Deconstructing a Cupcake
The first time I met Calvin Johnson was just like a Beat Happening song. After I interviewed the punk rocker and K Records founder at a neighborhood bakery, some of his tour-mates wandered off to a natural swimming hole while the two of us visited a local record store, flipped through vinyl, and danced unabashedly in our own little worlds, ears encased in headphones connected to turntables.
Though Beat Happening would come to mean much more to me in the ensuing years, my initial fascination derived from their penchant for singing about all things adorable—picnics, lake swimming, and beach parties with personified sea life. When he arrived for that interview with me in 2007, Calvin emerged from the tour van into Austin’s merciless summer heat wearing jean cutoffs that fell just above mid-thigh and pink flip-flops. Sitting opposite him at a patio table outside a bakery, I came to our meeting not only as an interviewer but also as an exuberant fan expecting an equally exuberant and playful Calvin Johnson, so much so that I overlooked his more austere elements—the black t-shirt, cropped haircut, and distanced, observational demeanor. Beat Happening’s softer side clouded my mind and shaded my questions. I opened with, “Who makes the best cupcakes in Olympia?”
Calvin hesitated with ambiguous emotion, glancing left and right. Was it disinterest? Annoyance? Consideration? Whatever the case, his pause was disconcerting for an amateur music writer. Then, his deep, baritone voice droned, “Well, you see, I’m from an era when the cupcake was frowned upon.” I looked down at my notes. My first three questions were all about cupcakes. “But then again,” he added nonchalantly, “a cupcake doesn’t have to be something that’s bad for you.”
It would be years before this statement would truly resonate with me. I later realized that contained within such an innocuous and direct observation was everything Beat Happening ever did—and it only took Calvin one question to get there.
More so than anyone I’ve encountered, Calvin Johnson undefines the world around him. He looks at a cupcake, sees the ingredients, and invents a new recipe. Peering past the cupcake’s recognizable sprinkled frosting and seeing the raw ingredients imperceptible to most, he acts as the baker—playing and experimenting with the balance of new and old ingredients to transform this familiar object from the inside out. The refreshing result defies expectation, with each bite a new experience.