. 22, 1989
By Steve Newton
Australian-raised singer/guitarist Johnny Diesel has covered a lot of ground for a young man of 22. From Fall River, Massachusetts to Perth, Australia, from London to New York, and from Sydney to Memphis, the road to rock has been a long one mileage-wise for Diesel, whose latest journey will bring him to 86 Street this Tuesday (September 26) on a double-bill with T’Pau.
The youngest of seven children, Diesel (birth name Mark Lizotte) was born in Fall River and grew up with a highly music-motivated family. They would all pile into a VW van to travel around the northwestern United States for dad’s saxophone gigs.
“My father was probably the biggest influence out of anybody in my life,” says Diesel, on the line from L.A. last week. “He was never a big man on praise, but when he did say something, usually it was something that would mean a lot to you.”
When Johnny was nine the family emigrated to Perth, and at the age of 15 the littlest Diesel took up playing guitar as a profession.
“All my brothers and sisters were into music, too, but I’m the only one that left school and started playing in bars–instead of taking the learned path or having another job to fall back on. I didn’t have any of that.”
At 19 he formed J0hnny Diesel & the Injectors with bassist Johnny “Tatt” Dalzell, saxophonist Bernie Bremond, and drummer Yak Sherrit–the same lineup that will appear in town next week. But after playing too many dives and struggling to survive on the earnings, Diesel got the urge to try his luck further from home.
He hopped a plane to London, England, guitar in hand, but when he got there customs officers at Heathrow Airport had bad news for him. He made the mistake of saying he was there to find work in a band; they told him he had two days to stick ar0und.
“I left the airport with a 48-hour pass to England and a bad case of shock,” says Diesel. “I wan’t ready to go back to Australia. The only obvious choice was the States, since my passport wouldn’t present any problems there.”
Scooting over to New York, Diesel got a job as a gas jockey.
“It was the best-paying job I could find,” he says, “and the boss was really cool–he knew what I was tryin’ to do. He let me have days off whenever I wanted and that way I could go into town a lot to make the rounds of the record companies.”
When not pumping petrol or pounding pavement, Diesel flipped through the local papers, trying to find musicians and start a band, but before he could get anything going, drummer Sherrit called to say that the Injectors had gotten the opening date on Angel City‘s tour of Western Australia.
With the tour promoter supplying the airfare, Diesel flew back Down Under, and it was just like starting over again.
“After the initial flash of being back with the band, things sank to an alltime low, and we decided to get out of Perth. With $100 between us, we climbed aboard a Greyhound bus for a three-day trip across the Nullarbor Desert to Sydney, which is where you have to go if you’re gonna make it in Australia. And luckily, a couple of weeks after that Jimmy Barnes asked us to open for him on a six-month tour.”
The exposure with Jimmy Barnes–a huge rock hero in Australia since his days with Cold Chisel–helped Diesel and his band get noticed by an A&R executive of Chrysalis Records, who was mightily impressed. The band was signed to a world-wide recording deal, and set up in a Memphis studio with famed ZZ Top producer Terry Manning.
The resulting LP, Johnny Diesel & the Injectors, was released early in ’89 and entered the Australian national charts at number two, remaining in the top 10 for three-and-a-half months.
The excellent debut is bursting with raw, abandoned blues-rock and gritty R&B, and it shows the youthful Diesel to be a songwriter with talent way beyond his years. The album’s great success Down Under (it’s now gone triple-platinum) was somewhat inevitable, figures Diesel.
“We were surprised at first,” he says, ‘but after it happened it dawned on us that all the work we’d put in–all the gigging and touring–must have really done something. I mean we were like Australia’s favourite opening act there for a while, so all kinds of people got to know us before the album came out. And when it did there were just a lot of people waiting for it.”