'Johnny Walker' blends roles to build communities
Johnny Wirick grimaces as he remembers a post-collegiate job scraping dirty plates in the kitchen of a Toledo hospital. But within a minute, he’s laughing, sharing stories about Nellie, a kitchen co-worker from Liberia whose voice and stories he still recalls fondly.
“It was a good experience for me,” says Wirick, now the chief psychiatric resident at University Hospital. Along his journey to the ranks of highly sought-after psychiatrists – now fielding job offer calls daily – Wirick has logged a lifetime of less-than-typical-doctor experiences.
He’s been a stockbroker and lived in a flop house, but his most audacious out-of-hospital experiences stem from his life as “Johnny Walker
,” a punk blues rock guitarist who has toured with the White Stripes
and the MC5
and wowed Britain’s legendary DJ John Peel
during his first overseas gig.
As his residency nears its end, he’s already investing, both as a doctor and as a musician, in the city he now calls home. He’s helping transform an old Masonic lodge in Dayton, Kentucky into the Nowlodge, a European-style artists’ collective where creative types and craftspeople can work, learn and play together in a supportive and welcoming environment.
Now, the cavernous space is filled with odds and ends of a disorganized history. Massive painted stage backdrops, theater seats, unexpected closets and some left-behind Mason gear lurk around corners and in the sprawling basement. But when Wirick talks about building sound baffling for the 2,000-square-foot recording studio, it’s clear all he can see is an opportunity to give back.
While working in the Toledo hospital in the 1990s, Wirick, who taught himself guitar when he was 18, played with bands and on his own in back alley bars in Toledo and Detroit. Since the finance grad enrolled in science classes for fun and enjoyed working with patients, doctors who knew him suggested he consider med school. He signed up for the MCAT, but his middle of the road scores didn’t net him any interviews.
He decided that it was time to get serious. He got a job in the ER taking doctors’ orders and volunteered in the histology lab, prepping slides. And he started studying in earnest for the MCAT. His living situation spurred him on.
“I was living in one of the worst neighborhoods in Toledo, in what they called an arts center, which was really just a flop house,” he says. “I’d come home from work and someone would be passed out on the stairs of the building. There was a six-foot-seven transvestite with 27 cats who lived across the hall. I couldn’t open my transom up and let the breeze blow through because it smelled so bad. It was the worst. I knew the only way I was going to get out of there was to go to school.”
The second time around, Wirick scored in the top 2 percent on his MCAT and earned a spot in UC’s Medical School. From 1998 until 2002, he took classes during the week and returned to Toledo to work in the ER on the weekends, and to Detroit to practice with his band. As a musician, Wirick spent years trying to convince people his name wasn’t Johnny Walker. But the name, based on the last name of a former bandmate, stuck, and at the urging of friends, Wirick decided to stop fighting it.
So it was Johnny Walker, as a member of the Soledad Brothers, who recorded his first album for Liberty Records in Detroit at Jack White’s house. (That was during Wirick’s second year of med school.) It was Johnny Walker who played slide guitar with the White Stripes and spent a summer on tour in Europe singing and playing harmonica with the MC5, a band he’d idolized since childhood.
Though he says he’s lived a charmed life, it’s clear that Wirick, has earned every charm. He learned a lot during his first year out of medical school, the only year he planned to take off and travel with the Soledad Brothers before starting his residency. “We did three tours of the United States -- west coast to east coast and back -- and two tours in Europe,” he says. “I figure we probably drove nearly 125,000 miles that year.”
Despite the grueling schedule and residency offers, in the end the words of DJ Peel convinced Wirick to keep playing. “You’re practicing a form of music that has become stale, and it is very important,” he recalls Peel telling him. “You’re breathing new life into it.”
His friendship with Peel, and his experience recording in the same studio where Jimi Hendrix and The Who had played, made his next decision easy. “When your hero tells you you need to keep playing guitar, you do,” Wirick says. “I toured for another three years.”
The music industry chafed at Wirick’s sense of integrity. He refused to sell rights to his songs. He insisted on selling merchandise without a record label’s interference. He wanted to make music his way, and when it stopped being fun, he decided it was time to go back to the hospital.
He took a job as a mental health specialist at Children’s Hospital when he couldn’t find a residency right away. And he started using music in his group therapy sessions. He gave teens maracas and worked on impulse control. He sang the name game with younger patients and had them make up silly dances. “It gives them a sense of empowerment and then they will participate more freely,” he says. “It’s always fun.”
While working at Children’s, young patients would often uncover his Johnny Walker history. At first incredulous, they were generally impressed. But what wowed them most were his skills on the court, not the stage. “I would totally school them in basketball in wingtips and a cardigan,” he says with an infectious kind of laugh that pervades his conversations and animates his whole face. He wears jeans and a blue oxford shirt, ankle-high cowboy boots and white socks, and his tousled brown hair is tinged with grey. It’s a far cry from his long-haired Libertarian days, when Radio 1 DJ John Peel called him back for three encores.
As chief resident, Wirick now works with patients age 17 and up, the folks most likely to experience the devastating effects of “downward drift,” or the spiral toward poverty and homelessness that disproportionately impacts people with mental illness. He plans on starting a group music therapy program at the Central Clinic in Clifton in the next year or so.
It’s not so different from his days on the road. “Every night when I perform in front of people, it’s music group therapy,” Wirick says. “I always look at the crowd, try to draw the crowd in, and for that hour and a half I’m trying to make the crowd feel like they are something special so they can enjoy themselves and forget about all the crap that is outside the front door of the bar. It’s music group therapy.”
As he balances the life of a full-time psychiatrist with his goal of giving back to other artists, Wirick’s zen-like calm remains rooted in music.
“Playing music to me is like meditation,” says Wirick, who, after the Soledad Brothers and a run with The Cut in The Hill Gang, limits his public appearances to gigs with friends like Lions Rampant, with whom he’ll play his first SXSW this year. “I’m at work using my left brain trying to think my way through things. When I come home, I use the right side of my brain.”
At Nowlodge, he can mix his creative side with a healthy dose of problem-solving, too. He’s excited to figure out ways to eliminate hot spots in the mammoth recording studio, and to welcome woodworkers, seamstresses, photographers and grafitti artists into the fold.
It’s a model he first saw in the Vera Club in the Netherlands
-- Wirick and his partners see Nowlodge as an oasis for independent musicians and bands who play, like he does, for the love of music.
With help from his friends, including a Greenhorne and other music industry notables, Wirick looks forward to “the next thing” with the enthusiasm of a guy who has figured out how to navigate life’s less-than-expected experiences.
“The secret to being happy is to flow like water,” he says. “If you see an opportunity, that’s where you flow.”
FULL DISCLOSURE: Soapbox photographer Scott Beseler is Nowlodge's chief instigator.